Growing Apple Trees Ecologically: A Guide to a Low-Spray Orchard

By choosing apple varieties and rootstocks adapted to your area's climate and pests, keeping trees healthy through good site selection, and using biological controls, you can grow high-quality, low-spray apples.

| September/October 1990

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    In the old days, it was mainly in the form of hard cider that a family's apple crop could be made to last all year.
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    With trees ranging from dwarf to standard (right), size selection bcomes crucial. Dwarves are easier to maintain and more productive.
  • Apple Tree Footing
    Scheme for proper footing.
  • Pruning and Training Apple Trees
    Training methods and pruning patterns.
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    A regional guide to the worst apple pests.
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    Besides producing apples, an orchard provides a parklike setting.

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  • 125-058-01
  • Apple Tree Footing
  • Pruning and Training Apple Trees
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  • 125-066-01

An apple orchard may be the quintessential symbol of the good life in the country. What seems easier or more natural than plucking perfect, pesticide-free apples from trees you planted as saplings and lovingly watched grow over the years? In reality, growing apple trees is demanding work; apples are a crop with many pest problems. Commercial apple-growers don't apply 12 to 18 sprays a season because they enjoy spraying. But by carefully choosing apple varieties and rootstocks adapted to your area's climate and pests, by keeping trees healthy through good site selection and cultural practices, and by taking advantage of recent advances in biological control, you can grow high-quality, low-spray apples. Here in southeast Kansas, we produce bumper crops of more than two dozen apple varieties, almost free of serious disease or insect injury, by using just two early-season sprays.

Antique vs. Modern Apple Varieties

Many people hold to the romantic idea that apples used to taste better in the "good old days," and just naturally resisted disease and worms. After all, orchardists didn't spray their trees back then, right? Wrong. Fruits were some of the first crops to be treated with pesticides—and back in the good old days of the late 1800s and early 1900s, they used lead arsenate. (Old apple-orchard soil may still contain unsafe levels of lead today.) In colonial America, when apples weren't sprayed, every farm family had a 50-tree apple orchard to produce enough fruit for a year's supply of hard cider, the fermented drink that washed down every meal. The family could store the few pest-free apples for fresh eating and baking, but they tossed most into the cider grinder, oblivious to worms and surface diseases.

That's a good approach to follow today if you have the time and equipment to make cider, whether hard or sweet. But if you want apples for fresh eating, cooking and storing, choose each variety on its merits for those uses, as well as its disease resistance and climate adaptation, regardless of when it was developed. While there are a number of excellent older varieties, many other antiques are not woth growing today, because newer types have surpassed them. On the other hand, some of the latter-day improvements" were cultivated just for looks, transportability or fine flavor, but can be very disease susceptible. On the other other hand, all of the scab-immune apples (varieties so resistant to scab they don't get it at all, even during seasons when the disease is severe came from modem breeding programs.

Timing Your Harvests and Late-Ripening Varieties: Apples for All Seasons

When choosing apple varieties, note when they ripen and if they store well under refrigeration or in a root cellar, and for how long. Your apple harvest season can stretch as long as three or four months, starting with summer apples of July or August and lasting till first frost. Although the summer apples' flavor and quality aren't up to par with the best of the fall's, and the apples can only maintain firmness and flavor for a few weeks in the refrigerator, they provide a refreshing first taste of apple season. Where summers are hot, most summer apples appreciate some midday shade; excess heat causes mealiness and lack of sweetness.

Late-ripening apples tend to store the longest, up to six months under cool conditions. Several late ripeners, in fact—such as Arkansas Black, Golden Russet and Melrose—aren't really as good to eat when harvested; they must "mellow" in storage for a month or two in order to develop their fullest flavor and sweetness. When choosing your late-ripening apples, check the length of growing season they need, and make sure your area provides an average of at least that many frost-free days.

Time your apple harvests to suit your needs. If you don't want a deluge of fruit at any one time, choose varieties with ripening dates well-spaced over the season. Some varieties—those called dessert apples—are best eaten fresh, while others are better for cooking or baking. But since many are great both ways, I'd choose mostly all-purpose varieties. In making cider, mix three or four of the best apples for this purpose; blending sweet and tart varieties will result in the most full-bodied flavor.

6/5/2020 10:23:53 PM

A must-have book for apple growers who want to go organic as possible is "The Apple Grower" by Michael Phillips. The Bible of apple-growing! It was highly recommended at an apple grafting workshop hosted by the UNH Cooperative Extension I went to last spring.

Heidi Hunt_2
1/3/2008 4:46:43 PM

Here is a book from our shopping site or you might find it at the library - "The Pruning Book" by Lee Reich

1/3/2008 4:30:31 PM

I've recently purchased property in Maine that has about twenty mature apple trees in desperate need off attention. Could someone recommend a good book or books that would help me get started in taking care of these trees. Jk

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