A is for Apple Hill

Pumpkin spice, fuzzy socks, and bulky sweaters…the calling cards of fall are many, and this list wouldn’t be complete for me without adding a trip to Apple Hill to it! 

For those who are not familiar, Apple Hill refers to an association of apple growers, wineries, fruit and vegetable farms, and other businesses in Camino, CA that has become a hot spot for fall fun and year round activities such as wine tasting and berry picking. Camino is just off of Highway 50 between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe. According to their website, Apple Hill was established in 1964 and started off with just 16 apple growers. Now their members number over 50 businesses.

Before Apple Hill was Apple Hill, the area was primarily pear orchards. However, the area suffered a devastating pear blight, a potentially catastrophic bacterial disease, and the growers on the Hill turned to apples instead. Through combined years of experience and growing their businesses and orchards, the grower association was able to transform Apple Hill into a fall day-trip destination for Northern California. 

If you’re thinking about visiting, consider downloading the Apple HilI app to help navigate your trip. The app includes vendor lists and locations by type. It also provides mapping and weather information. It helps to plan ahead when you’re going to visit Apple Hill, or at least pick out a couple of top choice locations before embarking. Plan for traffic and check business hours. 

Apple butter for sale at High Hill Ranch.
Fresh chestnuts for sale at High Hill Ranch.

My most recent trip to Apple Hill was with my boyfriend, Josh, and two of our friends, Ashley and Cody. We were pre-celebrating my birthday since my actual birthday was on a weekday. I picked out three different locations to visit, but ultimately, we pared it down to one, High Hill Ranch, which is probably the best one-stop-shop in Apple Hill. We were able to score the coveted apple donuts I had my heart set on. Next we perused the craft booths which showcased everything from jewelry and photography to metalworking and crocheted clothing. Afterwards, we purchased and ate our lunch on site as well. There were of course plenty of apple orchards on each side of us although apple-picking is one thing High Hill does not offer. However, High Hill also features a country market where they sell local goods and products such as fresh apples, apple butter, chestnuts, frozen pies, cook books and apple-themed merchandise. 

Apple cider donuts from High Hill Ranch.
Josh and I about to enjoy our apple cider donuts.

Considering traffic can be pretty heavy at Apple Hill on the weekends, not having to move our cars throughout the day was very convenient. We ended the day with wine tasting which was only a quarter mile walk away at Madrona Winery. The walk takes you past some of the vineyards used to make Madrona wines, and their cozy tasting room is settled back under some large redwood trees. It was a wonderful day, and a great way to kick off my 27th year!

Madrona vineyards sign.
Madrona Vineyards sign outside of their tasting room.

A is for Apple Breeding

Now, this is a gardening blog, so this post would not be complete without talking plants! Specifically, apples! Malus domestica is the apple’s scientific name, or in other words, it is called the domesticated apple. The apple’s wild ancestor is from the mountains of Kazakhstan (Pollan, p.11). Apples spread from Kazakhstan to Europe, and then European settlers brought apples to the New World. They were consequently spread across the country largely with the help of John Chapman, the real Johnny Appleseed which the folklore is based on. Johnny Appleseed planted and sold apple trees across the westward frontier as his business and livelihood. Settlers welcomed him with open arms because apples were their main source of alcohol in the form of cider (Pollan, p.14-15). 

Most apples in frontier times did not taste very good on their own.  When planted from seed, apple offspring are very different from the parent trees. This quality makes the apple a plant that adapts well to new areas, such as the expanding western frontier, but there is no consistency between parent and child generations of apple trees in taste or size of fruit (Pollan, p. 9-10).

Jonagold and Granny Smith apples for sale at High Hill Ranch.

Apple varieties that are beloved today have been bred and selected over centuries and kept consistent through grafting. Grafting is the only thing keeping specific apple varieties alive past the lifespan of a single apple tree. Grafting is a technique used to join a piece of fruiting wood from a tree variety that produces desirable fruit onto another piece of wood called the rootstock (UNHCE). The variety of rootstock will affect the size of the tree such as whether the tree is standard sized or dwarf sized, for example. The rootstock also determines the hardiness of the tree such as how tolerant it is to frost and disease. The fruiting wood, also known as the scion, is spliced into the rootstock and it will determine the fruit produced. Generally, grafting only works within species (apple to apple; pear to pear, etc).

Grafting is a technique that can be used by home gardeners; however, if you are buying an apple tree from a nursery, this process has likely already been started for you. There are so many varieties of apples that their sun, water, and soil requirements may vary greatly. If you are going to plant an apple tree, I recommend researching varieties that do well in your area before buying one. Some nurseries and garden centers will carry varieties that are well-known but not necessarily well-adapted to the area they are being sold. 

Malus domestica is a deciduous tree meaning that it loses all of its leaves each year after its growing season (Sunset, p. 154). Most varieties of apples need cold winters (or a certain number of chilling hours) to achieve maximum productivity; however, there are some apple varieties which will produce under warmer circumstances. Some of the low-chill varieties recommended by apple expert Kevin Hauser out of Riverside, CA are ‘Rubinette’, ‘Anna,’ ‘Dorsett Golden’, ‘Arkansas Black’, ‘Fuji’, ‘Granny Smith’, and ‘Pink Lady’ (Sunset p. 161).

A if for Attention

Apples do require some attention to produce a healthy crop of fruit. One tip that I’ve read is to plant at least two apple varieties, so that the trees have a chance to cross-pollinate and have a good fruit set (Sunset p. 154). Newly planted apple trees will need fertilizer prior to budding-about ¼ lb of fertilizer with a 10-10-10 NPK ratio (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium ratio is usually printed on the bag). In subsequent years add a ¼ lb fertilizer to the feeding dose until trees are bearing well and producing 6-8 in of annual new growth, and then they may not need annual feeding (Sunset p. 160).

There are a variety of ways to prune apple trees. If you have dwarf trees, a pyramidal shape may work best; however, espalier is a popular style as well. Mature trees should be pruned late in the dormant season. The purposes of pruning include shaping the tree, developing strong scaffolding for fruit, and to remove dead, damaged, and diseased branches (Sunset p. 161). Pruning is a good maintenance practice that will help your tree to thrive. 

A is for Anecdote

Fun fact that I learned from Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, but that I couldn’t find a place to put in the rest of this post: “Apple a day keeps the doctor away,” was a campaign created by the apple industry to promote the moral goodness of apples when their morality was under attack. Since apples were often used to make cider, an alcoholic beverage, prohibitionists were not particularly keen on the fruit. 

Sources:

Apple Hill Growers Association. “Our History.”

Lord, William G. and Amy Oulette. Revised by Becky Sideman, 2017. Growing Fruit: Grafting Fruit Trees in the Home Orchard. University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire. New York, Random House, 2001. 

Sunset Western Garden Book of Edibles: The Complete A to Z Guide to Growing Your Own Vegetables, Herbs, and Fruits. Menlo Park, Sunset Publishing Corporation, 2010.

Washington, Kate. “The Ultimate Guide to Apple Hill.” Sac Town Magazine, October-November 2017.

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