Thinking about adding a fruit tree to your garden this year? If so, now is the time to peruse a nursery catalog or conduct a search online. Since these plants will be with you for decades, it is important to make informed decisions when selecting trees.
Earlier this fall, I searched for the old-fashioned apple varieties that once flourished in North Carolina. Located within sight of Pilot Mountain, the Southern Heritage Apple Orchard at Horne Creek Living Historical Farm is a treasure trove of heirloom apple trees. Though publicized as a preservation orchard, it provides the gardening public with much more than a nostalgic look at a bygone agricultural era.
I went seeking some apple varieties that would weather Piedmont conditions and produce decent fruit with little or no pesticide applications. While I am aware of the pruning requirements of fruit trees, like so many other gardeners, I loathe spraying chemicals.
An apple legacy
The Southern Heritage Apple Orchard is the brainchild of one of North Carolina’s hobby pomologists, Lee Calhoun, who literally wrote the book on Southern apples. After canvassing the South looking for remnants of orchards tucked away in remote places, Calhoun documented his finds and laid them out in a remarkable publication, Old Southern Apples, Revised & Expanded: A Comprehensive History and Description of Varieties for Collectors, Growers, and Fruit Enthusiasts.
Calhoun gave the state an exceptional gift when his apple collection and Horne Creek Living Historical Farm were designated as a North Carolina Historic Site by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
Today, the preservation orchard contains 800 fruit trees, all grafted on dwarfing rootstocks for ease in maintenance. The well-manicured trees are an arboreal delight, as the majority of trees are free-standing. One section is displayed in trellis form showcasing espalier techniques. The straight rows of trees follow the contour of the land and gravel mulch covers the bare ground underneath the branches. Jason Bowen, the orchard manager, says the gravel mulch discourages vole infestations that eat away at root systems. Weeds are maintained by mowing routinely.
Heirloom apples require rigid spray schedules to stay ahead of the fungal diseases that are so prevalent in the humid South. Our native red cedar trees host apple rust disease, and fire blight bacteria often appear in rainy spring weather during bloom time. Due to their disease-prone nature, it is no wonder orchards fell by the wayside and heirloom fruits became harder to locate.
As a result, today's fruit growing focuses on a dozen or so well-developed apple cultivars. Thanks to national breeding programs, we have superb new strains of apples, like Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and Fuji, with better disease resistance and storage quality. These are available on the produce shelf year-round with tons of apples in cold storage for off-season consumption.
Choosing your tree
The benefit of careful variety selection cannot be emphasized enough. Bowen recommends selecting apple varieties for home gardens based on bloom time and ripening season. Choose fruit trees that can cross-pollinate one another. With heirloom varieties, a similar flowering cycle can help when spraying for fire blight. A word of warning – don’t spray insecticides during bloom time or pollinating bees may be killed. Southern Heritage Apple Orchard maintains a hive for the native mason bees to help with pollination.
It's also important to choose apples that suit your palette. Consider your preference for crisp, tart, bland, long-keeping, or cooking apples when making your choice.
The size of a fruit tree can be problematic at pruning season. Bowen recommends that gardeners consider using true dwarf selections on a trellis. They are more compact, and, with the help of some espalier techniques, they are easier to maintain.
Based on his observations at Horne Creek, Bowen suggests starter varieties like Arkansas Black, Virginia Beauty, Black Twig, Gilmore Red, and Winesap. You can read about these and others in Calhoun’s book, Old Southern Apples. In addition, your county extension agent may have recommendations on apples varieties released by the USDA Research Service.
Making a visit
If you are in search of a pleasant day trip, Horne Creek Living Historical Farm in Surry County is a must-see. The late 19th-century Hauser farmhouse is authentic and the antique farm equipment remains intact. The autumn Apple Festival is a popular event for locals, with hundreds crowding the grounds to enjoy bluegrass bands and a sip of freshly-pressed cider.
Horne Creek Farm
308 Horne Creek Farm Road
Pinnacle, N.C. 27043
Phone: (336) 325-2298
Fax: (336) 325-3150
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For more than 30 years, Toby Bost has been a resource to North Carolina gardeners and growers as an agricultural extension agent, a trainer for master gardeners, and an author. His books include The Successful Gardener Guide: North Carolina, North Carolina Gardener’s Guide, and The Carolina Gardener’s Guide. He can be reached through Our State magazine at email@example.com