Apples in a Warm Climate
Kevin Hauser, an amateur fruit enthusiast in South California, recounts his experiences in growing apples in citrus country - Riverside near Los Angeles. He is a pioneer in growing apples in a warm climate, a subject on which very little formal research is being carried out.
Riverside in Southern California is about 45 miles inland from Los Angeles and home to the University of California-Riverside Citrus Variety Experiment Station, the Citrus Clonal Protection Program, and the California Citrus State Historic Park. I live about half a kilometre from the parent tree of the Washington Navel orange. In a good year we receive about 350 chilling hours and have hot dry summers and mild winters, receiving about 25 cm of rain, all in the winter ; we had 5 cm total last year, and were in dire straits for a while. Winter temperatures are usually 18C in the day, with lows around 9C. During frequent periods of fall and winter high-pressure offshore flow from the desert, humidity drops to single digits and daytime temperatures jump to 27C and lows drop to 3C. It rarely drops below 0C degrees, except for 2006, which devastated a billion dollars in citrus and avocado.
The trade-off for these glorious winters is our brutal summers.From late June until the end of October temperatures between 35C and 38C are common, with a few days getting up to 45C. During normal onshore flow nights will cool down to 19C, but in July and August moisture will wrap around from Baja California bringing humidity and hot night time temperatures, and this also coincides with the highest daytime heat. Thunderstorms will build up over the 3800 metre mountains, but they shield us from any rain, so we just get humid heat.
Despite this, we find that most - if not all - apples will grow here and folks have been doing so for years. We currently grow about 100 varieties of apples at my suburban lot. I can tell you that the general accepted chilling hour and dormancy theory for apples is wrong; the apples still set fruit buds in June just as in a cold climate, but the pattern of blossoming varies greatly. We are not restricted to the customary low-chill varieties like Anna and Ein Shiemer. Cripp’s Pink and Granny Smith never did lose their leaves or go dormant, yet blossomed and set fruit just fine; the new leaves simply pushing out the old ones. Pomace from our cider press that we dumped out at the base of trees will sprout volunteer seedlings in the spring.
It has been suggested that I live in a ‘micro climate’ that is colder than the surrounding area, which allows me to grow all these apples. This is nonsense, as I dug out a big clump of bananas to plant my apple orchard, and the neighbour’s Valencia orange tree is just on the other side of the fence. This is a Mediterranean climate, and the only plausible explanation is that apples will fruit fine in a Mediterranean climate.
However as you would expect, they behave quite differently from a cold climate. As a general rule you can add two months to blossoming and ripening charts, with much of the bloom in June and much of the harvest in November to December. The bloom period will vary with the variety; in order to sort things out I call the ones that have a compact bloom period ‘low-chill’ and the ones with an extended bloom period ‘high-chill’. However, no matter the chill rating they will all bear a full load of fruit, as opposed to my disease-ridden bug-infested squishy-fruited chilling-hour monkeys I call stone fruit, which will not give you a thing unless you pay careful attention to the chilling-hour rating.
You would think that low-chill apple varieties would be the best then, but this is not always so. If you look at our winter climate, you will see that it compares to the Wenatchee Valley in Washington State in the fall, the best apple climate in the world. The warm, dry days and nights just above freezing colour the apples up nicely, but our season can last months longer than Washington’s, ripening the most stubborn apple into February if needs be. This climate by the way is what colours and sweetens up Washington Navel Oranges like no other place, and is why Riverside became famous for its citrus.
So what an apple has to do to be good here is make it through the summer as a juvenile, where it can withstand a great amount of heat, but ripen in our winter. If it blossoms too early, it will ripen in September, our hottest month. Braeburn, for example, has an early, compact bloom period and bears a very heavy crop, but ripens in September and the green apples turn black inside or are mushy while still green. Even the Braeburns that make it through until later in the year are bland at best. Other varieties respond poorly to the heat even when ripening later - Court Pendu Plat becomes rubbery, Snow or Fameuse becomes ‘Slush’, and Maiden Blush becomes ‘Maiden Mush’; but all these bear heavily. Northern Spy has a compact bloom here and bears wonderfully (and thus would be considered ‘low-chill’), but has very poor colour and quality.
There are apples that merrily ripen along through the hot summer without a blink. Hawaii will ripen its first apple in the brutal heat of August, and I pick the last one in November; the quality will be sweet and crisp the whole time. Williams’ Pride will blossom through 40C heat and set a fine crop of deeply coloured, spicy, crisp apples during hot nights. Gala is good in August despite hot nights. Rome Beauty will ripen in late August and still be good, but Yellow Transparent will ripen in September; and if you think they are bad in a cold climate, the hot climate does not do them any good at all!
Finally comes the late fall/winter when some varieties really start to shine. If you have never had a Fuji or a Pink Lady from a hot climate, you will have never experienced them like they are meant to be. The hard winter keepers are very good, such as White Winter Pearmain, Terry Winter, Liberty, Zabergau, and the entire Winesap family. Speaking of which, the biggest surprise we have had is Arkansas Black; denigrated in our mountains as rock-hard and tasteless until a month or two in storage, yet right off the tree here they are wonderfully crisp with a sweet, rich, dark, winey mahogany flavour and a beautiful deep colour. It seems the ‘wilder’ apples are also very good and tend to be ‘low-chill’ - the russets and sweet crabs. Our favourite crab right now is Wickson, and American Golden Russet leads the top russet.
An apple’s origin is not a good indicator of how well it will do here, as many top varieties are from frigid climates. There may be a good reason for this - in North America, the far North receives little chilling-hours; either it is dead winter or summer, and spring frosts are rare. Wealthy does wonderfully, and is also grown in tropical climates such as Nicaragua. We also grow some English apples - Bramley’s Seedling, from which we make apple tamales and jalapeño apple pie; Ashmead’s Kernel, Laxton’s Fortune, Lamb Abbey Pearmain, Cornish Gilliflower, Greensleeves, Knobby Russet, Lord Lambourne, Pitmaston Pineapple which is ‘low chill’, Pixie, and Ribston Pippin which bears very heavily. I have not tried Cox’s Orange Pippin yet , but have Queen Cox and Tydeman’s Late Orange, which have borne very little fruit. However, a Cox cross from Switzerland, Rubinette, is hand’s-down our favourite apple with a crisp, sweet-tart complex flavour that evolves as you chew it. It does so well we have not really been motivated to try the actual Cox.
A big help for finding clues as to which varieties to try has been C. Lee Calhoun’s book Old Southern Apples, in which he chronicles the apples grown in the American Deep South. Although some of them are ‘Yankee’ apples that were adapted by southern growers, most of them have shown tolerance to heat and humidity. Joyce Neighbors in Gadsden, Alabama has been a scion wood source for many of these and also sent us one of our best performers called ‘Granny Neighbor’”, a heavy-bearing variety with a pleasing sharpness to it. Lee’s book also list varieties that he believes are extinct from cultivation in the USA, but via Google I was able to locate eight of these at a Heritage Orchard in Tasmania, Australia. I am currently importing them through Dr. Joseph Foster in Beltsville, Maryland who is doing the virus screening which could take 3 years.
Despite being down here in the city I do have access to cold-climate apples for taste comparison, as only 56 km away at the 1500 m elevation of the foothills is an apple-growing region called Oak Glen, that receives 2000 chilling-hours annually and all the ice, snow, and misery that comes along with it. I will say it is much easier to grow apples down here than up there; we have no spring frosts, no deer, bears, or squirrels, no hardiness problems, and I can graft in winter in my shirtsleeves. I end up supplying a lot of the bench grafts for new plantings going in up there at a living history farm called Riley’s Farm; www.rileysfarm.com
If land was not so outrageously expensive here and I was not so attached to a regular paycheque, I would consider becoming a large-scale commercial apple nursery (I only graft about 1000 bench grafts a year right now). I get phenomenal growth from young trees, although I am not entirely sure why. The first year we planted en masse, we were not sure what to expect. When we got 20 cm of growth, we were elated. But then they just kept growing and growing, and we started to become a bit alarmed. I had planted about 30 in the ground thinking I would dig them up and sell them as bare root trees, but I almost needed a backhoe to get them out. I posted a photo online of a first-year Gala that had grown well over 2 meters and branched completely in one season that a December windstorm snapped at the graft union. I received some interesting feedback: first came the scoffers saying it cannot be only a year old, to which I posted a photo showing the stump with no growth rings. Then came the whining and crying from poor folks in frigid weather back east that noticed I was standing there in December in my shirtsleeves with roses blooming merrily in the background and all the apple trees with leaves still on them.
My culture methods are not much different from those considered best practice in other regions. I prune to a central leader and spread branches to wide crotch angles, or espaliered as a Belgian Fence (strategically placed to hide the neighbour’s junk pile). Any watersprouts from the horizontal branches are pruned back to three leaves, and any re-growth is rubbed off by August. This usually makes it set a fruit bud. I have them mostly on Bud.9 and M7 rootstock. Most of the pruning is done in summer, with housekeeping pruning in winter. I do not fertilise other than the shredder chips mulch, and of course drip irrigation is mandatory in our climate; timer failures often lead to mass fatalities. Most of the leaves drop off naturally by the end of February, and I strip the rest off so I can spray dormant oil, the only spray I apply and mostly to protect the stupid peaches and plums. I must note that varieties can adapt to our climate. When I first planted our two Fuji trees, they would not blossom until Anna was ready to pick in late June. But three years later they now have compact bloom periods in mid-April, and the apples are already golf-ball sized by late June. I realise that I am missing a business opportunity here; I could market some spray called 'Uncle Kevin’s Amazing Reptilian Lubricant (snake oil) for Promoting Apple Fruiting in Hot Climates'. People would spray it on their apple trees and whoopee! Look at all the apples!
Because of the lack of disease our local high mountains have apple trees left over from the early settlers between 1890 and 1925. The orchards once fed the men working on ranches, roads, dams, and mines. From the remnants I estimate that there were at one time 100,000 apple trees planted. These have succumbed to fires and development to around 1000 trees scattered throughout the 100 km long mountain range. In 2006 my wife and I decided to try and catalogue the varieties that are still growing and take cuttings from them to propagate. This entailed asking 4WD clubs, elderly residents, and forest rangers if they know of any old apple trees. Some were right next to the highway, while others were accessed by miles of off-road driving and then a couple more miles hiking. We tagged many of the trees and took photos denoting the location of that tag number, and collected apples if they were in season. We asked local growers and old-timers if they could identify the variety, and then cross-checked that with variety descriptions. Most are typical old-time apples for this area - Rome Beauty, Hawkeye, White Winter Pearmain, Gravenstein, Mammoth Blacktwig (Arkansaw), Arkansas Black, Baldwin and Ben Davis.
I have developed a collection of about 20 of the varieties from historic locations and dubbed it the Historic Mountain Apple Orchard. For safekeeping these are planted down here in the valley, up in Oak Glen, and this summer at a Boy Scout camp at the 3200m elevation level. I found most of them do quite well down here in the hot inland valleys, except Ben Davis, which is terrible wherever it is grown. I am not sure why I even bother with it, as I can get all the tasteless apples I need at the supermarket.
Despite all this I am not growing exclusively antique varieties; indeed Drs. Jules Janick and Schuyler Korban at the PRI breeding program have invited me to test their patented disease-resistant varieties, as they are hopeful they will do well in a hot climate. I believe their hopes are well-founded, as Williams’ Pride and Enterprise have done very well here. My biggest hope is on GoldRush, probably one of the sharpest apples in cultivation in America, and quickly becoming a favourite with the brave and bold. It requires a long, hot season to ripen properly. You can see the varieties I have under cultivation at www.kuffelcreek.com/applelist.htm and our favourites from last year at www.kuffelcreek.com/favorites.htm.
Please let me have suggestions on varieties that I might try as It is time to start forming my list of summer bud wood requests from Dr. Phillip Forsline at the ARS Apple Collection in Geneva, New York. I am specifically looking for the hard winter keeper-type that needs a long, hot season to attain best quality. I am also trying some cider apples like Tom Putt, Kingston Black, Yarlington Mill, and perhaps Slack-my-Girdle, but only because I like the name!
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