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Living Freedom by Claire Wolfe. Musings about personal freedom and finding it within ourselves.

Want to Comment on a blog post? Look for and click on the blue No Comments or # Comments at the end of each post.

Claire Wolfe

Hey, you friendly orchardists

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

… or even you people who are reasonably competent at growing things, some advice, please.

I bought my house two years ago (this Thursday). It has an apple tree in the back yard that’s very likely 100 years old and that has had no attention in decades.

First year, it produced one — count ’em, one — apple.

Last year, zero apples.

Just when I was about to ask somebody to take it down, this summer it went apple crazy. From where I sit under the tree (or where I used to sit under it before it started getting dangerous) I can probably see seven or eight dozen, and that’s less than half of what’s up there. I even went out and got one of those fruit plucker dealy-bobs to harvest them.

Questions is: When?

I have no idea what variety this is. So far, the apples are green with only a faint pink blush on one side. My (scant) knowledge says that these old varieties were either all green, firm, and tart or all red, sweet, and mushy. So I’m thinking green and blushy isn’t ripe.

However, a couple have already fallen. Which is supposed to mean they’re getting close, right? Yet when I salvaged the fallen ones from the dogs’ jaws today and cut out a non-slobbered-upon slice, it was super-tart, beyond Granny Smith territory. I like tart, but this was too puckery even for me.

So do I wait and see? Let them thud down upon the deck and into canine maws en masse before I assume ripeness? Try my plucker gadget and see how willingly the apples detach from the tree? Or what?

Help me, oh you more-competent-than-I folk. Mother&^%$$# Nature and I do not communicate well.


ADDED: naturegirl asked for pictures. Not sure how much these will help, but here you go …

28 Responses to “Hey, you friendly orchardists”

  1. naturegirl Says:

    A picture of the tree might help :)

  2. Claire Says:

    At the moment, I am still camera-challenged, naturegirl. The old camera doesn’t work and the new video camera from Terry Bressi takes photos but they’re wide-angle almost to the point of being fish-eye. So that might not help at all.

    I’ll see what I can do, though. (You mean there are actually people who can tell varieties of apple tree apart by looking at pictures? I never got much farther in my tree ID skills than a) Christmas trees and b) everything else. And that’s in real life.)

    PHOTOS ADDED. Fish-eye turned out to be quite useful.

  3. True Blue Sam Says:

    It is probably one of the varieties best suited for cooking; frying or pies. It looks to be 30 to 40 years old, and probably has not been pruned. Pruning an apple tree should be done conservatively; primarily to space the twigs a bit so the fruit is not too crowded. Fertilize with very little (or no) N, which will cause excessive shoot growth, resulting in fireblight infection. P and K are both good, encouraging roots and fruits. Spray on schedule to keep coddling moths out of your apples. Mist blowers are the easiest, and most expensive way to spray your trees. Other types of sprayers are more affordable, but less effective in coverage. We have been using a Solo mist blower for more than twenty years and it still works great.

    Plant more trees, because this one is probably a short-timer. Our thirty two year old apple tree has had two serious lightning strikes in the last three years, and we will be taking it out this fall. Trees are temporary.

  4. naturegirl Says:

    That worked just fine!

    I have only a few minutes right now, but real quick:

    It looks grafted, so it’s probably a combination of apple types….and if you’ve had unusual weather this year, then there’s bound to be some stress that shows up in the fruit (and could cause apples to drop early or be deformed in shape and color)….I’m not familiar with your region for growing, but where I was back east our apples weren’t ready for at least another month and once the weather started to cool off….

    I will hunt around and see if I can come up with anything….Maybe check with Jackie (here) and see what she says?????

  5. Claire Says:

    Wow. You guys are good. I wouldn’t have been able to figure out half that if I’d had 10 times as long.

    30 or 40 years, you think? It’s so gnarled I assumed much older. And grafted? Who knew? We have had unusual weather here — first cooler and wetter than usual, now dry and sometimes hotter than usual.

    In any case, the tree will be pruned this fall — and very carefully. I’d be delighted if it turns out to produce nice, firm, tart pie apples. Best kind! The mushy red sorts I’d just give away.

  6. Johnathan Says:

    100 lbs. apples can be turned into 5 gallons of hard apple cider. The tart varieties actually make the best cider.


  7. Johnathan Says:

    …or add enough sugar before fermentation, and get apple wine instead. Oh, and if you want to commit one of your three felonies for the day, you can then distill this to about a gallon of 80 proof apple brandy.


  8. Claire Says:

    OMG. A potential federal crime growing right in my own backyard. That’s even cooler yet. :-)

  9. Kent McManigal Says:

    In another life (or so I might believe) I used to have an apple tree that produced lots of the ugliest knobby brown and green- and very tart- apples you ever saw. But it made the best apple pies I ever tasted! Yes, I can bake.

  10. furrydoc Says:

    I will have to dig out that chutney recipe yet.

  11. Claire Says:

    True Blue Sam — A question. What about the tree tells you its age?

    I really have no idea on this one, but we do have some 100+ year-old apple trees growing on a derelict farm near here and they look like this one. OTOH, I guess those trees could be younger than people suppose. The farm was abandoned nearly 100 years ago but perhaps the trees there grew from fallen apples and replaced the original trees. Dunno.

  12. Bear Says:

    Claire: Pruning this fall.

    Not the best time. You want to wait for late winter, or early spring before the tree starts leafing.

    As for how, here’s a decent link on technique. For that tree, you’ll mostly want to skip down to #4:

    Another good link:

    I’ve got an old apple tree here that produced maybe 3-5 apples a year when I found it. Pruned it, and I get 15-20 now. Of course, “pruning” in my case also included getting the grape vines out of the tree and onto a trellis (which helped production there, too).

  13. rustynail Says:

    Claire, Looks like you’ve gotten some pretty good advice, especially regarding various apple beverages. For some definitive advice about apple trees in your area (fruiting, ripeness, pests, etc.), try the county extension agent. As far as identification of the tree, your county agent should be able to either tell you or suggest where you can send some leaves or twigs and buds for definite classification. You are fortunate to have the abandoned orchard nearby for cross pollination.

  14. Max Milan Says:

    True Blue Sam: You said that an apple tree should be pruned “Conservatively.” Could you tell me what that means, or do you have a link to pictures on pruning for fruit, or a book recommendation?

    I thought you could only prune plums! (/humor)

    Locally, the Tree Surgeons recommend trimming in December-January, to avoid fire-blight. (So there is no rush.)

  15. Pat Says:

    Autumn is apple-harvesting time, and it won’t be long; I’d cook up a couple (baked with maple syrup and nuts), and see what you’ve got. Some apples are green with a rosy blush when ripe. Yours look ready to eat, and it would surprise me if they turn out to be the mushy type.

    Some years are better than others for apples – maybe your tree decided conditions were right this year.

    Here’s a website that gives info about WA apples.

  16. True Blue Sam Says:

    The age is a guess, but the tree appears to be vigorous in spite of being in a high traffic area, which causes soil compaction. 100 year old fruit trees look dilapidated. Compare the diameter to the age, and you have about 12 inches of diameter; 6 inches of radius. If it is 36 years old, that is 6 rings per inch, a nice vigourous growth rate. A 100 years old you would have growth rings about 1/16″, which is a pretty slow rate. The nice rounded crown makes me think the tree is about middle age, not elderly. You can count the nodes back from the terminals to see how fast the crown is growing and make a pretty good eduacated guess yourself. You might be able to count back around fifteen years to judge how fast the crown is growing, than make your own judgement on the total age of your tree. I do not recommend boring valuable trees to determine the age, in spite of researches telling us that it doesn’t hurt them.

  17. Ted Says:

    Think about the tree’s native habitat and think about the very important half of the tree that you don’t see. I encourage you to consider re-landscaping around the drip line (++) of the tree with a 6″[++] of mulch.

    Most trees are a whole lot happier to be standing knee-deep in decomposing leaves. Try to imitate that as best you can. (You may still have a pathway through the mulch). Lots of problems go away a year after you make its roots happy. Just remember that a mountain of this-year’s leaves is not the same as a century’s-worth of annual droppings.

    P.S. Get 100 pounds of dust from under the belts of a gravel quarry’s rock crusher and spread that in the mulch. The results of replenishing the minerals in the soll is too miraculous to believe in the reading. Just do it.

  18. zelda Says:

    The elongated shape (if it isn’t caused by the camera) is typical of sheepnose apples and the green with pink blush is typical of older greenish keeper apples. Sheepnose are not usually an eating apple. They were used for drying and pies. Your county Extension agent may be able to tell you what varieties were grown in your area, but keep in mind that in the old days apples were often very area-specific. If you think the tree is more than 50 years old, older people living in your area may know more about your apple and a state grower’s association may have a member who is interested in old apple varieties. There’s a lot of interest in older apples now. Google heirloom, heritage or vintage apples and you’ll find photos that may help you identify it and when it is ready to pick. Some older apples were hard and sour when picked and finished ripening in storage. You may want to wait until you know what variety it is before you prune it, other than taking out any dead or drying out branches. You need to know when (not now) and what to prune. Let us know the name when you find out.

  19. just waiting Says:

    Thanks for the laugh Claire, I see you and I share the same relationship with Mother Nature, our gardens and tree id. I took a forestry class once, for part of the test you had to correctly identify 150 trees, with latin names. Glad they told me early, since all I’ve ever been able to id are oak, maple and sycamore, I knew I was way out of my element and was able to leave right after coffee and donuts.
    I’m not allowed in the garden, not even to weed. Where everything my wife touches grows and thrives, I definately have a black thumb. She brings home a twig and 6 months later its some new flowering plant. I tough the bark, a tree dies.
    But our garden looks great because I am really good at digging holes. Thats what she tells me, anyway.

  20. G.W.F. Says:

    Determining age is really hard without knowing the tree variety. You can use an “increment borer” to do a core sample and get the exact age, but to me that just seems to invite pests and disease.

    There are so many types of apples, it is really hard to tell what you have. I found this on a quick search to give you an place to can search:

    I used this formula a few year back to tell the age of some really old dogwoods on my property. It seemed to give me a good number because I knew when the house was built and it came out to be within a year or two of the construction date, that made sense. (from eHow)

    1. Wrap the tape measure around the tree at about four and a half feet above the ground. This measurement is the tree’s circumference. Write down this measurement.

    2. Use the circumference to find the diameter of the tree. The formula for finding diameter is: Diameter = circumference divided by 3.14 (pi).

    3. Determine the age of the tree by multiplying the diameter by the growth factor. Here are the growth factor rates for common trees:

    2.0: Aspen, Cottonwood
    3.0: Silver Maple, Pin Oak, Linden
    3.5: River Birch
    4.0: American Elm, Green Ash, Red Oak
    4.5: Black Walnut, Red Maple
    5.0: Sugar Maple, White Birch, White Oak, Black Cherry
    7.0: Dogwood, Ironwood, Redbud

    For example, say a Silver Maple has a circumference of 20 inches. The diameter (20 divided by 3.14) is 6.369. The diameter (6.369) x growth factor (3.0) = 19.108. The tree is approximately 19 years old.

    I have no idea what “factor” you would use for the apple tree, but you can play around with it and get some ranges.

    As for when to harvest, it will depend a lot on the variety. One question would be when it had flowers. Some varieties are early spring, mid-spring, late spring, etc. I tried to see if I could find you a good “days to maturity” figure for apples, but could not. It should be anywhere from August to October. Try and look at a few apples on the tree and see if they are ripe. The stem should part readily from the branch when the fruit is cupped in the palm of your hand and given a slight twist around, then up. With lots of fruit if you wait until the first snap of cold the sugars from the tree will flow into the fruit and they will get much sweeter with the cold weather.

    As for the mystery of the seasons with no fruit, there are many factors. A late freeze that can kill the flowers and cause that. Another good reason would be apple trees need to have another apple tree nearby flowering at the same time so that pollination can occur. It could be one of your neighbors has a similar tree nearby or even more bee activity this year than in previous years.

  21. Claire Says:

    What a wealth of knowledge — very generously given.

    And G.W.F. just gave me the Clue I was looking for about when to determine harvestability.

    I shall do some poking, prodding, online searching, and testing and report back to y’all.

    (just waiting, I’m relieved that at least one person here shares my black thumb. It’s a terrible trait for anybody who believes in preparedness or independence. But there it is …)

  22. -S Says:

    G.W.F. hit it, but I’ll emphasize.

    The years with little or no fruit could be caused by frost, blossom rot, or lack of bees. Bees are struggling in most areas.

    Next year, pay close attention to the tree during blossom time. It should have lots of bees, enough so that you can hear them buzzing. If there are no bees, you may want to consider getting some, although they will pollinate up to 8,000 acres in addition to your tree. You might also find a local beekeeper (a hobbiest) and let them keep 1-3 hives on your property.

    The tree is large enough that there isn’t much you can do about late season frosts. If you see signs of disease in the blossoms next year, you have another set of problems to solve.

    Good luck! We grew up with apple and peach trees, they were a delight in the good years.

  23. naturegirl Says:

    Wow, thanks everyone, I learned a bunch of new stuff reading through all of this!

  24. Jeffrey King Says:

    Doesn’t apply but it reminded me seeing all those apples. Anyone can count the seeds in a apple but no one can the apples in a seed.

  25. Dave Says:

    “Ask Jackie Clay”

  26. Chris Says:

    I’ve found local tree nurseries to be very friendly places. There is usually a fruit tree specialist who love to talk fruit trees. Take a sample in, and I’ll bet you get quite the fruit tree education – custom tailored to your climate.

  27. Latigo Morgan Says:

    Could be a Macintosh tree –

    I planted one 9 years ago, and this was the first year I got a harvest. We picked them all last week, and just last night had a heck of a storm tear through. It knocked over all my corn and uprooted tomato plants.

    If we hadn’t picked our apples, I’d have been picking them up off the ground, this morning.

  28. Ellendra Says:

    I sometimes cook with wild apples, underipe apples, and crabapples. A slow simmer with some brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, and ground cloves can turn any apple into a good apple.

    Some apple trees skip years, or sometimes they get nipped by frost. For frost you can try stringing christmas lights in the tree. Pretty AND useful :)

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