University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring News Article

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont 

If you’re like most gardeners either considering growing fruit trees, or expanding an existing small orchard, you’re probably thinking about growing apple 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 (cultivated varieties), with upwards of 7,500 worldwide.  Keeping in mind a few key features of apple fruit, and their trees, will 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 early spring are the times to order from catalogs while plants are still “dormant” or not growing. 
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 narrowed the 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 selection made 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 a good 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 markets in the fall.  If you don’t know cultivars you find, beware of glowing descriptions that make all sound 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 may not 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 nights, as in the upper Northeast.  Jonathan and its types develop best with warm temperatures after bloom, as in the central states. 
So what are these “types”?  This is a vague word that when used with apples in general may refer to size such as dwarf, or use such as for cooking.  Generally, though, it refers to sports or mutations of a particular cultivar that have been selected for better fruit color, fruit shape or texture, or other trait, 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 a parent or even relative in common, such as Macoun and Liberty being McIntosh “types.” 

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 over a period to eat fresh, as in early to late. Are you planning to mainly eat them fresh?  Fresh (“dessert”) apples are described as sweet (such as Fuji, Gala, Golden Russet), tart (such as Granny Smith, Northern Spy, Winesap), or sweet and tart (such as Jonagold, Honey Crisp, Mutsu). 
The 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, Rhode Island Greening, and Stayman Winesap.  For sauces, some make a more chunky sauce such as Cortland, Empire, Gravenstein, 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 sauce pink.
Some cultivars are better suited for pressing into cider. The words “cider” and “juice” are often used interchangeably, although growers usually call their 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, including some heirlooms and crabapples.  Keep in mind not all crabapples have fruit suitable for eating or cooking.
There are several tree traits to consider when choosing apples, a main one being tree size.  You may be able to buy the same cultivar in three sizes—dwarf (7 to 10 feet high), semi-dwarf (12 to 15 feet), 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 easier to maintain. 
While you may get 8 to 18 bushels from a standard tree, 4 to 10 from a semi-dwarf, 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.
Usually what makes a tree a certain size is the “rootstock.”  Rootstock refers to the plant onto which the desirable cultivar is grafted.  You’ll often see these listed, going by letters, such as for apples the B9 dwarf or M111 semi-dwarf.  Just be aware of this if you see these letters, but unless you want a particular one for specific traits, or want to get involved with your own grafting, there is no need to study up on these. 
Rootstock affects other traits you should consider, including the previously mentioned hardiness, adaptability to certain soils, and disease resistance.  The latter, in particular, is important to check out for each cultivar as more resistance means less spraying for disease.  The more common disease resistances to watch for are scab, cedar-apple rust, powdery mildew, and fireblight.  Freedom and Liberty are among the best hardy apples for disease resistance.
For most 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 different if 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 one tree choose one of these such as Liberty or Lodi.  Otherwise, a trick you may try is to place a few branches you get from a friend’s apples or crabapple in bloom into a bucket hung, or otherwise supported, within the tree.

If all this seems way to confusing in choosing your next (or first) apple trees, just keep in mind the 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 website (  More on culture, once you’ve chosen the trees, can be found in my book-- The Fruit Gardener’s Bible from Storey Publishing.

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