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How to choose apple tree varieties to plant

Curt Arens Apple orchard
APPLE A DAY: Orchards are part of the farmstead tradition all across the country, but planting the best tree varieties, with good disease resistance and hardiness for the climate in your area, remains an important consideration.
Farmstead Forest: Consider hardiness, shelf life, disease resistance and pollination sources.

All across the country, even in the Plains states, apple orchards have historically been successful.

On our own farm in northeast Nebraska, my grandfather planted 20 apple trees around 1916, and many of them survived and produced apples until just recently. He chose a number of cultivars to plant, including summer apples and others that ripened in the late fall.

Early settlers across the Plains encouraged the planting of trees in general, but particularly orchards, to boost agricultural pursuits and receipts for the region. Farmers and ranchers today continue this tradition, with many continuing to plant all kinds of fruit around the homestead, including apples.

There are important criteria when you are selecting the variety of apple trees to plant this spring.

Hardiness

Make sure your varieties are within your USDA hardiness zone and can handle weather conditions for your area. Other considerations include disease resistance to apple scab and cedar apple rust; suitability for the uses you desire; harvesttime and quality; and proper pollination sources.

While many small homestead orchard owners want dwarf apple trees, because picking and maintenance is much easier from the ground level, those varieties are grafted onto dwarf rootstock. This inhibits upward growth, so apple tree enthusiasts need to watch their rootstocks in the tough climate of the Great Plains and northern Plains, in particular.

Many horticulture specialists suggest using MM111, MM106 or Bud-118 rootstocks when selecting apple tree varieties, as these will grow into trees that are just over half- to three-quarters-full mature size, but their rooting activity should be vigorous enough to handle tough climate scenarios.

There are more than 2,500 cultivars of apple trees, but the types of apples we see most in the grocery store produce section are not the ones that grow best on the Plains, such as Gala and Fuji. That said, there are scores of others that are lesser known, but taste great and will thrive under our tough conditions.

Disease and pollination

Diseases can be a problem for many small orchards, because of the susceptibility of many varieties to cedar apple rust or apple scab, for instance. McIntosh or Cortland varieties are susceptible to apple scab. Jonathon varieties can be hit by cedar apple rust, fire blight and mildew, but are scab resistant.

Delicious varieties typically have more resistance to those diseases, along with newer varieties such as Pristine. Check with your local tree nursery professionals to choose varieties with a good disease resistance package.

Depending on the uses you plan for your apples, shelf life can be a consideration. Older, early-season summer apples like Lodi have a shorter shelf life, while newer early-season varieties such as Jerseymac, Zestar and Pristine have improved quality.

Apple flowers need pollen from a different cultivar, so one apple tree will not produce fruit all by itself. For instance, Honeycrisp pollen can pollinate a Sweet Sixteen tree, but it will not pollinate a second Honeycrisp.

Horticulturists recommend that you plant two different cultivars of apple within 100 feet of each other. Alternately, a flowering crabapple tree can supply the necessary pollen for cross-pollination if flowering times overlap.

So, pollination shouldn’t be a problem if you have a different apple tree variety planted nearby outside of the family, as long as those other apple trees are not blooming on the opposite extreme of the blooming season.

Learn more by contacting your local Extension office or tree nursery professional.

TAGS: Planting
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