Folks don’t plant apple trees in their yard as often as they did a few generations ago. While we can now buy a fair number of apple varieties in the grocery store all year round, none of them taste as good as an apple grown at home. Homegrown fruits have a better texture and a better flavor, and millions of Americans plant tomatoes each year for this reason. Yet many people may not be aware that two dwarf apple trees will take up about the same amount of room the yard as two tomato plants, will take about the same time to care for, and will produce a similar number of fruits per plant.
The reason for the apple tree’s relative unpopularity these days might be that most of us can remember grandma or a neighbor having a huge old apple tree in the back yard that took an enormous amount of work to care for. While a large amount of apples could be harvested from these trees you still ended up with lots of fruits rotting on the ground, attracting yellow jackets and making a mess. Another concern might be the trouble with having to spray an apple tree with pesticides. What home gardeners today might not appreciate is that these problems have been greatly minimized. With today’s new varieties of apple trees, it is not difficult to grow apples in the backyard and you do not need much space to grow them.
Small is in.
While the standard apple tree can be 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 2 to 3 feet wide. Any variety of apple can be grafted on to a dwarf root stock. Stark Brother’s Nursery has even developed an apple tree they call the “Colonnade,” which has 6 to 10 inch branches growing off a single stem, reaching only about eight feet tall at maturity—now that is about as compact as an apple tree can get. Besides space conservation, there are other advantages to having a dwarf apple tree: it is much easier to care for in terms of pruning time, spraying time, fertilizing and watering.
In my opinion, the fruit production on a dwarf tree is much more suited to the home landscape than larger varieties. A mature dwarf tree will give you 20 to 30 apples a year. This means that you can easily choose the number of apple trees you want to plant according to a fairly specific sense of how many apples you would like to produce. You can ensure that you grow enough fruit, and at the same time, you do not have to worry about surplus apples rotting on the ground..
I suspect there are three issues that have prevented the dwarf apple tree from becoming common in the home landscape. Having to choose from over 100 varieties can be daunting. Then there is the reality that it takes 3 to 5 years after planting the tree before you get a full crop of apples; we are an impatient species. And finally, there is the need to spray an apple tree with a number of different pesticides a few times each year and that prospect can be off-putting to some folks.
The five most popular apples sold in grocery stores are Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious, Gala, Fuji, and Granny Smith. There is no need to grow any of these varieties since they are available in the stores almost year around. My bias is to grow varieties that have been introduced in the past 30 years. I want the most insect resistant and disease resistant apples that have great texture and taste. The Empire and Liberty are examples of varieties that are very tasty and generally free of disease or insect problems. Many folks grow these apples with no need to have any spray program.
A fun exercise is to visit some local apple orchards and buy varieties you have never tasted before. You might find an apple that you would really like to grow yourself. Another place to go for help in selecting varieties to grow is AppleSource, a specialty apple grower in Illinois (www.applesource.com). They offer over 100 varieties of apples to taste. They send apples by mail in boxes of 12. You can order just one variety in a box or order up to 6 varieties.
Consider Being A Foster Parent
If you don’t have the space or sufficient light for even one apple tree, you can still have fresh apples. No matter where you live.
You can find a home in your town or suburb with a huge overgrown apple tree in the back yard 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 over ten 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 you 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 be sure that the tree’s owner is going to be delighted with the deal.