RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If you live on the East Coast and love organic apples, you may have noticed that most organic apples come from faraway Washington state, or even another country. That's because east of the Mississippi, more insect pests and higher humidity levels make it harder to prevent disease when growing organic apples. And although it's easy to think of Washington state as consistently drenched, thanks to its rainy city, Seattle, growers there actually raise organic apples in the desert area of the state. But by picking the right trees and maintaining them with tips from the Rodale Institute and organic apple expert Jim Travis, PhD, professor of plant pathology at Pennsylvania State University in State College, you can grow organic apples in your backyard even in the country’s easternmost states.
THE DETAILS: Although at the moment, it appears it's tougher to grow organic on the East Coast because it's wetter and full of insects that attack apples, Travis says this part of the country may one day be the best place to grow organic apples. "We live in a lush environment with beneficial insects and organisms that could help us grow organic apples here even better," he says. "Someday, it may actually shift, and the East Coast may be the best place for organic."
The orchard at Penn State is already proving this, and just last weekend, the Rodale Institute celebrated East Coast success at the first annual Organic Apple Festival at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA. The nonprofit Institute, which touts the environmental benefits of organic farming and helps farmers convert to safer farming methods, plants disease-resistant varieties, uses high-quality compost and organic sprays approved by the USDA to produce safer East Coast apples.
WHAT IT MEANS: The good news is, one of Travis's students is working on developing a beneficial fungi and bacteria solution that will attack apple scab, the number one problem for organic-apple growers. And there are pheromones available that can trick male pests, making it harder for them to find female friends. But even without these advancements, there are steps you can take to grow delicious, organic apples in your backyard, without spraying your trees.
Here's how to grow organic apples in your yard.
• Choose the right tree. If you're ready to plant a single tree or start a small orchard in your backyard, look to plant a dwarfing rootstock so you don't wind up with an unmanageable 40-foot tree. For a tree that will grow 6 to 7 feet tall, look for B-9 or M-9 on the label; M-26 indicates the tree will grow to about 12 feet; and M-7 could reach 15 feet. It is imperative to plant trees that naturally resist disease if you want any edible apples. These include: Crimson Crisp and Crimson Topaz (good for fresh-apple eating), Gold Rush (good for baking pies and drying), and Enterprise (good for baking). "They are naturally selected in breeding process, and you get a percentage of good apples, no matter what you do," says Travis. (These varieties are not genetically modified, in case you were wondering.)