University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
CHOOSING APPLE TREES
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
you’re like most gardeners either considering growing fruit trees,
an existing small orchard, you’re probably thinking about growing
trees. Having been around since 8000
B.C.E., many different apples have been developed. Some estimates
are that there are upwards of
2,500 in the U.S., including both modern and heirloom cultivars
varieties), with upwards of 7,500 worldwide.
Keeping in mind a few key features of apple fruit, and their trees,
keep the process of choosing the right ones from being overwhelming.
A few tips on choosing trees apply to
most fruits, including apples. Unless
you’re waiting to buy trees locally in the late spring, winter and
are the times to order from catalogs while plants are still
“dormant” or not
Buying from a local nursery or
garden store usually results in a smaller selection than through
catalogs, but usually
larger plants. If professional growers,
even if they got the plants from elsewhere to sell, they have
choices already for you to some of the better ones for your area.
On the other hand, beware of “deals” from
national chain stores. Not only have
these plants been grown elsewhere, but there is a very limited
by buyers usually from elsewhere too. The
saying that “you get what you pay for” often applies.
Also, as with other fruit trees,
personal preference for certain cultivars like McIntosh or Empire is
place to start in choosing. Texture
terms you may see are “crisp” and “soft.”
Think about apples you may have tried from local growers or farm
in the fall. If you don’t
know cultivars you find, beware of glowing descriptions that make
like the best.
Some of the cultivars you find in
the grocery store may not grow well or even be hardy in our area, or
taste the same if grown here. A cultivar may grow well in several
regions, but have
better tasting fruit in certain climates.
McIntosh and its types develop best with warm fall days and cool
as in the upper Northeast. Jonathan and
its types develop best with warm temperatures after bloom, as in the
what are these “types”? This is a vague
word that when used with apples in general may refer to size such as
use such as for cooking. Generally,
though, it refers to sports or mutations of a particular cultivar
been selected for better fruit color, fruit shape or texture, or
and clonally propagated. The word “strains”
also is used to refer to these. Some of
those with the most strains are Delicious, Fuji, and Gala. Between
40 and 100 strains of Delicious,
alone, have been selected. To make it
more confusing, hybrids are often referred to as types if they share
or even relative in common, such as Macoun and Liberty being
In addition to taste, another
fruit trait to consider is use. Depending
on use, you may want fruit ready all at the same time for baking, or
period to eat fresh, as in early to late. Are you planning to mainly
fresh? Fresh (“dessert”) apples are
described as sweet (such as Fuji, Gala, Golden Russet), tart (such
Smith, Northern Spy, Winesap), or sweet and tart (such as Jonagold,
other main use is baking, as in pies and applesauce. Some of the
best for baking include Cortland,
Empire, Golden Delicious, Idared, Jonagold, Liberty, Northern Spy,
Greening, and Stayman Winesap. For
sauces, some make a more chunky sauce such as Cortland, Empire,
and Jonathan. Others make a smoother
applesauce, such as McIntosh and its types, and Yellow Transparent.
Cook a red apple with the skin on to make the
cultivars are better suited for pressing into cider. The words
“juice” are often used interchangeably, although growers usually
liquid from pressed apples, with no sugar or water added, cider.
For cider apples, choice depends on whether
you like a more tart or sweet cider. For
the former, consider Cortland, McIntosh, or Idared. For a sweet
cider, try Red or Gold Delicious,
Empire, or Wickson crabapple. Jonathan
or Baldwin can make a more aromatic cider, while Rhode Island
Greening and crabapples
can make it more astringent. Some of the
best cider I’ve had has come from a combination of cultivars,
heirlooms and crabapples. Keep in mind
not all crabapples have fruit suitable for eating or cooking.
are several tree traits to consider when choosing apples, a main one
size. You may be able to buy the same
cultivar in three sizes—dwarf (7 to 10 feet high), semi-dwarf (12 to
and standard or full size (20 to 30 feet).
Of course a main consideration for choosing a size is space—what you
have available, or how many different trees you want to put in a
space. Figure on a spacing between trees of 7 to 10
feet for dwarf, 15 to 20 for semi-dwarf, and 25 to 35 feet for
standard. Other differences are that dwarf trees bear
fruit earlier (2 to 4 years) than larger ones, and being smaller are
you may get 8 to 18 bushels from a standard tree, 4 to 10 from a
and one to 6 bushels from a dwarf tree, with dwarf trees spaced
closer you may
end up with the same or more fruit in a given area. Keep in mind
these yields when choosing how
many trees to buy.
what makes a tree a certain size is the “rootstock.” Rootstock
refers to the plant onto which the desirable cultivar is grafted.
often see these listed, going by letters, such as for apples the B9
M111 semi-dwarf. Just be aware of this if you see these letters,
unless you want a particular one for specific traits, or want to get
with your own grafting, there is no need to study up on these.
Rootstock affects other traits you
should consider, including the previously mentioned
adaptability to certain soils, and
disease resistance. The latter, in
particular, is important to check out for each cultivar as more
means less spraying for disease. The
more common disease resistances to watch for are scab, cedar-apple
powdery mildew, and fireblight. Freedom
and Liberty are among the best hardy apples for disease resistance.
apple trees, you’ll need at least two cultivars that bloom at the
same time for
cross pollination. Check catalog
descriptions for cultivars to plant together.
If you’re planting lots of trees, every fifth row should be
a whole row of a cultivar, or every third tree if mixed together in
a block. You may find two or more cultivars grafted
onto the same tree, which solves this need.
Often, crabapples flowering nearby at the same time will suffice.
Even those listed as “self-fruitful” have
better yields from cross pollination, but if you only have room for
choose one of these such as Liberty or Lodi.
Otherwise, a trick you may try is to place a few branches you get
friend’s apples or crabapple in bloom into a bucket hung, or
supported, within the tree.
If all this seems way to
confusing in choosing your next (or first) apple trees, just keep in
following. For trees, make sure the
cultivars are hardy and suited to your region, and of the right
size. Does the cultivar have good disease
resistance, and do you have at least two different ones for cross
pollination? For fruit, consider uses
and most importantly personal taste preference.
More tips for choosing, with cultivar lists, can be found on my
(homefruitgrowing.info). More on culture,
once you’ve chosen the trees, can be found in my book-- The Fruit
Gardener’s Bible from Storey Publishing.