Most of us tend to think of apples in stoplight terms: red (Red Delicious), yellow (Golden Delicious) and green (Granny Smith). But with farmers’ growing interest in old-time heirloom crop varieties, it’s possible to find apples in an extensive range of flavors, textures and colors. Explore local orchards and farmers’ markets to find these heirloom treasures—or even try growing them yourself.
Not only will heirloom apple trees provide you with a delicious harvest, they’re lovely in spring, covered with blossoms that draw thousands of bees. Plus, they cast the ideal amount of shade, perfect for leaning against the trunk and reading a book.
Apple trees need to be located in full sun and away from frost pockets. They grow in a range of soils, but aim for a soil pH of about 6.5, and make sure the soil receives adequate drainage, as apple trees will not tolerate standing water in the root zone. Depending on the size of your property, you might consider growing dwarf trees with rootstocks that limit their mature size. Dwarf trees should be planted about 8 feet apart with 14 feet between rows; larger varieties require spacing of at least 10 feet with 16 to 25 feet between rows.
Maintain apple trees by pruning them regularly to keep them productive (and to keep the crop within reach). Research limited-spray schedules that will yield a satisfying and sufficient fruit crop and will keep pests and diseases at bay.
There are hundreds of heirloom apple varieties that grow across the country. Before planting, chat with local growers to learn about what varieties grow well in your area. Below are some of my favorites. While I’ve tasted them all, don’t be alarmed if the profiles don’t match what you’ve sampled—flavors and performance vary across the U.S. Use the flowchart to determine if any of my favorite heirloom apples are a good fit for your farm and kitchen.
About the Author: Roger Yepsen is the author and illustrator of Apples, Berries, and A Celebration of Heirloom Vegetables. He lives with his family in a stone Pennsylvania German farmhouse and buys far too many seeds and nursery plants year after year.