My Granddaughter and I Take On Johnny Appleseed

 Should we strive for a “blemish-free, plastic-red saccharine orb” in Salvisa? I don't think so. Shutterstock photo.
Should we strive for a “blemish-free, plastic-red saccharine orb” in Salvisa? I don’t think so. Shutterstock photo.

As a young boy, I would have chosen a gumdrop tree over an apple tree any day.

Baked apples, applesauce and candied apples were my answer to An Apple a Day. Any apple coated with sugar was worth sampling. My mother would throw a fresh apple into my lunch box, but the Hostess Twinkie was what I wanted. That fresh, locally grown apple was there in case of starvation.

But last year, with a little more seasoning, I returned to apple trees. Until then ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ was the only apple I’d ever planted. The delicious dessert apple, very popular in England, died from neglect the first year. That was 35 years ago. It has taken me this long to build up courage to try growing apples again.

I planted a little orchard on our farm in Salvisa, KY, last March. Four trees. The heirlooms ‘Black Twig’ and ‘Arkansas Black’ will be new additions this year.

My friend, Jamie Dockery, the multi-talented gardener and County Extension Agent in Lexington, KY, gave me some variety suggestions and some good advice. He suggested ‘Redfree,’ ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Liberty.’ I added the heirloom ‘Albemarle Pippin’ to the mix.

I’ve been more attentive with my apple trees this time around. I watered the initial planting last year during dry spells. I also protected my orchard from deer and rabbits.

I am four for four going into 2016.

I’ve read some good apple books in the last few years. Apples of North America, Old Southern Apples and Apple, A Global History have provided interesting information. Michael Pollan’s engaging essay on Johnny Appleseed in Botany of Desire is a great read, too.

Appleseed, a clever entrepreneur was “planting orchards in the wilderness.” He sold two-to-three-year-old seedling “whips” to pioneers for a few pennies. His trees were planted on homesteads for home brew production. Hard cider was “the gift of alcohol to the frontier.”

Story and Rose in the Salvisa orchard.
Story and Rose in the Salvisa orchard.

A few fresh apples and some sweet cider is our goal on the farm in Salvisa. Eventually, I’d like to produce apple cider with Story, my 8-year-old granddaughter. Neither of us knows what we’re doing, yet we’re game. But someday, I might honor Johnny Appleseed and make a little hard cider.

Annie Proulx’s “Making the Best Apple Cider,” a bulletin published by Storey in 1980, is my best source for learning how to make cider. Proulx went on from writing instructional bulletins to win the Pulitzer Prize (1993) for Shipping News. Her short story Brokeback Mountain was turned into an Academy Award Winner.

Story and I are a few years away from pressing apples for cider.

Our small orchard could produce a lot more apples than we’d ever need for fresh apples or cider. Or it could produce none at all.

I’ll never be able to produce the “blemish-free, plastic-red saccharine orb,” the commercial apple of supermarkets that Michael Pollan describes.

I don’t plan to spray our apples, except perhaps with a dormant oil spray in late winter. So any apple harvest will be a crapshoot. Scab, cedar apple rust and fire blight will be persistent threats. Stinkbugs and Japanese beetles could be a nuisance, too.

Stayman Winesap heirloom apple at Shaker Village, Mercer County, Kentucky.
Stayman Winesap heirloom apple tree at Shaker Village, Mercer County, Kentucky.

Apples traditionally were a local crop, wherever apples could be grown. Market conditions changed in the 1980s. The big Washington state producers figured out that they could refrigerate apples and ripen them, as need be, with ethylene gas, then ship them to market all across the country, whenever they wanted. Western North Carolina, where I was living in the 1980s, had a vibrant apple industry, based on fresh apples. The North Carolina mountain-grown apples had a market advantage. They were the first to naturally ripen in the U.S. The Washington State apple growers, as well as developers interested in mountain property for retirees, killed North Carolina’s apple industry.

Story and I can’t compete with the Washington state growers. But we are, with our tiny orchard, picking up where Johnny Appleseed left off. Appleseed planted apple seedlings all over Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. He didn’t know a thing about ripening apples with ethylene.

Appleseed did okay.

Story and I share some of Appleseed’s instincts. We’re homegrown apple speculators, too.


  1. We bought our first old farmhouse and an acre of land in northern Illinois in 1969 for $15,500. The first thing we did was plant an apple orchard. It’s still there – which means we are too.

  2. I love Arkansas Black but it seems one has to wait til Christmas to eat one. We don’t have it anymore so I am counting your desire to share with friends.

  3. Two years ago I started my apple experiment with a Winesap and an Arkansas Black. Last year I added a Cortland. They are protected from the voracious bunnies and doing well! I do spray with a fungcide because my juniper tree is infested with apple scab. Maybe this year I’ll beat the squirrels to the apples.

  4. I planted four apple trees last summer, and two sweet and two sour cherries. I’m following the advice in “Grow a Little Fruit Tree” by Ann Ralph, who shows how to keep fruit trees small enough for the backyard.

    • Thanks for recommending “Grow a Little Fruit Tree.” I don’t know it but I read reviews online and it sounds like there are some very good pruning suggestions.

  5. We inherited 4 apple trees planted by the former owners. I have cut down one that never produced but the other 3 are doing OK despite being planted where they get afternoon shade. (Sigh…) Here in Michigan commercial producers spray on almost a weekly basis (I talked with one local orchardist.) In addition to the pests you mention, we also have Apple maggot flies and Plum curculio. However, with pruning, I manage to have a decent crop (not huge) of apples every other year. They do have some bugs and blemishes but are great for cooking.

  6. No worries about codling moth? That’s my greatest foe in my quest for edible apples and Asian pears. I’m not concerned with picture-perfect fruit, just something I can pull off the tree and eat on a long day in the yard. I have a bio-spray I can use to prevent them, but the timing for it is tricky.

      • They resemble the moths you might find in your closet, but larger and somewhat brownish. They are deceptively harmless-looking. Peaceful Valley Farm Supply ( in my region has the bio-control I mentioned. It’s my only realistic option because frankly, as little time as I have for spraying this control at the appropriate moment, I have even less for bagging every fruit.

        My next battle – finding an organic control for the spotted-wing drosophilia that has turned my fabulous Stella cherry into an epic nightmare of ruined fruit.

  7. I wish you luck with your new apple trees. I have no idea of the growing conditions in your area, but it sounds like you have different pests than we do here in the high desert of central Oregon. We have a short growing season, so cannot hope to get fruit from any of the famous keepers, but anything that rides in August or early September does well. I moved last summer from my home of 37 years, where I had productive pears and apples, to a brand new bare lot, with brought-in soil/compost and what I think will be a good space for growing apples. The decision-making process is excruciating — I want to grow everything. But will have to limit myself to a couple or three this year, with maybe a few more for espaliering on a new fence. We have terrible codling moth problems here. I don’t spray with killer death chemicals, but am curious about the bio-spray mentioned be another commenter. I have just always resigned myself to eating around the worms, because no matter what, the fresh apples are amazing. Good luck to us all, I say! Fresh apples are lovely.

  8. Great project! And making hard cider is dead easy — I do it every year. You just add wine-making yeast to a 5-gallon carboy of cider, let it ferments until it stops bubbling, then add a little more sugar (1 tsp per bottle) when you bottle to brew to add sparkle. The Annie Proulx book is a good one, but makes the process more complicated than it has to be.

  9. Thank you, Thomas. Your recipe sounds simple! I just need to wait a few years for an apple harvest. In the meantime, I might experiment this fall with some locally sourced apples.

  10. Some of the best things to start early in the year of 2016 to make apple cider. I think you started the experiment at the exact time and hopefully to have the chance to try the self-made cider in the end of the year. Good luck 🙂

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