Once the aspens were cleared from TMHG, one of the first things that I decided to plant were apple trees. This motivation may have been from my daily apple (Jazz is our current favorite). I think I’ve also been hanging on to the idea of apple trees since I was inspired by Rick’s response to my “Single Plant Challenge” in 2008. At Casa Coniglio, I didn’t have room for a single apple tree, partly due to space and partly due to design. Here at TMHG, I found space for FOUR apple trees, a veritable apple orchard. I could have figured out ways to plant more, but for design and aesthetic reasons, I wanted apple trees of a certain size and for my design that would mean exactly four trees. When I decided to plant apple trees, little did I know what a can of worms I was opening. My conclusion: research before you buy.
I had decided that I wanted semi-dwarf trees, because they would fill the space, shade the house, would be picturesque, and allow me to do some gardening below them. I didn’t want a collection of little trees, and I couldn’t work espaliered trees into my garden design. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision, but the research to confirm this conclusion was complex. Apple trees are grafted on to a rootstock, which are the roots of a specific variety that has the characteristic of controlling the size of the tree, from full size (about 30 feet), to miniature (about 6 feet at maturity). It does this by controlling the vigor of the tree, but also has characteristics such as hardiness, adaptability to soil conditions, wind resistance, and contributes to the top growth characteristics such as pest and disease resistance, precocity (how early after planting a tree produces fruit), yield, even size of fruit. The most dwarfing of the rootstocks have very brittle roots and the tress require staking for all of their lives or risk being blown over on a windy day, but allow more trees (and more varieties) to be planted in a space, and also cause the trees to start producing quickly (a few years instead of 5 or more years). Many sources that I read suggested planting the more dwarfing rootstocks in the home orchard because of the benefits. But then I read on the Trees of Antiquity website that summer pruning can have the advantages of keeping a tree small, produce fruit earlier, and have a larger and stronger root system. The most common semi-dwarf rootstock is the MM111, which I learned reduces the tree height to about 70%, is the most adaptable rootstock, and also the most drought tolerant (very important here in NM), but has some drawbacks such as suckering, and producing burr knots (adventitious roots) which can cause problems with tree health. Given the poor gravelly soils of my garden, the high winds and my desire for a tree of some size, I chose to get trees with MM111 rootstock for the more stable and extensive root structure and drought tolerance. Research before you buy.
Then I had to decide on what apple varieties to get. I quickly realized that the fruit I could get in the stores are not necessarily what I can or should get as trees. Some fruit (such as my favorites, Jazz and Envy), are patented varieties that can’t be obtained as trees. Some trees won’t produce or even live if the climate isn’t the right type for them. I went on an apple tasting spree, searching out all the apples at the grocery stores, the co-op and farmer’s markets. The largest apple orchard in NM was wiped out by mudslides or something, so that wasn’t helpful, and the apple orchards in NM are mostly actually in a different zone than I live, but I could look at what they grow. I quickly discovered that I was very picky about my apples. The same variety in the grocery store was highly variable. For example, the Fuji’s that I had in California were delightful, but the ones that I had here were bland. I hated the mushiness of Braeburn and Gala (they seem crisp but to me, a weird crispness that is really mushiness). Don’t even talk to me about Red Delicious. Golden Delicious was boring, although I heard that home-grown and ripened fruit is truly delicious. I loved the taste of McIntosh. I loved the Fiesta, Envy, Jazz and Jonagold. The Co-op had Arkansas Black, which was sweet and very hard, but not a flavor that thrilled me. Empire was okay but with a strange wine-like flavor. Enterprise got the thumbs-down from the hubby. Honeycrisp was okay, but one-dimensional. Granny Smith was not right for my uses. Mutsu was delicious, with a honey-like flavor but soft and kind-of rubbery. Pink Lady made my teeth hurt and gave me cramps because they are so tart. I kept a log of my apple tasting.
I also discovered that Fuji’s had susceptibility to fireblight, so did Gala’s which are also susceptible to just about everything else, McIntosh is not appropriate for this climate. Fiesta, Envy and Jazz are patented and thus not available as trees. Jonagold is very fireblight susceptible (which freaks me out since I had problems with this before). Arkansas Black would be a good tree for this climate since it is heat tolerant (which brought up another level of complexity). Empire and Enterprise might work if they tasted better. Granny Smith might grow well here. Mutsu is susceptible to many diseases. Pink Lady would grow here but not worth the dental pain.
So then there were issues of heat tolerance. Picking season (I didn’t want all my apples to ripen at the same time, or did I?). Pollination (I had to have a late pollination season since we get late frosts). Keeping time (some fruits only last a week or two after they ripen, others can last months). Cooking quality (I make Tarte Tatin, so I wanted at least one apple for cooking). Disease resistance (mildew can get bad here, and from what I read, we can get fireblight, and then there’s rust, scab, not to mention insect disease). Fortunately with four apple trees I didn’t need to worry about triploid trees which can not pollinate themselves or other trees. I also didn’t need to worry about winter chill requirements since we get plenty of that. If I wanted to make it even more complex there are also issues of fruit color, blossom color, tree habit, vigor, how heavily they crop or if they bear in alternate years, if the fruit browns after being cut...it goes on and on.
Then I realized that I also didn’t want an apple that I could just get at the grocery store, but if I was going to go through the effort of growing them, I should get something really special.
So after all this, here is what I decided upon, none of which are apples that I’ve actually tasted yet, mind you. Some compromises had to be made and I've noted them below. Goldrush I purchased from Stark Bro's, and the rest I purchased from Trees of Antiquity. Trees of Antiquity uses MM111 rootstock on all of their trees. Stark Bro's uses either MM111 or another (that I can't remember) that produces a larger tree than MM111. They don't allow you to choose, and they don't tell you which one you get. Another great website is Orange Pippin, which is also a great resource. They have lots of different rootstocks available. A good resource for growing fruit in New Mexico is the New Mexico State University extension on-line.
|Calville Blanc d'Hiver photo from Trees of Antiquity|
1. Calville Blanc d’Hiver.
This is the first apple I decided upon. Depite being susceptible to mildew, and being a light bearer, and described as having ugly fruit, this variety is considered the classic variety for Tarte Tatin. I also read that it needs a lot of sun, and I have plenty of that here. It is said the be developed in the 1600’s in france and was planted in Versailles. Which is not the same climate as here. But I read in multiple places that it is an amazing cooking apple. And I wanted amazing. At least it blooms late.
|Goldrush photo from Stark Bros.|
This is the second apple I decided upon. There are many things to recommend this modern apple (1990’s), many people describing it as the best apple they have ever tasted. It is supposed to be similar to Golden Delicious, but having more of a tart side. It keeps well (6 months?!), is good for both fresh eating and cooking, has good disease resistance (to fireblight and mildew) and blooms late. Ripening is late too.
|Ashmead's Kernal photo from Trees of Antiquity|
3. Ashmead’s Kernal.
This is an English apple that originated in the 1700’s, one of the few apples from Europe that did well also in the new world. It is called, the “ugly apple” or “the potato apple” due to the russeting. It is also said to be pear flavored and described by some to have “too much flavor.” Perfect. Also late blooming and stores well.
|Tydeman's Late Orange photo from Trees of Antiquity|
4. Tydeman’s Late Orange.
Cox’s Orange Pippin is an English apple that is said by many on the web or in books to have the best flavor of any apple, but is also rather susceptible to disease, and requires a cool moist climate - like the UK. Clearly not the apple for my climate. But Tydeman’s Late Orange is one of Cox’s descendants which is said to be easy to grow, resistant to diseases, late blooming, and with a similar flavor. It originated in the early 1900’s. This is the variety which I have the most uncertainty about, in growth, flavor and texture, but I’m excited to try it. If things go badly, I can take it out and plant an Arkansas Black, or Enterprise, or Roxbury Russett.
So far in their first season, Calville Blanc d’Hiver has been growing slowly, the lower branches growing much more vigorously than the top (this seems to be the case for almost all of the trees). No mildew yet (knock on wood). Goldrush has been growing like gangbusters, and has put on something like 4 feet of growth. Ashmead’s Kernal is growing slowly, only about 4-6 inches on the top and up to 12 inches on the lower branches. Tydeman’s came with an abundance of very low branches, which were pruned off, but it seems to want to make most of its growth there, rather than from the top. It started slowly and now is starting to put on some spindly growth.
Another few years and maybe I’ll be able to taste them!