Sunday, October 24, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Living

Apples Of The West -- Some Of The Best-Tasting Apples Are Grown Around Puget Sound

SAY "APPLES" IN THIS STATE and most people think of central Washington, where sunny summers and crisp autumns are just about perfect for producing high-quality fruit on a commercial scale.

Apples, after all, need sun, the more the better, and sunlight is something we don't have much of in the drizzly Puget Sound area. (Only 57 days a year in the Seattle-Tacoma area are clear, according to Places Rated Almanac, and they sure weren't counting this year.)

Fortunately, scores of tasty apple varieties, many of them developed over the past few decades, flourish west of the Cascades and are well-suited for backyard planting. Indeed, more than one apple expert in this region considers apples that have matured in Western Washington's cool summers to be superior in quality to those grown in Eastern Washington.

When considering an apple variety for a home orchard, of primary importance are flavor and texture, says Dr. R.T. (Bob) Norton, horticulturist for Washington State University's Research Unit at Mount Vernon. "Beauty doesn't matter if the first two qualities are missing."

Apples actually have deep roots in this region. From 1880 until 1920, Northwest Washington orchards were the heart of the state's commercial apple industry. It wasn't until irrigation became commonplace in central Washington and a new railroad network linked farmers there to markets in the East that orchardists west of the Cascades were edged out of the business. Fragments of the old orchards survive here and there in Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan counties, and less commonly in urbanized King County.

Today there are more than 1,000 serious apple hobbyists west of the Cascades, Norton figures.

Norton, a trim, sandy-haired man in his late 60s who has jounced in cars or pickup trucks through apple orchards in Japan, New Zealand, Europe and across the United States in the course of his work, has run the WSU tree-fruit testing program for 30 years. More than 200 different apple cultivars and selections have been grown as part of the program, including old types, such as Bramley's Seedling, in need of reappraisal for Northwest conditions. New varieties in the project came either from apple-breeding programs around the world or were exceptional seedlings discovered by observant fruit lovers.

"It's been my job to know what's going on in the world. I'm looking all the time for new varieties, strains of apples that might do well in the Northwest," Norton says.

We have Norton to thank for introducing the firm, crisp and flavorful Jonagold to commercial orchardists in the Puget Sound area back in the 1960s, when the tree was just a numbered selection he obtained from the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva, N.Y. Now the Jonagold, a cross of Golden Delicious and Jonathan, and the sweet, juicy Gala make up most of Western Washington's commercial apple crop, and more trees are planted each year. The Galas from Skagit and Whatcom counties' orchards are especially sought by commercial packers for their intense color, a beautiful red on yellow mix, which is brought on by cool summer days.

What's good for the commercial farmer is also good for the amateur who simply wants a few productive trees behind the house.

When testing new varieties, Norton looks for disease and pest resistance; annual cropping (trees that bear fully each year instead of every other year); ripening time (September, October and November are more desirable months, since that's when the other garden fruits have finished); and "legs," or fruit storage life.

His favorites for possible commercial use by organic growers in the Puget Sound area are the disease-resistant varieties, including Chehalis, Akane, Elstar, Prima, Freedom and Liberty. All are good choices for backyard gardeners.

One serious orchardist who incorporates the results of Norton's testing in his own plantings is Ed Lewis of Clyde Hill, near Bellevue. Lewis raises about 200 varieties of apples on his half-acre by grafting five to 10 varieties per tree. He's not a commercial apple grower; he cultivates fruit trees for the fun of it. Of the newer types, he ranks Liberty, which was introduced by New York researchers in 1978, near the top of his list of favorites, followed by Chehalis, introduced in 1962, and Akane, a Japanese cross introduced in 1970. Lewis thinks that Macoun, a variety that's been around since 1923, to be such a fine dessert apple that its scab and mildew problems are worth fussing with.

Lewis' trees are on semi-dwarf rootstock, so they stay a manageable size -- about 10 to 15 feet -for pruning, picking and spraying, though he hasn't sprayed his trees with fungicides in two years.

"I had kind of an off year," Lewis says. "But I still had lots of Hudson's Gold, Akane and Spartan." The familiar Red Delicious? "It doesn't grow well in Western Washington. It has tough skin. It's not much. I don't mess with it."

A few miles north of Lewis, Walt Lyon tends a home orchard that is legend to local apple fanciers. Lyon is retired, if that's an accurate word for a person who devotes full time to gardening. He has roughly two acres suitable for apples on his five-acre place just out of Kenmore, so he makes the most of them, growing about 300 varieties thanks to multiple grafts. He and his wife usually bring about 200 varieties from their home crop to share at the annual fall fruit show. (See box for information.)

"This was a bad year for apples - not many bees working during pollination time," Lyon says. "Some trees no fruit, some a few. Just one of those years."

But Lyon is obviously sold on this area for growing apples. "We generally grow better fruit here in the West," he says.

He is partial to some of the old varieties, though he doesn't like to have to choose one over another. Too many beauties out there. "If I had to pick one it would be the Newtown Pippin, which originated during the Colonial days. It's the best-keeping apple there is." This variety, which produces a large, crisp, tart cooking apple, is susceptible to mildew problems in this area, but he sprays with fungicides to keep the trees clean.

Lyon especially likes the Jonagold, as well as Elstar and Spy-Spitzenburg.

"People need to come out to the fruit shows and taste a lot of them. There are so many the public doesn't know about," Lyon says.

So far as apple husbandry goes, Northwest growers must fight the diseases that flourish in our misty, moist conditions. Sad-looking trees were everywhere around Seattle this year, it seemed. The solution? Follow the traditional route, cross your fingers for luck and treat your existing trees with fungicides and dormant-spray mixes as time, inclination and weather permit, or try out the disease-resistant varieties. Liberty, for example. You may find the experience liberating.

Dean Stahl is a Seattle freelance editor and writer. Bo Hok Cline is a Seattle Times news artist.

-------------------------------- A IS FOR APPLE TIPS FOR GROWERS IN RAIN COUNTRY --------------------------------

What does it take to grow good apples? Here are some of the basics:

Apples need sun at least half the day, so pick the best spot on your lot. Good apples are harvested in the Puget Sound area, but not when grown in the shade.

Any average, well-drained soil will do. Apple trees aren't that fussy, but they won't tolerate waterlogged conditions. Deep soil is desirable.

Pruning is essential to keep a tree of a manageable size healthy and productive, says Scott Stiles, horticulturist at Raintree Nursery in Morton, a retail outlet that sells thousands of apple trees annually. Stiles recommends pruning every year. Mini-dwarf apple trees in many varieties can be maintained at 4 to 6 feet tall and grown in a 15-gallon container, or planted out and staked.

If you live in a rural area or where there aren't already apple trees in the neighborhood, you need to be concerned about pollination. Though many apple varieties will set some fruit with pollen from their own blossoms, others will not, making what's called "still" pollen, which is sterile. Alkemene, for example, is a variety that produces still pollen. All apple trees will give you more fruit if pollinated by another variety. "In most cases your neighbors will have apples and you'll get all the fruit you want," says Stiles.

Apple scab and mildew are major problems here, so choose varieties with low susceptibility. WSU tests give Bramley's Seedling, Hudson's golden Gem, Liberty, Prima and a number of other varieties high marks. You won't need blemish-free fruit, as do commercial growers, but you'll want healthy apples that will stick to the tree until harvest, attain good size and keep well.

------------------------------ WHERE TO FIND MORE INFORMATION ------------------------------

Books: "Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally," by Robert Kourik (Metamorphic Press, 1986). Extensive and thoughtful treatment of apple growing, by variety, including pruning, diseases, pest control.

"Sunset Western Garden Book." Pollination, planting, watering and other requirements. Extensive list of varieties, many suitable for the Northwest, and fruit characteristics.

Resources: King County Cooperative Extension bulletins: Varieties for this climate, planting and care, retail sources. (Bulletins KC 33 "Tree Fruit Cultivars - Sources," and KC 156 "Orchard Mason Bees," are useful and free.) Call 296-3900. Also, phone 296-3425 to request a list of Dial Extension tapes accessed by touch-tone phones.

Washington State University Extension Bulletin 1436, "Apple Cultivars for Puget Sound": Descriptive evaluation of 124 apple cultivars and selections for this area, with many color photographs. Available at King County Cooperative Extension, 612 Smith Tower, Seattle. $8. (Each county's Cooperative Extension office has WSU publications available.)

Master Gardener Phone Clinic: Questions answered Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free. Call 296-3440.

Organizations:Home Orchard Society: P.O. Box 230192, Tigard, OR 97281. Quarterly newsletter, annual fruit show. $10 per year.

North American Fruit Explorers: Route 1, Box 94, Chapin, IL 62628. Quarterly newsletter, $8 per year.

Western Cascade Fruit Society: 2539 N.E. 108th Place, Seattle, WA 98125. Six chapters in Western Washington. In Seattle, call Seattle Tree Fruit Society: 523-6363 or 723-9009. Monthly newsletter, meetings or field trips, annual rootstock and scionwood exchange, fall fruit show. Membership $18 per year, includes fee for general membership ($10), dues for the chapter and newsletter subscription.

Western Washington Tree Fruit Research Foundation: 391 Butts Road, Morton, WA 98356. Supports tree fruit research at WSU-Mount Vernon. Annual membership $20 per family.

Event:Fall Fruit Show: Nov. 6, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Nov. 7, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Center for Urban Horticulture, University of Washington, 3501 N.E. 41st St., Seattle. Sponsored by the Western Cascade Fruit Society. $2.50 for anyone over 16. More than 100 varieties of apples from west of the Cascades to taste, lectures, cider pressing, exhibits on fruit-tree care, publications, tools and equipment. Bring mystery apples for identification.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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