Apples for the home garden

By Jean English | Jan 25, 2013

Growing apples in the home landscape can satisfy many desires: culinary, aesthetic, historic preservation (of heirloom varieties), the satisfaction of producing something for yourself, and the chance to save a little money. Picking the right site, cultivating quality soil and selecting good varieties are keys to success, said two fruit enthusiasts who spoke at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show recently.

C.J. Walke, organic orchardist for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association as well as interim farm manager at College of the Atlantic, and David Buchanan, author of "Taste, memory – Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter" (Chelsea Green 2012), gave home gardeners ideas for growing fruit successfully — including selecting heritage varieties unique to Maine and varieties that work well in small farm or garden situations.

Buchanan lives in Portland and leases land in Cape Elizabeth, where he grows fruits and vegetables as a collector more than a commercial grower, although he does sell fruit smoothies, nursery crops, potted fruit trees, vegetables and cut flowers at the Portland Farmers’ Market to support his collection habit. He has purchased land in Pownal where he hopes to conserve old apple varieties and turn a barn into a commercial kitchen to process fruits.

Of the thousands of apple varieties available to the home grower, Buchanan grows about 150 — including some for hard cider, one focus of his collecting. They include Honey Crisp, Keepsake, Sweet 16, Baldwin, Northern Spy, Grimes Golden, Rhode Island Greening, Gravenstein and some obscure older varieties. One curiosity is the Parmar apple. “Historically,” said Buchanan, “if a revenue agent saw a Parmar growing in your yard, he’d automatically assume you had a still out back, because it was that good for brandy.” He also grows John Standish, Fall Wine, Pumpkin Cider and some varieties without names.

Sir Prize, said Buchanan, is a perfect apple, with a balance of sweet and tart, a great, crunchy texture, and disease resistance. It’s rare in commerce because its skin is a little thin, so it bruises easily, but it’s ideal for home gardeners.

Walke said his favorite apple is “the organically grown one.” He likes good keepers and Maine varieties, such as Black Oxford, a good winter storage apple. He also likes Russets and Pearmains…

Which reminded Buchanan to mention Gray Pearmain, Blue Permain, Gold Russet — and Wagoner, a precocious apple that is good for cider and fresh eating. Liberty, which is scab resistant, is “a nice apple — one of the easier ones for the home grower,” he added.

Sourcing a tree that has grown in your climate can help ensure success, said Walke.

Buchanan said the Seed Savers Exchange’s Fruit Berry and Nut Inventory lists every variety sold by every nursery in the country. MOFGA’s Seed Swap and Scion Exchange on March 24 is a good resource (mofga.org), as are Fedco Trees, Vintage Virginia Apples, Cummins Nursery and St. Lawrence Nursery, both in New York. Buchanan has gotten many varieties from now-elderly orchardist Nick Botner of Oregon and has heard that the Home Orchard Society (homeorchardsociety.org/) is trying to preserve Botner’s huge collection.

Fruit trees need good drainage, sunlight and space, said Buchanan. “They’re full-sun crops,” said Walke, adding, “Consider air movement going through the planting, too – places where cold air doesn’t settle, since that can expose them to frost damage in spring.”

Start managing nutrients and building soil before the tree is planted, said Walke.

Buchanan explained that a dwarf tree may be only 6 or 7 feet tall, while a tree on standard rootstock may grow to about 25 feet tall. Smaller trees are easier to prune, spray and pick, and they produce much sooner than standard trees, but their shallower roots may be vulnerable to a heavy freeze; they typically need to be staked; they don’t compete very well with sod; and they don’t produce as much fruit.

Among standard-size trees, Wagoner tends to fruit early, said Buchanan, while Northern Spy may take 10 years to start producing – “but then you’ll have apples for 50 or 60 years.”

Walke suggested pruning in late February or March to maintain the shape of the tree, and again in late-July or early August to remove water sprouts coming from pruning cuts, because sprouts will clog up the center of the tree. “One of the main goals of pruning is to maximize sunlight getting to all parts of the tree,” said Walke, “because that sunlight will help stimulate fruit development and growth.” Young sucker growth uses a lot of nutrients.

Asked about keeping trees short for easier maintenance and harvest, Buchanan said, “It’s difficult to change the characteristics of a tree. The harder you prune a tree that’s really vigorous, the more it’s going to send out new growth … at the expense of fruit,” although espaliered trees (those grown along a fence or wall) can be pruned back in summer to dormant buds to encourage fruiting, he added.

Walke said that a central leader can be pruned back to a more horizontally growing limb. Buchanan added that branches can be weighted down so that they’re more horizontal (which also signals the tree to fruit more). He buys bundles of lath at a lumberyard, notches them and uses them to spread branches. He sometimes weights branches with old inner tubes from a bicycle shop, tying the tubes to branches and weighting them with rocks. Very narrow or broad (approaching 90-degree) branch angles are susceptible to damage, however.

Some trees have a more natural spreading shape than others.

Walke is available to answer questions about fruit (cjwalke@mofga.org). Highmoor Farm in Monmouth is also a great resource, he said, with a weekly apple pest report in season. OrganicA from the University of Vermont (uvm.edu/~organica/OrganicAProject/welcome.html) does a lot of organic apple research and has a newsletter.

Jean English lives in Lincolnville.

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