Why are my apples so small?

mamarobsApril 3, 2010

We moved to our home three years ago. In the backyard is what appears to be a very ancient apple tree. It still fruits and each year I've grown more bold in pruning it. This year I have it pruned just about where I think it needs to be.

I have no idea what kind of apples are on it, though because every year they have been very small, hard and bitter. They never get larger than a ping pong ball. They don't appear to have any major issues. The leaves look healthy. The apples do get some little black spots on them, but every year I've opened several and the spots appear to only affect the skin.

The tree its self seems healthy as well. It had a dead section which we removed and there is very healthy new growth every year.

I've never sprayed this tree. I've just been pruning it every year to open it up.

What do I need to do to help my apples grow? Is there a reason they're so small and bitter?

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I'm a total novice at this, so take this with a grain of salt:

Could it be a crabapple tree?

Crabapples have small and bitter tasting fruit. However, I've heard that they are useful for some types of cooking (e.g. making jelly was one use, I believe).

    Bookmark   April 3, 2010 at 9:33PM
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How many fruit develop per cluster? I'm thinking you may need to hand thin the fruit to get larger size, not an uncommon practice in home orchards, I think commercial orchards do their thinning with sprays.

If you make cider, the right crab would be useful.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2010 at 9:39PM
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It could be a crab apple. I hadn't thought of that because the fruit is so dense it seemed like it wasn't growing to full size. Even after the first frost the apples are so hard I have trouble biting into them. Is that typical of a crabapple? They are green. Sometimes they have a rosey patch.
The clusters are 5 or 6 apples.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2010 at 9:55PM
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Inheriting old apple trees is problematic unless you know what the original owner intended.....if it were from a seedling, the chances are that the apples were not going to be very good eating apples to begin with. As a sidelight, the original Johnny Appleseed roamed around the Midwest planting apples from seed because he believed grafting was un-natural and contrary to God's will. The seeds he planted were good for helping homeowners to establish "homestead" rights with "established" orchards, for spreading genetic diversity, and for hard cider.
I am not saying the apples you have are crabapples or seedlings....I don't know.....and I am certainly not suggesting the tree is not worth something for sentimental purposes......I only suggest that right now, the odds seem slim to me that you will get a good eating apple unless we know more and maybe you just never will get good apples if it is not written in the DNA.....let us know.....good luck.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2010 at 12:36AM
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alan haigh

I would bet my orchard that the tree you have is simply a seedling. Time to do the necessary topworking to get good apples! Around me there are 100's of such trees and I consider them a real opportunity- grafts can start to bear in as little as 2 years.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2010 at 6:56AM
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I agree with harvestman, topworking this tree can make it a real blessing. Given a tree the size I imagine this one is you have the opportunity to graft several good varieties onto the tree and can extend your harvest from this single tree. You could also keep a couple of branches to the original, so if you find a use for those apples you have that to fall back on as well.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2010 at 8:52AM
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mamarods you never responded to the question of thinning. Do you thin the apples by 50-60%? If you have I suspect harvestman is right. If not then thin the fruit this year and see if the tree responds with larger tastier fruit. Try leaving just 1-2 fruit per cluster. Do the thinning when the fruit are nickle to quarter size leaving the larger fruits on the tree.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2010 at 12:03PM
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alan haigh

The apples he describes are not the result of inadequate thinning- bitterness is not one of the consequences I'm aware of. Bitter and chalky are much more common than palatable when a tree is a seedling. Often, if not that, they are flat tasting with no acid and poor texture.

I love the huge ancients- grow an orchard on a single tree!

    Bookmark   April 4, 2010 at 12:16PM
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That.. and make some Cider.. You can mix Crabs into very sweet apples to make a nicely balanced cider (Like fully ripe Golden Delicious)

Some of those Crabs get pretty good tasting when they sit outside frozen long into the winter... They loose some of that bitter taste and all of a sudden they get *Very* sweet and delicious... Then again, some don't.

Try sticking some in the freezer for a week or 2 and see what happens...



    Bookmark   April 4, 2010 at 12:45PM
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They should still make good apple sauce. Wash them, cut them in half, boil them, mash them up, and run through a food mill, filtering out the skin, seeds, and other inedible parts. I, and a few generations back, have always done this with "worthless" crab apples.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2010 at 12:48AM
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>>>> Wash them, cut them in half, boil them, mash them up, and run through a food mill, filtering out the skin, seeds, and other inedible parts.

Home fruits are frequently better than store bought (though not always, depends on fruit and your location). But would it really be worth that much trouble to make applesauce from those crab apples? I had one and tore it out several years back.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2010 at 1:29AM
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I think crab apples are best known for cider, jelly and pickling and some varieties for fresh eating but apple sauce may be interesting.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2010 at 10:35AM
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alan haigh

A crab apple is by definition just an apple with small fruit. They come with a wide range of qualities and are often good to eat right off the tree. If it is a variety that was seleceted for cullinary use, one thing you can be sure of- it will have some acid. Never tasted one selected for eating that was bitter- not much you could with that. I don't know about the quality of varieties grown for cider but I've never encountered real old trees that were, say, old English cider varieties. I know they tend to be high tannin so probably sometimes bitter.

If a crab apple is selected for beauty, it's pretty obviousl as well by the flowers and/or the form. I believe the odds are extremely high that this tree is a seedling and I can't think of better advice than grafting it over to several other varieties ASAP. I've done this with such trees scores of times and it is a quicker way to fruit than buying new trees and much less work and expense.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2010 at 4:35PM
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I have tried thinning and it didn't change the results at all.
The tree has now bloomed and the blooms were pink around the edges, but mostly white. It had five petals and a rose-like center. Within a couple days the blooms turned completely white.
Does that help at all?
I have a picture I could upload (I'm not sure how to do that).

    Bookmark   April 18, 2010 at 1:00AM
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