Big Orange Welcomes the ‘Forbidden’ Fruit


Mention growing apples to Southern Californians and many picture old, knobby trees in nippy New England orchards. While it’s true that many apple varieties are grown in chillier parts of the United States, it is possible for local gardeners to grow crisp, juicy apples.

“Many people think it’s not cold enough here for apples, but there are varieties that produce well here,” says Andrew Sprague, assistant manager of Armstrong Garden Center in Fullerton, which carries several types of apple trees.

Plenty of apples can be grown here, including some antique varieties, agrees Bob Hunt, a member of the Orange County chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, who teaches classes on fruit growing, including how to graft fruit trees. (Hunt holds a beginner’s grafting class today at 10:30 a.m. at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa on the west side of the Silo building.)

“Although they aren’t all readily available, there are close to 50 varieties of apples that do well in Southern California,” says Hunt, who gardens on less than one-third of an acre in Anaheim. “I’ve got one apple tree onto which I’ve grafted 17 different apple varieties that all bear at various times throughout the spring, summer and early fall.”


This is the ideal time to buy and plant bare-root apple trees, which should be available through most nurseries and fruit tree mail-order companies until the end of February. Apple trees are available at other times of the year, but established plants will be substantially more expensive.


Unlike apple trees of the past that reached 16 feet tall and almost as wide, many of today’s apple trees come in dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties that fit into just about any yard, and most do well in containers.

“Thanks to newer hybrids and dwarf root stock, just about anyone can now grow an apple tree,” Sprague says. “This year, we’re carrying a new ultra-dwarf Fuji hybrid that reaches just 5 to 6 feet tall and grows in a weeping, rather than upright, pattern, reaching about 5 feet wide. It does really well in containers or the ground.”

Most nurseries and fruit tree mail-order companies don’t carry full-sized trees anymore, says Jack Snyder, president and CEO of C&O; Nursery in Wenatchee, Wash., which carries a variety of dwarf and semi-dwarf apple trees.

“People don’t want to climb 15 to 20 feet for their apples,” he says. “They want to use a small ladder, or better yet, pick them from the ground.”

Most dwarf trees grow just 6 to 10 feet high and need a 12-foot diameter with 6 feet of clearance on all sides. Semi-dwarf varieties grow a little larger, usually reaching 10 to 14 feet and needing a 20-foot diameter with 10 feet of clearance on all sides.

Dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties produce less fruit than standard varieties, but it is often enough for the home gardener. “Our dwarf trees produce one to two boxes of fruit, while our semi-dwarfs produce four to six boxes,” Snyder says.


Smaller isn’t necessarily less tasty. Because dwarf trees are closer to the ground, they get more chilling hours, which apples need to produce good fruit. Many dwarf trees bear sooner and often have larger fruit.

The most important step to growing successful backyard apples is choosing the right tree for the yard.

First, consider the type of apple you want. Do you like a sweet apple, or do you prefer something a little tart? Gala and Dorsett Golden are very sweet; Granny Smith and Braeburn are more tart.

What color apple do you want? Granny Smith is green, Dorsett Golden yellow. If you like red, you’ll want something such as Gordon, a deep red with white flesh.


Also consider the chilling hours required--the number of hours every winter that temperatures dip to 45 degrees or lower. Generally, we have about 300 chill hours every winter, although last winter we had a record-setting 100, Hunt says. Apples that do well in this area usually need 100 to 200 chill hours per year, he says.


It’s important to know if the tree is self-fertile or needs a pollinator. Varieties such as Fuji and Mutsu need another tree within 100 feet for cross-pollination; types such as Dorsett Golden are self-fertile and need no pollinator. Others such as Braeburn don’t need a pollinator but will produce better if one is present.

If you have room for only one tree, you can grow a variety that needs a pollinator by grafting another variety onto that tree, Hunt says.


“Graft a variety that is a good pollinator onto your tree and you’ll not only solve your pollination problem, [but also] you’ll have two different apple types on the same tree,” he says. “I’ve found the two best apples for cross-pollination are yellow delicious and Dorsett Golden. And I’ve found that apples are the easiest fruit tree to graft.”

Once you’ve chosen the varieties you want, keep the following tips in mind.

* Plant in an area that gets sun most of the day. If you have a choice between an area that is elevated and one that is low, choose the lowest area, as this will get the coldest and give your tree more chill hours.

* Most experts suggest amending the soil if you have heavy clay. Some suggested amendments include planter mix, bagged compost or well-aged homemade compost, perlite, gypsum, peat moss and topsoil. Rates of application vary from 50% to 100%, depending on the condition of the soil. The more clay in the soil, the more amendments should be added.


* Dig a hole about 18 by 18 inches, mix in the amendment and plant the tree, spreading out the roots. The graft union, the bulge at the base of the plant where the apple variety was grafted onto the root stock, should be 3 to 4 inches above the soil line and face the wind, which will give the plant strength, Snyder says.

Once the tree is planted, prune each branch back one-third to one-half, which will balance the tree to the root system and allow it to grow normally.

* Form a water trench to the tree’s drip-line and water well. Don’t water again until there is new growth, unless the soil dries out substantially.

* Stake the tree on both sides; this will allow it to grow straight and strong. Stakes of various materials can be found at nurseries or home supply stores. Fasten the stakes with green garden ties, which expand as the tree grows and break if the pressure becomes too great, rather than harming the tree as some materials can. Remove stakes after the tree is about a year old.


* Protect young bark from the sun’s damaging rays. Snyder suggests painting the trunk up to 3 feet with a mix of 50% white latex water-based paint and 50% water, which will reflect the sun.

* Grow apples in a 24-inch container. Use a high-quality potting soil that contains some fertilizer. Plant as you would in the ground.

* Don’t fertilize in-ground plants until they are actively growing in three months or so. Hunt suggests using a high-nitrogen fertilizer the first year, which will stimulate plant growth.

Others, such as Snyder, say fertilizing isn’t necessary until the second year of growth, at which time the tree needs small amounts of balanced fertilizer.


“A tree has to be stressed a little to create fruit spurs,” Snyder says. “If the tree gets too much fertilizer, it will just throw growth spurs, and you’ll never have fruit.”

* Don’t prune the first year. The tree needs to grow as much leaf surface as it can to develop a healthy root system.

If fruiting occurs during the first year, remove the fruit so that the plant can put all of its energy into root development. Some experts also suggest knocking fruit off the second year, although others favor letting the tree bear a small crop.

By the third year, let the tree produce a full crop. Thin the fruit to 6 inches apart when they are the size of small golf balls.


Beginning in the second year of growth, during dormancy in December and January, prune the tree. Cut out crossing or closely spaced branches as well as any that have grown much bigger than the other. You eventually want three or four main branches evenly spaced and about the same size, which is where most fruit production will occur.

* If pests become a problem, spray the tree with light horticultural oil during dormancy.


Appealing Varieties


The following varieties of apple trees grow well in Southern California because they have low chill requirements. They come in dwarf and semi-dwarf sizes. Ripening times are approximate.

* Anna (needs pollinator): Yellowy-red apple is sweet and crisp with a slight hint of tartness. Originally from Israel, it has very low chill requirements and is a heavy producer. Will ripen throughout summer.

* Braeburn (does best with pollinator): A firm, mildly sweet to tart medium-sized apple with orange-red blush over a green-yellow background. It is very low chill and bears late in the season, about July or August.

* Dorsett Golden (self-pollinating): This Golden Delicious hybrid is yellow and very low chill. It is crisp, firm and sweet and bears in late June.


* Ein Shemer (self-pollinating): Originally from Israel, this greenish apple with red striping is sweet with some tartness. Ripens mid-June through early July.

* Fuji (needs pollinator): Originally hybridized in Japan, this apple has a variety that is green with a red blush and another variety that is red. It is sweet, firm and crunchy and keeps well without losing its flavor or quality. Bears late, from early to mid-September.

* Gala (does best with pollinator): Often considered a beautiful apple with red striping over golden skin. Crisp and sweet. Bears late July through September.

* Gordon (self-pollinating): Large red apple is considered excellent for eating but can be used for cooking too. Very low chill. Sweet with a mild tartness. Bears in July.


* Granny Smith (self-pollinating): Crisp, tart, antique apple that is bright green and large. It bears late, from August through September.

* Jonagold (needs pollinator): Sweet, large apple with red over yellow-green skin. Produces mid-season from late July to early September.

* Mutsu (needs pollinator): This hybrid from Japan has large fruit that matures from green to yellow and sometimes has an orange blush. It bears in late July, early August.

* Pink Lady (does best with pollinator): This crisp, sweet-tart apple is reddish-pink over green skin. It ripens in early July and is well suited to hot climates.


* Yellow Delicious (self-pollinating): Large green apple with a yellow blush that ripens in late June.

Apple Tree Sources

Here is a sampling of sources that offer a free catalog:

* C & O Nursery, (800) 232-2636;


* Sonoma Antique Apple Nursery, (707) 433-6420.

* Exotica, (760) 724-9093.