Many home gardeners and growers with small orchards choose heirlooms over standard hybrids for a variety of reasons. While the mythology might say that heirlooms are more prone to disease or pests, the opposite is almost always true.
Why Grow Heirloom Apples?
There are a lot of reasons to grow heirloom apples, not the least of which is preserving heritage. Most heirlooms are varieties that were handed down from generation to generation and brought to America from other countries.
In 1905 when The Apples of New York was published, it listed hundreds of varieties of favored apples grown in that state and surrounding region. Since then, nearly every one of those has been lost, thanks to uniform breeding and the commercial cultivation of hybrids. Happily, a few of the heirlooms still remain with all their variety of shape, color, and taste.
Heirloom Apple Varieties To Try in a Home Orchard
Well-known heirlooms include the Cortland, Empire, and Macoun, which are often grown in the Eastern U.S. While these are the best known, they are not the only varieties by a long shot. There are dozens of heirlooms to try, but the type you use will depend largely on where you are located, what’s available to you, and what you want the apples for.
Wickson and Hudson’s Golden Gem are good choices if you live in a temperate zone of 5-7 and are looking for apples to eat or store.
Dabinett, Baldwins, and Golden or Roxbury Russets are a good choice if you prefer to make cider from your apples. These are varieties still popularly used by premium cider makers today.
For eating or for pies in colder climates, try Courtland or Macoun. For a grower’s challenge, you can try some of the more exotic types like Ashmead’s Kernel or Pitmaston Pineapple (a very small apple).
Planting Heirloom Apple Trees
When planting apple trees, whether heirloom or not, the trick is to have the soil prepared first, well before adding the tree. The soil should be loose, but not sandy, and should have very good drainage to prevent root rot. It should be fertile, down deeper than for vegetables.
Dig down to about 120% of the depth of your root ball or stem and backfill with loosened dirt. There is no need to add any fertilizer while planting. Most trees require a few weeks to settle in and should be planted in the off-season while dormant (after the leaves fall in autumn or before the tree buds in the spring). When the tree buds, water regularly.
Making Use of An Heirloom Apple Harvest
If harvesting to eat and store, then you will want to get the apples at peak ripeness before they begin to soften. Storage should be in a cellar or cool, dry place. Apples with bruised or broken skins should not be stored, but consumed immediately as they will rot early.
Apples for pies can be sliced and canned for preservation or made into preserves and sauces. This should be done within two weeks of harvest to preserve the best flavor, but many pie apples will store for long periods in a cellar.
Cider can be made anytime depending on the flavor you want. Some recipes call for old, softened apples that have been in storage for some time, while others require fresh-picked apples. Cider is a great use of apples that have been in storage for a long period and are nearing their end of use.