Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Fruit & Nut Trees

Choosing Apple Varieties

by National Gardening Association Editors

If you were told about Johnny Appleseed as a schoolchild, you may hope to grow apples as easily as he did, dropping seeds in the ground and leaving a trail of apple-laden trees across the continent. Unfortunately, it's not that easy. Apples require a fair amount of patience and planning. If you want a choice crop, you'll have to control insects, diseases, and other pests, keep an eye on the weather, and prune annually. And your first harvest will only come 3 years or more after planting. But the reward picking apples from your own garden is worth the effort.

Orchard Planning

When setting up a home orchard, you will find there are dozens of apple varieties to choose from. Talk to local nursery people, your county extension service agent, or other gardeners to help you select varieties that do well in your area. Rootstock choice determines whether a tree is a dwarf, semidwarf, or standard size. Dwarf trees grow to be 8 to 12 feet tall and just as wide; semidwarf trees grow to be 12 to 18 feet tall and wide; and standard trees grow to be 18 to 22 feet tall and wide. In general, semi-dwarfing rootstocks for apples are recommended, if space permits, as true dwarfs are somewhat less hardy and therefore less suited to the coldest parts of the country.

The same rootstock combined with different varieties will produce trees of different sizes with differing degrees of vigor. Spur-type strains of a variety (for example, 'Winespur' is a spur-type strain of 'Winesap') produce more fruit-bearing spurs and less vegetative shoots than their parent variety. Not all rootstocks, nor the apple varieties grafted onto them, will be successful in every region. Most varieties survive well in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 7; there's a smaller, but still excellent, group of cold-hardy choices for zones 2 through 4. There are several low-chill varieties for the mild-winter areas of zones 8 through 10. Check apple varieties for cold hardiness, disease-resistance, and pollination requirements before deciding on a variety.

Varieties Abound

Try to pick pairs of different early, mid-season, or late varieties to ensure that pollen of two varieties is available at the same time. Depending on your variety selection, you can have fresh apples from early July until early November in many areas. Some apple varieties are best for cooking, others are good for eating fresh, and some are delicious for both. Varieties highly rated for eating fresh are numerous, including 'McIntosh' and other "Mac" types such as 'Jonamac' and 'Jerseymac', which bear fruit earlier than 'McIntosh'. 'Prima', 'Empire', and 'Macoun' are excellent for early, mid-season, and late harvests, respectively, and are enjoying increasing popularity. If you enjoy baked apples, consider 'Cox Orange Pippin' or 'Duchess' old favorites, or more recent choices such as 'Mutsu', 'Melrose', and 'Jonagold', which are excellent for cooking as well as eating fresh.

Buy dormant, bare-root trees, at a local nursery. Get 1-year-old whips, if possible; if not, be sure the trees are not more than 3 years old. Younger trees will become established more quickly, are less costly, and allow you more control in the development of a good framework of branches.

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