Apple Trees have been cultivated since near the dawn of human civilization and surely humans consumed their fruit from the wild before they left the cave. As a fruit, Apples are ubiquitous, they are an integral part of our history, folklore and religion. Their place in the food culture of human society has few equals.
Apple trees supply a unique food package, the apple itself, a sweet, self contained storable food that is healthy and full of usable energy. It generally ripens on the tree and some will keep for months in an edible condition if kept in a cool and humid place. Apples can be dried, candied, canned, juiced and fermented. Historically, hard cider was much more important than fresh fruit to human well being. The water being no good, hard apple cider could be made much farther north than grapes could be grown.
Apple Trees though, are complicated. Apple tree genetics are diverse. Just as no two children from the same parents are alike, no two apples with the same parent will be alike. Breed two red apples together and some of the offspring will be yellow, green or striped. Plant 100 apple pips(seeds) and you will get 100 different flavors and textures. We are familiar with modern apple flavors of sweet and tart but the genetics are there for astringent and bitter and musky.Modern breeders have selected flavors for the fresh eating palate thus, the sweet and tart. In the past though, astringent and bitter were a component of the flavor profiles of hard ciders. Johnny Appleseed was planting cider apples on the frontier not pie apples. This great diversity added to the fact that grafted trees were not always available has led to there being thousands and thousands of cultivars of apple trees. (Cultivar is the technical name for each named apple i.e. Red Delicious is an apple cultivar)
So, how do we get the apple with the flavor we want? Apple trees are grafted because grafting provides a tree with known qualities every time.
Grafting has been practiced for over 2000 years. This is plant cloning the way God intended it. Every Red Delicious Apple in the world after the first tree was discovered came from a grafted tree. Those hundreds of acres of Granny Smith Apples are all genetically identical. We can discuss at another time whether this is a good idea to have hundreds of acres of identical trees in the same place but, if you want a Granny Smith Apple in your back yard, it will have to be grafted.
Seedling apple trees have a long juvenile period characterized by vigorous growth. This period can last 15 to 20 years before the trees matures enough to bear fruit. By then the tree is 25 to 30 feet tall. It can take a further 10 years or so to come to full production.
Grafting also allows us to influence other characteristics of our trees. By using dwarfing rootstocks, we can keep our apple trees smaller and more manageable. Dwarf rootstocks can be chosen that will hold the tree to 25% up to 50% of a full sized tree. These rootstocks also shorten the juvenile period to 2 or 3 years. Different rootstocks are resistant to various diseases and insects that can affect our trees.
Smaller dwarfing stocks must be staked to hold the trees up and they will need to be watered more often during drought periods. Part of what makes them a dwarf is a lighter root system than a standard tree. There are always trade offs for convenience.
How do you choose from the thousands of apple tree types out there? Some, while delicious and or beautiful are quite difficult to grow and might be best left to a professional, such as Honeycrisp. Some may not be adapted to where you live, low chill areas down south or extra cold areas up north. So, research what grows well where you live. Ask local orchards what is most trouble free. Feel free to try things you like with the understanding that they may not make it. There are organizations like the North American Fruit Explorers-NAFEX that will tell you more about fruit cultivars than you want to know.
Decide how much room you have for a tree or trees. How big are you comfortable with, are you willing to climb a ladder to pick your apples? This will determine what kind of rootstocks you will want your trees on.
Tree size is determined by roostock choice. Here is a comparison for size:
Full Size- 100% = 30′ tall
M 111- 75%= 22 1/2′ tall
M 7- 50% = 15′ tall
G-202- 40% = 12′ tall
G 935- 30-35% = 10′ to 11′ tall
G 41- 25-30% = 7 1/2′ to 10′ tall
Full sized trees can fill an acre with as few as 40 trees where dwarfs like G 41 can be planted 1000 per acre. A full sized tree can shade a backyard and a dwarf can be planted by a patio. The smaller trees fit very well in a small yard, along a fence or against a wall.
As far as cultivars go, the choices are nearly endless. Visit orchards through the summer and fall season because apples ripen in turn from July until Thanksgiving. An orchard with a good selection will have new flavors every week. You won’t like them all but you will be surprised what appeals to various members of your family. Some cook better, some are better for baking, and some for eating out of hand
Match a size to fit your space and a variety to fit your taste and you will have a place in the long history of fruit cultivation stretching back to the dawn of man.