TWO DESIRES—to collect apples and plant a fruit tree—coincide in fall. You sample apple varieties at the same time that catalogs and nurseries take orders for trees to deliver in spring.
For a few years, I’ve had designs on installing a pair of heirloom apple trees outside my apartment in St. Paul, Minn. (If I wanted to munch a Gala, I could buy it at Costco.) The Italianate mansion that houses our condo was once an archbishop’s residence, and I suspect the old lawn held orchard trees—for the fruit and the pale, perfumed blossoms in April, as well as the charismatic physiognomy of the limbs. The lower branches, with their weathered gray bark and horizontal growth habit, remind me of an elephant’s trunk. And of course, an apple tree along a front walk is the ultimate vending machine, dispensing snacks every time you pass.
Modern-day critics—that’s code for my wife—complain about apple trees: the leaf blights, the maggots, the unpicked fruit that smashes on car hoods. I offer two remedies: organic sprays and an acceptance of imperfection in the garden. If you can’t embrace either, an apple tree probably isn’t for you.
Selecting the right trees—you’ll probably need two varieties for successful pollination—makes everything easier, said horticulture writer Lee Reich, who has experimented with some 20 apple varieties at home in New Paltz, N.Y. Order one- or two-year-old bare-root trees to start, he advised, basically 4-foot-long sticks with a shock of roots that cost $25 to $30.
You’d rather spray, prune and harvest “on a short ladder, or no ladder,” said Mr. Reich. The solution is an apple tree on a “dwarf” or “semi-dwarf” rootstock, which grows to 6 to 9 feet.
Gidon Coll, founder of Original Sin Hard Cider, planted 100 varieties on dwarf rootstock at his family’s Hudson Valley dairy farm. He suggested Rubinette, a fussy tree whose fruit’s sweet-tart balance earns reviews as “maybe the finest eating apple in Europe.” An easier-to-grow option is St. Edmund’s Russet, Mr. Coll said. The sweet, not sugary, fruit is the yellow-brown of a 1970s cable-knit sweater, with a similarly rough skin.
I ordered the trees a couple of weeks ago. And, until spring, my work on the home orchard was done.
Don’t buy the giant apple tree in a black bucket at the big box store. The branches might look impressive but the roots are likely stunted. “People may be reluctant to get a tree shipped from 3,000 miles away,” said garden writer Lee Reich, “but if it’s a good nursery, it’s no problem.” Mr. Reich, and a couple of other experts, recommended some of their favorite catalogs and nurseries that offer a (very) wide selection of healthy bare-root trees, along with regional specialties:
Orangepippintrees.com offers a handy calendar tool, which identifies complementary apples (you need varieties that flower somewhat simultaneously for cross pollination) and another guide that narrows trees by growing zone, use (cider, baking, dessert), disease-resistance, etc.