Growing apples is a long-term involvement. Garden crops are mostly annuals, so if something goes wrong you may be out for a year, but you can try things differently next time. Apple trees require several years to bear fruit, and they do not have large crops for a decade, so an early mistake cannot easily be corrected. On the other hand, when knowing how to care for apple trees, they are a lifelong addition to your landscape, growing more beautiful and productive with each passing year.
Apples do not come true from seed, so if you want a particular variety, the tree will be grafted. The desired variety is attached to roots, which offer special characteristics such as tree size or cold hardiness. When you plant trees you must pay attention both to the variety and to the rootstock. Labels on trees sold at home centers and big-box stores often say nothing at all about the rootstock, and many nursery catalogs have only scanty information. If you’re growing apples in a cold region, this is a big issue. My orchard is in northern Maine where winter temperatures can dip below -30°F, and most commercial rootstocks will not survive. In this area, the Russian standard rootstock Antonovka is the only one really reliable.
Several nurseries such as Fedco Seeds (PO Box 520, Waterville, ME 04903; 207-873-7333 or 207-430-1106) and St. Lawrence Nurseries (325 State Highway 345 Potsdam, NY 13676; 315-265-6739 offer trees on this rootstock.
Dwarf trees have been popular in recent years, but they are a poor choice when growing apples in cold regions if the snow cover is deep, and there is significant wildlife pressure. Deer will browse all foliage and branches up to four feet, and they will stand on their hind legs to pick apples even higher up. Moose can easily reach seven feet, and they will tear small trees entirely apart. Snowshoe hares girdle trees in winter; they walk on top of the snow, which reaches four feet deep here. Trees of any size must be diligently fenced when young, but dwarf trees never outgrow their predators, so you will be dealing with fences as long as you have the trees. Deep snow will also tear off low branches or fold small trunks in half, even without any wildlife. If you have any of these issues where you live, perhaps growing apples on dwarf trees isn’t the best choice.
Standard-sized trees are the best choice for growing apples in extreme climates. Be aware however that you will be in for a lot of work on ladders, as the trees get older. Apple trees will not grow well on poorly drained soil, which is one reason they are usually set out on sloping ground. If possible they should be visible from the farmhouse, so you can keep an eye on problem wildlife. Standard trees need to be at least 25 feet apart, and even then large trees may fill up their spaces in 15 years or so. With 25-foot spacing, an acre will hold about 70 trees, but that is a lot of work, and five or six trees will suffice amply for the home supply.
The soil fertility should be average. Too much fertility can delay fruiting. Soil pH should be somewhat acid, 5.5 to 6.5. Since apples are generally not self-fruitful, you will need several different varieties. Pollination is done by wild bees and other insects, and if your property has abundant wildflowers throughout the growing season, you will have no trouble getting your apple trees pollinated. Heavy frost will destroy open blossoms, but they can sustain marginal frost without injury.
Problem wildlife comes in small sizes as well as large. Voles (field mice) girdle tree trunks in winter under the snow. To prevent this, use plastic spiral tree guards as high as the snow line and then some. It is hard to put the guards on trees over three inches in diameter, but these are still at risk of girdling, so plastic fabric wrap can be used instead. Girdling is rare on trees over six inches in diameter, although not entirely unknown. Borers kill many young trees, which should be inspected every two weeks during the growing season.
Grubs coming out a tiny hole near the bottom of the trunk betray their presence, either rust-red when they begin their work in the bark, or bright orange after they have dived into the wood. The solution is to carve them out with a knife. This seems brutal, but it is better than leaving the borers in the tree. If they have gone too far into the wood to be reached, it may be helpful to stuff the hole full of tobacco. Ribbon-cut chew or pipe tobacco is easier to use for this purpose than the shredded stuff found in cigarettes or snuff. I have only begun to use this method, but so far it seems to work. American mountain ash is a common alternate house for borers, and should, if possible, be removed from the vicinity of the orchard.
If you live in an area where ruffed grouse are common, you may be in for a lot of labor. The birds are commonly called partridge. They eat tree buds in winter and are partial to apple trees. Leaf buds will regenerate in spring, but not fruit buds, which require two years’ formation. If the partridge disbuds your trees, you will get no fruit. The birds themselves are good eating, and the hunting season lasts all fall, but if you don’t get them all, the only way to deter them is to patrol your orchard every daylight hour in the winter. This is why growing apples near the house is so handy. You can make a scarecrow or use fake owls, which will not impress the birds, nor are they deterred for long by flash tape. And they work in all kinds of weather except high winds.
It is possible to grow a large percentage of high-quality fruit without poisonous sprays, although some non-toxic spraying may be necessary depending on the kinds of pests you have. If you live in a region where there are large abandoned orchards, this will make growing apples harder. Pruning the trees, and thinning the crop, are two important ways of improving fruit quality. Pruning allows light and air into the tree’s canopy for better fruit development and reduced disease conditions. Thinning the crop when the fruit is about the size of a dime, to an apple every six inches or so, will allow the tree to concentrate its resources into the fruit that is left.
Here are notes on some common problems when growing apples:
Apple scab: A fungal disease, is found everywhere except perhaps in arid irrigated Western regions. It makes rough black spots on the apples, and early-infected fruit will also crack and break open. Avoid highly susceptible varieties such as Snow-McIntosh, or Norland. The fungus overwinters mainly on the fallen leaves, so if every year you remove as many of the leaves as possible and compost or burn them outside the orchard, you will greatly reduce the problem over time. Alkalinity inhibits scab so if leaf removal is not feasible, many growers lime over the leaves in fall but beware of soil pH if you do this. Many growers are also spraying sulfur for scab control into summer, and this tends to make the soil more acid. I don’t much care for the idea of repeatedly lowering soil pH with sulfur and then raising it again with lime, year after year.
European apple sawfly: Active during bloom. Their tiny eggs hatch when the fruitlets are minuscule, and the larvae produce winding scars under the apple skin. Later they dive inside. The best control is to inspect the crop during thinning and a couple of weeks later, to remove obviously affected fruit. Much of it will also fall during a period of natural thinning which occurs about four weeks after blossom, called the June-drop although it happens here in early July. Drops should be collected at least once a day. All such culls should be discarded at least a mile from the orchard (but not near someone else’s trees!) or destroyed by boiling. Curculio, a small black or brown weevil, is difficult to control, and if populations get large, you can lose the majority of your crop. Early in the season, the weevils make cosmetic scars on the fruit in the shape of a small half-moon. In mid-season they breed; the larvae tunnel around in the fruit, which becomes shrunken and misshapen. Of all apple problems, this is the most disheartening. Curculio can be deterred by spraying with specially refined kaolin clay, sold under the commercial name “Surround.” Coverage must be applied just as the blossoms begin losing their petals (“petal fall”) and continued for four or five weeks. This will cost about $40 for every three or four standard trees per season. Correctly sprayed trees will look oddly white. Use of kaolin will delay fruit maturity by a few days, and it may also increase tendencies towards biennial bearing. A few trap trees must be left unsprayed to give the weevils somewhere to go, otherwise they will wait until you stop spraying and come back. Early-maturing apples work best as trap trees. Many areas of the country do not have curculio at all, or if you do have them you may find that they affect primarily one part of the orchard to another or just certain varieties.
Codling moth: Larvae begin to appear in some numbers when the season is about half over. They produce a brown granular frass, usually at the calyx end (bottom) of the apple. They tunnel to the core and eat the seeds. In my short-season area, codling moths have one and a half generations, but in warmer climates they have two or even three full generations, multiplying in numbers each time. Here, the early varieties such as Yellow Transparent or Red Astrachan largely escape the problem. Numbers can be greatly reduced over time simply be discarding all affected apples in the woods far from the orchard as described above; wildlife will eat the fruit in short order, and any larvae that escape will find no food when they emerge next spring.
About 200 apple varieties are available through nurseries, and many more can be located through apple collectors. When growing apples in cold weather, growers must give attention not just to the hardiness of the trees, but also to the length of the growing season. Some varieties may be hardy enough in the wood, but may never mature their fruit in a short season. Nursery catalogs give insufficient attention to this problem, but if you live in a short-season area, avoid any apples described as “late” even if they appear to be sufficiently cold hardy.
Light frost will sometimes make apples sweeter, but heavy frost ruins them. I’ve tried growing apples of about two-dozen different varieties and find these to be real winners in my cold climate:
State Fair: A sweet apple, it is my favorite for fresh eating. It was developed in Minnesota but seems to be unknown in New England even though it does well in cold regions here. It is somewhat susceptible to apple scab, but faithful leaf removal in the fall will make a big difference when growing apples of this variety. State Fair apples are medium-sized and bright red. They keep about two months in cold storage and are very useful for applesauce.
Dudley: A large yellow with a red blush on the sunny side, it is fairly resistant to apple scab. It is a robust tangy apple good for baking, and for fresh eating if you like your apples tart. The tree, however, has a pendulous growth habit and it may be a challenge to keep wildlife away from the low-hanging branches. It originated as a seedling of Duchess of Oldenburg, an even stronger-tasting apple widely used for baking, but Dudley keeps better.
Viking: A deep red apple, almost purple with the flesh stained pink inside. It makes a wonderful pink applesauce. The apples are best when fresh, but can be stored up to two months. The tree gets large, and its size may have to be controlled by pruning. When growing apples of this variety, be sure not to pick them too soon as the apples color up early.
Red Baron: A mildly sweet, and if you like strong-tasting apples you might even call it bland. When fully mature it sometimes has a faint under-taste of honey. It is often large and is an eye-catching bright red, and it sells well commercially. Baron is a smallish tree and the fruit is resistant to apple scab. It keeps quite well although it tends to develop brown core after long storage.
Burgundy: A crisp-fleshed purple apple with a tangy taste. It stores exceptionally well, four or five months although the taste gets milder over time. The apples are ready for picking here at the very end of September, and Burgundy is among the latest apples which can be grown successfully in this climate, though always described as a mid-season apple elsewhere. The tree holds its leaves unusually late, which could pose a problem if you get an early ice storm.
If you find a local apple you would like to propagate, rootstocks are readily available from the better-stocked nurseries. Grafting is done just before buds break in the spring. Many books tell how to do it. Apples are not difficult to work with. If you take care to match up the cambium layers (between inner bark and sapwood), and wax the joint well to prevent the graft from drying out, you will probably have success even as a beginner.
Self-sufficiency is the obvious goal of the homesteader, and what could be better than a ready supply of fresh fruit? Beauty in the landscape is another major desire. Growing apples contribute to the cause both ways.
For expert advice on this and nearly every other subject relating to apples, I highly recommend Michael Phillips’ book The Apple Grower (available from the Countryside Bookstore).
What other problems have you encountered when growing apples in cold regions?
Originally published in Countryside and Small Stock Journal May/June 2012 and regularly vetted for accuracy.