We grow azaleas and dogwoods. We’re passionate about closely trimmed lawns. Some of us even grow tomatoes and beans. So why aren’t fruit trees part of the American garden palate?
My husband and I love to hike on vacation, and our August trip to England was no exception. Public footpaths skirt, and sometimes invade, private property so, voyeur that I am, I had a first hand look at back and front gardens across Oxfordshire. From stately manors to attached houses, we glimpsed the intimate choices of passionate gardeners. Crabapples (the edible version) bordered drives. Pear trees hung over car parks. And apples—apples populated front lawns and back gardens of almost every home we passed.
Sure, southwest England is apple (and cider) territory. But apples, and many other tree fruits, are quite adaptable can be grown from Canada well into the southern US. Lee Calhoun, author of the newly revised Old Southern Apples, identifies many apples that will flourish in our warm corner of the world, even at low elevations. So why don’t Americans plant more fruit trees? Are we short sighted? Addicted to tasteless Red Delicious from Kroger? Enamored of Fujis from cold storage in New Zealand?
I say we’re simple uneducated and underexposed to the myriad flavors and uses of home grown tree fruit. A decade ago we accepted cardboard textured tomatoes in January, but now we know much more about the flavor—and politics—of locally grown seasonal vegetables. It’s not such a leap to understand the market dynamics and flavor nuances of fruit. As a tiny missive in apple education here are a few ways you can break the NIMBY model for fruit:
Enjoy Seasonal Uncommon Apples—Apples are harvested from July through December; long storing varieties like Arkansas Black or Newtown Pippin eat well into early spring. Join a CSA that grows uncommon fruit or seek out apples new to you at local farmer’s markets. Think of apples as a seasonal fruit with a very long season and many uses: summer apples like Lodi and Summer Transparent for applesauce, pie apples like Grimes Golden and Roxbury Russett (always use a mixture of tart and sweet), Rome and Norfolk Beefing for baking apples and Ashmead’s Kernel when you’re feeling especially adventuresome.
Grow Your Own—County Extension Offices, Master Gardeners and enlightened nurseries offer workshops and information on apples suited to your home terroir. In VA and NC, learn from Vintage Virginia Apples, source of over 100 apple varieties plus many heirloom peaches, and Century Farm Orchards near Reidsville, NC for apples and pears. Michael Phillips, author of The Apple Grower: Guide for the Organic Orchardist, can help you avoid unnecessary sprays. Plus you don’t want pristine looking fruit anyway—flavor is the goal!
Save Uncommon Apples—Perhaps the most exciting way to appreciate fine flavored fruit is to “save” some. Foggy Ridge Cider sponsors AppleCorps, a group dedicated to saving uncommon apples through collecting, identifying and grafting fruit in danger of extinction. This virtual collection of apple enthusiasts, with no dues, regular meetings or fund raisers, identifies and propagates important regional apples like Johnson’s Fine Winter, Black Gilliflower, Fallawater and many excellent strains of Virginia Winesap. AppleCorps grafters have made more of the largest apple tree in Virginia, found on Double Cabin Road in Dugspur by cider lover Brian Kreowski. And grafters insured that a family favorite, Hubbardson Nonesuch, is never lost. At Foggy Ridge’s Fall Open House, Tom Burford, the Apple Whisperer, identified Double Red Delicious (“worth grafting” according to Tom), Grimes Golden Pippin (“not corrupted” according to Tom), Blayx Stayman, Palouse and Lowry, pronounced “Larry’s” by our Southwest Virginia neighbors.
So why not in your backyard? Fruit trees purchased from a nursery can bear delicious complex apples in a year or two. Apples you graft yourself, in three or four. Take the long view.
For inspiration, check out Tom Burford’s top twenty dessert apples.