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Growing Heirloom Apples: From Romantic Notion To Outright Obsession

From a child’s point of view, few trees are as inviting as an apple tree. As a child, I found many friends on my grandfather’s farm: Grandpa’s two friendly quarter horses, Dolly and Babe; the mild-mannered Guernsey dairy cows; the wheat that rose waist-high and provided a sweet, warm place to hide and read a book; and the apple trees growing near the house.

In spring, the apple trees were covered with white, fragrant blossoms. In summer, I played in the low crotches of the apple trees and admired their soft, gray bark. But fall was glory time. I started tasting the apples long before they were ripe, my mouth puckering at the tart flavor. Come September, we picked the apples, piling them into wooden bushel baskets. My grandmother made quarts of applesauce and apple pie filling. The rest of the apples stayed in the unheated garage for months on end, filling the space with their sweet, spicy fragrance.

My early appreciation for apple trees has grown into something of an obsession as an adult. In particular, I’m fascinated with heirloom varieties. Sure, some of them are terribly prone to disease and need more spraying than hybrids, but I love them anyway.

First, there’s their history. Old apple varieties have stories and histories worth preserving. Many apple varieties are several hundred years old and arrived in our country with the early colonists. The Fameuse, or Snow Apple, for example, is believed to have originated in France and came to Quebec in the mid 1700s. It was the main apple variety grown in Quebec for many years until a severe frost or unknown disease wiped it out in the late 1800s.

My writer’s ear delights in the names of heirloom apples. Monikers like Ashmead’s Kernel, Arlington Pippin, and Foxwhelp are so much more interesting than say, Red Delicious or Gala. I also feel a moral obligation to preserve old heirloom varieties—the underdogs of the apple world. In 1892, over 730 apple varieties were available at nurseries. Today, you’re lucky to find fifty.

Growing Heirloom Apple Trees

Apples have a reputation for being difficult to grow, but they’re really not. The trees are much more winter hardy than peaches or apricots, and they bloom later in the spring than pears. They need annual pruning in late winter and may also need spraying once a year to control insects and diseases. This is especially true if you live in the East, where humidity levels tend to encourage these problems. But, if properly cared for, the trees bear fruit for thirty years or more—not a bad investment for your effort.

Before you buy any apple trees, it’s absolutely essential that you go to an apple tasting. Apple orchards across the country offer tastings in the fall. Go and taste a few heirloom apple varieties grown in your area before you make a decision.

Here’s why: the same apple variety tastes different, depending on the climate, soil, and growing conditions where it is planted. You can’t rely on catalog descriptions to know how an apple grown in your backyard will taste. Your best bet is to investigate the varieties that grow best in your area and then grow some of those. Ask orchard owners about common diseases, as well, and select varieties that are disease resistant.

When you plant apple trees, you must always plant at least two trees to pollinate each other. Choose trees that have similar bloom times to ensure good pollination. If you have room for more than two trees, plant varieties with varying ripening times so you have a constant supply of fresh apples. Early apple varieties that ripen in late summer are usually known as eating apples. They are soft and don’t store very well. Later apples are hard and crisp. They’re perfect for baking and store for months on end.

Where to Find Trees

Visit your local nursery and you’ll probably find container-grown apple trees that stand six feet high or taller. These trees are usually hybrids, bred for your region, and they may cost $100 to $200. You probably won’t find heirloom varieties.

Fortunately, several reputable mail-order nurseries offer bare-root heirloom apples. These trees are known as whips and are really nothing more than one straight stick, usually forty-eight inches high or less. They might not seem like much, but whips grow quickly and eventually become strong, sturdy trees because they develop their root system in your soil, rather than in a container. Another advantage of whip apple trees is their price. Most cost less than $30, so if you’re starting an orchard, they’re the way to go. Below are a few of our favorite sources for heirloom apple trees.

Trees of Antiquity is probably the most well-known mail-order site for heirloom apples. This nursery carries over 150 apple varieties and has a reputation for quality.

Big Horse Creek Farm, owned and operated by Ron and Suzanne Joyner, is a small family orchard in the Appalachian Mountains. You’ll find a wide selection of heirloom trees, and you’ll get personalized service.

Start shopping for trees early. Some nurseries ship only in the fall, while others ship in late winter for spring planting. If you live in an area with severe winters, early spring planting is preferable. In addition to variety, think about the rootstock and size of tree you want. Dwarf trees stand less than twelve feet high and produce fruit within three years. However, they have a shallow root system and usually need staking. They don’t always perform well in cold climates. Most importantly, dwarf trees keep a close, compact form for the life of the tree. They don’t provide much shade and don’t take on the graceful, open form apple trees are known for. And kids can’t climb in them, if that matters to you.

Semi-dwarf trees have many of the advantages of dwarf trees, but they’re stronger and have a more pleasing shape. In my mind, this is the ideal tree size. Standard trees make beautiful landscaping trees if you have the space, but they take longer to bear fruit, and they’re more difficult to care for because of their size.

Caring for Young Trees

Apples need rich, well-draining soil and full sun to perform well. Avoid planting them in low valleys where frost pockets might nip the buds in spring. When you plant bare root trees, the most important thing to know is to keep the roots moist—during planting and in the first season thereafter. Keep the trees in their protective wrappings until you’re ready to plant them, and plant them as soon as possible. Soak the roots in a bucket of water while you dig the hole for the tree. Dig the hole deep and wide enough for the roots to spread out. Don’t add fertilizer. Fill the hole with a bit of dirt, tamping down gently with your hands. Add water and then add more soil. Water the tree at least weekly, or as needed, to keep the soil evenly moist. Once the tree starts putting out new growth, you can reduce watering slightly.

I learned the hard way that deer and rabbits love young, tender apple bark. Last spring, two of my trees were completely girdled around the base and never recovered. Wrap trees loosely in tree wrap if you have either pest or install a wire barrier around the tree to protect it.

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