Ah, autumn at last… It's time to bid a fond farewell to summer! Depending upon what time zone you live in, fall will officially begin sometime later this evening—September 22—or in the wee hours September 23rd (the autumnal equinox will occur at 3:09 am UTC, September 23rd). For those of us living on the east coast, it's been a long, hot, dry year, and I'm more than ready for fall. Autumn has always been my favorite season. Living in New England, the cool, crisp days, colorful foliage and delights of the fall harvest are things I look forward to all year. Autumn means apples here in Vermont, and I've already made several trips to Scott Farm—the beautiful, old orchard featured in the film Cider House Rules—for heirloom fruit, local honey, and Zeke Goodband's famous cider.
Growing up, one of my father's closest friends owned an orchard. And as a child, I spent many happy hours there during harvest season, playing amongst the trees while my dad picked apples for his friend. Since that time, I've always dreamed of planting a small grove of fruit trees to call my own. But designing and planting an orchard—even a modest one—takes more than a little planning. After a year of research and careful observation, I began a small clearing on the high, easterly side of my property. Eventually, this will become a little orchard, where I will plant my own heirloom fruit trees; mostly apples, pears, and a few peaches and plums.
Although I have worked closely with professional orchardists on several landscaping projects—including the restoration of a beautiful, historic apple grove just up the road—it's always important to have solid, scientific information at your fingertips when deciding what kind of fruit to grow and where and how to grow it. One of the first books I picked up was The Backyard Orchardist by Stella Otto, a professional orchard keeper, horticultural instructor, and consultant. For the home gardener with an interest in growing fruit, this book is a great place to begin research. Otto covers all of the basics of orchard keeping, from site selection and soil testing, to planting and cultivating fruit trees, and dealing with common pests, diseases and other challenges. And while I am familiar with most common and many heirloom apple varieties, and will be purchasing my fruit trees from local Scott Farm, I found the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's The Best Apples to Buy and Grow to be an excellent all-around resource for fruit-tree selection. This book describes sixty varieties of everyday and antique cultivars in detail, covering everything from varietal hardiness to taste and culinary use. As an added bonus, because of its tiny size, this guide book conveniently fits in a backpack; useful when making a trip to the local orchard.
Interested in growing your own apples? Fruit trees are best planted during dormancy, in fall or early spring, and adding a couple of dwarf apples to your backyard is a relatively simple project. As for my mini-orchard? Well, it will be awhile yet before my dreams come to full fruition. I still have plenty of rocks and stumps to remove. So in the meantime, I will continue my 'research' by taste-testing the many delicious heirloom apples available at Scott Farm this fall.
Do you make an annual, fall pilgrimage to a local orchard for apples? I love the taste of freshly picked heirloom apples. What is your favorite apple variety?
Michaela grew up gardening, studying plants, and picking organic produce on the family farm. When she isn't spreading compost or pruning shrubs, she can usually be found writing articles or giving seminars on all things gardening. Michaela has worked as a gardening professional for 15 years and is author of the popular blog, The Gardener’s Eden.