Thursday, August 5, 2010

Growing an Heirloom Apple Orchard

My first experience with Heirloom Apples was when we moved into our home in Wyoming.  Across the street from our house was an old orchard that had fallen into disuse.  Always in horror of seeing good food go to waste I asked the owner if I could pick some of the fruit before it all went to waste.  But I was refused!  She informed me that she left the orchard for the deer so they had food to eat.  After many visits that included bribes of home baked bread, eggs from our hens, and even produce from our garden the last member of the family gave me grudging permission to pick some apples. On entering the orchard I was amazed that the trees still produced fruit. Almost all the trees were half dead and broken, most of the apples were small although few had any worm damage. Upon tasting the first apple I was in love. It was crisp, sweet tart and creamy fleshed. Going over later to thank the owner with a jar of applesauce I asked about the history of the orchard. The aged lady seemed pleased to have a "youngster" interested and filled me in on all the details. This was an ancient apple orchard which turned out to be over 100 years old.  It had been planted by the original homesteader 3 generations before and in its day people had come from miles around to buy apples and cider from the family.  It is one of the few orchards in Wyoming due to the severely cold (up to -40) winters.  The variety of the apples was called Wealthy.

Well the moment I got home I started researching this delicious and hardy apple.  I found that it had been developed in 1860 in Minnesota, was extremely hardy, and was great for cooking.

Fast forward a few years and we decided to plant 5 apple trees at our new home. Our family loves apples and we go through tons in the form of applesauce, pie, cider, chutney, and fresh eating.   As we were living in Washington state apples are not expensive so I knew I wanted varieties that are not common to the markets.  After doing much research I ordered my trees from a company called Tree's of Antiquity at  They literally have hundreds of varieties of apple trees and with the help of their knowledgeable staff I picked trees that were suited to our hot summers and sometimes cold winters.  Unfortunately Wealthy was not a candidate for our area!  But I was given some suggestions of similar varieties that would do better.  The 5 trees are Gravenstein, Macoun, Newtown Pippen, Roxbury Russet, and Winesap.  All of the varieties I choose are multipurpose meaning that you can use them for fresh eating, cooking, and cider.  I also made sure that they were known for their keeping ability so that we could be eating fresh apples into the spring.  The Newtown Pippin tree was the favorite apple of George Washington and developed in 1759!

Here is a picture of our mini apple orchard

They will begin bearing fruit in good amounts in 2 to 3 years.  As you can see we have planted them fairly close together as we intend to prune them to semi dwarf size.  The plants you see between them are green beans and lettuces which form a good cover crop and use up the wasted space.  They have grown at least a foot since we planted them this spring!

There are some things you should make sure of if you want to plant fruit trees in your yard.

1.  The most important  thing is to make sure that the tree is suited to your climate.  There would be nothing as disappointing as watching your apples tree grow for a few years and then end up with year after year of disappointing or nonexistent harvests.  There are now varieties of fruit trees that can thrive in the coldest northern states but would die in the south.  Also some apples will live and even fruit well in your area but may end up tasting mealy because they do best in the eastern states.  The only way to avoid these pitfalls is to talk to a knowledgeable orchardist who can guide you to the trees best suited for your climate.

2.  Cross pollination.  Almost all fruit trees require a cross pollinator.  This is another tree that blossoms at the same time.  Most trees will need a different variety to cross pollinate with.  So you will need a tree that blossoms at roughly the same time and is compatible with your tree.  Again having a knowledgeable person is key to finding the right trees.

3.  Next is what are you going to do with the fruit.  If you want fruit just for fresh eating then choose a variety to suit that.  Just remember that you will get allot of fruit and many fresh eating varieties are not suited for storage, cooking, or canning.  If you want to can much of the fruit or make pies you must make sure the variety is known for that.  And lastly it may be a good idea to choose varieties that store for long periods of time.  After all the longer they store the longer you can enjoy them!

4. Adequate sun and space.  All fruit trees do best in full sun with enough space to spread out, you will need at least 10 feet square.  You can keep them at dwarf size but you must realize that the smaller you keep the trees the less fruit you will get.

5. City ordnance's for your area.  In our state because of the huge apple industry there are some areas that actually go around to see if local citizens are spraying their trees.  If they don't the city will spray them for the tree owner and then send them a bill!  Talk about big brother!

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