One, Two, Tree… Backyard Apple Trees Made Easy
Let’s face it, winter can be painful. It’s no wonder some animals hibernate. But the season serves an important role for apple trees. Short days combined with cold temperatures are necessary for them to be vigorous and productive when the weather gets warmer.
As spring unfolds and we emerge from our arctic comas we often feel an urge to plant something … anything … maybe even an apple tree. But that urge could lead to problems if we rush out and buy the first apple tree that catches our eye at the nursery.
Years ago, growing apples required a fair bit of specialized knowledge. But organic apples are easy to grow if you start with the right combination of ingredients. The Merrimack Valley’s climate makes it an excellent place to plant a variety of apple trees, and many people already have ideal growing conditions right in their own backyards.
Cathy and Kitt Plummer of Hazelton Orchards in Chester, N.H., have a beautiful “pick your own” operation that runs from mid-August until the day before Thanksgiving. They say growing apples at home can be easy if you start with the right site and apple variety.
The right site and soil: A spot that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight daily is required to achieve optimal apple production. Morning sunshine is best, as the overnight dew will dry quickly, reducing the chance of fungal problems. Apple trees are tolerant plants that will accept a variety of soil conditions, but good drainage is critical. Avoid planting apple trees in wet areas of your yard. Before planting, supplement the native soil with screened loam, and remove any large rocks. This will help the tree establish its root system during its first couple of years.
A small vertical brace inserted alongside the trunk will give the tree some necessary support. Keep in mind that the apple tree you’ll be putting into the ground may require different care and conditions than other plants you have worked with. Be sure to pay attention to the grower’s handling instructions. Kitt Plummer says it’s important not to plant the tree too deeply. Proper placement and a bit of work early on will help you achieve the bounty you’re seeking.
Apple tree anatomy: top to bottom: The cultivated apple tree is a hybrid plant. The top portion of the tree is the variety of apple you are trying to grow, such as Cortland or Granny Smith, while the bottom is called the root stock. Growers physically attach the desired variety to a hardy root stock to achieve disease resistance and desired height. The process of attaching the top to the bottom is called grafting and is generally done with a sharp knife, some tape and a lot of skill. The top and bottom fuse together, forming the tree we’ll eventually plant. Grafting allow us to create trees that are perfect for backyard growers.
Choosing the right variety: With more than 7,000 varieties of apples available, picking the one that’s right for your yard can be daunting. It’s important to choose the right variety on the correct root stock. Our preferred choice for the Merrimack Valley is an organic apple variety called Liberty on root stock G.202 or M.26. Both produce fruit similar to a McIntosh and grow to 15 feet and 10 feet tall, respectively. Other great choices include Redfree, Freedom and CrimsonCrisp. Before you plant a tree, think about how you typically use the apples you buy. Consider choosing a few different varieties, such as early and late harvesting eating apples, and maybe a baking apple for pies.
Bringing the “buy local” food movement to the next level and growing your own apples can be both simple and fun. There’s great satisfaction in harvesting what you’ve nurtured, and yours will be the house that the neighborhood kids will grow up to remember as the one that had great apples every fall.
The above varieties are available by mail order from the following specialty growers: