Growing Organic Apples

Biting into a crisp apple picked fresh from your own tree is so rewarding and full of nutrition. You may never taste anything quite so delicious. Growing apples organically is easy if you follow a few basic rules. Once you have grown a successful crop, tasted the fruit of your labor, you will never want to bite into a store bought apple again.

Selecting Trees
Since apple trees take at least several years to bear fruit, it pays to select trees carefully before you invest time and energy in them. Consider these factors: Apple trees come in wide range of sizes to suit any yard, they also make attractive landscape trees. Apples are subject to many serious diseases such as apple scab. Choose resistant cultivars; new ones are being released every year.

Tree Size
An important consideration. Standard trees can reach 30′ and take 6 years to bear fruit. Most home gardeners prefer dwarf and semi-dwarf trees, which are grafted on a rootstock that keeps them small, grow 6′-20′ tall (depending on the rootstock used), and produce full-size apples in just a few years. The final height of your trees will also depend on what cultivar you select, because some cultivars are more compact than others. Tree size will also depend on growing conditions and pruning and training techniques. Some cultivars bear fruit on short twigs called spurs, while others produce fruit along branches. Spur-bearing cultivars have more fruiting twigs than non-spur trees do, and produce more apples. Cultivars that have a strong, horizontal branching habit are easy for beginners to prune.

Most cultivars need to be pollinated by a second compatible apple or crab apple within 40′-50′ that blooms at the same time. Some cultivars, such as ‘Mutsu’ and ‘Jonagold’, produce almost no pollen and cannot serve as pollinators. A few cultivars including ‘Golden Delicious’ are self-pollinators. If you only have space for one tree, improve fruit set by grafting a branch of a suitable pollinator onto the tree.

When choosing apple trees, consider your climate. Your tree will produce more fruit and live longer if it is suited to your area. Antique apples can be fun to grow but require careful selection because many are susceptible to diseases.

Sample the fruit before you choose. Find some less familiar cultivars at farmer’s markets and orchards, or order a collection from a mail-taste order sampler company. The range of aroma, taste, flesh texture, shape, color and size of apple is far greater than a trip to your local supermarket would even begin to suggest.

Buy dormant one year un-branched grafted trees, sometimes called whips. Plant apples in the early spring in most areas, or in late fall in the Southern climates. Space standard trees 20′-30′ apart; semi-dwarfs 15′-20′; and dwarfs, 10′-15′. Start training immediately.

Healthy apples grow 8”-12” per year. Have the soil tested if growth is less. Low levels of potassium, calcium, or boron may cause reduced growth and poor-quality fruit. Apples thrive with a yearly mulch of 2” of compost and Dr. Earth fruit tree fertilizer. Apples also benefit from foliar feeding. Spray Dr. Earth Liquid Solution when the buds show color, after the petals fall, and again when young fruits reach 1/2”-1”diameter to improve yields. If testing shows calcium is low, spray 4 more times at two week intervals.

Begin training to a central leader shape immediately after planting. Prune trees yearly, generally in late winter or early spring.

Once your tree starts bearing, you need to remove excess fruit if want large and flavorful apples. Thinning also helps prevent trees from bearing fruit every other year. Remove the smaller apples in each cluster before they reach 1” in diameter. Leave one fruit per spur on dwarf trees, two per spur on larger trees.

Insects and diseases are a major frustration for organic apple growers, but new resistant cultivars and pheromone-bated insect traps make it easier to grow apples organically. Common apple pests include apple maggots, codling moths, green fruit worms, leafhoppers and mites. Aphids, scale, and tarnished plant bugs can also cause problems. Fall webworms and tent caterpillars spin webs in branches and munch on leaves. Remove and destroy webs as soon as you see them. Spray BTK (Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki) where caterpillars are feeding. Leaf rollers pull leaves together and spin small webs. They feed on buds, leaves, and developing fruit. Native beneficial insects such as parasitic wasps help control them. Spray dormant oil just before bud break to kill eggs. Monitor with pheromone traps, and spray with BTK or Dr. Earth Pro-Active insect spray, handpick after webs appear. To help prevent disease problems, dispose of all pruned wood as well as fallen leaves and fruit.

Apples ripen from midsummer through late fall. Early apples tend to ripen unevenly over several weeks. Late apples can all ripen the same day. If you have room for a few trees, you can select cultivars that ripen at different times and pick apples all season. Taste apples to decide when they are ready to pick. Skin color and the first fallen apple may be good clues, but taste is the best method. If they taste starchy, they are still green. Some apples are ideal picked early. Others improve as they linger on the branch. You may have to experiment to find when each cultivar tastes best. Lift each fruit in the palm of your hand and twist the stem. If ripe, it will part easily from the twig without tearing. Handle apples with care so they don’t get bruised.

Apples vary greatly in their keeping quality. In general, late apples are better keepers than summer apples. Store apples in a humid refrigerator at temperatures just above 32° F. If you have several trees full of fruit, you might want to be the generous provider to family and friends. Remember to check regularly for that one bad apple that really will spoil the barrel.

Best Cultivars
There are hundreds of apple cultivars to choose from. Here are a few with particular characteristics.

Disease Resistance
New resistant cultivars are being released every year; check nursery catalogs to find out what’s new. Two good cultivars immune to apple scab are ”Red Free” with medium-sized, dark red, slightly tart fruit and ”Williams Pride” with sweet, medium-sized, dark red fruit. Both mature in mid-to late August.

”Liberty” produces dessert-quality apples, is immune to scab, and resists cedar apple rust, powdery mildew, and fire blight, and it ripens in September. ”Sir Prize”, another scab-immune cultivar, bears fruit similar to ”Golden Delicious” but bruises easily and is susceptible to cedar apple rust. Two antique apples with good disease are ”Summer Rambo” from the sixteenth-century France and ”Yellow Transparent” from Russia.

Ease of Pruning
Cultivars that have a strong, horizontal branching habit such as ”Haralson” and ”Honey Gold” are easy for beginners to prune. Those with upright habits, like ”Red Delicious,” are harder.

Happy and healthy gardening.
Milo Lou Shammas

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