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What kind of site works best for an orchard? Fruit trees should always be planted in a sunny location. Full sun encourages vigorous growth and discouraging fungal diseases. A minimum of six hours of sun is requisite. Avoid planting near the edge of a wood, which may seem sunny, but allow little direct light. Also, choose a site that has good but not excessive air flow. Upland slopes that run perpendicular to prevailing winds are the ideal. Valleys often have troublesome frost pockets; hilltops expose trees to temperature extremes and drying winds. Aspect is also important. Pome fruits prefer a cooler northeast or southeast exposure, but will produce well on all but a very hot southern face. (Stone fruits do best on a more southerly exposure.) Do not plant apple trees near black walnuts, which give off a toxin from their roots. The ideal pH for an apple tree is 6.5.
How many trees should I start out with? And what varieties do you recommend? Twelve to fifteen trees is a good number to work with if you are new to home orcharding. More than that and you may end up with more apple chores than you want. For a harvest of different kinds of apples over an entire season, we recommend our Nurseryman’s Dozen, thirteen of our top varieties listed here in their general order of ripening: Yellow Transparent, Carolina Red June, Ozark Pippin, Summer, Summer Rambo, Benham, Fameuse, Grimes Golden, Wolf River, Winesap, Virginia Beauty, York Imperial, Limbertwig, and Arkansas Black.
When should I plant? Apples can be planted spring or fall as long as they are dormant. We recommend fall planting, from the middle of November to the end of the year for most parts of Virginia and the South. Fall planting allows a tree to get its roots established before putting out new growth. The longstanding rule is: a fall-planted tree gets an extra half-year's growth by the end of its first season. In the North and the West, spring planting is best. This keeps the newly-set trees from exposure to extremely cold temperatures and drying winds.
How far should I space the trees? Semi-dwarf trees should be spaced 20-25' apart. Some growers say that the wider spacing makes for easier management. Semi-dwarf trees may be converted to standard or full-size trees by planting the graft union below the ground. Sandard trees should be spaced 30-40' feet apart. Dwarf trees 2-10'.
How big should I dig the hole? Do the trees need to be staked? For most trees, a hole 2' across and 18" deep is sufficient. We provide complete planting instructions with each order. It is a good idea to stake a 4-6’ tree its first year or two. This keeps it from moving around in windy weather and breaking tender rootlets.
Should I prune the trees at planting? Yes, pruning compensates for root loss and makes for a sturdier branch structure. Head one-year whips to about 3'. Prune two and three-year trees as follows: Remove any broken branches. Thin branches that are crowded or rubbing. Prune last year's growth back about half. Space lateral branches 6-18" apart on the central leader. This spacing may seem severe at first, especially with a young tree. But giving proper space to laterals, early on, eliminates a "clump" of low branches that will compete for dominance with the central leader. If side branches cannot be spaced properly at planting time, they may be removed in subsequent years when other, better spaced, laterals develop. For more information on pruning consider investing in a copy of Michael Phillips’s Apple Grower.
Should apple trees be mulched? Yes, deep mulch around a tree’s roots provides nutrients and helps keep the soil moist. Be careful not to mulch too deeply at the trunk of the tree, though, as this can cause the scion to take root, thus overriding the dwarfing effect of the rootstock. Also, matted mulch material such as hay or straw is to be avoided. This provides habitat for over-wintering mice and voles, which can do great damage.
What about fertilizer and water? Regular watering and a good organic fertilizer, applied two or three times a year, go a long way in making a healthy orchard. In our nursery, we irrigate newly-set grafts when nature does not cooperate, and we use leaf mould compost, bone meal, cottonseed meal, Ironite, and chicken manure for fertilizer.
When will my trees begin to bear? Most varieties grafted onto EMLA 7 and EMLA 111 rootstocks are able to produce their first crop of apples 3 to 5 years after planting. Some of the more vigorous varieties such as Northern Spy, Wolf River and Twenty Ounce Pippin can take six years or longer to begin bearing. Occasionally a young tree will try to bear fruit its first or second year. It is tempting to allow the tree to do this—to sample that first apple sooner than you expected. But a young tree should not be allowed to fruit (the small fruitlets should be removed when they are small), because fruit production requires enough energy that the tree will be stunted.
Should I be concerned about pollination? When planting only two or three trees, pollination can be a serious issue. Stayman Winesap, for example, requires a pollinator tree to produce any fruit at all. Also, if a very early apple, (say, a Yellow Transparent) is planted with a very late apple (say, an Arkansas Black), since the bloom times for these trees do not overlap, cross pollination will not occur, and fruit set will be poor. The easiest way to insure adequate pollination is to grow a good mix of varieties that fruit over an entire season. Also, it is a good idea to include one or two noted pollinator trees in your orchard. Some of the best pollinators are Cortland, Duchess of Oldenburg, Golden Delicious, Grimes Golden, Hewes Crab, Jonathan, McIntosh, Mollies Delicious, Red Delicious, Rome, and Winter Banana. Varieties that provide little or no cross pollination include: Arkansas Black, Baldwin, Bramley’s Seedling, Jonagold, Northern Spy, Spigold, Stayman Winesap, Summer Rambo, and Winesap. These trees must have a pollinator to produce fruit, but they do not provide viable pollen for a companion tree. Varieties that are self-fruitful include: Dolga Crab, Gala, Golden Delicious, Newtown Pippin, Rome Beauty, and Virginia Beauty. These trees bear fruit without cross pollination. Varieties that are partially self-fruitful include: Jonathan, Liberty, McIntosh, and Winter Banana. These varieties bear an adequate crop without cross pollination, a heavier crop with cross pollination.
Can I add new trees to my orchard by planting apple seeds? Yes, you can. That is what Johnny Appleseed did. And that is how many new American varieties came into being in the vast cider orchards of colonial America. But know also that seedling trees are usually nothing like the parent tree. An apple core over the back fence often yields a fruit of only passable, or even inferior, quality—the pomological equivalent of a mongrel dog. Only occasionally do all the chromosomes line up to produce a superior apple. Still, if you are horticulturally inclined, we think that trying your hand at a few seedling trees is not a bad idea.
How can I learn to graft? There are number of good books available on grafting. The Grafter’s Handbook by R.J. Garner is perhaps the best. Also, Grafting Fruit Trees by the Washington State University Cooperative Extension is very good. We offer both of these books, as well as a complete grafting starter kit on our Books and Supplies pages. For hands-on instruction in grafting, we urge the serious hobbyist to consider joining North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX). Nafexers have been a great help to us over the years; we have made some fine friends in the group. In our estimation, attending the annual NAFEX meeting is like taking a graduate seminar in pomology. For more information, check out NAFEX online at www.nafex.org.
Can I grow apples in the deep South? Yes, but only a few varieties have what it takes to negotiate the South’s low-chill winters and hot, humid summers. For our list of “Heat Tolerant Varieties,” go to Useful Information. Also, for more information on this topic, see the article, “Virginia Beauty and Her Kin: An Inside Look at Pomology’s Southern Belles,” in the October/November 1996 issue of Mother Earth News.
Can I grow apples in the extreme North? Yes, there are many cold-hardy varieties that will grow well in the North. The state of Maine, in particular, has a rich tradition of apple growing. Because the growing season in Zones 5 and above is relatively short, late-ripening sorts such as Arkansas Black, Ben Davis, Granny Smith, and Ralls Genet should not be planted.
Can I grow apples without using synthetic pesticides? That is the route we take. Some diseases such as flyspeck and sooty blotch are cosmetic and can be tolerated. Others such as scab, fire blight, cedar apple rust, mildew, and summer rots can be quite troublesome. To cut back on the incidence of disease, keep your orchard clean—pick up dropped fruits—and be careful about summer pruning which can open trees to fire blight infection. Also, the seasonal use of bordeaux, dormant oil, lime-sulfur, and insect traps (for apple maggot and coddling moth) plays an important role in maintaining a healthy orchard. In areas where disease pressure is very high, you may not be able to grow some of the more disease-prone varieties. Your neighbors’ orchards are a good indicator of which sorts will do best in your area. For a list of the leathery survivors we offer, see "Disease Resistant Varieties". Also, for more information on disease and pest management, check out Gardens Alive!
How did you get interested in heirloom fruits? I come from a family of nurserymen, and have always enjoyed fruit trees. When I first started in the business, though, I didn't know much about old apples or my family history. Fortunately, in learning about one, I learned about the other.
For more on how the "lines fell in pleasant places," check out the article, “Apples of Your Eye” in the November 2002 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. It tells about our journey into the world of heirloom apples and how we ended up "rediscovering" a variety called the Reasor Green (right), which our great-great-grandfather, C.C. Davis, introduced to the nursery trade back in 1887.
For more about heirloom apples in general, see our article, “A Curious Tale: The Apple in North America”. Great-great grandfather, C.C. Davis, ran his nursery from 1876 to 1932. My great-grandfather, Elmer Davis, also had a nursery. Some of the old lithographs posted here come from his salesman's plate book.