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
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.
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.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org