An Obsession in the Making
This winter I planted 17 dwarf heritage variety apples along two fence lines. Originally I had a vague idea of planting three or four apples in a traditional espalier form along a seven metre stretch of a fence.
But instead I ended up with these:
This change in plans occurred because I started reading up about varieties available from some good quality specialist nurseries in Victoria and Tasmania and developed a bit of a compulsion to fit as many lovely non-commercial varieties in my garden as I could.
I’m not sure how many apples we have available from the local green grocers and supermarkets in our area. I would say Pink Lady, Fuji, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, and Royal Gala would about cover it. They’re usually very good – my area is a big apple growing centre. But did you know there are over seven or eight thousand varieties of apples. Even with only a fraction of these available to the home gardener, there’s a tantalising variety available.
And it’s not so much the number available that makes heritage varieties so appealing. To my mind, it’s the unknown possibilities. Have you ever eaten a Geeveston Fanny, an Esopus Spitzenburg or a Red Cleopatra? Are the apples you buy from your green grocer russetted, flecked, striped, blushed and flushed? Ribbed? Golden, brilliant orange, purplish-black, dark burgundy or deep crimson red? Do they glow, or taste of spice and aromatics? Are they rich, tart, tangy and sweet? Dense and creamy? The apples we buy aren’t, well not really. They’re very good, but they’re not these things.
My obsession was in part fueled by a trip to Hobart in autumn this year. I tasted a handful of varieties not commonly available in Victoria. And it was like my first taste of a homegrown strawberry or pea. A revelation. I know a lot of people go on about how good home grown stuff tastes. You think, really? I can’t say a lot on this subject because my experience growing has been pretty limited. I can say that in relation to peas, strawberries, garlic and lettuce it is true. But with some things I don’t know if it’s so much about being grown at home or just that the varieties available to the home gardener taste better (because commercially viable varieties are chosen for shelf life, and resistance to disease etc). Not sure the reason why matters too much. Growing your own cuts down on carbon footprint, and if it tastes better, or like a revelation, fantastic.
How to Choose Apple Varieties
I think the most important question to ask about an apple, well any food plant really, before you plant one, is whether you like the flavour. It’s hard to know about non-commercial apples if all you have to off is other people’s written descriptions, but if you can get your hands on a few non-commercial varieties to taste, you’ll probably get a sense pretty quickly about whether you like tart and tangy, or mild and creamy etc. Also, not all the non-commercial varieties taste great, or so I read.
However, if you are also more than a little preoccupied with maximising productivity in your garden like I am, there are a few more critical things to find out about apple varieties to help you choose:
- Are they vigorous trees (how much care and skill do they require) and reliable or heavy croppers?
- When do they ripen? (you want to include earliest through to latest ripening for an extended harvest and for choosing pollinating partners)
- How well do the store? (to extend your season past the harvest period go for good storers. Note some apples do not store at all and need to be eaten almost immediately, or within a day or so after picking)
- Are they cooking, eating apples, or juicing/cider apples, or dual purpose?
There are a few other technical issues you need to look into:
- Which are good pollinating partners? (read up on apple pollination here).
- Is it spur-bearing or tip-bearing, or a partial tip bearer? (most seem to be spur-bearers. Tip-bearers need to be pruned/trained differently to spur-bearers).
Here are some good sites with notes on varieties:
My Apples Varieties
Here are notes I have compiled from the sources above, and a few others as well, on the 17 varieties that I have planted. When I was choosing my apples I was focussed mainly on ripening time, flavour and use in the kitchen. I didn’t really think about storage, vigour and cropping when I chose mine, but as it turns out I think I ended up with a good spread.
- Beauty of Bath: Vigorous tree. Bears heavily and regularly. Said to ripen in Australia around December. Skin flushed/striped red over yellow. Creamy white flesh with a fairly sharp but sweet flavour and quite aromatic. Cooking apple. Does not store so use immediately.
- Tydeman’s Early Worcester: Vigorous tree. Medium, conical fruit. Skin bright purplish red on the sunny side. Juicy, crisp white flesh. Flavour rich, and aromatic, both sweet and subacid, with a hint of strawberry. Eating apple. Use within 1 week.
- Vista Bella: Heavy cropper. Creamy yellow skin with scarlet stripes. Small fruit. Fragrant, crisp, creamy and juicy flesh. Flavour sharp and refreshing. Eating apple. Use within 1 – 3 days.
- Blenheim Orange: Vigorous and good cropper. Can be biennial. Creamy white, somewhat coarse-textured and dry yellow flesh with a rich and aromatic flavour. Large fruit. Orange-yellow skin streaked with red. Dual purpose: eating and cooking. Use within 1 – 3 months.
- Bramley’s Seedling: Vigorous and heavy cropper. Can be biennial tendency. Firm tart acid flesh. Green skin flushed brownish-red on the sunny side. Large to very large fruit with slightly irregular/flat shape. Cooking apple (supposed to make excellent puree). Stores very well – up to three months.
- Cox’s Orange Pippin: Light cropper and low vigour tree.
Striped yellow/orange skin on a yellow background with russet around the collar. Crisp juicy flesh when ripe. Rich, sweet, and acid flavour. Dual purpose: eating and juicing. Stores 1 – 2 months.
- Freyberg: Medium size fruit. Green-yellow skin with russet fleck. Aromatic, creamy white flesh. Fine, juicy texture. Spicy anise flavour, with light acid and sugar. Eating apple. Stores well.
- Geeveston Fanny: Heavy regular cropper. Small fruit. Skin bright red-purplish. Flesh crisp, white and aromatic. Sweet and subacid aromatic flavour. Dual purpose: cooking and eating. Stores well? (use to be commercial variety so I assume yes).
- Kidd’s Orange Red: Average vigour and light cropper. Skin flushed orange-red. Flesh aromatic, creamy, crisp white. Flavour rich and sweet. Dual purpose: eating and juicing. Stores 1 – 2 months.
- Pomme de Neige: Also known as Famuese or Snow Apple and many others. Average vigour and heavy cropper. Smallish fruit. Skin red, or striped red over pale red and green. Flesh very white, crisp, juicy, and fine-textured. Flavour very sweet and slightly aromatic. Eating/juicing apple. Stores 1-2 months.
- Stewart’s Seedling: Also known as a Ballarat or Ballarat Seedling. A medium-large fruit. Skin green with a mauve to purple blush. Flesh coarse and hard. Flavour subacid and sweet. Dual use: cooking but can be eaten. Stores well.
- Lady Williams: Vigorous tree. Large, conical fruit. Skin brilliant red purple. Flavour sweet and sharp. Dual purpose: eating and cooking. Stores 3 months +.
- Black Winesap: American variety. Mid-smallish size fruit. Skin sometimes dark, more often mid-red. Flesh crunchy and aromatic. Flavour rich and distinctive. All-rounder. Stores 3 months +?
- Sturmer: Lowish vigour but very heavy cropper. Medium fruit. Skin orange/yellow russeted. Flesh dense yellowish. Flavour very acid and sweet. Very good all rounder. Stores 3 months +.
- Mutsu: Vigorous tree and heavy and regular cropper. Medium to large fruit. Skin green. Flesh crunchy and very juicy. Unique sweet flavour. Dual purpose: cooking and easting. Stores 3 months +.
- Duke of Clarence: Skin dark burgundy over green. Medium sized fruit. Pale creamy flesh. Flavour outstanding and sweet. Not much information available. Used to be commercial in Tasmania so presumably stores well.
So, with a few years before I get apples from even my most earliest bearing trees, I have a bit of waiting to do before I can see whether these varieties grown in local conditions, live up to their reputations. Until then I have time to focus on learning how to prune them, and about some sustainable ways of beating the bugs.
And for the time being I have this promise of what may be to come: