Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Growing Apple Trees

Last spring, I planted an apple orchard. My grandparents had an orchard when I was a child, and some of my favorite childhood memories are of the family gathering on a cool fall day to make cider in the hand-cranked mill that made the apples release their juice when two thick boards compressed them. My grandfather proposed to my grandmother under an apple tree, and some descendants of the tree, christened the “Goldie-Fred apple” by my aunt, after them, still stand among decaying buildings and overgrown trees on the farm.

Since no one has maintained the trees in at least twenty years, they are diseased and overgrown. The trees are all standard varieties and are at least twenty feet tall. To prune them, a person would have to climb a ladder while holding loppers or a pruning saw to begin thinning the twisted growth. Diseases and pests like apple scab, coddling moths, cedar apple rust, and sooty blotch plague the trees. Even though growing grocery store-perfect apples is not easy, it is possible to obtain a fruit crop from the home orchard. We had plenty of apples from my grandparent’s orchard, and my family still harvests apples from the orchard as long as a late freeze does not kill the blossoms. They don’t look like the apples sold in grocery stores, but no one sprayed them with chemicals in New Zealand before they arrived in the local store, either.

One way to make maintaining an orchard easier is to buy dwarf or semi-dwarf trees. Dwarf trees grow 8-10 feet tall, and semi-dwarf trees grow 12-15 feet tall, and bear full-size fruit. I planted four bare-root trees: a Granny Smith, a Red Rome, a Braeburn, and a Yellow Transparent. I ordered my trees from Stark Brothers, and other companies and local garden centers have trees. Before you buy, make sure you buy trees that are compatible with each other for pollination. The trees need to bloom at the same time so insects can pollinate the trees. The Stark’s catalog details this information, as do books. For South Carolina-specific information, call the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service at 1.888.656.9988 from 9 AM-1 PM, or get an apple-growing fact sheet at http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic.

Clemson Extension also has fact sheets on apple diseases and pests. I hope to maintain my orchard organically, or at least as organically as possible. Since I am not selling my fruit, it does not have to be cosmetically perfect, but I do want a harvest and some sound fruit I can save over the winter. I have read that simply slipping a paper bag or a piece of ladies’ hose over immature apples prevents pest damage, and with four small trees, I should be able to accomplish this task. Pruning the apple trees properly is important to make sure sunlight can reach the interior of the tree and to make sure to encourage the growth of the branches that produce fruit.

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