Grow Apples in Your Backyard

Growing beautiful and delicious backyard apples isn’t hard to do in south coastal B.C. Diseases and insects can be a problem, but one or two trees in a garden attract far fewer pests than do thousands of trees in an orchard.

What image does an apple bring to your mind? The Garden of Eden? Snow White and the Seven Dwarves?

Or Johnny Appleseed, perhaps? For many of us, apples bring back fond memories of a special backyard tree that we used to climb at Grandpa’s, or that we would pass along the way to school, a tree loaded with tempting green, yellow and red fruits. Apples colour the memories of our childhood, and are threads in the fabric of our culture, no matter where we’ve grown up. Those who hail from the Maritimes, Quebec or Ontario will remember apples with names like McIntosh, Northern Spy, Snow, Cortland and Idared. Prairie folk are more likely to recall Rescue and other crabapple varieties that were planted in yards and windbreaks, while rural British Columbians know varieties like Northern Spy, King, Gravenstein, Baldwin, Grimes Golden, Russetts and Transparent.

As the many kinds of apples that are familiar to British Columbians might suggest, the mild climate of much of our province is apple-friendly. Apples are the easiest of all the tree fruits to grow in the backyards of south coastal B.C. The only essentials are a sunny spot with reasonably good soil drainage, some understanding about the diseases and pests that affect apples in our climate, and the willingness to provide just a little TLC at the right time each year.

How much care is needed depends on where one lives, and the kinds of apples that one tries to grow. Commercial apple production in B.C. and Washington is situated almost exclusively in the interior valleys because of these regions’ dry climate. Apple scab and canker are rarely serious in dry areas but can be severe in wet climates. Still, it’s not difficult to grow good apples on a backyard tree in south coastal B.C. if one is armed with some understanding of the problems that can occur and how to cope with them.

While the same principle applies to growing apples in gardens in the southern interior, the Kootenays or northern B.C., the challenges differ considerably in each of these regions. Insect pests and the legal obligation to control them are the chief concerns in the Okanagan, whereas a short growing season and winter freezing injury can make growing apples difficult in northern B.C. gardens. Meanwhile, apple growers in the Kootenays and “interior wet belt” areas face a combination of those challenges encountered in other parts of our province. As it is impractical to address all these regional challenges here, we will focus on providing a primer to growing apples in south coastal B.C.

Choosing the right varieties is most important. While it’s possible to grow almost any variety of apples in the south coastal areas, ones that are susceptible to apple scab will require lots of sprays to produce usable fruit. Since many of us have an aversion to spraying fungicides and insecticides in our backyards, let’s start by ruling out the varieties that are highly susceptible to scab. Now, what do we want the apples for? Childhood memories? Colour? A dessert apple to eat fresh from the tree, a culinary variety for making sauce or pies, or a dual-purpose apple, good for both cooking and eating fresh? When do we want our apples to ripen? Do we plan to store our apples in a cool place until Christmas or early spring? How much space do we have in the garden for growing apples?

To help find an apple that meets our personal criteria, we’ve listed 15 varieties that are suitable for growing in south coastal B.C. in the above sidebar. One last question: Do we want a full-size tree, or a dwarf? Dwarf trees come into bearing within two to three years, can be taken care of without ladders, and take up far less space and can be more easily integrated into suburban landscapes than can full-size trees. About the only argument against dwarf trees is that you won’t be able to hang a swing from their limbs! Plus, you will have to support them with a post or along a fence.

Have you ever wondered why some people seem to get good crops of apples every year while others aren’t so fortunate? Picking the right varieties is only part of the answer. Another reason is the necessity of pollination in the spring. Pollen is the plant equivalent of male sperm. To set fruit, the female parts of the flowers of most apple varieties need pollen from a different variety of apple. As honeybees search for the nectar that is the flower’s reward for their courier service, they are likely to visit several trees in the neighbourhood while on a single foraging trip from the hive. In doing so, they transfer pollen, and if there are different varieties of apple trees in the neighbourhood, you can expect to get adequate pollination even if you have only a single tree. Of course, you can shift the odds in your favour if you grow two different apple varieties in your own garden, as long as both produce fertile pollen and bloom about the same time. The sidebar shows the typical bloom times for different varieties. A few apple varieties produce sterile pollen (indicated by an asterisk after the bloom time), and these are useless for pollinating other varieties. For example, any of the mid-season bloomers would be good pollinators for King or Bramleys, but if King and Bramleys were the only mid-season bloomers in the neighbourhood, neither would set much fruit because both of these varieties produce sterile pollen.

Apple scab, codling moth and canker are three pest problems that every south coastal gardener needs to know about. Apple scab is caused by a fungus that infects young leaves and fruit. Its spores survive over the winter in dead leaves, so getting rid of all of last year’s leaves before the new leaves begin to emerge in early April is important. These spores can infect new leaves or fruit that stay wet for eight to 10 hours or more, something that happens all too often in our climate. Most primary infections occur during a three-to four-week period that begins in the latter part of April when blossom buds first become noticeable. The infections develop into felty green-brown spots that appear on leaves about two weeks after the spores get in. These spots produce millions of new spores that cause cycles of secondary infection every time there is enough leaf wetness. Some of the secondary infections occur on developing fruits. The key to controlling scab is to prevent primary infections by raking and composting last year’s leaves rather than leaving them on the ground, and by applying a spray of lime sulphur to the tree in early to mid April. Removing infected leaves as soon as they are discovered can slow the disease buildup, but an even better solution, of course, is to grow only varieties that are immune to scab.

Codling moth is the worm in the apple. The adult moths are about one centimetre in length. They hide during the day, and begin to fly at dusk if the nights are warm. Then they mate, and for the next several days the females lay their eggs on developing apples. We don’t get many warm nights in south coastal B.C., so codling moth isn’t nearly the problem here that it can be in the Okanagan. Codling moth also doesn’t fly very far, so it tends to occur in localized populations. This means that it can be a serious problem in some neighbourhoods and not in others. Each egg produces a tiny worm (larva) that burrows into the apple and starts feeding and growing. It deposits its waste (frass) at the opening of its tunnel, so what we see on the outside of the fruit is a hole plugged with brown frass that looks like fine sawdust. The larva keeps on eating, and within three to four weeks it’s a fat, pinky-beige worm with a brown head, about 10 to 15 millimetres long. If you don’t do something quick, the larva will leave the apple, find a crevice in which to pupate (transform from a worm to a moth), and emerge as an adult that can lay 40 to 50 eggs and start the process all over again. On the coast, the trick to controlling codling moth without insecticides is to find and destroy all of the fruit containing larvae before the larvae emerge. Look for fruits with the messy holes in July and August. If you catch them all in time, and if your close neighbours with apple trees do the same, you won’t have much of a codling moth problem the next year.

Cankers are diseases that severely damage or kill trees, particularly young trees. Apple cankers are caused by two different fungi that infect and kill patches of bark. The fungi remain alive in the dead bark and produce spores that can infect healthy bark in the same tree or in nearby trees. Almost all old apple trees in south coastal B.C. have anthracnose or European cankers, or both, which means that trying to establish a young apple tree close to an older tree without getting canker may be next to impossible. Anthracnose cankers, the worst of the two kinds of apple canker found here, are slow to develop, and don’t become visible until May or June of the year following infection. These cankers can begin to produce spores by early August, and really get going by October. These spores are spread by rain and cause new infections that will show up as cankers the following year, mostly in the same tree below the original canker. If the original canker is left untreated over the winter, it begins producing another kind of spore during the second year. These second-year spores are shot into the air and can cause infections in new trees some distance away.

Canker management is simple, although not necessarily easy. Start with clean trees in a clean site, learn to recognize cankers at all stages of development, inspect frequently, and remove and destroy any cankers as soon as they are found, before they begin to produce spores (usually in August). Use a stout knife to inscribe and remove an oval patch of bark that includes at least five millimetres of healthy tissue surrounding the canker. The tree will heal the wound naturally. Inspect again later in the year, and perform additional surgery as needed. During winter pruning, remove any cankers that were missed during the summer. Even if you remove all of the cankers during the winter, it’s almost certain that these trees will have latent infections from the previously produced spores, so be sure to remove these cankers when they appear the following May and June. European cankers are usually fewer and uglier than anthracnose cankers. Managing European and anthracnose cankers involves a similarly straightforward approach: when you see a canker, cut it out and destroy it!

In addition to scab, codling moth and canker, other problems also “bug” apples in south coastal B.C., but they aren’t likely to prevent you from getting good crops of quality apples. Several kinds of small green worms and what I call LBJs (little brown jobbies) like to take bites out of apples. Most of these do their thing fairly early in the season, leaving apples with indentations, scars or chunks of missing flesh. The best pest management for these is thinning, something that most of us don’t do enough of anyway. With good pollination, apple trees usually set far more fruit than they need. In early July when the tree is loaded with little apples the size of ping-pong balls, try to imagine them as mature apples the size of your fist. If your tree is going to produce apples that large, it’s clear that most of those little apples will have to go. When thinning, leave only one apple every 15 centimetres or so. Remove any apples that have already been bitten, and you’ll not only ensure better fruit but also manage most of the damage caused by the LBJs.

Growing beautiful and delicious backyard apples isn’t hard to do in south coastal B.C. Diseases and insects can be a problem, but one or two trees in a garden attract far fewer pests than do thousands of trees in an orchard. And pest management for one or two trees doesn’t take much time. Knowing what to do and when to do it is the key. Just be careful if you catch yourself thinking, “Why aren’t I in the Okanagan doing this for a living?”

Jim Rahe is a biologist and pest management specialist at Simon Fraser University. He and his wife Mary Ann own and operate Annie’s Orchard near Aldergrove.