Friday September 28, 2012

I read my first piece of propaganda when I was 8, maybe 9 years old. It was a biography of Johnny Appleseed. It was one of a series of library books, all with orange covers, large print, and just a few simple drawings. They were fascinating, every one of them. Johnny, I learned, was a happy-go-lucky sort who walked around America giving away apple seeds. Not so. Johnny was a businessman who sold apple seeds and seedlings so frontier folk could make hard cider and its distilled companion, applejack. Most of the apple trees back then were what we would call wild apples -- those that we wouldn’t consider good eating apples.

Here’s my quick course on apples: Any named apple variety today is genetically identical to all others of the same name. That’s right. All Macs or Cortlands are the same, genetically, as all other Macs and Cortlands. Before you buy a tree, someone has grafted scions (living twigs) onto root stock to produce a tree that will give you tasty apples of a named variety. Some nurseries even sell trees with three or four different varieties grafted onto one tree.

The roots affect whether your tree is full sized, mid-sized or dwarf. Most new apple varieties -- Macouns, for example -- are hybrids developed by apple researchers, tested and then propagated by grafting -- not by seed. So don’t plant seeds from your favorite apple thinking the tree will be like the mother apple.

Apple trees are easy to grow -- you should have one, or perhaps more. Not only that, one can grow good eating apples without using toxic chemicals, although most orchards use some chemicals to control apple scab and sometimes insect pests. Americans have grown very fussy about their food, demanding perfect fruit, unblemished by even a spot of blight, which makes the orchards spray. The home grower can eat organic fruit with a few small brown spots, or cut them out.

I recently visited Paul Franklin at his farm, Riverview Orchard, in Plainfield, N.H.; he has been growing apples for sale for over 25 years, and is a wealth of knowledge. One of my first questions to Paul was this: How do you know when an apple tree is ready to pick? It’s easy, he said. Just cut open an apple and look at the seeds. If they are tan to dark brown, the apple is ready. Paul added that some apples resist coming off the tree, even when they are fully ripe, while others are easy to pick even when still green.

What about that film often seen on apples? It’s not a pesticide, Paul said, but Mother Nature at her best. It is a thin film of wax, which protects the apple. Polish it a bit, and the apple shines. Some apples have more wax than others.

This past spring many apple blossoms were damaged by a period of unusual warmth that was followed by a hard frost. The frost damaged the opening buds, so many of us lost all or most of our apples. I live in a cold spot and lost all mine. Paul Franklin’s orchard is near the Connecticut River, so the little bit of heat released by the water minimized his losses. If you are choosing a site to plant apples, remember that near the top of a hillside is a good spot. Cold air is dense, and tends to slide down hill. Often only a degree or two can make the difference between success and failure.

I asked Paul about his favorite apples. He said that Cortland and Honey Crisp are two of his favorites. Honey Crisp is tasty and somewhat resistant to apple scab. Cortlands are great apples for both eating and making pies. Honey Crisp are great keepers -- a customer of his picks a bushel of them, then stores them in a spare fridge for up to a year. If you do that, don’t store other vegetables in the fridge because apples give off ethylene gas, which prompts other veggies to age and go past their prime.

If you planted an apple tree recently be sure to protect the bark with a collar of quarter-inch hardware cloth (metal screening). An 18-inch square can be used to wrap around the base to keep meadow voles (voracious mouse-like creatures) from nibbling the bark in winter. If a vole eats bark all the way around a trunk it will kill the tree. Dig the screen in an inch to keep them from going under it. After five to seven years the bark is thick enough that the hardware cloth is not needed.

What else can you do for your apple trees now? In order to minimize apple scab and other diseases, rake up the leaves under your trees. Scab overwinters on leaves. Mowing under trees helps, too -- chopping up the leaves and helping them to break down. Young trees benefit by a little slow release organic fertilizer in the fall, but older trees do not need it.

So go pick some apples on a warm sunny fall day. Eat plenty, make a pie, save some for winter. And thank Johnny Appleseed -- if you believe in the propaganda.

Henry Homeyer is a life-long organic gardener, gardening consultant, author of four gardening books and UNH Master Gardener. His Web site is www.Gardening-guy.com.