Let's be honest: An apple a day sounds a bit boring. But what this fall fruit delivers is far from bland—fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants. Plus, they’re great tossed in salads, stewed for apple butter, or baked into an autumn dessert. But beyond the ubiquitous, blocky ‘Red Delicious’ apples, there are hundreds of selections of the fruit, each with unique characteristics.
Settlers brought the first apple seeds to North America hundreds of years ago, and along the way, different selections were chosen for distinct reasons. Some apples make great cider, some are good for drying, and some store exceptionally well, even improving with age. Hard cider, once consumed on a regular basis because it was sometimes safer to drink than the water, was made out of various kinds of apples bred for that purpose. The rise of the ‘Red Delicious’ is attributable to its resistance to bruising, not to its insipid taste.
There’s no time for tasteless apples, so tickle your palate by growing your own bunch. Apples may have been introduced to the continent in what is now New England, but there are a number of wonderful selections that thrive south of the Mason-Dixon Line. If you plan correctly, you can have fruit all the way from June through late November.
‘Arkansas Black,’ which has a unique aromatic flavor that actually improves as it is stored.
Another great selection for the South is ‘Yates,’ which hails from 19th-century Georgia and is excellent for everything from pickling to apple butter.
‘Golden Delicious,’ which has a high sugar content, making it fantastic for cider or dessert.
‘Grimes Golden’ is named for Thomas Grimes of West Virginia, who discovered the selection around 1804. This apple, which is a parent of ‘Golden Delicious,’ is exceptionally good for frying and apple butter and makes great cider and brandy. In his book Apples of North America, Tom Burford notes that often one sees old stills surrounded by ‘Grimes Golden’ trees.
Most selections demand 900 to 1,200 hours of temperatures at or below 45°F. In mild-winter areas, look for low-chill selections (100 to 400 hours).
Plenty of sunshine is essential for a good crop—so don’t crowd an apple tree into a partially shaded site. To plant more than one selection in a small space, choose dwarf or multiple-selection trees.
When fruit is developing, make up for any lack of rainfall with periodic deep soakings.
Although some selections are self-pollinating, most need cross-pollination with another selection to bear fruit.
Training and Pruning
For most home use, plant dwarf or semidwarf trees for ease in maintenance and harvest. Preferred style is when widely angled branches are encouraged to grow in spiral placement around the trunk. Prune to develop strong, evenly spaced scaffold branches. Keep narrow-angled crotches from developing; don’t let side branches outgrow the leader, or secondary branches outgrow the primary branches.
To prune mature trees (do it late in the dormant season), remove weak, dead, or poorly placed branches and twigs, especially those growing toward the center of the tree (bearing is heaviest when some sun can reach the middle). Also remove any suckers from the base and any water sprouts (unbranched shoots that grow straight up from the main limbs). Removing such growth will encourage development of strong new wood with new fruiting spurs (on apples, spurs may produce for up to 20 years but they tend to weaken after about 3 years) and discourage mildew. If you have inherited an old tree, selective thinning of branches will accomplish the same goal.