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Apples: Finding the best variety for you

Jun 4th, 2017 | Category: Growing

by Terry Maczuga

When many people think of adding fruit trees to their garden or property, they think first of apple trees. Apples are relatively easy to grow, and there is nothing like picking an apple on a crisp September morning and eating it right then and there.

Photo by Terry Maczuga

Photo by Terry Maczuga

Doing just that was a big part of my childhood, growing up on a commercial apple orchard in the Chelan valley. We would often duck into the orchard on our way to the bus stop for a ‘breakfast apple’ to eat on the bus. I moved to Whatcom County in 1976 to go to school, and ended up settling here. I’ve been gardening the same seven acres north of Bellingham since 1981.

In the early 90s, my husband and I decided to plant the first of our orchards. What have we learned over the years? Our first lesson:  don’t buy 17 bare root fruit trees and bring them home without first digging the planting holes!

First step, decide what sort of apples to plant. What kind of apples do you like to eat? Do you want an apple only for eating? Or do you want to cook with them, and make pies and applesauce? Do you want to press apples for cider? We had thought about all those questions, and knew the answers were ‘all of the above’. Answering these questions will help you decide which varieties to plant. For easiest growing, choose varieties that have some resistance to scab and powdery mildew, two fungal diseases common in our wet springs.

Basic requirements to grow apples in your yard include full sun (6-8 hours spring through fall). You will need at least two different varieties for cross pollination as apples are not self-fertile. By choosing carefully, you can ensure cross pollination and spread out your harvest season from late August through mid-October. In our orchard, we start eating apples in mid-August, and have apples in our fridge through February some years (not counting the applesauce, dried apples and cider).

Apples are grafted onto different rootstocks that will help determine how big they can get, how far apart you need to plant them, and whether they need support or not. If you have a small yard, and want a long harvest of apples, planting 4 or 5 trees on mini-dwarf rootstocks 4 feet apart will take up only a little space, and each tree has the potential of 50-60 pounds of fruit each year. On this rootstock, the trees need permanent support. At the other end of the spectrum of tree size, semi-dwarf rootstocks let you plant 12-15 feet apart, only need support the first few years, and have the potential to give you 150-200 pounds of fruit per tree. That’s a lot of apples! But if you want to make sweet or hard cider, it takes 15-20 pounds of apples to give you 1 gallon of juice. Most of my trees are semi-dwarf trees, as cider was and is one of our primary reasons for growing apples.varieties to plant web

Because of our cool summers, almost all apples grown here do have a blend of sweet and tart flavors, making them good for eating, cooking and making juice. If pressing apples into juice for sweet cider, a blend of several varieties gives you the best flavor. Fruit that ripens from mid-September or later has more complexity for the best ciders.

What if you want to turn that sweet cider into hard cider? Coming soon, hard cider basics!

Terry Maczuga grew up in the Chelan valley on a commercial apple orchard, which her brother still operates. She has lived in Whatcom County since 1976, and been gardening the same property in north Bellingham since 1981. She and her husband Dave have an extensive garden and fruit orchard including close to 40 apples trees. They’ve been making hard cider since the late 1990s. Terry has worked at Cloud Mountain Farm Center since 1994, first as the nursery manager, and now as an administrator.


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