P. Allen Smith: Heritage Apples
photography by Hortus Ltd. and Jane Colclasure
Many varieties of apple trees are underplanted with drifts of daffodils and blooms in the apple orchard.
When I have a really good childhood memory, or think back to something that really made me happy, I want to repeat it. My aunt and uncle had an old Buncombe apple tree by their dairy barn. My aunt would pick those apples every fall, peel and dry them and throughout the entire winter she'd make the most delicious fried pies. As a matter of fact, she still does. She took budwood off of that very same Buncombe tree and grafted some apple trees for me to plant in my heritage apple orchard at the Garden Home.
Back in the day, there were hundreds of apple varieties to choose from; each had its own delicious, unique flavor that traced back to a historical cultivar. The apples were not bred for shipping and storage like modern apples, but they were cherished for their interesting flavors, textures and colors. Heritage apples aren’t perfectly round and shiny like grocery store apples. In fact, most heritage apples have rough textures and an uneven shape.
So by selecting heritage varieties for my Garden Home orchard, I can enjoy those flavors of the past, and at the same time, preserve the important apple genetics for future generations.
My Favorite Heritage Apple Varieties
In addition to my aunt’s Buncombes, we chose these apple varieties that are rarely found today:
'Arkansas Black' is a long-keeping tart Arkansan apple that becomes almost black in storage.
'Ashmead's Kernel' is a unique, pear-flavored English variety.
'Calville Blanc' is one of the world’s top culinary apples and has a spicy, aromatic flavor perfect for apple tarts.
'Cox's Orange Pippin' is the yardstick for exceptional flavor in apples.
'Hewe's Virginia Crab' is a popular crab apple that produces a high-quality juice for cider.
'Honeycrisp' is one that is available in the produce section of some grocery stores; it is a crisp, predominantly-sweet variety and very cold-hardy.
'Magnum Bonum' is a yellow, medium-sized apple with red striping.
'Spitzenburg' is thought to be Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple; he valued it for its spicy flavor that improves with cool storage.
'Transcendent Crab’ is a ribbed, golden-yellow fruit with a crimson cheek; it has very good sharp flavor, however, it’s just not a great keeper.
Now some of you may be saying, “Allen, I only have a small space to garden; can I fit an apple tree?”; and my answer, of course, is “Yes you can!”
Try planting an apple espalier along a sunny wall in a small patio or in a narrow planter along the garage wall. Espaliers also offer easy access for gardeners with limited mobility.
The process is easy since training begins when the tree is young. This young apple tree is called a whip. So this spring, buy two dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties that are 1 to 3 feet tall. You need two whips for cross-pollination purposes so the trees can produce fruit.
Gather up: some 12- to 14-gauge wire and wire cutters; 1/8- to 3/16-inch eye masonry bolts; sharp shears; chalk or a pencil; a ruler; a drill with a drill bit matched to size of the hardware; some compost; and a shovel.
Choose west- or south-facing walls, with about 7 feet of wall space each that receive full sun, at least 6 hours per day, and have soil with good drainage.
Draw a template on the walls with a vertical line to represent the single, main trunk with three equal, horizontal tiers, 16 inches apart, 7 feet wide and 48 inches tall. From the soil line, measure up 16 inches. This is where your first tier or branch will be. Mark the spot on your "template trunk"; then measure upwards another 16 inches up for your second tier and again to locate the third tier.
Start at the first tier mark on the "template trunk" and measure out 3.5 feet to either side. Repeat this process for the second and third tiers.
Attach the eyebolts on the "template trunk" at ground level and where the first, second and third tiers cross. Also attach bolts at the right- and left-hand ends of each vertical line. Thread the wire through the eyebolts following the pattern drawn on the wall.
Spot the planting hole for the central trunk right in front of your vertical wire support so the trunk is about 4 inches away from the wall. OK, now dig a hole about 12 to 14 inches wide and 12 to 14 inches deep. Mix half of the soil from the hole with compost. Position the whip in the hole so the crown sits level with the soil, 4 inches from the wall. Turn the rootball so there is a bud facing the wall just above the first tier wire. Back fill the hole with the soil mixture, watering as you go to eliminate air pockets.
Now comes the painful part, making the first cut. About 1 to 2 inches above the first tier wire, right above that bud facing the wall, cut off the top of the tree. This cut is going to force the tree to "break buds." Once the stems have grown 5 to 6 inches, select two leaders, and attach them to the first-tier support wire going out left and right. Your tree now looks like a lower case "t."
Nip back any side shoots, keeping them within 6 inches of the guide wires. When the bottom tier branches have grown 3/4 of the way toward the end of the wire support, allow the central trunk to grow to the second tier and start the process again. This part of the training is repeated until the entire tier branching reaches the third tier.
Generally it takes about four years to create a mature, three-tiered tree, but the tree could start producing fruit as soon as the second season.
Why Not Play With Your Food!
How about hosting an apple tasting as a little different party theme this Thanksgiving?
Select a range of 12 old-fashioned varieties available from local growers or at farmers’ markets near you. There are also online sources from which you can order a sampler box of heritage apples.
Make information cards about the different apples, so your participants learn a little about the history of each apple. Give everyone scorecards to rate which apple is each person’s favorite on a scale of 0 to 10, 10 being the best, and leave them room to make comments.
To cleanse the palette between samples, offer fresh-baked French bread, cheese and walnuts. You may also want to ask your guests to bring take-home copies of their favorite apple recipes to share with others as keepsakes.
Have some fun, and Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Life’s Short, Eat Dessert First!
You’ve heard this adage, and while I love Thanksgiving dinner, it’s even better with a warm slice of this amazing Mile-High Apple Pie served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
For the Crust:
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- ½ cup cooking oil
- 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 6 tablespoons cold milk
- 9-inch pie pan
- 4 12-inch waxed paper squares
- small bowl cold water
- 1 egg white (optional)
For the Filling:
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
- ¹⁄8 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 3 pounds apples, peeled and sliced*
- 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- dash of ground ginger
*Yields 10 to 12 cups of cored, peeled and sliced apples; Granny Smith, Red Delicious or Pippen seem to work best.
For the crust, mix together the flour and salt in a bowl. Pour cooking oil and milk in a measuring cup — but do not stir. Add this to flour mixture, and now stir lightly with a fork.
Form the dough into two balls, and flatten them slightly with your hands. Place each ball between two pieces of waxed paper; roll each one into a circle until it reaches the edges of the paper. Sprinkling a bit of water on your work surface will prevent the wax paper from slipping as you roll out the dough. Remove the top layer of wax paper and fit one of the crusts, paper side up, into your pie pan. Toss the wax paper, and set the pie pan aside.
Next combine the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, flour, salt and ginger in mixing bowl. Add the sliced apples and lemon juice, tossing to coat. Mound the filling into the crust-lined pie pan, dotting with butter.
Peel one side of the wax paper off your reserve piecrust. Place the piecrust, wax paper side up, over the apples. Gently remove the wax paper, and pinch together the edges of the upper and bottom crusts. Cut a large “X” in the center of the piecrust to vent steam. Brush it with a little beaten egg white for a glazed look.
Place the pie on a baking sheet, and bake in a preheated 425-degree oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees for another 45 to 50 minutes or until the crust turns golden and the filling bubbles. If the crust browns too much, tent with foil.
Remove from the oven and cool for about an hour. Serves six to eight. Enjoy!