Anything more than a handful is a waste.

So, you go to the grocery store and look at the apples.  There may be a dozen varieties available to you.  You got your tart Granny Smiths for apple pie.  Then, you got your sweet/tart Honeycrisp for eating out of hand and some Pink Ladies for the kids.  And let’s not forget the ubiquitous Red Delicious (which at one point in history was actually delicious).  Or a classic Macintosh or an inoffensive Golden Delicious.  Yet, it all seems pretty boring after a while.  Surely, there must be other options.

And there are.  There are around 7,500 known cultivated varieties (cultivars) of domesticated apples in the world.  Head to your local orchard in the fall, and they may have a couple dozen different cultivars available for picking at any given time.  The local orchards in Iowa start picking some cultivars as early as August and others as late as Halloween.  This lets you experience a wide variety of apples over the course of 4 months as different cultivars come and go through the season.

Though one thing will be common with all of these cultivars; they have been selected for large scale commercial production.  The trees need to be vigorous, resistant to disease, and easy to manage.  Otherwise, they are not worth the hassle for large scale production.  The internet says there are about 100 cultivars grown commercially in the US.  So where are the other 7400 cultivars, and how do I find them?

Some orchards specialize in hard-to-find, heirloom cultivars.  Note that “heirloom” doesn’t just mean old; it is supposed to mean uncommon too.  The Granny Smith apple traces back to 1868 in Australia.  The Mcintosh apple traces back to 1811 in upper Canada.  And both of these apples can be bought in grocery stores around the US.  One of the defining characteristics of an heirloom plant according to Wikipedia is that the plant is not used in modern large-scale agriculture.  So, I believe that excludes Granny Smith and Mcintosh from the category of heirloom apples even though one cultivar is 150 years old and the other is 200 years old.   And not all of the hard-to-find cultivars in the US are actually heirlooms.  The Cox’s Orange Pippin is said by many sources to the “best tasting apple in the world”, so long as it is grown in its native England.  It is basically a common, grocery-store apple in England, but a rarity in the US.

A quick internet survey of commercial orchards (orchards that are in the business of selling trees) shows that there are perhaps 200 to 300 cultivars of trees for purchase that are generally called “heirlooms”.  They include apples that are common in other parts of the world, but not in the US (see Cox’s Orange Pippen).  Or they include apples that were in large scale production in the past, but have fallen out of favor (see Rhode Island Greening). Or they include apples that have been propagated for a niche market for hundreds of years (see Herefordshire Redstreak).  Rare and obscure heirlooms can be found through organizations that focus on preserving cultivars from extinction.  So, there are options if you want to start an orchard.  And to start, you will need to decide if you just want something a bit out of the ordinary or if you have a calling for saving future peoples from starvation due to the catastrophic loss of the handful of cultivars that make up most commercial crops.  Sorry, got lost on a tangent there.

But, before you start buying and planting these heirloom apples, there are some questions you need to address.

  1. How hard do you want to work?  Some heirloom cultivars are known for being difficult to grow.  They need to be tended to regularly.
  2. How do you feel about chemicals?  Some heirloom cultivars are known for being susceptible to disease.   They need to be sprayed for disease and insects regularly.
  3. What tolerance level do you have for digging up dead trees and starting over?  Sometimes, they die anyway.

There is a reason why many of these trees are not in large scale production in the US.  They are hard to grow, and the results can be less than spectacular.  Choose cultivars carefully.  There are plenty of uncommon “heirlooms” that are easy to grow, fairly resistant to disease, and productive.

If you’re still here, it’s time to start selecting trees.

The first topic of course is sex.  There won’t be any apples if sex doesn’t happen.  Some, but not all crab apple trees are self-fertile (like the Dolgo crab apple tree that I have in the backyard). This means a bee can visit one flower on the tree and pick up a load of pollen, then visit another flower on the same tree and fertilize the flower.  Then an apple will happen.  However, the vast majority of domesticated apples are not self-fertile (they are self-infertile).  This means that pollen must be carried from a flower on one tree to a flower on a different tree.  And it can’t be a second tree of the same cultivar.  The two trees must be different cultivars.   Cross-pollination between different cultivars is necessary for domesticated apples.

To make things more complicated, most trees are diploid (meaning they have two set of chromosomes), but some trees are triploid (meaning they have three sets of chromosomes).  Triploid trees cannot pollinate any other tree.  So, if you want to plant a cultivar that is triploid, then you need at least two other diploid cultivars to fertilize each other as well as the triploid cultivar.

And to continue with complications, not all apple trees bloom at the same time.  Apple trees are categorized into 6 overlapping groups by whether they bloom early in the season, in the middle of the season, or late the season. In order for two trees to cross-pollinate they need to be in the same group or adjacent groups.  For example, a tree that is in flowering group 3 begins to bloom as flowing group 2 is ending, so they can cross pollinate.  Flowering group 3 is ending as flowing group 4 begins to bloom, so they can cross pollinate.  So, the tree in flowering group 3 can cross pollinate with trees in groups 2, 3, or 4.  However, trees from group 2 and 4 are not in bloom at the same time and cannot cross pollinate.

Please note, this is not something you have to guess at. Generally, any place that is selling trees will list what flowering group a cultivar is in and whether or not is diploid or triploid.

Was it good for you?  It was good for me.

Next you need to find cultivars that will survive, and preferably thrive, in your environment.  This includes your cold-hardiness zone (plant-hardiness zone), your macro-climate (sunny, cloudy, foggy, rainy, etc), your micro-climate (hills, building, tree stands, anything that alters sun, wind, and moisture that affects your orchard), and your soil type (sand, silt, clay).

Most references on apple cultivars will tell you what the cold-hardiness zone each cultivar is rated for.  My home is in USDA Zone 5A, meaning that winter temperatures down to -20 F are not uncommon (the worst I have seen is -32 F).  A cultivar rated for zone 6 (higher number means warmer climate) is not likely to survive for very long at my home.  But apple trees also need a minimum number of “winter chilling hours” where the temperature is below 45F but above freezing.  Most trees need 1,000 hours or more of winter chill to produce blossoms and fruit.  So, if the local climate is too warm, the tree will grow but not produce fruit.  There are low-chill and medium-chill apple cultivars that can be grown in warm climates.

None of the references are going to talk about macro-climate or micro-climate.  They will, however, talk about disease resistance.  Most of the diseases of concern with apple trees are fungal which are dependent on temperature and moisture conditions in the orchard.  A cloudy, foggy, rainy environment is more likely to encourage fungal growth than an irrigated orchard in a dry, sunny environment.  Resistance to disease is always good, but may be even more important in some climates.

The cultivar you choose for the orchard isn’t going to care much about soil type.  However, the rootstock the tree is grafted on will care where it is planted though, and all apple trees are grafted on to rootstock.  If you plant an apple seed, it will generate an entirely new variety of apple – totally random and usually undesirable.  The only way to propagate a desirable cultivar is to cut a scion (a twig) from an existing tree and graft it to a rootstock (which is a big topic worthy of its own article).

For most of history, scions (the trees you want) were grafted onto seedling rootstock – you plant a seed, let it grow, cut it off above the ground, and then graft the desirable scion to the stump that is left.  With seedling rootstock, you have no way to know in advance how healthy or vigorous your future apple tree is going to be.  Thus, the people have been selectively breeding cultivars of rootstocks to achieve a variety of characteristics including: limiting the size of the resulting tree; resistance to disease and insects; tolerance of varying soil types; and cold-hardiness.

You pays your money; you takes your pick

The last topic to consider is where the apples grow on the tree.  Most domestic apple cultivars grow apples on short, knobby spurs that grow from larger branches.  Spurs are easy to recognize.  So, when pruning the trees, you can leave spurs in place to produce apples the following year while removing excess green growth.  Some apple cultivars grow apples at the tips of branches.  Thus, pruning the trees requires you to make sure that young shoots are left in place to produce apples the following year.

It is important to know whether a cultivar is a spur-bearing tree or tip-bearing tree when you decide how to manage the tree.  Spindle trees can be pruned to work with either spur-bearing tree or tip-bearing trees.  However, with espalier is very difficult to prune the trees to maintain the desired shape of the tree without actually cutting off all the shoots that will produce apples.

That’s All Folks!

That covers the majority of the decisions that need to be made when starting an orchard.  What cultivars do you want to grow? Do all the cultivars have pollination partners? Will these cultivars thrive where I live?  Are the cultivars suitable for way I want to manage the trees?

Next stop, a look at kinnath’s backyard orchard.