Fall harvest is the fruit of a Palmer apple grower’s curiosity

Decades of experimentation have led Bert Gore to more than a dozen apple varieties that grow well in the Valley. Right now, the picking’s good.

PALMER — Forrest Gore waited for customers at his family’s apple orchard on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. He calls the 15 acres his father’s labor of love. His dad, Bert Gore, had another take on his fruitful venture.

“This was a mistake,” he said with a smile.

Gore explains that his 130-tree orchard was once just an experiment and a curiosity. That was about 30 years ago. Back then, Gore couldn’t have imagined his apple trees would be an autumn destination. Nowadays, that’s what it is, at least for the folks who hear of it through word-of-mouth or are curious enough to follow a few hand-painted signs in the vicinity.

The orchard, called The Apple Patch, opens to pick-your-own customers for about a month each fall.

Bert said it all started when he took a class on grafting fruit trees in the early 1990s — a fun change of pace after a full career as a livestock veterinarian. He came to Alaska for work and adventure in 1969, and was an Alaska state veterinarian for 20 years before he retired.

In his class, Bert successfully grafted an apple tree’s scion wood, its newest growth, to a rootstock more suited to the northern climate. After the class, he grafted another 25 trees. Soon his wife, Pat, joined the effort for what became a tart and sweet Gore family project.

“After umpteen years I’ve been playing this game, I’ve probably picked out about 12 to 15 varieties that do well,” Bert said this week.

Harvest season, underway now, pays off in more ways than one. Bert said he enjoys the visitors. On a sunny weekend day in September, cars sometimes line his country road 30 deep. Pioneer Peak dominates the view in one direction, and Matanuska Peak in another.

Sometimes they break out the potato gun to launch apples or have a contest to see who can fling them the farthest.

“You can throw it halfway to the neighbor’s house,” he said. “... We haven’t broken any windows yet, so we’re still allowed to do that.”

He also gives occasional tours, starting with trees that grow close to his house, then continues to the main orchard out back, protected from hungry moose with tall cable fencing. Bert points out his varieties and what makes each unique, then pulls out a pocket knife to slice samples to share.

There’s the Norlands and Parklands, both great for eating and sauce. The Westland is one of his biggest apples and tastes tart. Those make a good pie. The red-fleshed Almata is unique in appearance but of limited purpose because they’re so sour.

Goodland apples might not ripen for another couple weeks, a bit later than the others. Some like to make sauce of the Yellow Transparents, though it’s not one of Bert’s favorites.

“If you bring 30 people out here, there’s going to be 30 different opinions on what the best apple is,” said Forrest, 47, whose job description is “a little of everything.” Two years ago, he returned to work on the land where he was raised, after 20 years as an options trader in Chicago.

This time of year, a visit to The Apple Patch is a feast for the eyes. The branches bow, laden with colorful fruit. The raspberry bushes and candy-sweet Nanking cherry plants thrive. Forrest said kids are “required” to try them. The garden at its center helps supply a local food bank. Turkeys wander by now and again.

In the main orchard, Bert pointed to limbs that have been successfully grafted, evidenced by a change in the branch’s gauge or the look of its bark. Grafting allows him to combine a rootstock hardy enough for Alaska winters, like the Siberian crabapple, with apple varieties that grow well in the Palmer summer. Experimentation has been part of the fun over the years.

“You can put on three or four different varieties, and the variety will remain true,” Bert said. “The apple maintains its original taste, size, shape and flavor, no matter what root it’s on.”

Some of his trees have producing fruit for 20 years, he said.

Some experimentation continues. Forrest said the grafts from a Honeycrisp tree look promising. If it bears fruit one day, it will be a first for the orchard.

“It probably won’t get ripe, but we’ll have it,” Bert said.

The Gores are among just a handful of apple growers in Alaska. It’s hard work. Each tree must be “topped” each year. Clipping the vertical scion wood helps it grow outward instead of tall. That helps it make the most of the sun and keep the apples within easy reach. Bert thinks that some growers are put off by the time investment apples demand.

“You start with an apple tree and if you’re lucky, you’ll get something in three (years),” he said. “More likely five.”

Bert said he’s slowing down on trying new varieties.

“I’m 78. It takes five years to get an apple. Figure it out,” he said. “Eighty-three before my first apple? No. Not gonna happen.”

Forrest said the orchard, in its full autumn beauty and fruiting glory, is a tribute to the 50-plus years of hard work his parents have put into their land. The Apple Patch, he said, is not about the money as much as it is “a way for families and kids to come out and enjoy the outdoors and learn something.”

The Apple Patch is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week “until they are gone,” Forrest said. That’s usually in mid-to-late September. Half-bushels (about a 5-gallon bucket) picked from the tree are $50. Quarter-bushels are $25.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.