Apples are among the most widely grown fruit tree in the world and for good reason. There are varieties of apples trees that will grow in nearly every climate in the world. Many are even hardy enough for cooler climates, like here in northern Montana.
When I was growing up, Big Sandy was in USDA Climate Zone 3, but in recent years we have slipped into Zone 4. Each zone gives an average minimum temperature expectation for the area. Zone 3, for example, means we can expect temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit during a normal winter. And that was certainly true when I was a kid. In fact, it would get that cold at least once or twice every winter, even if it was just over night. In my research over the last few years, I have located at least 200 different varieties of apples which are supposed to be hardy enough for Zone 3.
However, just because that’s what the book says, the question still remains how they will do at my farm in specific. And zones and hardiness don’t account for other important considerations, such as taste. How good are they for pie or sauce or cider? How resistant are they to disease? I established an experimental orchard about nine years ago to answer these questions of which varieties are best suited with the best qualities for our location.
Personally, I am fond of apples for a number of reasons. Most apples can be enjoyed on the spot, picked fresh off the tree. There are also varieties that can be stored for relatively long periods of time which make for a sweet treat during the winter. But apples can also be preserved in a number of tasty ways, like apple sauce, or our favorite here on the farm, apple cider. We also use apple juice to sweeten some of the tart berry juice we make from the sour cherries or raspberries also growing in our orchard.
Unfortunately, our orchard had a rough season this year, particularly our apple trees. With twenty-seven different varieties of apples, we are usually enjoying fresh apples from late July to late October. This year, however, weather and disease got the better of many of our trees and we have had very few for fresh eating and almost none for storage. Many of the apples were too damaged by the hail to be of much use which didn’t leave enough to make even our favorite fresh apple cider. The bulk of our harvest this year fit into one saucepan for a small batch of apple sauce.
After such a disappointing year, I decided to remove a third of my apple trees from the orchard. Most had moderate to severe winter damage and many had severe fire blight. I will be ordering replacements soon; I will be looking for new varieties that are more winter hardy and resistant to disease. One thing I will be avoiding that we’ve planted in the past are semi-dwarf trees. They do not appear to stand up to the extremes of our weather the way standard trees do. Going forward we will have to see if using standard trees really does make a difference for us here.