Many of us grew up picking and eating New England apples, McIntosh, Cortland, Macoun, Empire, Baldwin, Rome and more. These are the apples of our childhood. When picked and used in season these are all great apples. Unfortunately, in New England, they and many other varieties are susceptible to some major diseases, making home and or organic growing difficult at best.
We will discuss the major diseases in general, some helpful cultural practices and finally some apple variety recommendations. We hope these recommendations can make having a home orchard much more enjoyable and relaxing. The recommendations are based on our research and actual experience tasting and or growing.
Commercial orchards have to control both major and minor apple diseases to present a product that most customers are willing to purchase. In most years the home orchardist needs to be concerned with only the major diseases. In our experience the major diseases include Apple Scab, Apple Cedar Rust, Fire Blight, and Sooty Blotch/Fly Speck.
This is by far to most problematic apple disease. It is a rare weather year that this disease is not a problem. The disease weakens the tree, can virtually destroy the fruit and gets worse as the year progresses, with the disease building in the orchard for next season. We view this as enemy number one in the disease category.
Cedar Apple Rust:
Many years, based on weather, this can be a problem that weakens the tree, some young branches and marks fruit. Cedar Apple Rust requires Eastern Red Cedar or Juniper to complete its life cycle. Since these are common plants this is a problem in most of New England, but it is possible to live in an area were this isn't a problem.
Another weather dependent disease that is a serious problem in commercial orchards. This disease can kill shoots, branches and whole trees.
Sooty Blotch/Fly Speck:
These diseases are different than the others. The two are grouped together since they require, for the most part, the same weather pattern during the growing season and often occur together These diseases are simply superficial with no damage done to the tree or apple. The apple can be eaten without washing, washed off with some effort or pealed, but it visually unpleasant if more than a small amount is present, particularly on a yellow apple.
Disease Resistant Varieties:
We have broken disease resistant apple varieties into groups; heirloom disease resistance, new varieties that have accidental resistance and apples specifically developed to be disease resistant. All the apples we are discussing were developed using cross pollination. These are not genetically modified apples.
We have experience with over a dozen of these varieties. There are many more disease resistance varieties available and still being developed.
Most all apples are susceptible to Sooty Blotch/Fly Speck. The best way to address this disease is through cultural practices. Keeping the tree dry and helping it dry quickly after a rain helps. Plant the tree in full sun, space the tree to allow for air circulation around the tree and don't allow one tree to shade another tree. The University folks recommend that the mature/trained height of a tree be no more than 90% of the distance to the next tree. Example: If the tree height is 9 ft. tall the next tree should be at least 10 ft. away in a commercial orchard. If you have the room farther is better. Prune the individual tree for good air circulation within the tree and it helps to thin the apple clusters to one or the most two apples per cluster, one is best. Another mitigating factor is that Sooty Blotch/Fly Speck usually doesn't show on apples until mid to late August. Early season apples often avoid the visual aspect of this disease.
Our Experience with Disease Resistant Apples:
Roxbury Russet: We have had very good results with this apple. Websites and books disagree with the resistance to apple diseases but our experience is that it is Apple Scab and Cedar Apple Rust tolerant, not resistant, but not susceptible either, Fire Blight resistant. This is an odd apple, think Bosc pear skin, with a really complex flavor.
Wolf River: This apple is a very large apple and a good processing apple. Wolf River is resistant to Apple Scab, somewhat resistant to Fire Blight and we have not seen Cedar Apple Rust on the apple although websites and books disagree with its resistance to Cedar Apple Rust.
Arkansas Black: We were given this apple to taste last fall and have ordered some test trees. We really liked the flavor and hardness. The apple is purported to have some resistance to Apple Scab and Fire Blight and resistant to Cedar Apple Rust. We will see.
New Varieties with Accidental Disease Resistance:
Honeycrisp: This is the apple of the moment. It surpassed Macoun as the most requested apple in our orchard. Honeycrisp is susceptible to Cedar Apple Rust, moderately resistant to Apple Scab and Fire Blight. Last year we had a very bad Cedar Apple Rust year and varieties like GoldRush and Pixie Crunch were impacted but not much Cedar Apple Rust on Honeycrisp. Many new Honeycrisp crosses are being released with some sharing Honeycrisp's disease resistance. Honeycrisp can be a weak grower.
Varieties Developed to be Disease Resistant:
Liberty: In our opinion this is the gold standard of disease resistant apples, in addition to its resistance it has other great attributes like cropping in most years, good size apple, great sweet/tart balance. It is considered immune to Apple Scab, resistant to Cedar Apple Rust and some resistance to Fire Blight.
Freedom: A large apple nice flavor very good growing attributes also considered immune to Apple Scab and resistance to Cedar Apple Rust and Fire Blight.
Williams' Pride: Early large apple. Not a good keeper but matures unevenly meaning they can be picked over several pickings. In many years this apple is picked before Sooty Blotch/Fly Speck appears. Resistant to Apple Scab, Cedar Apple Rust and Fire Blight.
Enterprise: Great late storage apple. Skin is a little thick for some folks but great flavored flesh. Will keep for several months is refrigeration with the flavor getting more complex. Considered immune to Apple Scab and resistant to Cedar Apple Rust and Fire Blight.
Redfree: Another early apple. A little on the small size unless it is aggressively thinned. This is a very popular apple with families who want a smaller lunch box apple. Has resistance to Apple Scab, Cedar Apple Rust and Fire Blight. For us this also seems to hold well on the tree for a couple weeks after it is ripe. Like Williams' Pride it is early enough that it can avoid Sooty Blotch/Fly Speck in some years.
LibDel: (NY30) This was originally developed and tested by Cornell University and has the same great resistance as Liberty. I think this apple was not named and released commercially by Cornell and our wholesaler named it and recommended it when we were looking for a very large apple that was good for cooking and eating. We are glad they did. If you can't tell it is a cross between a Liberty and a Delicious.
NY75414: This apple was never named by Cornell. It has good scab resistance and we have never seen Cedar Apple Rust or Fire blight on the tree. It is a gorgeous purple/red apple the prettiest we have seen, thin skin, crunchy texture but not dense. When first released it scored very high in taste tests. Our favorite eating apple, but for as many orchardist that love it an equal number do not like this apple. It has been rumored, since the 90's when we first planted this apple, that Cornell may name the apple. On occasion if it is a very dry year and we get lazy irrigating and we suddenly have heavy rains this apple has cracked, think tomatoes. I have talked to another Rhode Island grower of this apple and he has never had this apple crack.
Scarlet O'Hara: This is a great tasting apple and you have to love the name. As much as we like the taste we have stopped planting additional trees because of its susceptablity to Fire Blight. But our orchard is in apple country and surrounded by many abandoned trees. The apple does have resistance to Apple Scab and Cedar Apple Rust.
Crimson Crisp: We cropped this for the first time last season. We originally planted it because to the taste profile with a nice sweet/ tart balance but a little more on the sweet side. It has some resistance to Apple Scab but has some susceptablity to Cedar Apple Rust. We did have a little Cedar Apple Rust last year but not enough to worry. It also has some susceptablity to fire blight. For us it is worth the chance for its flavor and pretty shade of red.
Sansa: This is a Gala type apple on the sweet side. It is also an early apple. To our surprise our Honeycrisp customers bought this apple before Honeycrisp was ready then came back for Sansa even when Honeycrisp was available. It is susceptible to Fire Blight with some resistant to Apple Scab and good resistance to Cedar Apple Rust. Because this apple is an early apple it often avoids Sooty Blotch/Fly Speck. The tree does not like to grow straight.
Bonkers: Another Liberty/Delicious cross from Cornell this one was tested as NY35. We have only tasted a few of these and they appear to ripen later than LibDel, but we think a little better flavor. This was not named by Cornell but unofficially named by Michael Phillips of Lost Nation Orchard. Same disease resistance as our gold standard Liberty.
Pixie Crunch: A customer favorite lunch box apple. On the small side, and on the sweet side. Resistant to Apple Scab, some resistance to Fire Blight but susceptible to Cedar Apple Rust. Last season our trees were severely impacted by Cedar Apple Rust. Depending on weather this happens every few years.
GoldRush: Our only yellow apple, very late season. This apple has a lot going for it; tart at picking but with a very high sugar content, holds for months in refrigeration, gets a complex spicy flavor in storage, and takes a long time to oxidize once cut. Makes a very good single variety sweet or hard cider and non browning dry apple chips. The downside; a lot of thinning is required to prevent it from producing every other year, some susceptibility to Cedar Apple Rust and worst of all because it is a late yellow apple Sooty Blotch/Fly Speck can be a serious problem. Resistant to Apple Scab and some resistance to Fire Blight.
Obviously diseases are not the only concerns for the home orchardist. Deer, rabbit and vole control are important and of course insect and weed control. In our opinion, because of the severity of these diseases, starting with disease resistant apple varieties brings you to the fifty yard line, to use a football analogy. A lot of good information is available in books, apple catalogs and the internet, particularly on University websites concerning pest control for folks that want to manage their trees organically. We do not think we could be a Certified Organic orchard without disease resistant apples.
Apple Variety Recommendations:
The recommendation for early season are either Redfree or Williams' Pride, mid season is Liberty, and late season is Enterprise. Enterprise is also a very good keeper apple. If sweet or hard cider is important consider Roxbury Russet or Gold Rush for late season. If Honeycrisp is a “must have”, grow it instead of the early season selection.
As we previously stated many more disease resistant apples exist, research is fun and what you like in an apple might be different than what we like or what we think our customers will like. Also we only touched upon the taste profiles and cultural characteristics of the apples we grow so additional research is advised. As you choose your apples keep in mind if the apples will cross pollinate one another. The ones we recommended will cross pollinate.
Most modern apple trees are actually two parts, the root stock and the apple variety. The root stock is used to change the size of the tree, be disease resistant and insure the apple is true to variety. For example a Liberty apple seed will not produce a Liberty apple tree. Unless you are planting an area that previously had an apple orchard or are surrounded by commercial orchards you should not have much of a concern that your root stock is also resistant. If you do live in such an area check that your root stock is resistant to Fire Blight. If you are replanting in an existing orchard, check on the root stocks resistance to Apple Replant Disease. We grow in such an area and have starting moving to the disease resistant “Geneva” root stock varieties, but we do not believe we have ever lost a tree to Fire Blight or Apple Replant disease. For us it is more of a precaution than a necessity and we are surrounded by orchards active and abandoned.
Trees suppliers: We have direct experience with Cummins and Stark Bros nurseries. The rest have been recommended by people or publications we trust. These trees will be shipped in bare root with no soil on the roots.
Cummins Nursery: Located in Ithaca New York. They have many disease resistant apple varieties with excellent information on their website. We highly recommend this family run nursery.
Stark Bros.: Located in Louisiana, Missouri. They have an excellent website and catalog with many disease resistant varieties. They do not list the actual root stock just whether it is a dwarf or semi-dwarf tree.
Fedco Trees: Located in Clinton, Maine. Great detailed catalog many Heirloom disease resistant varieties. Many are Maine grown trees. Check, but it appears they have closed ordering for this season.
Trees of Antiquity: Located in Paso Robles, California. Appears to sell Certified Organic Trees.
Books we Recommend:
Michael Phillips: “The Apple Grower: A guide for the Organic Orchardist” and “The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way”
Stella Otto: “The Backyard Orchardist”
Steve Page and Joe Smillie: “The Orchard Almanac: A seasonal Guide to Healthy Fruit Trees”
My version of this book is from 1995 so many of the current organic pest controls are not listed. We recommend the book because it is calendar based and not overwhelming.