Discovery apples_Bob Balmer

You can’t beat an apple tree in the backyard as a reliable source of fruit from early summer into autumn. As easy as it is to pick up a bag from the supermarket, nothing beats homegrown. As much as I enjoy stonefruit in summer, I always look forward to the first apple of the year. In our garden, it’s always a Gravenstein, (or its New Zealand variant, Albany or Oratia Beauty) and I’m demolishing one as I write this! I developed an interest in heritage apples at university when I volunteered at the legendary Biological Husbandry Unit and discovered its ‘connoisseur block’ of heritage apples.

This then turned my attention to roadside apples, and every trip out to Banks Peninsula or back to visit my parents through the Lewis Pass became a mission, as I tried to pinpoint wayside trees and see if their crops were of merit. Even trips made in spring, out of harvest season, were useful, as the trademark pink and white blossom helped me locate otherwise hard-to-find trees. To this day, I find it hard to keep driving if there’s the temptation of an interesting tree within walking distance of a safe spot to pull over. Another reason to keep a good stash of reusable bags in your car…

Apples have long been the backbone of New Zealand’s fruit exports, with the industry spanning back long before kiwifruit arrived on the scene. Although I do appreciate the merits of the first Royal Gala of the year, modern apple cultivars don’t do a lot for me, so in this article, I’m going to showcase the qualities of some older cultivars which are enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. They come in a variety of interesting shapes, sizes, and colors. With a few of these in your home orchard, you can span the whole harvest season and have fruit suitable for eating, cooking, drying, and juicing at your fingertips. Some keep well for a long time if stored correctly, others are just for enjoying in a short window. The apple trees of my childhood were fairly nondescript – a heavily blackspot-infested Gala type and a Cox’s Orange, a cultivar I’ve come to appreciate much more later in life through one of its parents, the (far more appealing in my opinion) Blenheim Orange, which Christopher Stocks describes in his book ‘Forgotten Fruits as “Possibly the only apple whose taste has been described as addictive.”

Apples: a short family history

Common apples, Malus domestica, belong to the Rosaceae, as do many of our most common stone, pip, and berry fruits. Now common right throughout the world, their ancestral home is the far-flung corners of Central Asia, the Tian Shan fruit forests, which span from the edge of the Gobi Desert to the mountains of Uzbekistan. Spread readily along early trade routes such as the Silk Road (eaten by the traders and their animals alike), apples have been cultivated for thousands of years throughout Asia and Europe, reaching North America via European colonists. 

There are approximately 7,500 known apple cultivars worldwide, not including crabapples, which are grown mainly as ornamentals, though edible and useful in their own right for jelly making. Crabapples are thought to be indigenous to Britain and were probably used in early cider-making. Apples can be broadly categorized by purpose into cooking, eating, or cider classifications, although many apples are considered dual-purpose, and even then, a lot comes down to personal taste! Even a small, young country such as New Zealand has an astounding number of apple cultivars present, old favorites hauled here many years ago with early settlers and planted far and wide. Being such long-lived trees, many still exist in old orchards tucked away on farms and in the backblocks, fruiting away just as well as they did in their infancy.

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of fruit preservationists around the country, many of these valuable tree resources have been mapped, had scion wood collected, and are now carefully stored away in living libraries. The only thing they have lost along the way is their names. Varieties of special merit may be prioritised for the gold standard of identification, and genetic testing, the cost of which has come down in price in recent times, making it achievable even for small hobbyist interest groups. The entire apple genome (specifically that of the Golden Delicious) was sequenced in 2010, covering some 57,000 genes, with considerable contributions from Kiwi scientists. This has allowed for the advancement of apple pest and disease control and also plant breeding.

Suitable climates and growing conditions

The ultimate temperate fruit, apples can be grown throughout New Zealand, with our climate providing the defined cooler winter and warmer summer periods needed for good crops. The only caveat is late frosts may affect yields in the southernmost areas and later cultivars, for example, Granny Smith, may also struggle to ripen sufficiently. Apples need 1000-1600 hours of winter chill to set fruit. 

With an apple tree in the ground and a modicum of care and attention, these long-lived (capable of a century or more) productive trees can give up to 180 kg in a season, although 20-60 kg is a more realistic target for standard-size trees. Left unchecked, an apple tree will happily reach 12 meters in height and almost the same in width, although this is hardly practical for the home garden! It is advised to keep trees within similar confines as commercial orchards, limiting growth to around two to five meters in height to allow them to be easily managed and harvested. Different cultivars have growth habits that vary just as much as the fruit they produce, but the availability of dwarfing rootstocks and the popularisation of new and innovative training methods allow us to keep rampant growth in check.

Spacing between trees will vary based on the growth habit of your chosen cultivar, its rootstock, and your own personal space constraints and plans for pruning. Modern columnar dwarf trees can be grown in large pots, commercial orchards are often close planted in rows with just 1.5 metres between trees and two or three metres between the rows, but in the home orchard, a minimum of three to five metres of space between trees is probably better suited.

Apples are insect-pollinated, with bisexual flowers. Most apples benefit from having a friend nearby; with fruit set greatly improved by cross-pollination. If you’re confined by space, multi-graft trees with several varieties on a single tree are a great option, and you can always graft another variety onto an existing tree if your current one is cropping poorly. Expect fruit to mature 100-200 days after fruit set, depending on the cultivar.

Growing apple trees from seed is a long-winded and vastly unpredictable process, however exciting it may be when you find the perfect apple and throw a few of its seeds in a pot. Chances are, the offspring won’t be anything like its parent and all may end in frustration. That said, an orchardist friend of mine did follow this through and ended up with some very nice trees fruiting about seven years later. On the whole, for reliable cropping, I recommend buying grafted trees of known cultivars (it’s not too hard these days to find exactly what you want, with even mainstream nurseries stocking more than a handful of heritage cultivars). Trees grafted onto dwarf rootstocks have the edge when it comes to production, often fruiting in their second year after grafting, with those on standard rootstocks taking three to five years to produce. 

There is a wide range of apple rootstocks available, conferring a range of benefits including suitability to specific soil types, pest and disease resistance, and differing effects on tree vigor (affecting the overall size your tree will grow to). Have a chat with the staff at the nursery when you purchase your trees and they will help put you on the right track.  

If you are interested in learning how to graft, I recommend looking up your local branch of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association. Most branches around the country hold grafting days each year in late winter or early spring, and apples are a common focus for these events due to their ease of grafting, popularity, and availability of a wide range of propagation material. You can take advantage of rootstocks bought in bulk and interesting cultivars shared for the common good. Membership is $60 per year and the benefits are many – not just access to practical workshops, but also automatic subscription to the association’s very popular quarterly TreeCropper magazine. See www.treecrops.org.nz for further details.

Site selection and planting

Plant your apple trees in late autumn through winter. They will tolerate a range of soil types, preferring a neutral pH of 6-7, but avoid very heavy or poorly drained soils. Rootstock choice can help here – some will tolerate heavier soils, such as clay, better than others. Choose a site in full sun, as good light is necessary for fruit production and good color development. Avoid frost pockets, where cold air drains into in the winter. Apple trees are not particularly wind-tolerant, so shelter is of benefit, be it a shelterbelt, other trees, or a windbreak structure. Depending on your resources and space constraints, you could try training trees to a wire trellis or espalier them on a wall or similar, both methods offering a degree of tree support.

Culture and care

Apples require a little extra attention if you want to have regular, uniform crops. After planting, it’s a good idea to minimise weed competition around young trees by keeping the area below them clear of grass to a diameter of about half a metre. This also helps decrease the frost risk, with grass or weeds beneath the tree posing a far greater risk than bare ground, as boring and barren as the latter may look. 

Thinning your crop is an important step to take, as apple trees can be notorious biennial bearers (a heavy crop one year, then a light one the next). Relieving your tree of this load is one way to even out cropping. You will notice an initial natural drop of tiny fruitlets once the crop has set, around early December, so after this, but before Christmas, get stuck in and give your tree a good thin by hand. Commercial orchards do some of this using chemical sprays, but for the home garden with one or two trees, it’s actually quite an enjoyable task - perhaps a good pocket-money earner for your kids once they’ve had some training! For each cultivar, have a think about how big the apples eventually grow on average and take into account the age of your tree and the diameter of its branches to help you decide how much fruit to remove. A good measure of thumb is aiming for about a hand’s space between apples. Carefully remove the excess fruit, flicking them off at the base of the stems with your thumb and forefinger or, with a gentle twisting movement, remove the fruit and leave the stems attached to the tree. Target any diseased, damaged, overly small or misshapen fruit, leaving the best-looking fruit, preferably in clusters of no more than two. You can always come back and take a few more off a few weeks later if the crop still looks heavy, but remember to complete the task before Christmas, as thinning after December won’t have much effect on fruit size. Leaving heavy crops can lead to branches breaking, ruining the shape of your tree and opening it up to disease.

Keep water up to your young apple trees during establishment, during the first three to four years in particular, especially if your soil type is prone to drying out. Aim for even, consistent watering – trickle irrigation is ideal. Older trees with mature root systems are better able to cope with dry spells. If you’re not in an area of significant rainfall, aim to water your trees well once a week throughout spring and summer. You can apply mulch around the base of the tree in summer to help retain water, just avoid heaping it up around or up against the trunk, as this can result in collar rot.

Apples aren’t gross feeders, but moderate applications of balanced general fertilizer in spring can be of great benefit to fruit production. Start with 250-500 g per year of age for young trees, increasing to a maximum of 5 kg for mature trees. Split into two or three applications, applied at intervals throughout the spring growth period. Spread evenly under the tree, extending to the dripline, aiming for coverage of about a cupful per square metre. Apply before forecast rainfall, or water in the well by hand afterward.  

Pruning

Prune your pip fruit during winter, during the dormant phase. Starting with a young tree means you can give it a solid start, setting it up well in its formative years, which means the annual maintenance in subsequent years can be kept to a minimum. The overall aim of pruning is to allow good light penetration and air circulation, resulting in strong leaf and fruit production and minimal disease risk. 

One of the most common and popular apple tree training systems is the central leader, or pyramid system, and this is what I’ll describe here. There are lots of other options, including espaliering (great for small gardens) and vase training, but the central leader system is a great place to start. You are essentially aiming for a single-trunked, triangle-shaped tree, with three sets of ‘scaffolded’ branches heading stepwise up the tree.

If you’re starting with a young, single-stemmed (unbranched) tree, here’s how to proceed:

At winter planting, cut the single stem back to approximately one metre above the ground. This will encourage it to produce many upright-growing side branches during the growing season. In the winter following, choose five of these branches at right angles to each other to form the first scaffold, which will be roughly at hip height. Choose one to be the central leader – the tree will grow upwards from here. Train the remaining four to be at approximately 30 degrees from horizontal using string and additional braces (some people utilize bricks or stones to help) but don’t yank them downwards below horizontal as this halts fruit production. Remove all the extra branches. Trim the leader (chosen central growing stem) height to a metre above the first scaffold, or if it is already naturally this height, leave it be.

The next scaffold of branches (at around shoulder height) will be produced the following spring/summer growing season. At winter pruning, again select four fruiting arms to retain and remove the rest – train down again with string if necessary. Aim for evenly distributed placement around the trunk, paying attention to upper branches that might shade lower branches and ladder access for harvest later. Trim the leader back if required.

Repeat this process for another year to produce one final scaffold – likely at head height or a little higher by now. Remove any strong, upright growth at the top of the tree which may compete with the leader and unbalance the tree. To a degree, the weight of developing fruit helps to bring the branches down. Short twiggy spurs (consisting of wood two years or older) will develop over time and these will produce fruit for several subsequent years. Thin them out when they cease to be productive. 

Ongoing maintenance pruning consists of removing branches crossing over each other, excessive twiggy growth, dead, diseased, or otherwise damaged wood, growth from the rootstock below the graft union (suckers), and water shoots. Water shoots are thick, vigorous shoots that grow straight up. Excessive production of these may signify a too harshly-pruned or over-watered tree. Their only productive use is for branch replacement, if left unchecked they are likely to grow like crazy and suck the lifeblood out of your nicely-balanced tree. If there are a handful, it’s safe to remove them all. If you have a tree that has produced a profusion of water shoots, remove about a third of them, aiming for the largest, then trim the length of the remaining ones back by a third and keep your fingers crossed they produce some fruit. Balance is key!

Another important consideration when choosing a training system, and at pruning time is whether your apple cultivar is tip-bearing or spur-bearing – basically, whereabouts on the tree does your variety produce its fruit? This is important, as, without this awareness, you may end up pruning off next year’s crop! Wairere Nurseries gives an excellent explanation of this concept with a comprehensive variety chart here and it is highly recommended reading. 

Make sure any cuts you make while pruning are immediately sealed with a pruning paint containing a fungicide, e.g. Yates PruneTec® and burn or dispose of diseased wood in your household refuse – don’t mulch or compost it.  

Pests, diseases, and what to do about them

General orchard hygiene goes a long way in preventing disease in apples – starting with careful choice of soil type, suitable rootstocks, adequately spaced trees, a proper pruning regime, and careful disposal of diseased plant material, including fruit at the end of the harvest season.

Here are a few of the most common issues you’re likely to run into, and how to best deal with them.

Black spot (apple scab) – Venturia inaequalis

A fungal disease, which spreads rapidly in warm, wet weather. It first appears as small spots on young apple leaves in the spring, often resulting in leaf death and fall, going on to cause unsightly black, roughly circular lesions on the surface of developing fruit. Different cultivars have differing levels of resistance. Remove and destroy diseased material from the understorey, apply a lime sulfur clean-up spray to trees in the winter dormant phase and copper oxychloride or Yates Fungus Fighter pre-bloom when the flower buds begin to move in early spring.

European apple canker – Neonectria ditissima   

This fungal disease attacks the bark of apple trees, causing sunken cankers which form initially in spring and are often round or oval in shape. They grow outward over time, with older cankers having prominent concentric rings of growth. This results in branch dieback and eventually limb death. Prune out all diseased wood, cutting back to fresh, green growth. You may notice dark, blackish staining in the wood, you need to remove all traces of this. On larger branches, you may need to carve into the wood with a knife to remove it all. Cover wounds and cuts with a good layer of pruning paint containing fungicide, e.g., Yates PruneTec® and burn to dispose of diseased wood Thoroughly clean secateurs and knives after dealing with each lesion. Some apple cultivars have a degree of canker resistance. The disease may be exacerbated by wet, heavy, or acidic soils.

Fireblight - Erwinia amylovora

This bacterial disease causes oozy cankers on trunks and branches in early spring and distinctive ‘shepherd’s crook’ black, burnt-looking droopy shoot tips and fruit throughout the growing season. It spreads, well, like wildfire when conditions are hot and humid at flowering. Remove all diseased limbs, cut back to clean, healthy tissue, and seal with pruning paint. Remove and destroy debris from the orchard understorey. Do you ever see out-of-season flowers (late blooms) on your apple trees? They may look pretty, but get rid of them, as they are a prime entry point for fireblight – it never sleeps. A copper-based spray pre-bloom may be of assistance – commercial growers use the antibiotic streptomycin at bloom, but this is not advisable for home growers as if used incorrectly, can lead to antibiotic resistance. There are certified organic options available for commercial growers (e.g., Serenade® Optimum) that utilize the bacterium Bacillus subtilis.

Codling moth - Cydia pomonella

The bane of every pip fruit grower’s existence. There’s nothing worse than to bite into an apple and find the flesh infested with a sleepy grub and a pile of crumbly brown frass – even more exasperating to see the giveaway entry and exit holes and damage on your half-ripe apple crop. Interestingly, some years seem distinctly better or worse than others in terms of this beast. Adult moths lay eggs in spring, depositing them on leaves conveniently near developing fruit. The larvae hatch and tunnel into the fruit, where they spend the next three to five weeks feeding in the core seed cavity in blissful oblivion. After this, they exit the fruit (yay, another hole!) and drop onto the ground, where they complete their life cycle, pupating in the leaf litter, soil, or a hospitable bark crevice before emerging as a havoc-wreaking adult moth two or three weeks later.   

You can spray Yates Success® Ultra from petal fall at 14-day intervals, or use pheromone traps or ties to disrupt the activity of male codling moths. Another cultural control is to secure cuffs of corrugated cardboard around the trunks of your apple trees, in the hope that grubs migrating soil-wards can be encouraged to take up residence, a cushy cardboard hotel as opposed to a bark motel. The cuff is then removed and burned, along with its residents, in late winter, hopefully resulting in a reduction of the resident adult population. As aside, carnivorous earwigs like to live in corrugated cardboard and may consequently snack on a few larvae over the winter. Madex®2, an organic product based on the codling moth granulosis virus (CpGV), a naturally occurring pathogen of the codling moth is now available in a formulation and pack size suitable for home orchards. It controls codling moth larvae in the juvenile stages before they begin to burrow into the fruit, and being highly specific in this respect does not impact bees. Alternatively, you can watch this video and formulate your plan…

Varieties: My top picks

Peasgood Nonsuch – England (1853), supposedly a seedling of Catshead, raised by Mrs. Peasgood, who planted five seeds and this was the seedling that grew. Nonsuch means ‘without equal’ and for size, reliability, and usefulness, this apple certainly is. Red stripes over a green background. Fruits are uniformly large and round. Can be eaten fresh and is juicy, but on the sharp side. It cooks beautifully, yielding a smooth puree (slices do not hold their shape), and bakes to perfection. Good disease resistance. Spur bearing.

Discovery – Essex, England, c.1940. Well-known early-season apple, a pink blush over yellow-green skin. Distinctive round, but flattened shape. Often has pink-blushed flesh a short distance below the skin. Aromatic sweet-tart flesh can be prone to cracking in wet conditions. Partial tip-bearer.

Gravenstein (and New Zealand-raised sports Albany Beauty, Oratia Beauty) – an early-season Kiwi favorite with European origins. Almost pure white, blowsy blossoms on a vigorous tree. Ripens January, red blush or stripes over green skin. Tart-sweet dual-purpose cooker/eater holds best on the tree (if you can keep the birds away). Blocky, irregularly shaped fruit. Tip bearing.

Sir Prize – Golden Delicious and Lemonade fans will enjoy Sir Prize’s juicy, crisp, and flavorsome flesh. Yellow-green with a slight red blush. Black spot resistant. A good keeper. Tip bearing, ripe April/May.

Winter Banana – Indiana, USA (1876). Large yellow fruit with a red blush. The flesh is crisp, tangy, and juicy with an aromatic flavor reminiscent of bananas. Ripens late season. A good keeper (about four months under refrigeration).

Blenheim Orange – England (1781). A seedling growing in a drystone wall outside Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Found by tailor George Kempster, who dug it up and planted it in his home garden. It became a coveted spectacle, bearing heavy crops of vibrant orange fruit, and was visited by “thousands”. By the late 19th century, the most popular apple in Britain. Its popularity declined over time, but not before spawning such offspring as Cox’s Orange Pippin and Bramley’s Seedling. Good size, an orange blush over green-yellow skin, sweet, nutty, aromatic flavor, dual-purpose cooker-eater. Partial tip bearer.

Granny Smith – the archetypal Australasian cooking apple. Large green fruit with crisp, tart white flesh. Develops a red blush in colder regions. A reliable late-season bearer (April-May) of heavy crops. Stores exceptionally well. A vigorous tip-bearer. 

I couldn’t include a russet apple here – their rough brown pear-like skin doesn’t appeal to everyone, but they are unsurpassed for flavour and character.

Egremont Russet – England (1872). Firm-fleshed fruit, dull green-gold skin flecked with yellow – the russet gives a sandpapery finish to the skin but the beauty lies within. Rich, nutty, sweet flesh that is somewhat reminiscent of a pear. Upright, compact trees. Spur-bearing.

Other worthy russets to keep an eye out for are Merton Russet, Takapuna Russet, and Reinette du Canada.

What to do with your crop

Apples are an inherently versatile crop – once you’ve eaten your fill fresh, move on to every apple dessert under the sun. If you have a juicer of reasonable capacity, make juice and freeze it in bulk for later consumption, or ferment it into cider. 

I’m yet to find an apple variety that doesn’t dehydrate well, and I’m all for shelf-stable storage – get yourself one of these apple peeler/corer slicers (the peeling part is optional) and slice away to your heart’s content. A quick dip in any citrus juice and then onto dehydrator racks – approximately 10 hours on medium heat will give you endless apple snacks, perfect for tramping. Keep the skin on keep fuss to a minimum and texture and healthy fibre maximised.

Stew and freeze apples for year-round desserts - it makes a great bulking agent for mixing with other fruit for making dehydrated fruit leather.

A cool shed and some crates or wooden boxes are all you need to store apples for a bit longer – just check each one for soundness and reject any with deep blemishes, bruises, or insect damage. Some recommend wrapping each in newspaper, but I think a quick visual check each month to eliminate any ‘bad apples’ is a better method.    

Apples bottle well in a light syrup, even more so when mixed with pear chunks. See the general bottling method here and reduce the sugar content in the syrup to ½ cup for every 3 cups of water.

Here’s a recipe for a Persian-influenced apple tart - guaranteed to wow the guests at your next dinner party.

Filling

Peel and core four large cooking apples – this is a great way to use early windfalls if you have them. Cut into large chunks and place in a large saucepan with about ½ cup water – enough to stop everything from sticking. Add the finely grated zest of ½ lemon and cook on medium heat until the apples form a thick puree. Add sugar to taste, then allow to cool completely, before stirring in two tablespoons of Persian or Lebanese rosewater, bought from a Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, or specialty grocer.

Pastry

200 grams plain flour (I use white spelt)
25 grams sugar
115 grams butter
1 egg
A couple of splashes of cold water

Cream butter and sugar, beat in egg, and then stir in flour to form a soft dough, adding sufficient cold water to bring it all together.

Preheat oven to 200°C

Oil a tart tin with a removable base and press pastry mix evenly into the base and sides. You can roll it out and line it carefully, but I felt lazy and made a rustic version.

Prick the base all over with a fork and place it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Remove the base from the fridge and dust the base of the tart generously with ground cinnamon. Pour in the cooled apple filling and bake for 30 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown. 

Cool completely before slicing and serving.


Disclaimer: The information supplied above is general and provided as reference material only. In regards to pest and disease control, please consult your agrichemical consultant for suitable products, application rates, and further region-specific information.

Anna-Marie Barnes is an active member of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association which endeavors to grow and preserve as much of her fresh produce as possible.  When the weather’s no good for gardening, she can usually be found inside working on a batch of homemade cheese or soap.     

The New Zealand Tree Crops Association is a voluntary organization promoting interest in useful trees, such as those producing fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, wood, stock fodder, bee forage, and other productive crops.  Find out more about the NZTCA here: https://treecrops.org.nz/

 

Image credits

Gravenstein photos – Katrina Richards
Discovery - Bob Balmer, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Granny Smith - GK von Skoddeheim via pixabay.com
Russet apples - By orchidgalore – Flickr CC BY via commons.wikimedia.org