Fall is my favorite season and within it, October is my favorite month. There are many reasons for this preference (the cool, crisp weather; the fall colors; bonfires and s’mores; etc…), but one of them is because this is the prime time for apples. Sure, you can get the supermarket standbys like Gala, Jazz, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith apples all year at your local supermarket, but during the apple season you can get more than your every day variety. Stayman, Empire, and Black Arkansas to name a few, as well as a number of other varieties that can be found at our local apple orchards and are ready to be picked and consumed by you. RIGHT NOW.
Maybe you’re reading this at 3am, just wandering the internet while sleep eludes you, and now you’re craving fresh, delicious apples, but the stores and apple orchards are closed. Why didn’t you buy apples during your last grocery store trip? So many regrets…However, just think if you had a small apple orchard in your garden. You could walk outside right now and, assuming they’re ripe, pull an apple off the tree and be enjoying it this very moment. Besides being able to immediately satisfy your cravings, I think apple trees are charming in the garden, especially as they age and become very architectural (i.e. gnarled and funky). As a bonus, you actually don’t need a lot of space to grow apple trees since they can be espaliered into a number of shapes which means you get food and beauty in one tree.
The growing and caring of apple trees are not without difficulties. Apple trees are notoriously prone to a number of diseases and insects – apple scab, powdery mildew, black rot, rusts, fire blight, aphids, apple maggot, codling moth, mites, and scales. It is critical to select diseases resistant varieties and to have good disease- and pest-management programs in place. Even resistant varieties are likely to require some amount of pesticide and/or fungicide application. Apple trees also require specific pruning so that the top branches to not overgrow and shade out the lower branches in order to have optimal fruit production.
Once you’ve determined that you are willing and able to maintain the apple trees as required, it’s time to pick your varieties. Apple trees are made of two separate parts, the scion and the rootstock. Since apples are not true to seed, all named cultivars are derived from one tree that has been cloned and grafted onto many rootstocks. The type of apple you grow is determined by the scion; the relative size of the tree you grow is determined by the rootstock. You can choose a standard, semi-dwarf, or dwarf root stock depending on the size of apple tree that you want. A standard apple tree will grow to approximately 20’ tall, a semi-dwarf tree will grow to approximately 15’ tall, and a dwarf tree to approximately 10’ tall. A semi-dwarf or dwarf rootstock is better suited for the residential setting. Also, apple trees are not self-compatible, so in order for apple trees to produce fruit you will need at least two separate cultivars that have viable pollen and bloom at the same time. In some instances, you may be able to find one tree that has two cultivars on the same rootstock. There are a handful of cultivars that are self-pollinating; even so, they will produce more fruit if cross-pollinated. If you don’t have two apple trees, all is not lost. Apple trees can also be pollinated with crabapple trees, as long as they bloom at the same time.
Apple trees require full sun and do not do well in heavy, poorly-drained soils and low spots. Placing a tree in low area not only leaves the tree in a location where water is likely to collect, but also potentially places it in a “frost pocket”, where cold air settles in low-lying areas. It is better to site your apple trees at a higher elevation that slopes away from the tree and away from wooded areas in order for cold area to flow away from the trees. If sited in a low-lying area, low spring temperatures can damage or kill the blossoms and developing fruit. Tree spacing varies depending on your rootstock, but can be anywhere from 4’-8’ to 15’-20’.
If you are limited in space, consider espaliering your apple trees. To espalier a tree means to train its branches to grow flat, often against a wall or supported by a lattice. The different shapes to espalier your fruit tree into are typically the horizontal cordon, fan, informal, Belgian fence, or candelabra shapes. Some espalier shapes are better than others depending on the cultivar you’ve chosen. For example, McIntosh apple trees tend to already be horizontally branching, so it will be easier to train it into a horizontal cordon shape. Espalier trees are beautifully architectural and offer year-round interest with its structure. They also tend to make the fruit more accessible to people.
Whatever your space, or apple preference, there is an apple tree for you. Let us help you select the right variety for your site and establish disease- and pest-management programs so that you get the most out of your apple trees. So consider adding apple trees into your garden and embrace the convenience and charm of your own personal orchard.
SIDENOTE: In the time I spent researching about apple varieties and the growing and care of apples, I came across a couple of articles that I feel are worth sharing. They talk about the loss and current gradual resurgence of America’s apple heritage. I feel a wistful nostalgia for the apple varieties that were once so well loved and are now barely more than memories. I didn’t even know the varieties they spoke of, but reading the articles struck me in a way that made me wish that I did know them and to plan a trip to the East Coast. One day I will make it out there and rather than a grand crab cake and lobster food tour, I will navigate the coast in search of these heirloom varieties and take a bite of apple history.
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