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Margaret Lauterbach: When growing apples, consider Gravensteins

Just when I think my garden isn’t doing well, my Gravenstein apple tree gets my attention. Many of the apples are still green, but birds and squirrels are having their way with these wonderful fruits, so at least some of them are ripe.

Gravensteins are wonderful for applesauce and pies, apple crunches or any cooked apple recipe you run across. For sauces and other purposes, being a bit green doesn’t hurt a bit. You can tell when it or any apple is ripe by the color of the seeds. Ripe apples have brown or black seeds. If you wait until all of the Gravensteins have black seeds, birds will have eaten all of the fruit. When these Gravenstein apples are fully ripe, they’re yellow with red vertical streaks.

I picked up windfalls and accumulated about a bushel, 99 percent wormy in spite of a spray of Surround WP and several Bounce anti-static papers tied in the tree. Neither worked to deter codling moths from laying eggs on fruit. Surround WP (wettable powder) is very difficult to hold in suspension for spraying, so we were left with spotty coverage instead of a film on the tree. Manufacturers of those anti-static papers changed the “perfume” of those papers this year. Undoubtedly, that’s good for humans but not for humans trying to repel codling moths.

Gravenstein is a wonderful apple, tart and sweet, not often grown by commercial growers, probably because it’s prone to bearing fruit biennially rather than annually. Timely fruit thinning, I’m told, may correct that biennial habit, but it does take close attention and labor.

The variety appeared as a mutation on a single tree in the late 1600s. Some sources say it appeared in Italy, others in Denmark. I think Denmark is correct, since the name is Germanic, not Roman. Its value to cooks and diners is known around the world. One friend in Norway grows this variety in her commercial fruit orchard, and a friend in New Zealand grows a Gravenstein tree in his yard. His late wife, a noted garden expert, planted it years ago.

We compare some notes about our trees, although the New Zealand experience is opposite mine and that of the Norway tree. I had thought our Northern Hemisphere trees were quite similar in growth and production, but the Norwegian friend was quite startled at my report of ripe Gravensteins this early. Her tree had just barely finished blossoming, after a long cold spring there next to Hardanger fjord. Previously her climate was quite similar to that of the Seattle area, thanks to the Gulf Stream.

In the Treasure Valley, the only source I found for Gravenstein apples before my tree came into bearing age was the Saxton Fruit Farm, west of Lake Lowell. They occasionally sold Gravensteins at their fruit stand on Idaho 55.

Gravensteins need another apple tree for a pollinator, since its pollen is said to be sterile. If you’re considering planting one for your own use, I’d strongly recommend a semi-dwarf or dwarf. If you buy and plant a full-size apple tree, it may be 10 years before it sets fruit.

Dwarf trees grow to 10 feet or a little less and fruit in a few years, depending on the rootstock it was grafted to. They can be grown in containers, but remember, they’ll be vulnerable to cold temperatures. We usually figure a container plant must be able to withstand two zones colder than our usual zone. USDA says we are in zone 7, but most gardeners in this area think we’re still in 6, subject to temperatures as low as 10 degrees below zero.

That would put a requirement for surviving as a container plant at zone 4, subjected to low temperatures between minus 20 to minus 30 degrees. Winds are also more of a factor in survival of container plants than those in ground.

Semi-dwarf trees grow to 12 or 15 feet and that wide too. They should begin setting fruit in four to five years after their start. If you can buy 2-year-old trees, you’re that much ahead. They tend to be hardier than the dwarf trees, but if you’re short on space, dwarf varieties, well-sited, should do fine. They are definitely worth growing.

My garden? Broccoli and collards were short-lived, celery and okra turned to lace by night feeders. Peppers and tomatoes, though, are loaded with fruit.

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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