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By Liz Potasek
“Each of these trees is unique,” says Winford McIntosh, gesturing at thousands of apple trees as he walks through the Horticultural Research Center’s research orchards. “There’s no other tree like them in the universe.”
From pollination to fruiting, McIntosh cares for these trees, and he’s part of the team looking for the 1-in-10,000 apple that will make it to the market as the new Honeycrisp (or SweeTango or First Kiss™). McIntosh is the Senior Research Plot Technician for the Horticultural Research Center’s Fruit Breeding Program at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. He’s worked with the program since 2015 and is also completing a bachelor of science degree in plant science, breeding and genetics.
What do your job duties involve?
I do the cross-pollination in the early spring, T-budding in the middle of summer, tasting and evaluation of the seedlings and the seed extraction in the fall. Addition to apples, I also research and care for pears, cherries, plums, apricots and peaches.
In the springtime, we cross pollinate our best “parent” trees. Because apples are sterile to their own pollen, they won’t pollinate themselves. We keep the bees from cross-pollinating by finding the flower clusters before they open up and covering them with wax-coated bags. When the flowers are open, we take the bags off and put pollen that we’ve collected in Petri dishes onto the stigmas of the flowers. Then we close the bags back up.
The result of that pollination will yield us fruit with seeds inside. Each and every one of those seeds has the potential to grow a unique apple tree — a one-of-a-kind combination of those two parents. In the fall, we extract the seeds when the fruit is ripe.
In the winter the seeds are planted and cared for in the greenhouse by Tacy Sickeler.
Then in the middle of summer — around the end of July — we take those seedlings and graft them onto rootstocks that we’ve planted in the spring. We typically graft about 5,000 unique trees per year.
The trees stay dormant throughout the fall, and in the following spring before the buds break, I’ll cut the tops of the rootstock with my pruner just above our grafts, so that the tree puts all of its energy into that new, one-of-a-kind tree that we grafted onto it the summer before. Then it’ll still take that tree 5-7 years or more to start producing fruit.
I care for trees at various stages of growth, training them to grow upright, pruning their branches, pulling weeds and suckers from the rootstocks, and eventually tasting the apples. Since I’ve started, I’ve worked on transitioning the orchards from wood chips to landscape cloth, and David Bedford created a new tool to remove suckers by putting an asparagus knife on a rake handle. Those two things, along with the use of chemicals, have made weed and sucker management much easier to maintain, especially in the last year when we were short-staffed due to COVID-19.
In the late summer and fall, when the fruit starts ripening, we taste apples each week to capture the apples as they become ripe. I’ve personally tasted up to 300 apples in a day. It can be quite taxing on your taste buds.
Why are you passionate about your work here at the Arboretum?
It’s just so nice to be part of such an amazing program, and to work with David Bedford, who has built-up this breeding program and made so much progress in apple and pear breeding. We’re really driving this fruit breeding project into the future. I know that we have the best apples in the universe here in Minnesota.
What is your earliest memory of gardening or nature?
We had a cabin on a lake in Alexandria when I was young, and we did a lot of fishing and enjoyed the lake. We also had a large patch of raspberries for picking.
What inspired your career path?
I’m from North Minneapolis. I grew up in a barbershop, and both my parents were barbers. At that time, the schools in the area had a lot of problems and didn’t have a high graduation rate, so I took a route that allowed me to avoid going to the schools in North Minneapolis. Instead I attended a charter school called the Agricultural and Food Sciences Academy in Vadnais Heights. Everyone in that school is a member of the Future Farmers of America.
I never imagined having a career in horticulture, but I excelled in the Future Farmers of America’s Nursery/Landscape Career and Leadership Development Events. My senior year I was number one in my region and number nine in the state. I realized then that I had the potential to work in the horticultural industry. I ended up pursuing the Horticulture Program at Century College and was the president of the horticultural club. I heard about this job opportunity in the Horticultural Research Center through one of my instructors.
Do you have a home garden?
I moved last summer, and this year I had my first opportunity to reinvent my garden. I built a 6-foot by 30-foot hoop house out of rebar and PVC. They’re very low maintenance, replaceable parts, and it’s a movable structure, so if I wanted to pick it up and move it to another location in the yard, I could do that. The hoop house works as a season extender, so I can continue to harvest vegetables later into the fall. We have such a short season here in Minnesota, it’s nice to do anything to make your season feel a little bit longer. I grow tomatoes and peppers mostly, but I’m also growing some strawberries and raspberries and some other veggies to feed my family.
What is the most challenging/most rewarding part of your work?
The most challenging part of this job is guiding up the young trees. When they’re in their first year, they start off from just a single bud, and my goal is to grow them into a 5-foot tree with no branches below the knee in one season. Trying to guide up 5,000 trees in that manner puts me on my knees, a lot. In fact, when I was interviewing for this job, my predecessor brought me out to the field during the interview. We got down on our knees on some wood chips, and he said, “I don’t want you to be surprised, this is the job.” I showed up with knee pads on day one, and I wear knee pads constantly.
The most rewarding part is being able to evaluate second test trees, which is basically our winner’s circle of apples. Only one out of every 200 trees we grow makes it to the second test. David Bedford and I start visiting these apple trees a week or so ahead of their expected ripening date. We want to make sure that we don’t miss that perfect timing. We test for taste and texture, and we continuously weed out trees to find the best-of-the-best, so that we can find that one out of 10,000 that’s going to get a name and be released to the public.
It takes between 17 and 33 years to produce a new apple from pollination to release. It typically takes about 30 years to be certain we have a winner.
As an expert in your field, do you have any tricks, tips or advice that would help our readers?
It’s important to get the structure of your apple tree down in the first three years. If you prune it properly and make the hard decisions early in the tree’s life, then you will have much easier decisions later on. (Editor’s Note: For tips on pruning mature apple trees, check out this three-part video series from University of Minnesota Extension.)