[NAFEX] In Defense of Big Apple Trees

Alan Haigh alandhaigh at gmail.com
Sun Nov 8 06:57:33 EST 2009

Fluffy’s warning about the grand results of growing a tree on a Northern Spy
rootstock has inspired me to counter with an endorsement of full sized apple

Before I started my business, The Home Orchard Co., over two decades ago, I
sought the information available from my states excellent Land Grant
University, Cornell.  In particular, I needed advice on how to take care of
very large and very old apple trees.  These beautiful monarchs are very
prevalent on the large estates outside New York City as remnants of the
orchards that once supplied the Big Apple with all its apples.

The wisdom I was able to abstract from the apple gurus of Cornell was pretty
straight forward- if you want to grow apples on the land where these trees
stand, cut the monsters down and plant “trees” on dwarfing rootstocks.  I
put trees in quotation marks because these diminutive runts that produce
apples in the modern world are certainly not real trees.  A tree is
something you can have a picnic under on a hot summer day.  An apple tree is
a wonderful gymnasium that kids can climb in and grab apples with one hand
while holding on to a branch for dear life with the other.

So I completely ignored Cornell’s advice and built a business primarily
around taking care of these impractical arboreal structures and I gradually
learned how to manage them for health, beauty and their bountiful crops.

It is telling that most of my customers are very wealthy and can afford to
pay a craftsman to tend their organic sculptures.  Dwarf apple trees
certainly require less pruning and are generally easier to care for, but
they have not a fraction of the majesty and beauty of full sized apple

Even from a practical standpoint, full sized apple trees have some important
advantages.  They are long lived and capable of extracting what they need
from a wide range of soils without much help.  They are extremely productive
without irrigation (in the northeast) in dry seasons or wet.

With summer pruning they are capable of producing just as clean and large of
apples as dwarf trees or at least close enough to escape notice in
non-commercial production.  Best of all they can be an entire home orchard
on one trunk with each scaffold bearing a modern trees worth of apples.  It’s
easy to use grafting to make each branch a different variety.

Back when America grew nothing but apple giants less was known about
managing trees with skillful pruning.  There is absolutely no reason that a
large tree can’t also be a low-growing tree and similarly productive to

Managing large trees takes more skill than dwarfs, but for the serious
hobbyist this should be an attractive challenge.  With all the current
interest in the apple varieties of early America, it is surprising to me
that there is not more interest in reviving the kinds of apple trees that
used to be grown here and, in fact, continue to grow here on land where
their stewards have failed to follow Cornell’s terrible advice of cutting
them down.
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