Their soft pink blossoms are a spring icon, and their juicy fruit are the harbinger of fall. The local apple harvest is in full swing right now, tempting gardeners to plant their own trees. An apple tree is a delight but, as with all fruit trees in the Rogue Valley, more than sentimental commitment is needed to care for it properly.
Soil preparation is the first step, says Duane Goodman of Fox Run Farm in Medford. Analyze your soil before planting; the Jackson County Extension Service can help determine whether any nutrients or amendments are needed.
Long a symbol of education, the apple tree nourishes mind and body. Here are a few apple facts that you might find surprising.
There are 7,500 different apple varieties worldwide, and 2,500 grow in the U.S. Every apple seed is its own variety. Even the seeds from the same apple, if planted, will grow up into varieties different than their parents and each other.
Apple trees are usually grafted onto a root stock, rather than grown on their own roots. To minimize sprouts at the foot of the tree, make sure this graft union is above the soil when you plant. Usually, putting the tree in at the same level as it is in the pot will be correct.
Apple varieties grown in the northern states are better for elevations over 3,000 feet, according to Duane Goodman, owner of Fox Run Farm. Try 'Northern Spy,' suitable for eating fresh and for cooking. It does need a pollinator.
'Golden Delicious' is not related to 'Red Delicious,' except that both were marketed by the same company, Stark Brothers Nurseries, in 1914.
John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, was a nurseryman who helped pioneers move westward with his apple seedlings.
The 'Newtown Pippin' was George Washington's favorite apple. Thomas Jefferson favored the now rare 'Esopus Spitzenberg,' another apple delicious in hand or pie.
Fall is the best time to plant apple trees, says Toni DeVenney, sales associate at Valley View Nursery in Ashland. Local nurseries will have some apple trees in pots now, she says, although a wider variety is available during late winter's bare root plant season. To take advantage of bare-root variety, two-step your apple planting process. Research the varieties you want to plant, buy them as bare root plants in March, and place them in containers. "Baby them over the summer, making sure they have water and fertilizer," says DeVenney. "Then plant them in the ground in the fall."
After planting, attentive watering over the first year is necessary. Most orchards don't have grass among the trees because it uses water and minerals. If you want grass under your tree, look for an orchard grass-seed mix and adjust your watering and fertilizing accordingly.
Both our sources recommend using a spraying schedule. "The Rogue Valley is a very 'dirty' place to grow fruit trees," says Goodman. "We have fungi, viruses and critters that attack our apples. That's why you don't see huge organic orchards here." Home gardeners looking for the organic benefit can choose an acceptable "level of damage" before applying controls. Dormant oil, as the name suggests, is sprayed during the winter season and considered an organic practice. The oil, often combined with a spreader/sticker product, smothers pests. You can also use it with fungicide preparations, some of which are organic, if you need to control apple scab and powdery mildew. Check with the extension service or your nursery, and follow all package directions for safe results with any chemical controls.
Before you swear off apple trees forever, consider that good garden practice may be all you need. Conduct a careful clean-up in the fall, since over-wintering leaf litter can harbor all your problems. Toss diseased leaf fall in the trash, not the home compost pile, and pick up any fallen apples immediately. Before spring bloom, prune to open the tree to air movement, which minimizes fungus problems and encourages good fruit set. Prune the top more heavily than the bottom of the tree and make sure not to eliminate the older branches with fruit spurs where blossoms form.
Thinning fruit out is important, says Goodman. "If you don't do it, the tree will struggle." The number one rule in thinning is "don't look down," he says ruefully. In each cluster of apples, you should leave only one fruit, the center one, which will become the largest apple.
With 10 years of experience with 60 varieties, Goodman confidently recommends most common varieties for our valley. The eating apples 'Red Delicious,' 'Golden Delicious,' 'Gravenstein,' 'Gala' and 'Fuji' all do well, here. For pie apples, the variety favored by most cooks is 'Newtown Pippin,' according to Goodman.
Most apple trees need to be cross-pollinated, so you'll need to plant two trees, says DeVenney. 'Red Delicious' and 'Golden Delicious' are both universal pollinators. If you only have room for one tree, 'Gala' is self-pollinating, she says.
If this hasn't convinced you that a maple tree is a better choice for your yard, consider that by planting an apple tree you're following a grand American tradition. And that's not just apple pie.