By P. Allen Smith :: Photography by Mark Fonville
If you’re thinking of planting apple trees in your yard, it’s time to think small. The apple tree industry has been trending towards dwarf varieties for a few years now, says Arlie Powell of Petals from the Past and professor emeritus at Auburn University.
Powell has advised fruit industry professionals all over the South on selection and maintenance of varieties for years. He also helped me choose the tree varieties at Moss Mountain Farm, where we settled on Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, Honey Crisp and the native Arkansas black apples.
He says, traditionally, apple trees were planted 25 to 30 feet apart in orchards and grew up to 45 feet tall, but with today’s dwarf varieties, they need only be planted about nine feet apart. Some of these trees have root systems so small that they need a trellis or a post to give extra support.
This is only the latest development in apple production. He says varieties have been trending sweeter and sweeter for the past century.
In the South, apples were not originally grown for fresh eating. The Horse variety was the most popular apple among Southern ladies in the 1910s, 20s, 30s and 40s because it was a stellar cooking fruit.
“It’s not a very pretty apple, but it had cooking qualities beyond belief,” he said. “We sell that variety still, and it’s one of those that had a place in time. It’s one of the best for cooking because it holds together well, retains its flavor and has a certain amount of sweetness.”
However, its sweetness is far less than the apples of today, which are sweet enough to be dessert.
“If you’re used to eating a sweet gala, it wouldn’t taste as good because its texture and flavor is more suited to a cooking fruit, and adding other ingredients to end up with that sweetness,” he said.
Southern families didn’t have luxury of temperature controlled environments and the advanced storage containers of today, so they primarily wanted an apple they could preserve.
“Years ago in the South, most apples were grown for cider, for drying, for vinegar or they were for cooking,” Powell said. “Very few varieties were really what you call fresh-eating fruit. Today, probably 80 to 90 percent of the apples in the stores are sold for dessert and fresh eating. One hundred years ago, it would’ve been just the opposite.”
By the time those apples were harvested, they were blemished and likely had insect and disease problems. Much progress has been made in those areas, with sprays and even organic sprays to keep the food in good order while it’s on the tree, Powell said.
Growing Your Own
The best time to transplant young apple trees in the South is after the first frost, once they’ve started losing their leaves and become dormant, generally in November or December.
“You can plant throughout the winter, we just advise people not to plant them in front of hard freezes, which we define as temperatures below 30 degrees,” he said. “If you buy a tree from us, we can tell you if we’re going to have a hard freeze.”
He says transplanting gives the tree a bit of a shock, and some of that cold air can settle around the roots and cause damage.
In order to produce blooms and fruit, apple trees need a certain amount of “chill hours,” which can be tricky for residents in the South. Chill hours are the number of hours the temperature is below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Some varieties need only 600 chill hours and some need 1,200 and above. Northerners don’t worry about chill hours, because they always have enough cold weather to spare. So, Southerners should be wary when selecting an apple tree that traditionally grows well in Northern climes, because sometimes the chill hour requirements are merely estimations. However, it’s very important because if you live in an area without adequate chill hours, the tree won’t bloom or produce, Powell said.
Compounding the problem is the seasonal variations in temperatures from year to year. If you have a particularly mild winter, you may be waiting a lot longer for your apple tree to produce fruit. If you have questions, you can contact your local cooperative extension service for guidance.
And to see the apple trees Arlie and I planted at Moss Mountain Farm, plan to attend one of our fall tours. Get details at pallensmith.com.
For a new take on the standard apple pie, these single-serving pies will be a hit with your guests. And you won’t have to fiddle with too much dough because the apple core is the crust.
Individual Apple Pies
• 8-10 Granny Smith apples
• 1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon
• ¹/³ cup sugar
• 1 ½ tablespoon brown sugar
• Pie crust
• Melted butter
• Extra sugar and cinnamon
• Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
• Take six Granny Smith apples and cut off the tops. Carefully remove the insides of each apple with a spoon or melon baller. Don’t puncture the peel. Set aside.
• Remove the skins from two additional apples and slice
• Mix the sliced apples with sugar, brown sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Then scoop the mixture into the hollow apples.
• Roll out the pie crust and slice into 1/4 inch strips and cover the top of the apple in a lattice pattern with the pie crust strips. Brush a small amount of melted butter over the pie crust and sprinkle with a little cinnamon and sugar. Place in an 8×8 pan and add just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan.
• Then cover the apples with foil and bake for 20-25 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 20 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and the sliced apples are soft.