Michael Philips of Lost Nation Orchard in Groveton, New Hampshire, makes cider from organic apples.
Courtesy Chelsea Green
Michael Phillips has written the definitive book on
organic apple growing, The Apple Grower. He tends
Lost Nation Orchard ( www.herbsandapples.com ) in
the White Mountains of New Hampshire with his wife, Nancy,
and their daughter, Gracie. In the following piece,
Phillips answers the most common questions about backyard
Q: Are homegrown apples really any
bet ter than what I get at the
typically offer sweet, bland varieties imported from large
commercial orchards. No words to describe flavor come to
mind when you bite into a supermarket apple. Venture out to
a neighborhood orchard during the harvest season and you
should find regional favorites and heirloom varieties far
Additionally, how apples are grown has a considerable
impact on both the flavor and the nutrient density of the
fruit. Trees planted in an herbicide strip braced with
soluble chemical fertilizers do not yield the same
delightful fare as trees sharing a well-composted soil in a
Now, imagine sitting under that tree, from which you just
picked that apple, sighing happily and biting into its
juicy, tangy perfection and realizing that you grew this
gift of nature your very own self. I don't see it getting
any better than that.
Q: What are the top recommended
varieties for beginners? Any regional
MP: Recall the greatest tasting locally
grown apples you've ever encountered, consult a nursery to
be sure the varieties you like will ripen in your climate
and then plant the varieties that suit on both counts.
Seriously, I think too much emphasis can be placed on the
disease resistance of more-recent cultivars, though apples
such as 'William's Pride' and 'Gold Rush' certainly are
worth that fanfare. A favorite of mine is 'Sweet
Sixteen'—delightfully crisp with a pleasing nutty
flavor, and yet here's a tree that tends toward an
undesirable vertical branch structure (although training in
its early years will produce a proper crotch angle).
Heirloom apples such as 'Roxbury Russet' and 'Baldwin' may
tend towards biennial bearing (every other year) but, oh,
are those "on" years worth the wait. Lastly, the shamrock
green fruits of Reinette Simirenko' are as tart as a good
'Granny Smith,' but juicier, and with a lovely citrus
Q: How big of a hole do I need to dig
for planting a tree?
MP: The size of the tree hole needs to be
large enough to accommodate the roots without bending them.
A 3-foot diameter hole generally fits the bill. Aim to keep
the graft 2 inches above the soil line.
Q: Should I add any amendments to the
soil at planting time?
MP: Forget the advice about mixing compost
with the soil in the planting hole. I backfill the hole
with only its own soil, plus a dusting of 1 pound of rock
phosphate to assure early root development. The tree's
nutrition in the years ahead will come from above to feed
the top 6 inches of soil, where 90 percent of the feeder
Q: Do I need to prune the trees I just
MP: Whips (single-stem saplings) are
headed back at planting time more severely than a feathered
tree that already has developed branches. A 1-year-old whip
is snipped off about 3 feet above the ground. This helps
compensate for lost roots as well as invigorating the
lateral buds. When newly planted trees are not cut back
severely enough, they often develop laterals well above the
desired heading height. On a feathered tree, the central
leader should be cut back 6 inches above the highest branch
Q: What rootstock do you recommend for
a backyard planting?
MP : Nondwarfed or "standard" apple trees
can grow up to 30 feet high and 30 feet in diameter if not
pruned. As a consequence, most people prefer to plant apple
trees that have been grafted onto dwarfing rootstock. These
trees are easier to prune and pick, but need to be staked
because their roots tend to be brittle and grow shallowly.
They also should not be planted in wet locations, as they
are susceptible to collar rot. All dwarf trees can be kept
pruned to a manageable size, though the more vigorous the
rootstock, the more pruning you'll have to do. Dwarfing
rootstock "EMLA 26" produces a 10-foot to 12-foot tree that
is a little tall for easy harvest, but generally begins to
bear fruit in three years. "Malling 9" and "Geneva 16"
dwarf rootstocks make trees that grow 6 feet to 8 feet
tall, so all branches stay within easy reach for pruning,
spraying and harvesting.
Q: Pruning daunts me. What should I be
thinking about when I go to trim my trees?
MP: I have a pruning mantra that directs
my thoughts to the task at hand: "Framework first. Then the
thinning. Lastly see the fruit and where it grows."
Emphasize good form from the start and you'll avoid having
too many polelike limbs crowding each other down the road.
An artful pruner sees several years into the future in
developing bearing limbs to replace older wood. One old
farmer summed up the other tenet of good pruning quite
succinctly: "You know you did a good job if you can pick up
the family cow afterwards and throw her between the
branches." He was describing a big standard tree, but you
get the idea. Photosynthesis and good drying breezes
ideally will reach all the buds in the interior of a
Q: When should I prune?
MP: Dormant season pruning is best done on
the tail end of winter. Folks in warmer growing zones can
start in January. Up here in northern New Hampshire, we get
out the pruning shears in the latter part of March.
Q: What should be done with the branch
trimmings after pruning?
MP: Chipping the branches to return them
to the soil right beneath the tree is ideal. This assumes
you've seen no sign of fire blight (a bacterial disease) in
the bark of the branches you've removed. Definitely don't
leave a pile of branches along the edge of your
yard—black rot can spread back to your fruit trees
from the decaying wood.
Q: A friend told me I should buy a
mycorrhizal product to boost the growth of my trees. Does
such a product have any worth?
MP: Plants have developed an incredible
symbiotic relationship with certain fungi to help get
nutrients from the soil, as well as to ward off pathogenic
organisms. An apple tree has specific mycorrhizae that
interact with its roots in the humus layer in these ways.
You can inoculate your soil by finding a healthy wild tree
and then bringing a few scoops of the soil beneath its
branches back to your ground. Ecosystems adapt to the needs
at hand without our necessarily having to buy a packaged
Q: Why is thinning the fruitlets early
MP: The cells that will become next year's
fruit buds are beginning to form when you can see this
year's fruitlets, which are baby apples just starting to
form. Properly thinning a tree within the first 30 days
after petal fall allows the tree to carry a good fruit crop
in the current year and still have enough nutrients to
develop next year's crop. Many wild apples tend towards
biennial bearing simply because this balance isn't achieved
without human intervention. Thinning by hand to leave a
single apple every 6 to 8 inches along the branch will
double the percentage of large fruit.
Q: What are these crusty scars on my
MP: Apple scab. This fungal disease starts
on green tissue when buds start to unfurl. A spring rain
causes spores to be released by the tens of thousands from
overwintered scab lesions on leaf litter from the previous
season. That is why good sanitation begins with raking up
apple leaves in the fall to either compost or bury deep in
the woods. More-susceptible cultivars often need a few
weekly applications of sulfur during the primary infection
period, when fruit buds are just beginning to show pink
through the first rain following petal fall.
Q: Do disease-resistant varieties
really make it easier to grow fruit?
MP: Yes. Skipping those applications of
sulfur for apple scab and cedar apple rust can be a real
boon. Still, I grow the varieties I most like regardless of
disease resistance, knowing that the few disease control
efforts I employ can be combined with the sprays I'm using
to balance the insect pest dynamic.
Q: I've been using an all-purpose
spray on my trees for years, but I'd like to grow my fruit
organically. Where can I get an all-purpose organic
MP: That all-purpose spray from the garden
center was developed to sell along with the concept that
growers need not understand what's going on in the natural
world around them. It's an ecosystem tragedy when folks
apply pesticides and fungicides unnecessarily - the case
with any "fits all" strategy. A wise apple grower starts by
learning which pests and diseases are causes for local
concern, and then acts on each condition with targeted
understanding. The good news is that once you get attuned
to nature in this way, just a handful of well-timed actions
will bring you a reasonable harvest.
Q: What can I do about
caterpillars that strip the leaves off my
MP: Smash the buggers! I've found that
tent caterpillars and army webworms come into orchards in
spotlike fashion. Keep an eye out for their web start-ups.
Then you can remove the larval colony by hand early on,
when the worms are small and haven't yet inflicted a great
amount of damage.
Q: Some bug is tunneling into a lot of
my fruit when it's just the size of a nickel.
MP: We deal with two "petal-fall pests" in
the eastern half of the United States that easily could be
your culprits. Plum curculio larvae get their start in a
crescentlike scar the female weevil makes to prevent the
growing fruitlet from crushing her egg; European apple
sawfly larvae first scratch the surface of a pea-sized
fruitlet, and then go on to eat the seeds in another three
or four fruitlets.
Q: What's up with the new kaolin clay
MP: Those petal-fall pests identified
above can be held effectively in check with a nontoxic
white clay covering applied over the entire surface of the
tree. The kaolin clay panicles confuse the insect adults
and prove incredibly irritating. Just imagine your own
eyes, ears and reproductive parts filled with micro-sized
dust; you'd opt to find a noncovered tree in which to feed
and lay eggs, too! "Surround" is the trade name of the
refined kaolin you need to apply this protective barrier.
Application begins as the blossoms start to fall and needs
to be thorough. It takes two or three initial sprays to
build up a thick enough base to repel these insects. Renew
the clay weekly for the next month.
Q: Why did my grandparents hang open
jugs of vinegar and molasses out in the orchard?
MP: Such homegrown traps usually target
adult fruit moths such as the codling moth. Unfortunately,
all sons of bugs end up drowning in this brew, some of
which might have been beneficial allies. I prefer to
control codlings moths with well-timed sprays of
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a biological
pesticide stomach-specific to caterpillars. Others have had
some success wrapping corrugated cardboard around the trunk
of the tree, where the larvae crawl to continue their
development. Then at the end of the summer, the cardboard
is removed and burned.
Q: When do I hang those red sticky
MP: Apple maggot flies (AMF) are the
culprits drawn to these effective traps. The new generation
emerges from the soil beginning in late June, with females
seeking fruit in which to lay eggs throughout July and
August. The sticky balls mimic the best apple to be found
in the orchard. The female alights on the trap and stays
put because of a layer of sticky goo called "Tangletrap"
covering the red sphere. Some people report good luck using
red plastic cups for this same purpose. Two to four traps
per tree generally suffice to keep AMF larvae from ruining
a good harvest. I set out traps on early maturing varieties
by the first of July, then scrape off the dead flies and
renew the sticky material when moving the traps to
later-maturing varieties in early August.
Q: What should I do with any fruit
that drops to the ground?
MP: Quite a few insect pests pupate in the
soil beneath the tree. They get into fallen fruit, from
which the larvae crawl out and seek winter quarters.
Cleaning up drops each week cuts down on next year's pests.
We feed such drops to our sheep.
Q: What's with this sooty blackness
that covers my fruit at harvest?
MP: The so-called summer diseases show up
in late summer after enough wetting hours have occurred.
Both sooty blotch and flyspeck can be rubbed off the
surface of the fruit. A well-pruned tree is your best
defense—drying breezes help delay the onset of these
Q: It seems everywhere that two apples
rub up against each other, the skin has been eaten away by
a worm. Is there anything I can do to prevent
MP: The larvae of many of the summer moths
will conceal themselves from the eyes of predators by going
between two apples in order to feed. A good job of thinning
earlier in the summer prevents this. Well-timed spray
applications of Bt can help keep burgeoning moth
populations in check.
Q: First, the blossoms on my Gala tree
turned brown. Then, the leaves yellowed and shoots curled
downward. By the next spring, the tree was completely dead.
What went wrong?
MP: Quite a few of the newer (and often
sweeter) cultivars are susceptible to a bacterial disease
known as fire blight. Dwarfing rootstocks show similar
susceptibility. Infected branches must be pruned out early
and destroyed if the tree is to be saved.
Q: What organic fertilizers can I use
on my apple trees?
MP: Mature trees (those already bearing
fruit) generally don't need much nitrogen at all. Good
production depends more on adequate sources of potassium
and calcium. Rotting hay mulch provides the first, and
gypsum is a good source of calcium that won't affect pH. I
spread compost in late fall or early spring to build humus
and help in the decomposition of disease-carrying leaves.
Q: Why do some growers paint the
trunks of young trees white?
MP: The dark trunk of a young fruit tree
warms up fast in the winter sunshine. Then, when the sun
goes down, the outer bark may freeze too quickly and split
on the side last facing the sun. A 50/50 mix of latex paint
and water applied in summer prevents this "southwest
Q: How can I protect my trees from
MP: The only permanent protection is a
tall fence. Most folks opt for less intrusive measures. A
repellent spray can be mixed from eggs, cayenne and fish
oil. This mixture needs to be applied monthly through the
winter if deer pressure is high. Deer love apple twigs, and
a hefty percentage of next season's fruit buds can be lost
overnight if you let your guard down.
Q: I've heard chickens take care of
orchard pests. Any truth to this?
MP: Scratching chickens can be counted on
to get some of those insects that fall to the ground to
pupate in the soil. Try spreading some corn meal to direct
their attention to the drip line of the tree. Use kaolin
clay spray to your advantage here: Spray all but your
"chicken tree," so that the curculios go to where the beaks
will snap them up.
Q: What's the purpose of those plastic
spiral trunk guards?
MP: These protect the succulent bark of a
young tree from voles and rabbits. Spiral guards can be
wrapped around saplings in fall but then must be removed in
spring—the plastic holds in moisture and provides
cover for borers in the growing months. Wire mesh hardware
cloth can be used instead for year-round protection. Just
be sure to expand the mesh each season so it doesn't
constrict the trunk.
Q: Operators of a
nearby commercial orchard spray herbicide under their trees
to keep the ground open. What can I do instead?
M P: Hay mulch works
great to suppress grass growth, and as the mulch decays, it
provides potassium for the fruit trees. I've also planted
the herb comfrey under many of my freestanding trees as a
living mulch: The bumblebees love the blossoms, the leaves
of the comfrey smother the thick sod and the root
interaction favors apple trees.
Q: One of my 5-year-old trees broke
off right at the soil line. What caused this?
MP: The round-headed apple tree borer lays
eggs in the bark right at the soil line. The grubs, in
turn, spend three years eating away at the cambium layer,
going down along major roots and back up again on the other
side of the trunk. Eventually, they bore their way right up
the center of the trunk to emerge as a new egg-laying adult
beetle in June, thus continuing the cycle of destruction.
The best protection is vigilance—poke a wire into
their entrance holes in September and spear the first-year
borers. A coating of thick, pottery-grade kaolin clay
applied to the trunks each summer seems to deter the female
Q: What kind of sprayer do you
recommend for the backyard grower?
MP: The value of a quality backpack
sprayer will show itself immediately. You won't have to set
the sprayer tank down to work the pump, and more spray can
be carried per tank-up to 5 gallons. Backpack sprayers come
with either a piston pump or a diaphragm pump. Both
compress air in a pressure chamber that allows irregular
pumping action to result in a steady stream. The piston
pump can generate a higher pressure than the diaphragm.
Greater pressure results in smaller-sized droplets of spray
and thus, more coverage. Abrasive materials like ground
botanicals and copper powders shorten the working life of a
piston but are easier on a diaphragm pump.
Q: How do I best store apples through
MP : Apples keep best if stored at or near
32 degrees with a relative humidity approaching 90 percent.
Our unheated farmhouse cellar works great: The drafty stone
foundation keeps things cool, and the dirt floor is damp.
Mesh wire cages protect six bushels of apples at a time
from nibbling mice. Garages, covered porches and woodsheds
do in a pinch for late fall storage; just cover the fruit
with old blankets on particularly crisp nights. When the
deep cold settles upon the land, you'll need to protect
your winter keepers from freezing. Sort through them one
last time. Put the best in perforated bags in the fridge,
and turn all the rest into that apple butter you never
quite got around to making over the holidays.
Michael Phillips is the author of The Apple Grower
, published by Chelsea Green Publishing and available on
MOTHERS Bookshelf, Page 127.
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