CiderDays: What to do with a backyard apple tree?

The Recorder, November 8, 2015 by Chris Curtis.

NEW SALEM — Apples carpeting the grass around roadside trees, rolling through parking lots and otherwise going to abundant waste around Franklin County attest to the old news that this has been a good year for apples, and a good year for apples hasn’t hurt interest in growing fruit.

Steve Lanphear of Sentinel Farm in Belchertown said he has seen good years. “But this year? I’ve never seen anything like it. It was huge,” Lanphear said. Like other apple growers in the area, he said he has heard from people who are throwing out apples this year from backyard trees that don’t normally produce.

About 25 people broke off the general activities Sunday afternoon at New Salem Preserves and Orchards to circle around a small fire in the shade and listen to Lanphear’s talk on tending backyard apple trees. The talk was one of seven held there this weekend as part of the 21st annual Franklin County CiderDays, which saw festivities and study at orchards around the county.

For residents pleasantly surprised by this year’s abundance of apples, Lanphear cautions that keeping that old tree producing next year isn’t always possible. The best things to do are to thin the apples on the branch — to prevent breaks and encourage growth in the remainder — prune, clean.

Pruning is the most important thing, he said, and should be attempted in mid-winter after about 25 days with an average temperature above freezing, often around the first of January. “Yo u want a bird to be able to fly through that tree,” he said, denser growth promoting fungal diseases like apple scab, sooty blotch and fly speck. The other two are more cosmetic, but scab can ruin a crop, he said, attacking leaves and apples and cracking the fruit. Short of going to the local garden center and asking what they have for backyard tree spraying, Lanphear recommends raking fallen leaves away from the base of the tree, and pruning. Infected fallen leaves will release mold spores back into the tree at the first damp or rain, he said.
In pruning, the ideal tree shape is roughly pyramidal, for maximum sun exposure. Lateral branches should be encouraged, up- and down-pointing branches cut. “If you prune adequately and you clean up under the tree you’re going to have a lot less problems with fungi,” he said.

Questioned further by a couple with a 35-foot tree in need of pruning, Lanphear advised taking out about 20 percent of the wood each year, but no more.

That was a challenge for Carol Hillman and her late husband Joel Hillman II when they bought the New Salem orchard 47 years ago. The two orchards, with fields bordered by waist-high colonial stone walls on a hill distantly overlooking the Quabbin Reservoir, had been abandoned. “Some of the trees were 70 feet tall, with poison ivy growing up them,” Hillman said. It took years to bring them down to a manageable height. Today, Hillman and partner Robert Colmes and a team including family and friends keep the trees healthy and producing apples for cider and preserves including apple and crabapple butter and vinegar.

Hillman said neither she nor her husband knew anything about apples when they bought the land, but they intended to restore it. Today, the yield is ordinarily 1,200 bushels, although they had a year with just one apple. This year would be above average, but they aren’t going to be able to pick all the apples, she said. “Best fruit-growing year that you can imagine,” she said of 2015.

Lanphear thanks temperatures early in the season and moisture.

Lanphear grew up on his father’s tree farm in Ohio, and keeps an orchard in his retirement. He is encouraged by the growing interest he sees in agriculture. A fruit and vegetable conference he attends in Manchester has grown incredibly in the past three years, he said, and many of the new attendees are younger. The new blood is heartening to him, and he expects to see orchards on the new model, with 4,000 small trees on a plot his size, four acres, rather than his 300. “You can make a living on it, but not the old-fashioned way,” he said.

For those looking to grow apple trees, he recommends buying root stock — he gets his online from Adams County Nursery in PA — and grafting on a branch of new growth. Planting a seed won’t get you the apple you’re looking for; the apple variety is determined by the grafted branch, or scion. Lanphear suggests looking for a disease-resistant variety.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 257