A good cider starts out with a well-planned and planted orchard.
Gardening for the Homebrewer (Voyageur Press, 2018), by Wendy Tweten and Debbie Teashon walks through the cultivation, harvesting, and brewing processes necessary for making beer, cider, wine, and much more. As two seasoned gardeners, Tweten and Teashon know the fulfillment of growing food for the table and for the wine cellar. Assembling a brew book as a guide, the two seasoned gardening writers share their passion for following the process from “garden to glass”, seed to stein, barley to beer, and vine to wine. No detail is spared, packing in specifics of the best growing seasons, zones, varieties, and cultivation conditions.
Now that you’ve selected your cider trees, it’s time to plant your orchard. Whether you’re planting one tree or many, plan your orchard proudly; you’re part of the great American apple tradition, and the tree you plant today — if luck and health are on its side — may provide apples to generations of cider makers.
One thing is critical when deciding where to site your orchard: Apple trees need sun. Too much shade aids disease and thwarts ripening. Set trees out of prevailing winds, which can disrupt pollination. Frost pockets can damage blossoms or fruit in colder climates. Although apples prefer to grow in rich loam, they can withstand less-than-perfect soil. Dwarf trees, with their brittle rootstocks, benefit most from good soil. Dig a hole deep enough that the top of the rootball sits level with the top of the ground or slightly lower where winters are harsh. Fill the hole halfway up the root-ball with native soil, and add water to the very top. A thorough soaking is important not just for hydration but for settling the soil and filling air pockets. Once the water has soaked in, finish filling the hole, leaving a shallow depression with a raised outer lip around the top of the sunken rootball to act as a bowl for future soakings. For the first two years after the tree is planted, don’t allow the soil around the rootball to dry out. Neither should it be perpetually soggy.
The generally accepted time for setting out fruit trees is in the dormant season, November through January, and this is when bareroot trees are available. However, container-grown trees can be planted in any but the hottest weather. Stake trees only if they are top-heavy or feel loose. Plan to remove the stake as soon as the tree is stable. Dwarf trees are an exception to this rule: they’ll need a permanent stake, so take the extra time and expense to install an attractive stake that will last for at least twenty years. Finally, if mice, rabbits, or bucks rubbing velvet from their antlers are a problem, wrap the trunk in hardware cloth or fine-wire fencing from the ground to the first branch. Deer love to eat apple leaves; in a few minutes a marauding doe can strip and kill (or severely set back) a young tree. If there are deer in your neighborhood (or other hungry herbivores), enclose the entire tree in a cage made of stock fencing until the sapling is big enough to survive their grazing.
Apple trees do not come true from seed. Quite the opposite. An apple pippin, or seed-grown tree, delights in asserting its independence. It may be the next great pomological sensation or, more likely, a dud. What it will not be is a clone of its parents. For that, an apple tree must be grafted. Grafting is a matter of attaching scionwood, or branches of the desired tree, to a rootstock, the roots and trunk of a donor apple — possibly the very wildlings just discussed.
Grafting has several advantages. For one, it allows the creation of dwarf and semi-dwarf trees. Full-size, “standard” apple trees tend to grow to 20 feet or more, making harvesting their fruit a feat for monkeys. A standard-sized tree grown from seed can take up to ten years to bear fruit, while a grafted dwarf or semi-dwarf tree can yield fruit in as little as two to four years. Virus-free, dwarfing apple rootstocks such as the EMLA series or the diminutive Budagovsky 9 result in trees 6 to 16 feet tall. Rootstocks such as these are readily available online and from mail-order fruit nurseries.
Grafting is not difficult. With good instruction, a few inexpensive tools, and a half-dozen rootstocks, the novice has a decent chance of getting at least one healthy tree. With a little experience and access to scionwood from donor trees, you can beget an entire orchard for the price of the root-stocks — often the price of a single nursery tree. The home grafter can propagate vintage varieties and even experiment with multiple grafts on one stock, thereby creating a custom combo tree. Imagine growing a full range of cider varieties on a single tree!
Grafting is best done at the very end of the dormant season, just before or as the buds begin to swell. Your most important tool will be a very sharp knife. Specialty grafting knives are not terribly expensive, but a finely honed pocketknife or utility knife can also be used. Since you’ll be pulling that sharp blade toward your fingers with a good deal of force, leather gloves are a wise precaution. Wide rubber bands or special grafting bands that disintegrate with age are needed to hold your newly inserted scion in the stock. Wax can also be used to seal certain types of grafts and hold the parts in place.
A graft can be made from either a branch or a bud inserted in an understock. Both branch and bud grafts can be accomplished in several different ways. Apple trees can be propagated by any of these methods, but one of the most common and straightforward is the whip-and-tongue graft. The goal, as with all grafting, is to line up the cambium layer of the two pieces. Located just beneath the bark, the cambium produces the cells that transport water, sugar, and nutrients from the roots to the crown and through every living part of the plant.
Before cutting the scionwood, be sure you know which end is up, and keep it that way. An upside-down scion is a dead scion. Line up the scion alongside the stock to find the point where they are as close to the same dimension as possible. At this point, cut a 7-inch piece of scionwood using pruning shears sterilized with rubbing alcohol. Two inches at the butt end will be whittled to attach to the stock. Likewise, trim the stock 2 inches higher than where it will join the scion to allow for whittling.
Next, use the knife to cut matching diagonal slices 1-1/2 inches long from both the stock and scion. They must match up like two parts of the same stick as this is where the two will be joined. To hold them together securely, each piece gets a second cut, this one from the freshly cut end directly upward into the woody center about 3/4 inch deep. On the stock, this should be performed one-third of the way up the fresh cut; on the scion, one-third of the way down. This creates a “tongue” on each end which, when slipped together, gives the graft union added support. A cut rubber band is then wound tightly round and round the graft and tied off. Pot your new apple tree and keep it in a sheltered spot such as a screened porch for the first few weeks to keep it from drying out. It can then be moved outdoors to a sheltered garden spot, out of direct sun and strong wind until the graft fuses. If the tree leafs out robustly the following spring, it’s ready for a permanent spot in the garden.
Proper pruning will reward you with well-placed branches, good crops of large fruit, and easy harvesting. The goal is to create a strong system of branches angled widely to the trunk and spaced for optimum light and air circulation. Pruning can be done in winter and summer. Each season has its own reasons and results. Winter pruning removes diseased or poorly placed branches; it concentrates the stored energy of the tree in the remaining wood, causing a rush of spring growth that often includes strongly vertical water sprouts from the branches and suckers from the roots. Suckers and water sprouts should be removed flush with their point of origin — pulled off along with their growth points, if it can be done without tearing the surrounding bark. Rub off any growth below the graft as soon as it appears.
Summer pruning has the opposite effect. Removing branches with leaves removes energy, giving the tree less impetus to unbridled growth. August is not only the month for trimming trees while triggering fewer water sprouts, it’s also the time to create spurs, beneficial stubby branches whose sole purpose is to produce fruit. Many varieties of apple will form spurs where new growth coming from the trunk or main branches is cut back to three leaves. Finally, badly placed or crossing branches and those with narrow crotch angles can be removed in summer rather than winter; in the summer, it’s just more difficult to see the overall structure of the tree with all those leaves in the way. Prune newly planted trees lightly for their first few years. Forget about fruit and concentrate on a strong structure, which will determine the shape of the tree all its life. Remove droopy and weak branches. Retain strong branches that emerge in an even spiral up the tree. On semi-dwarfs and standards, slowly remove lower branches as the tree grows to leave a comfortable space beneath the eventual mature tree for mowing or — on standards — a tire swing.
Depending on the rootstock and the cultivar, a new apple tree will begin to set fruit in two to ten years. The number of years the tree will be productive also varies. Shallow and noncompetitive dwarf rootstocks may produce for only twenty years, while standard trees on their own roots can persevere for a hundred years, as proved by old farmyards across the nation.
After two or more years of patient waiting, watering, pruning, and protecting, at last your apple is expectant with embryonic fruit. Now, pinch them off. Well, not all of them. This important orchard chore is known as thinning. Thinning picks up where nature leaves off. Apple trees shed some of their immature fruit in early summer in a natural process known as June drop. Homeowners can finish the job by removing all but the healthiest little apple in every 5 or 6 inches. Thinning prevents small or weak branches from breaking under heavy fruit loads. It also inhibits biennial bearing, a condition where a tree over-produces one year, then takes the next year off. Although a thinned tree produces less fruit, the remaining apples are larger and healthier. Thinning should be done before the tiny apples grow larger than a nickel.
You’ll know the cider days of summer (or fall) are here when the apples begin to tumble from the trees without the aid of wind, weather, or romping neighborhood children. As a test, lift an apple, putting pressure against the seam of the stem and, if necessary, giving a gentle twist. Ripe fruit will snap off in your hand; unripe fruit will resist. A properly picked apple will come away with the near end of the stem still attached. Pack or stack the fruit gently; a bruised apple is a bad apple, and we all know what one of those can do.
Apple trees and their fruit are beset by scab, powdery mildew, fireblight, canker, codling moth, and apple maggot. That’s the bad news. The good news is you’re growing cider apples; short of actual rot in the fruit, you needn’t worry about how they look. Scab, mildew, even insect blotches don’t affect these stalwarts’ use in cider. If parts of the fruit are brown and mushy, either throw away the entire fruit or cut out the damaged areas which can host toxin-producing mold. When it comes to insects, the hard truth about hard cider is this: the occasional pressed larva is pretty much inevitable. Do as our pioneer ancestors did — squeeze your apples boldly and try not to think about it.
Cider needn’t be about apples alone; other homegrown flavors can lend a refreshing — or interesting —twist to this otherwise single-minded beverage. Berries and other fruits are natural cider associates. Practically any berry you can grow in your backyard makes a nice addition to cider. Often-used berries include raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and black currants. These and other juicy fruits such as peaches, cherries, kiwi, pears, and quince are juiced and fermented separately, then added to the fermented apple juice. Drier fruits and herbs can be steeped in the cider at the first racking, after the liquid has been siphoned from one fermentation vessel to another.
In spring, when the apple trees bloom, our fancy turns lightly to thoughts of cider. Sit back and crack open a bottle of liquid gold, lovingly put away the previous fall. Let the birds sing; let the bees drone from blossom to blossom pollinating the coming harvest. What could be finer than to relax beneath your trees and enjoy the labors of your fruit?
A 20-foot square of backyard can hold one standard-sized apple tree, two semi-dwarfs, or four fully dwarf trees. Three dwarf apple trees leave room for another type of fruit tree to round out your cider-making possibilities. Depending on your zone, consider a dwarf peach, quince, or sour cherry — great cider additions all.
Peach trees (Prunus persica ) demand a mild climate: they need at least five frost-free months and a chilling period of 600 to 900 hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Where springs are particularly cold and damp, peaches suffer poor pollination and peach leaf curl. Many cultivars are self-fertile. Dwarf peaches of 5 to 7 feet are available.
Fruiting quinces (Cydonia oblonga — not the more common flowering quince, Chaenomeles species) are attractive all-season trees that, at less than 15 feet, fit neatly into a home landscape. Quince fruit may be mistaken for oversized, downy-skinned pears. Although now somewhat rare, quinces were common in colonial orchards. They produce heavy crops, but the fruit is slow to ripen, often into November. Gardeners in cold climates rally small, to 20 feet tall with a spread as may find their quince fruit can’t beat the wide. Some sour cherry varieties are sweet first killing frost. Otherwise, the trees enough to be enjoyed fresh. Sour cherries themselves are hardy into Zone 5. Quinces are self-fertile. are self-fertile; you only need one.
Sour cherry trees (Prunus cerasus) are the most cold-resistant of the three. They can survive in Zone 4, although they cider. If your climate is mild and your soil might suffer deadly trunk damage in the reasonably friable, why not try the king of coldest regions. Blossoms can be nipped cider apples, Kingston Black? A bushel of by late frosts. Sour cherries perform best bittersharp Kingston Blacks will enhance where winters are frosty and summers any cider. For your second tree, consider are mild to moderate. The trees are
Your three dwarf apples trees should — in two or three years — present you with enough fruit for about 9 gallons of fresh naturally bittersweet such as a vigorous and high-alcohol Medaille D’Or, or an equally vigorous Major. Your third tree can round out your cider triumvirate with a sweet such as a Grimes Golden, which is aromatic and doubles as a culinary apple, or a Roxbury Russet with the same characteristics but also stores well and thrives in colder climates. In place of a sweet cider apple, you can plant your favorite culinary apple — perhaps a Cox’s Orange Pippin, Jonagold, Liberty, Honeycrisp, Ashmead’s Kernel, or whatever suits your fancy. Just be sure it ripens around the same time as its orchard-mates; this not only makes for convenient pressing but helps ensure pollination because apples that ripen together tend to bloom together.
Now for some berries. A 20-foot row of raspberries, blackberries, or jostaberries will further expand your cider repertoire. If your orchard comprises dwarf trees, you might even consider growing a row of each along the east, south, and west borders of your garden. After all, raspberries and blackberries are a wonderful summer treat that are at their best picked out of your own backyard. Jostaberries (pronounced YOS-ta-berries: in your best pseudo-Swedish accent say, “Yah, yostaberries!”) can also be eaten fresh, but are equally good turned to jelly — or included in cider.
Raspberries come in two distinct types: single-crop summer bearers and dual-crop summer/fall bearers. In summer-bearing raspberries, as well as the upright-growing blackberries, canes that produced last year are pruned out the following fall or winter. This means careful pruning since this year’s fruiting canes are growing amongst last year’s dead canes. The dual-crop raspberries are different. The easiest way to deal with these is to simply cut all the canes down in the winter before the new fruiting canes appear in spring; this gives one crop of berries in late summer. Or they can be pruned like summer bearers (removing last year’s dead canes) and the live canes allowed to grow for two smaller crops: Summer and early fall. Upright blackberries, in addition to having their old canes removed, benefit from having their new canes tipped back by 3 to 6 inches when the canes reach 3 to 4 feet. Otherwise, the main requirements of blackberries and raspberries are well-drained soil, sun, winter chill, and a Zone 3 to 8 setting for raspberries, Zone 5 to 9 for blackberries.
Jostaberry is a cross of black currant and gooseberry. They are easy to grow, thornless, and generous with their crops. The attractive bushes grow to 5 to 6 feet and prefer Zone 5 and colder. A single plant can gift its grower with 8 to 12 pounds of fruit. Check your local regulations before setting your heart on jostaberries or currants; they are prohibited in some states because they host blister rust, which decimates native white pine.
Apple trees can often be grown from pomace via benign neglect. Spread the seedy pomace on loose, fallow soil in the sun, keep it damp, and wait for the pips to pop. In the dormant season, move the seedlings to pots to grow in, or — if they aren’t crowded — leave them in place until they’re at least 18 inches tall, and then move them to their permanent homes. There are two things to keep in mind when growing apple trees from seed. First, these will be big trees (up to 30 feet). Second, you never know what you’re going to get with sexually propagated apples; they’re likely to be poor culinary fruit, but fine for cider. That’s the fun of it! You’ve engaged in a botanical treasure hunt. You are the proud owner of apple trees found nowhere else in the world. If one of your pippins turns out to be a genetic gem, you can graft it and share it with friends — even patent it. These trees are yours alone, and they are unique.
Waste not, want not, and apple pomace is much too good to waste. You can go the traditional route and feed it to your pigs or livestock (though it is too rich for horses). To do this, mix small amounts of pomace with large amounts of hay or other forage. The crumbly mash also makes a luxurious mulch for acid-loving plants such as rhododendrons — if you don’t mind its brief, though heady, wine aroma and volunteer seedlings. If nothing else, pomace is an excellent compost ingredient. However, if you’re daring, and have an acre to fill, consider growing new trees from the leftover apple seed.
Reprinted with permission from Gardening for the Homebrewer by Wendy Tweten and Debbie Teashon and published by Voyageur Press, 2015.
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