by Maria Reidelbach
Step into any local apple orchard, or just check out local apple trees, and you’ll be amazed at this year’s bountiful harvest. Talk to an orchardist and you’ll discover that, although weather has an effect on the quality and quantity of the crop, apple trees don’t bear lots of big juicy fruit without lots of tender, loving care.
When I wanted to plant a couple of fruit trees, apples were the first that came to mind. After all, New York State is well suited to growing apples—its production is second only to Washington State, and here in the Mid-Hudson Valley we have apple orchards all around us. I thought that growing a basic, common apple tree would be as easy as, uh, pie. Well, making a decent pie a
|You can graft multiple cultivars (varieties) on a single apple tree!
in’t easy and neither is growing an apple tree!
I know—of three trees I planted five years ago, two died and the last lonely one is just limping along. I made lots of mistakes that I could have avoided with a bit of knowledge. From the Cornell Cooperative Extension, we are lucky to have lots of in-depth advice about growing fruit trees in the Hudson Valley. The following is a summary of what you’re in for.
If you’ve given your trees a great start, you’ll be able manage pests with fewer chemical interventions. First of all, you need to plan and prepare your site a year in advance to get your trees off to a good start. And you’ll want to take the time to make good decisions. The location is the most permanent choice you’ll make—you want a spot that has an optimum microclimate and soil. The best location is one that gets more than six hours of sun a day and has at least eight inches of soil that both holds moisture and drains extra water. Stay out of lowlands that are “frost pockets” to avoid frozen blossoms in the spring and also avoid windy areas. You’ll want access to water to irrigate, at least in the early years. And you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of room for the number and type of trees you’re growing—about 10 to 15 feet between each.
Once you’ve chosen your site, if necessary clear the weeds. Test the soil and adjust the pH now with sulphur and lime, because it takes time for these amendments to kick in. In the autumn, plant a cover crop of rye, wheat, or oats to enrich the soil.
Over the winter you can spend some time choosing what cultivars (cultivated varieties) of apples you’ll be growing. Apple trees are strange beings indeed. Their seeds don’t breed true—if you plant the five seeds of a MacIntosh, you’ll potentially get five different apple tree varieties. In order to grow desirable cultivars, breeders take cuttings from specific trees and graft them to hardy rootstock, which will determine the ultimate size of the tree. Once the tree is grown up and blossoming, in order to bear fruit, the blossoms need to be cross-pollinated with a different variety growing within 100 feet. (And I thought my life was complicated!)
So you’ll want to choose at least two different kinds of apples to grow—three are considered even better. When choosing, it’s most important to grow cultivars that are hardy and naturally disease-resistant. You’ll also want to take into account whether you want apples for eating, cooking, or both; whether you want early apples or late apples; and whether you like them sweet, tart, soft, crisp, red, yellow, green, or multi-colored. Because trees are created by grafting, you can actually get more than one cultivar on the same tree, so it’s possible to get a several varieties on a self-pollinating tree! Dwarf trees are considered best for backyard growers because they grow to just ten feet tall, they’re easier to prune, and will begin bearing fruit in three to five years. The easiest trees to grow in this area are considered to be: Jonamac, Sansa, Liberty, Empire, Golden Delicious and GoldRush. Be sure to get your trees from a local reliable nursery, not some big box store that sells more sheetrock than plants.
Trees that are one- to two-year-old bare root plants are best; older trees are more difficult to train. You’ll want to plant early in the spring as soon as the soil has warmed and drained. Be sure to amend your soil with the nutrients your fall testing showed that you needed, then lovingly plant your baby trees. Mulch with bark or wood chips for about two feet around each plant and stake them to prevent them from being knocked over. You’ll want to add protection from deer, who eat young trees, and voles, who eat bark and roots, too. To test your site for voles, put half an apple under a piece of wood or shingle the size of a sheet of paper. If the apple is gone the next day, you’ve got a vole problem. Keep weeds and grass clear, don’t use straw or fabric mulch, use wood chips and use hardware cloth around the base of the tree.
Because you’ve got just a couple of apple trees in your backyard, you’ll want to avoid spraying pesticides: not only are there health and environmental concerns, but the equipment and materials are expensive. You can avoid almost all spraying by closely monitoring your trees for problems, keeping the area clean of old fruit, fallen leaves, and other vegetation. Pruning allows light and air, the enemy of fungus, to penetrate all the way through a tree. And there are a number of biological controls available for specific pests. You can encourage foxes, raptors, and owls by the way you design your landscape, and they will prey on rodents.
Once your trees get established they’ll need an annual pruning, which takes a bit of expertise, and, for a beginner, a couple of hours per tree. You’ll need to monitor the amount of growth each year—too much means your nutrients are off and you won’t get as much fruit, too little will net the same result.
I interviewed several local orchardists for this article, Fabio Chizolla of Westwind Orchard in Accord and Elizabeth Ryan of Breezy Hill Orchard in Staatsburg and Stone Ridge Orchard. Both grow apples organically and are encouraging of home gardeners, but are frank about the amount of work and thought it takes to maintain productive trees. After talking to them, and other growers, I’ve come to the conclusion that in the future I’ll be delighted to get my apples from local farmers who will do all the complicated work for me, and I’ll just waltz in and gather the fruit of their labors, with great gratitude and thanks.
Lots of info about growing all kinds of fruit at home: www.gardening.cornell.edu/fruit/homefruit.html
Maria Reidelbach is an author, a maker and a local food activist. Find out more at stick2local.com.