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The adaptable apple. (In Profile).

Come back, Johnny Appleseed.

Much as we all love apples, people just don't plant apple trees in their yards as often as they did a few generations back. While we can now buy a fair number of varieties in the grocery store all year round, none taste as good as one that's homegrown.

Millions of Americans plant tomatoes each year for the same reason: better texture and better flavor. It's interesting that two dwarf apple trees will take up about the same amount of room in the yard as two tomato plants, take about the same time to care for. and will produce a similar number of fruits per plant. Yet seldom is an apple tree included in the landscape design of any new home.

One problem might be that most of us remember the enormous amount of work it took to care for the huge old apple tree in grandma's backyard. While you harvested a ton of apples, you still ended up with lots rotting on the ground, attracting yellow jackets and making a mess. And these days few people want to contend with the worry and trouble of having to spray pesticides repeatedly on a tree.

But what folks today might not realize is that those problems have either been eliminated or at least greatly minimized. It is not difficult to grow apples in your backyard, and you don't need much space to grow them.

SMALL IS IN

While standard-sized apple trees can grow to 20 feet high and 15 feet wide, the dwarf and mini-dwarf trees available today grow to be only 6 to 8 feet tall and may be 2 or 3 feet wide. Any variety of apple can be grafted onto a dwarf root stock. And that dwarf tree is much easier to care for in terms of pruning time, spraying time, fertilizing, and watering.

Fruit production on a dwarf tree is much more within human scale, in my view. A mature dwarf tree will give you 20 to 30 apples annually. If you had three or four varieties, you would be harvesting at least 100 fresh, tasty apples--more than most of us eat in a year!

Keeping it small, espalier is a pruning technique that allows you to prune and train dwarf apple trees to grow in attractive patterns flat up against a wall or a fence. There's a double benefit: a decorative plant for the home landscape that produces delicious fruit. I had always thought that such a project would be difficult and complicated. But once I read up on the subject I learned it's no big deal to create an espaliered apple orchard. Even I could do it, and I did.

I planted a 25-foot row of 12 different varieties of dwarf apple trees attached to a fence made of wire secured to 4-by-4 posts. The 12 trees were planted at roughly a 45-degree angle spaced two feet apart down the fence. Such a mini-orchard looks beautiful and provides between 200 and 300 apples to eat fresh or to use in apple pies and apple sauce from mid-August through October and eating apples and some pies through February.

My espaliered orchard had two early varieties, two mid-season varieties, two late-season varieties, four storage apples, and two more just for fun; all taking up only 25 feet of space. There are lots of easy-to-follow books on espalier, and there is much available on the web.

It takes two or three years to begin to have a pretty display along with some fruit, with full production coming in four to five years. Once you know what you are doing, you can prune 12 dwarf espaliered trees in an hour or maybe two each year.

If you don't have the space or sufficient light for even one apple tree, don't despair. Consider "foster parenting" a tree. Wherever apples grow in this country you can find a home in your town or suburb with a huge overgrown apple tree in the backyard that has not been cared for in many years. Go to the owner and offer to take over the care of the tree for half the harvest, which could be more than 10 bushels of apples, enough to think about making cider.

Renovating an old untended apple tree takes about three years of careful and proper pruning. Done properly, it can bring a 100-year-old tree back into very respectable production. Be sure you check some references about the procedures for pruning overgrown and ancient apple trees. It can be very satisfying to bring an old tree back, and you can he sure the tree's owner will be delighted with the deal.

A MATTER OF TASTE

Choosing an apple tree from the hundreds of choices can be a bit daunting, so make sure you know the basics first. You'll need two different varieties of apple trees to get proper pollination for each one. If your neighbor has an apple tree, you can get by with buying just one of a different variety.

If you're going the dwarf route, two or even four trees are attractive because you get good pollination and can choose varieties that will stagger your harvest time. Early apples will ripen as early as in August and late apples can go into October or even November before they are ready to pick.

Another issue is a particular variety's vulnerability to common diseases such as scab or fire blight. Over the past 20 years a fair number of very disease-resistant varieties have been developed, reducing greatly the amount of pesticide spraying needed to have healthy trees and good fruit.

At the same time, a number of neat products have been developed to reduce or even eliminate the need to spray for insect damage. Check out gardening supply catalogs or online sites for examples of these new tools and products. Anymore, deer and squirrels are more of a problem for home apple trees than insects and disease, and you can even protect against those critters if you know what you're doing.

The final and most important issue you'll want to address before apple tree shopping is taste and texture. Years ago we threw an apple-tasting party with 12 different varieties of apples from a company that sells more than 150 varieties to taste and enjoy via mail order. No two of our 15 guests could agree on the "best" three varieties; everyone had a slightly different preference for taste, tartness, texture, and color. The lesson learned: Taste before you plant. Look for apple sellers online, bit the grocery store, or go to two or three local fruit stands or orchards and taste everything they sell.

Here are some of my favorites and some varieties I know are easy to care for. Choose wisely and you'll enjoy fresh apples from the backyard for many decades to come.

* Redfree. One of the best eating early apples, Redfree should be enjoyed soon after it ripens because it has a short shelf-life. Redfree is immune to apple scab and cedar apple rust and is moderately resistant to fire blight and powdery mildew.

* Liberty. An early- to mid-season variety available in early September, Liberty is resistant to the "big four" diseases: apple scab, cedar apple rust, fire blight, and powdery mildew. The medium-sized, round fruit has red stripes with greenish undercolor and the flesh is nearly white and very crisp. Liberty can be eaten fresh or used for cooking (sauces, pies, baking) or freezing. It can be stored from three to six months; the flavor intensifies in storage.

* Jonafree. This attractive, glossy red apple has some resistance to diseases such as apple scab, cedar apple rust, and fire blight. Mostly used as a fresh eating apple, Jonafree's flavor is like Jonathan but slightly less acidic and mildly tart. Ripens mid-season.

* Empire. A cross between McIntosh and Red Delicious, Empire takes on the best characteristics of both. Some claim its flavor improves during storage. Empire ripens in midseason. It is not particularly disease-resistant so will need some spraying to prevent problems.

* Enterprise. Crisp Enterprise has creamy flesh, medium-fine texture, a spicy aroma, and mild tartness. It's extremely resistant to apple scab, cedar apple rust, and fire blight and moderately resistant to powdery mildew. Enterprise ripens in mid-October and keeps for five to six months if refrigerated.

* Honeycrisp. This extremely crisp, juicy, sweet apple has a rich flavor that has made it No. 1 in taste panels. The fruit is mostly orange-red with a yellow background. Honeycrisp blooms mid-season and is moderately resistant to apple scab and fire blight. The fruit has a two-week harvest window and stores well.

* Macoun. My most favorite apple of all time has a snow-white flesh and is supercrisp and juicy. Its honey sweetness makes up for the mild flavor. Great for eating fresh and for snacks, salads, and fruit cups, it also makes good applesauce. Unfortunately, Macoun is a poor keeper; it gets soft and loses flavor in storage. Macoun ripens in mid- to late season.

RELATED ARTICLE: THE NATIONAL CHAMP

Species: Malus sylvestris

Location: Bedford, New Hampshire

Circumference at 4.5 feet: 183 in.

Height: 44 feet

Crown spread: 49 feet

Total points: 239

Nominator: J. Beaudet, R. Pichette, C.

Mower

The National Register of Big Trees is sponsored by The Davey Tree Expert Company.

"Yardening" expert Jeff Ball writes from his home in Attica, Michigan.
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Author:Ball, Jeff
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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