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Big Orange Welcomes the 'Forbidden' Fruit

Gardening: Dozens of varieties of apples do well here despite Southern California's mild winters. Take your pick.

January 31, 1998|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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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.

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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.

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