The old saw about "an apple a day" as the way to perfect health
may have been overstated, but the apple is a great food and a
A medium-sized apple has anywhere from 70 to 125 calories,
depending on variety, mainly sugars, though some super sweet kinds
have twice that. And it has vitamins, fiber, and is tasty. But
apples are not just for people; they're great for wildlife as
Deer, mice, bears, raccoons, turkeys and many songbirds relish
apples. Abandoned orchards have long been popular with wildlife,
but with the decline of New England agriculture they are being
crowded out by forest and subdivision.
To keep apple tree numbers up, we should plant some. The first
question: what kind? It depends on what creatures you're trying to
attract or assist, said John Bunker, the apple guy at Fedco Trees
in Waterville, Maine.
If you want to help out the birds, go with crabapples, Bunker
Most experts recommend choosing crabapples with fruit smaller
than three-quarters of an inch. They should be "persistent,"
meaning the fruit stays on the tree rather than dropping off in the
fall. Think of it as the natural equivalent of processed food with
a long shelf life. Cedar waxwings, robins, and countless other bird
species will descend on those trees in late winter or early
There are many persistent varieties of crabapples, including
Adams, Holiday Gold, Indian Magic, Indian Summer, Pink Spires,
Prairiefire, Snowdrift, and Sargent. Last year I planted
Prairiefire crabs every 20 feet along a 100-yard stretch of road in
front of my house. I chose the variety for its form, its bright red
blossoms, and persistent fruit that's the right size for birds.
Like me, most people plant crabapples in the yard. But what
about the wildlife in my woods?
When it comes to adding some apple trees there it helps to
remember that animals aren't as picky as we are. They don't care if
it's the latest big name in apples, or if it's blemish-free. That's
good news, since you can skip the $25 trees in the catalog and go
cheap, said Bunker.
One way is to save apple cores and scatter them in the woods.
The wildlife enjoy the fruit and spread the seeds. Or rake up
windfall apples from your neighbor's lawn and do the same with
Or, grow apple seedlings yourself: Toss the cores in a bag with
a couple of handfuls of damp potting soil or peat moss and keep in
the refrigerator for a few weeks. Then plant the seeds in potting
soil. Transplant small seedlings in the woods or give them a couple
years growth in the garden before setting them out. All these will
be "mongrel" apples since apple trees don't come true to type from
seed (that's why people propagate apples by grafting), but the
animals don't care, said Bunker.
Don't want to mess with seeds? Buy rootstock. Rootstock is
seedling apple trees that an orchardist would use to graft,
splicing a scion from a known variety into it. But you can plant
rootstock as is and it will make fine wildlife trees. Bunker
emphasizes getting standard rootstock because it's hardier and more
vigorous than dwarf or semi-dwarf. And it's cheap. You can
generally get 10 rootstocks for what you would pay for one
bare-root varietal apple tree. Buy in bulk and they're even
One key in successfully growing apples is sunlight.
"Apple trees that are crowded and shaded for a long time usually
do not bear fruit . . . ensuring that a tree gets direct sunlight
is the most effective way to enhance its productivity," according
to Wild Apple Trees for Wildlife, a booklet put out by the
University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
So when you're planting your young trees, look for existing
clearings, plant in areas that have been harvested, or create small
openings. Keep competing vegetation cut back so sunlight can get to
your trees. Prune the trees every year or two to encourage new
Most apples are not self-fruitful - they need pollen from a tree
of a different variety to set fruit. Making several plantings
through the forest is the best way to ensure good pollination and
lots of fruit.
Bunker recommends setting out three or four trees in a group or
cluster a few feet apart. To give them protection from animals
while they get established, pound three or four small posts in the
ground around them and encircle them with chicken wire. The wire
doesn't need to touch the ground. When the trees get a little
taller, take the wire down.
Joe Rankin is a freelance forestry writer
and beekeeper who lives in Maine. The Outside Story is assigned and
edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn
Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable