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Homeyer: Growing Good Apples

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I like the saying that something is “as American as apple pie”. I love apple pie and would have it for breakfast every day if I could. But curiously, apples are not native to the United States. They came from Kazakhstan, in Central Asia east of the Caspian Sea. According to a Google search, the capital of Kazakhstan, Alma Ata, means “full of apples” and in 1500 BC. AD, apple seeds had been transported all over Europe, and eventually here. Apple breeders have been selecting and propagating apples ever since.

I recently received a critical copy of a great book on apples, Hardy Apples: Growing Apples in Cold Climates, by Bob Osborne with many fabulous photos by Beth Powning and published by Firefly Books (hardcover, $35). It not only covers how to grow apples, but also contains 140 pages of photos and descriptions of the best apples we can grow.

I spoke to Bob Osborne by phone at his home in New Brunswick, Canada. Bob has been planting apple trees in his orchard for over 40 years, primarily for scions (sprouts) used for grafting by other arborists. This forced him to grow many, many cultivars (varieties) of apples.

Bob is an organic grower and has paid attention to his soil as the key to healthy growth. In his book, he finely explains the soils that best support healthy apple trees. He recommends doing a soil test before planting apples.

A soil pH below 6.3, he notes, will not allow a tree to access the nutrients needed for optimal growth and fruit quality. Calcium, magnesium and phosphorus can be bound and unavailable even though they are present in the soil. He writes that in areas with naturally acidic soils, it’s a good idea to add lime every six years to keep the soil pH in the correct range.

Chemical fertilizers, he writes, provide nitrogen which, when dissolved in water, is very acidic and can destroy much of the soil life that naturally provides nitrogen. Instead, he recommends adding compost, blood meal, feather meal, fish meal, or bone meal. He explains that fresh manures should not be used even though they are good sources of nitrogen. They can carry disease-carrying bacteria that can make you sick if you pick up fallen apples.

Potassium is important for good quality fruit. Low potassium “can lead to small fruit size, low sugar content and poor keeping quality. A soil test from your local extension service or commercial lab will tell you if you have enough potassium, but if your fruit size is small, you may need to add more. Wood ash, he writes, is a good source of potassium, containing about 6% potassium. I have read elsewhere that ashes from charcoal barbecues should not be used in the garden.

Choosing a good site for your apple trees is important. For the home orchard, apples will grow almost anywhere, but full sun is best. Late spring frosts can damage flowers and reduce fruit yields, so planting on a hillside is best. Cold air sinks down and settles in low spots, which should be avoided. A hill generally drains water better, which promotes healthy roots that can rot in areas with soggy soils year-round.

As a commercial grower, Osborne planted most of his trees from bare root. Prices are much lower than buying larger trees in pots or bales and burlap. For the home gardener who only buys a few trees, potted trees are often the most practical. Bare root trees are usually not sold until early spring when the stems are dormant, but potted trees are available in three seasons. In contrast, there is a much wider variety of trees available for bare root planting.

In most cases, apple seeds do not grow in trees identical to the parent tree. As Bob explains in the book, McIntosh apples are all genetic clones created by taking scions and grafting them onto rootstock. The original “Mac” was discovered in the early 1800s by John McIntosh in Ontario as a plant grown from seed which he then used for grafting.

The size of the apple tree is determined by the rootstock on which a scion is grafted. There are four basic sizes: dwarf, semi-dwarf, semi-standard, and standard. A few apples come on their own roots and tend to be full-sized trees. Bob recommends semi-dwarf or semi-standard for the home gardener. Dwarf trees, he told me, need lifelong support because the root systems aren’t strong enough to sustain them in a storm.

I asked Bob for his recommendations on the best apples to grow in a vegetable garden. The best, he says, is Liberty. It is resistant to many common diseases, tastes good and stores well. But he warned, you must pick it when it’s ready, not too early or too late. He picks his on October 6, but further south, the picking would be earlier.

Then he recommended Novamac. It is resistant to scab, fire blight and cedar apple rust; it does not attract codling moths. It is tasty, keeps well and its habit is open and easy to cut. It can be picked early if you like a tart apple. Other apples he likes include Sandow, Greensleeves and Pristine. See his book for more details on them, and many more.

It’s not too late to plant an apple tree this year if you find a potted one you like. Or you can start planting next spring. Either way, having Osborne’s book will guide you through the process.

Henry has authored four gardening books and is a lifelong organic gardener. It is available for talks with your local library or gardening group. Contact him at [email protected]