Planting A Backyard Apple Orchard, Part One: Planning And Selecting Varieties

apple leafing out

Looking for Part Two? Here it is.

Along with asparagus, I have had a dream of having a few apple trees. I’m interested in drinking them, not eating them, though. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth and raw apples give me an allergic reaction. No, the thing to do with these is make a sharp and tasty cider, then ferment it down into something… harder. My brother is a good beer brewer and I always viewed making cider as something fun we could do together. Mostly I’d be doing the grunt labor and he’d do the brainy things like sterilizing everything. Want to plant your own orchard in your back yard? Read more to see how I planned mine out.

First off, you CAN grow apples in your yard. You’ll be told by everyone around you what a pain in the ass they are, how much you’ll tend to them, how they’ll disappoint you… but that sounds like owning a pet (or having a kid) and we still do those things, because we love the process and result. I have wanted apples for a long time and when you want something badly, you’re willing to work for it.

Finding the space for your grove

A commercial apple farm has apples laid out in neat picket rows, ready for machines to roll down and spray and harvest them. In a yard, you have to be more creative. The first thing is picking a spot where they can live for a number of years. Apples take five years to get established, so they should go somewhere good. They’ll shade out the area around them, so I advise putting them to the edge of your garden.

Apples also have a habit of putting on beautiful blooms. One of our trees went to the front yard, where it will serve as an ornamental for the next few decades.

Another placement note: if your neighbors are a pain, don’t plant them where they’ll grow into their yard or drop apples in their lawn. I am blessed with great neighbors and a promise of hard cider buys off a lot of worry from people who live around you.

Apples ideally want full sun, ten hours a day. I don’t have many spots in my lawn that can do that, so I shot for areas that get a good six hours of sun in the summer. They won’t bear as much, but I am not going for commercial production here, either.

Picking out your varieties

As you’d imagine, there are hundreds of varieties of apples. If you want eating apples, I have no advice for you. If you want cider apples, I can help a little. First, know that cider apple trees are very hot right now. I scoured the net for mine, finally finding Albemarle Vintage Virginia Apples. They had some good varieties in stock. If you are planning on planting apples this fall or next spring (it’s too late now) then get your order together and submitted to your orchard as soon as possible. It’s May right now and I assure you, it is not too early to order for next March.

Apple cider demands sugar, bitterness and sharpness. Some apples are single-variety vintage ready, which means they’re perfect to crush and ferment on their own (Kingston Black, for example). Most, though, need to be blended. The orchardist you go with should have their apples labeled and you’ll see names like bittersharp, sharpsweet and more. So English. I found The New Cider Maker’s Handbook to be a phenomenal resource. You can pick it up on Amazon or order it through your library. An afternoon of reading that and you’ll have a technical understanding of how to select for varieties of apples.

I originally wanted to plant English apples, but I ended up with a solidly American bunch. All the English ones are trendy and consequently, were sold out in February when I placed my order. Apples are $20-30 apiece and shipping isn’t cheap. My five set me back $200 shipped, or $40 apiece. They were two-year plants, which was a slight premium. I ended up with these:

Two Harrison Apples. This pair of Harrison will produce a dark, sweet, musky and tasty cider. It’s a Virginia heirloom variety that Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello. Now, TJ isn’t exactly a figure I revere, but he has a place of respect for being one of the first American obsessive gardeners. I plan to blend this variety with…

One Virginia Hewes Crab Apple. Crab refers to size, but you would not be mistaken if you thought of these as nasty, small, bitter, angry apples suitable for throwing at younger brothers. When a small amount is blended into cider, though, it elevates the entire thing. Jefferson also grew this variety, so there’s a pleasant historical feel to the grove.

Finally, a pair of Arkansas Black. I shed my fear of Southern plants with this pair. Southern food and agriculture is complex, well-established, and entirely foreign to me. I didn’t know whether this variety was a proven winner or a hanger-on that persisted because people didn’t know any better. I ordered them after I found several cider makers who felt it was so good, it could be made into a single variety vintage. I have high hopes for these. If they let me down, I’m sure they will make a nice blending apple for later cider projects.

All are planted on M-111 Semi-Dwarf Rootstock. Apples are all clones. Every Fuji is genetically identical to every other Fuji. When a good variety is discovered, growers will snip off a bud and graft it onto a well-known existing apple tree variety. This way, the exact apple will grow on the tree and it will have hardy roots that protect it. If you plant the seeds from a Fuji, it’ll produce something else. It may be great or it may be weird but it certainly won’t be a Fuji. This isn’t nefarious, it’s not GMO, it’s not some Monsanto conspiracy. This is how apples have been propagated for hundreds of years and I think it’s cool to consider that every one of the apples we see originated from a stellar apple tree. Many have origin stories like “this was discovered growing on a farmer’s tree line in Connecticut.”

When you’re ordering, research the rootstocks. Most are highly resistant to common apple problems. Some are better for cold climates. Most importantly, the rootstocks control the size of the tree. Dwarf trees will grow 5-10′ and need staking and support during fruiting season so they don’t split. Semi-dwarf will grow 12-15′ and need only regular pruning. Standard will grow upwards of 25′. I chose semi-dwarf because I wanted a good producing apple, I was willing to prune and trim, and I lacked the space for full-size trees.

Stick around for Part Two, planting apples and caring for them.