Grow Organic Apples at Home

Growing organic apples can be a challenge, but the rewards are delicious!

September 15, 2009

There's nothing like the taste of a fresh, organic apple from your own backyard.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If you live on the East Coast and love organic apples, you may have noticed that most organic apples come from faraway Washington state, or even another country. That's because east of the Mississippi, more insect pests and higher humidity levels make it harder to prevent disease when growing organic apples. And although it's easy to think of Washington state as consistently drenched, thanks to its rainy city, Seattle, growers there actually raise organic apples in the desert area of the state. But by picking the right trees and maintaining them with tips from the Rodale Institute and organic apple expert Jim Travis, PhD, professor of plant pathology at Pennsylvania State University in State College, you can grow organic apples in your backyard even in the country’s easternmost states.


THE DETAILS: Although at the moment, it appears it's tougher to grow organic on the East Coast because it's wetter and full of insects that attack apples, Travis says this part of the country may one day be the best place to grow organic apples. "We live in a lush environment with beneficial insects and organisms that could help us grow organic apples here even better," he says. "Someday, it may actually shift, and the East Coast may be the best place for organic."

The orchard at Penn State is already proving this, and just last weekend, the Rodale Institute celebrated East Coast success at the first annual Organic Apple Festival at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA. The nonprofit Institute, which touts the environmental benefits of organic farming and helps farmers convert to safer farming methods, plants disease-resistant varieties, uses high-quality compost and organic sprays approved by the USDA to produce safer East Coast apples.

WHAT IT MEANS: The good news is, one of Travis's students is working on developing a beneficial fungi and bacteria solution that will attack apple scab, the number one problem for organic-apple growers. And there are pheromones available that can trick male pests, making it harder for them to find female friends. But even without these advancements, there are steps you can take to grow delicious, organic apples in your backyard, without spraying your trees.

Here's how to grow organic apples in your yard.

• Choose the right tree. If you're ready to plant a single tree or start a small orchard in your backyard, look to plant a dwarfing rootstock so you don't wind up with an unmanageable 40-foot tree. For a tree that will grow 6 to 7 feet tall, look for B-9 or M-9 on the label; M-26 indicates the tree will grow to about 12 feet; and M-7 could reach 15 feet. It is imperative to plant trees that naturally resist disease if you want any edible apples. These include: Crimson Crisp and Crimson Topaz (good for fresh-apple eating), Gold Rush (good for baking pies and drying), and Enterprise (good for baking). "They are naturally selected in breeding process, and you get a percentage of good apples, no matter what you do," says Travis. (These varieties are not genetically modified, in case you were wondering.)

• Plant soon, or wait until spring. Look to plant your tree in October, or hold off until next April or May. Avoid chemical fertilizers, and instead spread about an inch or less of compost in a 3- or 4-foot radius around the tree in the spring.

If you're planting this fall, put a metal cage around the tree so rabbits won't eat it.

• Prune precisely. "Keep the trees pruned so you get sunlight throughout the interior of the tree. It helps keep the tree dry," explains Don Jantzi, veteran organic orchard manager at the Rodale Institute. "After rainfall, the more sunlight, the more quickly it dries out. Good air drainage means less fungus growth throughout the tree."

January and February are the best months to prune apple trees; just don't ever prune in the fall. To prune, first remove broken and dead branches and then move on to remove any branch that is crossing and rubbing on another one. "You want as many branches as possible growing horizontally, rather than upward," says Jantzi.

Travis also suggests pruning horizontal sets of limbs every foot or so up the tree.

• Be patient. It takes three years to get fruit production, but to maximize your tree's apple output later, pull all fruit and flowers off the tree the first two years. Even when your tree is in full production mode, in midsummer, yank off apples that look blemished or look like they're home to worms. Keeping six to eight inches of space between each piece of fruit is key to reducing disease when you're growing organic apples. It will also help your tree produce bigger apples.

• Meet for fruit talk. "There are new varieties coming out all the time, making it fun," says Jantzi. "Small groups meet and share experiences and tips. It helps everyone. Latch onto a backyard fruit-growers group in your area. Now's the time to gather, share ideas, and learn."

• Don't look for false "perfection.""An apple with a few scars on the outside still makes a good pie and a good sauce. A perfect fruit is really the problem. Learn to deal with a few blemishes. Cut out worms and discard," says Travis. For apple recipes, visit the Rodale Recipe Finder.

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