THE MAIN PURPOSE of orchards in early America was to produce fruit to drink—not fruit to eat. Early settlers brought with them the Old World notion that the water was foul, as it was in the towns and cities of Europe. It was also true that some of the water of the New World was brackish and caused illness and death. Colonists from the Mediterranean region first tried planting vineyards for wine production, but when those failed, colonists from the British Isles and Northern Europe introduced the apple from their food culture for cider production.
Today the orchard can have a single purpose, like cider making, or it can be intended for multiple uses, including dessert, drying, applesauce and butter making, wildlife food, vinegar, and even decoration and landscaping. From the beginning, the planter must define the goals for the orchard by asking questions such as: How will the crops be utilized? What are the taste preferences of those eating the apples? Otherwise time, nursery stock, and money will be wasted.
The scope of the orchard will be determined by its purpose and the land available for planting. An orchard can be one or two trees in the yard or it can be dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of trees with or without intended commercial production. It is critical that the mature size of the apple trees be considered and the potential production quantity determined. The ultimate height and width of the tree will be defined by the type of rootstock selected and the variety grafted. The amount of fruit wanted should dictate the number of trees: starting small is smart.
Besides the size of the available land, goals and uses will also be determined by the physical qualities of the space such as air drainage and compass orientation. When planning, aim for the ideal but with the flexibility that compromises can be made. Sometimes, too, aesthetic values are the primary intention of the orchard and override any practical and scientific parameters.
Location and Layout
Site selection for this permanent planting is an incredibly important decision. Before marking the location of the planting sites, stand where the trees will be planted and observe how the sunlight falls at different times of the day. Ideally, the trees should be located in full sun to maintain healthy, vigorous growth and produce quality high-flavored fruit. A planting slope that gets morning sun is desirable because the sunlight will dry the foliage and reduce fungus growth. Often you can increase the amount of available sunlight by removing trees that shade the planting site. If the location does not receive eight or ten hours of sunlight, look elsewhere.
Whenever possible, site the orchard on an eastern slope to allow for the best air and water drainage. Also remove any woodland or thickets at the base of slopes before planting as they can interrupt air flow and become a haven for insect and disease infestation. Avoid planting on hot south-facing slopes which will encourage early development and emergence of buds that may then be damaged or killed by freezes or frosts.
Corner of the orchard and nursery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia. This orchard was able to be restored because of archeological evidence from modern technology and the details of Jefferson’s records.
The modest orchard beyond the kitchen at Point of Honor in Lynchburg, Virginia, provided fruit for the Cabell house built in 1806.
This small commercial orchard is well-fenced for protection against varmints. As a testament to the change in fruit growing today, orchards of this size are appearing more and more frequently.
Wind direction and velocity should be taken into consideration too. Siting trees just below the crest of a hill is one way to prevent wind damage. You can also anchor young trees on wind-swept slopes by individually staking them or tying the stem and branches to a trellis. Strong winds will not only damage trees (particularly young ones) but will discourage bee and other insect movement during the critical pollination time, thus reducing fruit set.
It is also important to choose a planting slope which has an appropriately accessible incline for watering and maintenance. A slope of 6 or 8 percent is comfortable and safe for use but an incline of 10 percent or greater is dangerous when using equipment. Very steep terrain can only be planted when totally maintained without equipment.
Other factors to consider during site selection are frost patterns, maximum and minimum temperatures, water availability for irrigation, and proximity to neighboring properties and streams when toxic agents are used. Although some aspects of the planting environment can be altered, many, like prevailing wind and temperature, cannot. You may have to compromise by accepting less-than-ideal conditions. When in doubt, plant a few trees to test the site before committing to the full orchard.
An orchard is defined by the placement of trees in a certain pattern. The most common arrangements are square, rectangular, and contour or terrace. The size of the planting will often determine the layout with regard to sufficient space for ultimate tree growth; service rows; bee yard; recreation; and a building for storage, equipment, and activities like apple sales or cider making.
For planting areas where it is comfortable to walk and stand, you can use a square or rectangular design. To make a square layout set a tree at each corner of the four corners, following the spacing recommendations for the rootstock onto which the variety is grafted. For a rectangular design, place trees at unequal distances; trees on dwarf stock, for example, might be placed 9 feet apart with 15 feet between rows. If the land is rugged and steep, use the terrace method by staggering rows to maximize air circulation and sunlight. Placing trees to follow the contours of the hillside will reduce erosion of the soil as well as harmonize aesthetically with the site.
Preparing the Site
The soil at the final selected site should be evaluated before planting, and amended if necessary, to accommodate the place where your apple tree will spend the rest of its life. Soil is composed of minerals, organic matter, pore space, and living organisms (bacteria, nematodes, and fungi). Soil texture is categorized as sand, silt, clay, or some combination thereof; the USDA defines twelve soil texture classifications. The soil’s ability to hold moisture and nutrients is dependent upon achieving an ideal textural combination called loam (or a variation such as clay loam or sandy loam). Soil fertility can be changed by applying nutrients, increasing the amount of organic material, as well as adjusting the pH to near 6.5. The best soil for planting is well-drained loam 3 or 4 feet deep.
The most conventional method to determine your soil status is by taking a soil sample before planting and at the same time of year for the next few years. The soil test report you get from an agriculture university or an independent lab will give you guidelines for amending. As the tree advances to the second and third year of leaf production, a leaf analysis taken in July or August can give additional details about the nutrient status of the tree. This, in tandem with the soil test, will prevent over- or under-fertilization and will be cost efficient.
From the results of a soil test dig, incorporate the elements of any soil deficiencies like lime or calcium in the planting area; this should preferably be done the year before planting but if necessary it can be done at planting time. The size of the orchard will also determine how the site is prepared. If your orchard only has a few trees, amending individual planting sites in the designated spaces will do. If it is located in a pasture, cropland, abandoned garden site, or tree-cleared land, you will need to lay out the sites with stakes and remove perennial weeds within a 3- to 6-foot planting zone. In addition to incorporating organic matter, larger orchards can be plowed the previous fall and planted with a grass cover (like Kentucky 31 tall fescue) to make the soil more friable.
Prior to World War II, there were thousands of small fruit tree nurseries sometimes offering hundreds of common and uncommon apple varieties. As these orchard and farm nurseries dwindled, the mega-nurseries gained control and reduced the number of varieties to a few dozen for reasons of practicality and economic profitability. But now that the landscape has once again become peppered with smaller nurseries offering historic favorites as well as modern varieties—many of which have distinctive flavor and some disease resistance—the prospective fruit grower has more options.
Although the name of an apple can be intriguing, it may not sufficiently satisfy your taste buds—a realization that is especially cruel after dedicating five years to growing the tree! And remember that apple trees will often fruit for fifty years or more. Most apple varieties are adapted to certain climates so local environmental conditions should be considered when deciding what trees to plant. It will be worth a fifty-mile drive to sample some of the lesser-known apples that grow well in your area and talk to local nursery growers and orchardists. Attending apple tastings at historic sites, farmers markets, and specialty grocery stores is also effective in finding less-than-mainstream varieties that are not readily available in the local market. After sampling a dozen or so varieties, you should be able to determine where your preferences lie on the spectrum from very tart to very sweet, complex to singular flavor, and crunchy to melt-in-the-mouth texture. However, I once assembled a multiday, mother-of-all apple tasting with more than one hundred varieties for prospective orchardists. And still, after the last apple was sampled, two tasters exclaimed, “What else do you have?”
It’s best to sample a wide spectrum of apple flavors and textures before deciding which varieties to plant.
Varieties that have resistance to pests and diseases are in demand, particularly by organic growers, due to the increasing concern about toxic chemicals. Many modern apple varieties have been developed for resistance to apple scab, cedar apple rust, powdery mildew, and fireblight, although they are still susceptible to the summer diseases (such as sooty blotch, fly speck, and bitter rot) unless a fungicide spray is applied. Some heirloom apples, including the russets and certain early-ripening varieties, continue to resist the major diseases and produce quality fruit, but just because it is in the category of heirloom or antique does not mean that it is any more resistant or susceptible to pests and diseases than modern mainstream varieties.
Other important considerations beyond taste and disease resistance are the apple’s season of ripening and the planned use of the fruit. Generally you will want to select a combination of apples to ripen in the summer, fall, and winter, but the number of trees for each season may be affected by the intended use. For instance, if you plan to make a large amount of applesauce then you should select a higher ratio of summer-ripening apples like Early Harvest and Pristine. If you want to store the majority of your apples, choose more winter-ripening varieties. Late-blooming varieties can be located closer to the bottom of a hill, where frost accumulates. Whether for dessert, cider, drying, applesauce, apple butter, wildlife food, or decoration, the apple’s intended use should be determined before planting.
How to taste an apple
I find it mildly irksome to see someone eating an apple while walking down the street, unaware that a body sense event is happening, and perhaps focusing on something else entirely at the time. Ideally, one should select a fruit of known ripeness and take it with a plate and knife to a quiet place. Slice it to mouth-size portions, either all at once or as you eat, and when the slice is in the mouth, concentrate on the mouth feel and the flavor. It may immediately enliven the taste buds or slowly unfold its complexity. Analyze the sugar, tannin, acid, and aroma of what you taste and if it is elusive do not despair: the magic of the taste of a particularly variety may be its elusiveness. If given full attention, the act of eating an apple can become a mind-expanding experience.
Before size-controlling rootstocks were developed, apple trees were propagated from seeds and root cuttings. But these always produced a full-size apple tree with some varieties growing 30 to 40 feet high. As labor costs (particularly for picking) increased, so did demand for smaller trees that could be more easily managed. Around 1912, researchers at the East Malling Research Station in Kent, England, collected clones in France of the dwarfing apple tree Paradise to serve as the foundation of their cloning research. Rootstocks from this station are designated M (Malling), MM (Malling-Merton), or EMLA (East Malling Long Ashton).
Most of the rootstocks used today are hybrid plants developed to impart desired characteristics to the apple tree. Size-controlling rootstocks dominate market sales with ultimate size described as dwarf, semi-dwarf, or semi-standard; the height ranges from a few feet to 80 percent of standard size. Be very aware that ultimate tree size also depends on the inherent vigor of the variety. Rootstocks are grown by specialty nurseries under strict environmental condition to protect them from virus infection. Most rootstock fruits are generally described as bitter and have no commercial value and must be altered by vegetative propagation to make a useful and marketable apple variety.
Those apple rootstock clones first developed and marketed by the British were followed by hundreds of others that are available from sources worldwide and in the nursery stock marketplace. It is often difficult for the home orchard buyer to determine which rootstock the variety is grafted to, and which rootstock would be most suitable for the variety selected. Field proofing of the rootstock is recommended, as many have not been used long enough to draw conclusions from the limited data. However, some rootstocks from the nursery trade that have proven worthy are described here with recognition of positive and negative characteristics.
MALLING 27 is very dwarfing. The central leader must be staked and permanent irrigation provided. It is reported to be susceptible to fireblight, a highly contagious bacterial disease that can destroy small trees in a few years. It begins to bear in two to three years and produces a tree 3 to 5 feet high.
MALLING 9 is a common rootstock for both commercial and backyard plantings. The central leader must be staked and the tree should be planted on a well-drained site. It is susceptible to fireblight and is also known to develop root burrs (tumor-like spurs usually near the graft union). A number of clones of this rootstock are available in varying degrees of vigor. It begins to bear in two to four years and produces a tree 6 to 8 feet high.
MALLING 26 is more vigorous than Malling 9 and varies in size depending on the variety grafted to it and the soil type. It is susceptible to fireblight and collar rot and it abhors poorly drained sites. Compatibility is an issue with Golden Delicious and Rome; it is also particularly incompatible with some triploids. The tree should be planted so the graft union is no higher than 1 to 2 inches above the soil level, otherwise it will produce root burrs. It begins to bear in three to four years and produces a tree 6 to 10 feet high.
MALLING 7 is a popular semi-dwarf or semi-standard tree that may require early staking, particularly in windswept locations, and does not grow well in heavy clay. It is susceptible to collar rot and may sucker freely. The tree should be planted so the graft union is no higher than 1 or 2 inches above the soil line. It begins to bear in three to five years and produces a tree 12 to 14 feet high.
GENEVA 30 is similar to the Malling 7 rootstock but it is reported to have resistance to fireblight and collar rot and is not as prone to suckering. It is more productive and bears a little earlier than Malling 7 but it has some compatibility issues with certain varieties. Because of the brittle graft union the tree will snap off in high winds; appropriate trellis support will alleviate the graft union failure. It begins to bear in three to four years and produces a tree 12 to 14 feet high.
MALLING-MERTON 106 is a freestanding early-bearing tree that will grow somewhat larger than Malling 7. It should not be planted in poorly drained sites because it is susceptible to collar rot. It begins to bear in three to five years and produces a tree 14 to 18 feet high.
MALLING-MERTON 111 is a very popular and reliable rootstock. It tolerates drier soils and is resistant to wooly apple aphids. When planting the tree, it is critical that the graft union is no higher than 1 or 2 inches above the soil line. It begins to bear in four to six years and produces a tree 12 to 18 feet high.
ANTONOVKA, originating in Russia, is a cold-hardy rootstock suitable for regions that experience winter temperatures below 0 degrees F (trees grafted to non-cold-hardy rootstocks shipped from warmer zones will not survive these severe climates). It is well anchored, adaptable to most soils, and moderately productive. It begins to bear in four to six years and produces a tree 14 to 18 feet high.
SEEDLING is a hardy rootstock from any apple seed and sometimes the resulting young tree is called a pippin. The variety would be unknown. Because of the variable genetic makeup, the resistance or susceptibility to diseases, pests, suckering, and virus infections are not determined. It begins to bear in six to ten years and produces a tree 20 to 40 feet high, the maximum of its genetic code.
I recommend purchasing one- or two-year-old barerooted plants (properly dug and lifted and stored at the appropriate time) rather than older potted or burlapped plants which are often less economical as well as less healthy. Most apple tree nursery stock is propagated and distributed by large fruit tree nurseries and is readily available in the planting season from farm stores and large box store retailers or by catalog or internet mail order. But first, look locally at mom-and-pop or family nurseries which will often offer regionally appropriate and diverse selections of modern and antique or heirloom apple trees. It is generally advantageous to form an alliance with these smaller agricultural enterprises because most of the time you will get dependable answers and healthy, vigorous trees. Many nurseries offer workshops on fruit tree management skills like pruning and tree care. Some even have sessions on grafting the apple tree, an opportunity to personally build your own orchard at a much lower cost.
When buying from a retailer, determine at the outset if the seller knows the product. If not, look out for doubts and difficulties ahead. One of the first and significant questions to ask is how big the tree will grow. If that question is answered satisfactorily, then inquire the name of the rootstock. An unhesitating answer means you should proceed. Many larger retailers display potted trees in parking lots. A little apple game I play in the springtime is to hide in the parking lot and watch and listen to prospective buyers. Uninitiated apple tree buyers frequently say “I want this one. It is bigger than the others,” pointing to the often over-fertilized gawky plants with small root systems. But these are the obese school children of the plant world. Purchasing a smaller one-year-old apple tree and feeding and pruning it properly will bring the surest reward.
Young trees lined out in nursery rows will grow for one year before being sold and transplanted to the orchard site. With good maintenance the trees will reach 3 to 5 feet in height in nine months.
The condition of the plant you are buying must be evaluated as well. It is possible, for example, that it was not watered regularly. This drying out puts stress on the foliage (indicated by the obvious wilt) along with the part of the tree that you cannot see: the root system. This means that even after the leaves recover, you will still have an apple tree whose roots are recovering from damage which is often reflected by production of less quality fruit. Remember that beginning with a healthy tree and maintaining the young plant for the first few years in a state of maximum uninterrupted growth will determine the future structure of the framework that will hang many years of quality apples.