The 5 Best Apple Trees for DIY Orchards | Deer & Deer Hunting

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Whether you like growing apples for deer and other wild game animals, or you just want to grow the best-tasting fruit for eating, baking, or making sauce or cider, here is my completely biased Top 5 list for this week’s Dan Schmidt Deer blog post.

I must preface this conversation that apple trees are like fingerprints — no two are really the same because soil, climate, insects, and a plethora of other factors can dictate what works best for me might not work best for you.

However, after planting four home-sized orchards in my lifetime, I’ve come away with some strong opinions on which trees are blue-ribbon winners time and time again.

Preface #2: I live in Wisconsin (have done so my whole life), and this isn’t considered the mecca of growing apple trees. Some folks might think of New York or Washington State as the go-to places for apples. When it comes to planting them for deer, we do very well, thank you very much! And, as a Wisconsinite and ardent sports fan, I’ve unfairly judged our neighbors to the west (Minnesota) as perennial also-rans for nearly everything in life (insert hearty LOL here).

Legendary New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley even took a dig at the Gopher State way back in 1860 when he wrote:

“When choosing a place to live, I would never choose to live in Minnesota, because one cannot grow apples there.”

Well, he was wrong. And I was wrong to ever think that Minnesota didn’t harbor at least a few wins somewhere in the annals of modern living.

Ask this neophyte who’s the all-time apple champ, and I’ll straight-up tell you that Minnesota is the freaking all-time champ when it comes to apple tree varieties. I’m that much of a believer.

Back to Greeley … his fancy-college-boy words so pissed off the entire state of Minnesota that they immediately went to work to prove him wrong. In fact, it took but a few years for Excelsior’s Peter Gidgeon to develop the Wealthy strain — one of the most popular Northern apple trees of the 1900s. Gideon, of Excelsior, introduced the Wealthy apple in 1868. Before that time, it was next to impossible to get an apple tree to survive the harsh Minnesota winters. The problem was early settlers relied solely on seeds for planting. Gideon spent more than seven years getting it right, but the result was a cultivator that’s considered to be one of the most cold-tolerant apple trees in existence.

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They aren’t as easy to find today, but I did find some this spring (had to drive 175 miles to get them).

Today, the University of Minnesota is credited with developing more than 30 apple varieties. Among the strains are the Prairie Spy, Keepsake, Frostbite, Haralson, Sweet Tango, Fire Kiss and three inclusions from my Top 5 list of best apples (below).

When I first started planting apple trees 25 years ago, I relied on container stock sold at our local farm store. Nothing wrong with a container tree – if you simply want a few apples and don’t aspire to have long-standing trees. I personally no longer have such aspirations. I’m in it for the long haul. For me, planting apple trees is a labor of love. Today I will only plant root stock because my fascinating is with trees that will hopefully become heirloom specimens for whoever owns the land on which they are growing. I’ve dealt with too many cases of girdling root balls and other scourges associated with the quick-fix, have-it-now mentality that comes with container stock. Again, nothing wrong with them if you like them. They are just not for me.

OK, I digress. Here is the lopsided Top 5 list of my absolute all-time favorite strains:

STATE FAIR APPLE The 5 Best Apple Trees for DIY Orchards | Deer & Deer Hunting
The State Fair apple was developed by the University of Minnesota. (Daniel Schmidt photo)

1. State Fair Apple

Developed: 1979. University of Minnesota.

Parents: Mentet and Oriole apple strains.

Offspring: Zestar® strain.

Comments: I call this my “Sunday go-meeting” apple. It’s a special treat. My only criticism of this strain is it does not keep well – expect only a couple of weeks in the fridge if you’re lucky. When in season, I will eat one (OK, sometimes three) a day until the best tree is done producing. After that, the deer get to gorge on the leftovers.

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Macoun apple The 5 Best Apple Trees for DIY Orchards | Deer & Deer Hunting
The Macoun is another excellent eating apple with top-quality tree lineage. (Daniel Schmidt photo)

2. Macoun Apple

Developed: 1923 by Richard Wellington at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station.

Parents: Macintosh and Jersey Black apple strains.

Comments: Pronounced “mah-coon,” this is one of the best eating apples you’ll find. It is also excellent for pies and sauce. It’s a late dropper, putting down fruit in October and November. Crisp and semi-sweet, the Macoun has a 13% sugar content.

Halared The 5 Best Apple Trees for DIY Orchards | Deer & Deer Hunting
When it comes to pure production, the Halared® is a blue-ribbon winner when it comes to producing a lot of fruit for hungry deer.

3. Halared® Apple

Developed: Louis Lautz, an orchardist from La Crescent, Minnesota.

Comments: The Halared® is an improved version of the Haralson apple, which was developed in 1922 at the University of Minnesota. Lots of folks like this apple for baking, saucing, and fresh eating. I like it for its incredible production. This is my go-to tree for deer. Get a Halared® to bearing stage, and you will easily get a full truckload of apples from one tree. The fruit is tart, firm and keeps for a long time in the fridge. The tree itself is super hardy. Winters don’t affect it too much, and it is blight resistant. The Halared’s that I’ve grown are warriors. I’ve had trees tip over in summer storms and were no worse for the wear with some emergency work (due to their strong root systems). Also, the Halared is the best late-bearing tree that I’ve had for deer apples. These trees typically hold their fruit well into November (sometimes even later). I’ve had deer jump 6 foot fences to get to these apples in December when the snow started flying!

Honeycrisp The 5 Best Apple Trees for DIY Orchards | Deer & Deer Hunting
The Honeycrisp is a fan favorite. Streaks of yellow and green in the skin give it a distinctive look.

4. Honeycrisp Apple

Developed: 1993 by David Bedford, University of Minnesota.

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Comments: Bedford developed this tree from crossbreeding, not genetic manipulation. It is insanely popular here in the upper Midwest. I kind of “get it” in the fact the apple is sweet and pleasant on the teeth (not like crunching into a hardball, ala a Red Delicious or something like that), and these trees are prolific. I’ve had Honeycrisps that produced many bushels of fruit during good years. The strain is on my Top 5 list because it is a very good tree and apple, but outside of production, I don’t jump up and down with excitement with the Honeycrisp like most folks do.

Screen Shot 2022 04 28 at 9.56.38 AM The 5 Best Apple Trees for DIY Orchards | Deer & Deer Hunting
The Mack Daddy of all apples, the Wolf River strain produces fruits that can exceed 1 pound — for just ONE apple! (photo by Daniel Schmidt)

5. Wolf River Apple

Developed: 1875, Fremont, Wisconsin.

Comments: What totally biased Top 5 list of best apple trees would be complete without an unapologetic inclusion of a hometown hero? I never even knew the Wolf River apple tree existed until I moved to Waupaca County, Wisconsin, which is home to a portion of the Wolf River.

This tree dates to at least 1875 when a local farmer planted Alexander apple trees along the banks of the Wolf River. The result was a crop of enormous apples. Curiosity got the best of the farmer, and he used those trees to propagate a tree that eventually became its own strain (which he named after the river). It is not uncommon for a Wolf River apple to exceed 1 pound (about the size of a mini basketball). The fruit is spicy sweet and can be used for anything. A local tradition around here is to make a world-class apple butter. As deer apples, this tree produces tonnage like you will not believe.