Growing apples as a backyard crop can actually work. Maine has been a commercial apple-growing state for centuries, and that means apple pests are everywhere. I had been told that backyard gardeners would have to use too many pesticides to make such fruit growing practical.
But Wesley R. Autio, a professor of pomology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst who also works with fruit-tree farmers, says fruit trees are an integral part of a home’s edible landscape.
They will work for the home gardener.
And before you dismiss Autio as just another Massachusetts professor, you should know that he was born in Portland, grew up in Bridgton, where his mother still lives, and spends about a month each summer on Lake Pennesseewassee in Norway.
Autio also discussed peaches, pears and cherries during his talk at the New England Grows trade show in Boston in February, but his opinion on growing apples at home was new to me.
“The critical thing,” Autio said, “is to grow disease-resistant apples. The varieties are not so well known, but it just makes it so much easier.”
Here are the apples that Autio recommended, starting with apples that ripen in mid-August to those that ripen in late October: Redfree, Sansa, Initial, Crimson Crisp, Crimson Topaz, Liberty, Galarina, NovaSpy, Enterprise and GoldRush.
A quick check of the three largest Greater Portland nurseries shows that O’Donal’s, Skillin’s and Estabrook’s sell Liberty. Fedco lists Redfree, Liberty and GoldRush in its catalog, but Fedco’s ordering has closed for the season. The others I could find by doing an Internet search of mail-order nurseries.
Before you can plant, however, you have to pick your site. All fruit trees need deep, well-drained soil that will hold water, and six to eight hours of sun each day. If you don’t meet those requirements, the trees might live, but they are unlikely to set fruit.
In addition, apples cross-pollinate. What that means, Autio said, is that you need at least two different varieties of apples within 50 feet of each other to get fruit, and they must be blooming at the same time.
The apples that ripen in August would be unlikely to be in bloom at the same time as the apples that ripen in October. Crabapples will work as pollinators if you already have some of them on your property or at a nearby neighbor’s.
Planting should be done from early April to early May, Autio said. You should get a soil test to make sure the soil is fertile and the pH is 6 to 6.5, which is a neutral soil. You should dig a hole that is about 2 feet across, and add organic matter.
All modern apple trees are grafted. There is a root stock, which is put into the ground, and a scion, which produces the blossoms and then the fruit. When you plant apple trees, the graft union – where the root stock and scion meet – should be 2 to 4 inches out of the ground.
“You have to support a tree only if it is a dwarf,” Autio said. “Larger trees don’t require staking.”
The spacing of the apple trees depends on how large they are. Standard trees should be 20 to 30 feet apart, while the super-dwarf trees can be as close as 2 to 8 feet.
The newly planted trees need a lot of watering. They also should get the equivalent of a third of a pound of 10-10-10 commercial fertilizer per tree.
In later years, the trees should get a half-pound of fertilizer for every year of the tree’s age, up to a maximum of 6 to 8 pounds of fertilizer per year. You should remove sod from the area around the tree and keep it weed-free.
Autio recommends you do some pruning in the first year or two to create a central leader, cutting that central leader to 32 inches above the graft union. You should also cut the lateral branches back by a third and remove any branches that are competing with the central leader.
In addition, you should use a clothespin to force the branches to grow out laterally from the trunk, creating a stronger crotch.
After that, you don’t have to do much. Very young apple trees don’t require a lot of pruning except to maintain the central leader. Anytime a branch is more than half the size of the central leader, you should prune that out.
Once you get fruit on your tree – and that will be several years after planting it – you’re going to have to remove some of the fruit.
“Too many fruit makes for small fruit. You need to thin to get a good crop of large fruit. You don’t want more than one fruit every 8 inches on the stem,” he said.
This will all get you started in growing apples. In a few years, you will need more information.
The University of Massachusetts has an excellent Web site, www.umass.edu/fruitadvisor. You can also go to youtube.com and search for “umass fruit advisor” to find videos about pruning techniques. If you are wondering what Autio looks like, he does the video on peach-tree pruning.
Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at: