High Chill Orchard in Orange County report

Tom Spellman from Dave Wilson Nursery held a pruning day at the high chill apple orchard in Orange County at UC Irvine’s South Coast Field Station, made famous by the YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiEEHRfAEWY My wife and I were invited, along with about 15 Master Gardeners and members from the Orange County chapter of the California Rare Fruit Grower group.

This orchard has 30 varieties of apples listed between 800-1,000 hours of chill requirement, specifically:

Yellow Newtown Pippin
Bramley Seedling
Ashmead’s Kernel
Belle de Boskoop
Hudson’s Golden Gem
King of Tompkins County
Golden Russet
Arkansas Black
Cox’s Orange Pippin
Sierra Beauty
Golden Delicious
Scarlet Sentinel
Red Fuji
North Pole

The trees have been in the ground 4 years this March. Tom had told me previously that he had a good fruit set despite lack of thinning, but we were all shocked at the size, quality, and quantity of apples still left on the trees, not to mention the pile on the ground under each tree. This orchard is 10 miles from the beach, next to the Orange County Great Park, the former El Toro MCAS, and surrounded by avocado groves on two sides. This research station is used mostly for testing semi tropic crops like dragon fruit, avocado, cherimoya, and persimmon, and is watered exclusively with reclaimed irrigation (much to the stress of the avocados). It gets at the most 200 chilling hours, and last winter was extremely warm. Once we got past the New Year’s Day freeze (8” of snow killing thousands of avocados in Temecula), we had weeks straight of temps in the 80s and 90s through February.

We had a lot of work to do and not much time, and so we started pruning immediately, grabbing what apples we could out of the branches and off the ground. Some were past their prime this being January and all, but Dixie Red Delight, Golden Russet, Red Fuji, Sierra Beauty, and Belle de Boskoop blew your head off. The hand’s-down favorite was Hudson’s Golden Gem, and exceptional flavor and crunch. By the end of the morning most of the pruning was done and we all ended up with bags of apples to take home; the photo here at the bottom shows our haul.

There are two trees of each variety, and they didn’t get a lot of training while growing. An eastern transplant to the field station who had extensive apple experience at WSU had recommended to Tom that he convert the trees to tall spindle, which I concurred, and so he decided to convert over one of each of the two trees per variety, and the other one to remain an open vase shape as to preserve some production for next season. He also resolved to thin the fruit hard this spring for the best size.

The orchard could have easily supported a roadside stand, if it wasn’t situated in a highly developed area of Orange County on land probably worth hundreds of millions of dollars (2BR 1 BA single story homes start at $1 million). Being this close to the ocean, high temperatures are moderated to a max high of about 105F, but lows rarely get below 40F.

It was interesting to compare the apples here with the ones at my house farther inland in Riverside. Braeburn and Ashmead’s Kernel turn to mush in our heat, but in the moderate climate of Irvine they were both fantastic. I also have one tiny Arkansas Black tree that never produced, but the two trees of it in Irvine were loaded, showing that it isn’t the lack of chill that’s preventing mine from bearing. I supplied some of the scionwood to establish the orchard, and so it wasn’t a surprise to me that the trees were bearing, but I was surprised at the crop load so early in the M111’s lifetime. The farming conditions there are perfect; a deep sandy loam with good fertility, no pests or disease, no frost, and timed irrigation.

Tom had been discouraged by DWN staff and the Field Station management from trying this experiment, as all said it would result in embarrassing failure. I remarked that this is why most low-chill apple research is done by private individuals, who do not face ridicule or loss of funding if a trial doesn’t work out. I run into the same thing with Tropic universities, with much of the research done and risk taken by poor tropic farmers rather than academia or government organizations. The staff at the field station and the researcher from back East are bowled over by the results of the orchard.

I’m thankful to Tom for both the visit to the orchard, and also to the load of scionwood for our Uganda nursery he generously granted. DWN in general has been hugely supportive of the Africa nursery project, and I’ve freely shared the results of our low chill trials and recommendations for new varieties for their lineup.


Thanks so much for this report, Kevin. Certainly confirming what you already know and have confirmed for years :slight_smile: And, encouraged folks like me to also try. Have a question: What is the gorgeous dark red apple in your bottom photo that is in the bottom right corner of the photo? Sure is a pretty apple. Arkansas Black maybe?? And, if it is important, I had a record apple fruit set this year. I still must have about 30 Fuji’s still on the tree. Looking up, “how to make applesauce”!! Going to check out Hudson’s Golden Gem, now, based on your report. My climate has a bit more chill hours, but is also pretty mild. Do you think DWN will have tours of this very cool test orchard? That would be fantastic. And I vote for a roadside stand somewhere close! Certainly there must be a road nearby that could support a stand. Orange County residents would trample themselves to get these super special apples.

Patty S.

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It’s right on Irvine Blvd., now surrounded by $$$ townhomes (Portola Village). You can see the orange balloon at the park going up and down. DWN is not the owner, and usually Tom is limited by the Field Station to six guests who are not regular volunteers at the Field Station. It seems unlikely tours will be held in the future, but I’m encouraging Tom to do more photos and video updates.

Yes, the dark black apples are Arkansas Black, and they were crisp, sweet, and flavorful right off the tree, instead of rock-hard like the mountain ones are until a month in storage. Actually the best Arkansas Black I’ve ever tasted. I doubt they will keep as well as the mountain ones. The Grimes Golden (yellow russeted apples in the photo) are little sugar bombs, also excellent.


Stunningly beautiful apples, but I have yet to get a palatable representation of this variety in any farmers market or WFS. Do you have to grow this variety to appreciate it? Is it an acquired taste? Is it really not up to snuff for fresh eating?

The ones I’ve tasted from the mountains are hard as a rock when first picked and lacking in much complexity. They soften up over a month and get “greasy” to where you can get your teeth into it and have a winey taste that is not bad, but King David blows it away. These from OC are the best Arkansas Blacks I’ve ever tasted, but as with the mountain ones, King David blows them away and are just as beautiful. However, there is a screaming demand for Arkansas Blacks at our mountain orchards, which sell for a premium price.


Thanks for the confirmation again, about King David, Kevin. Can’t want to get mine in the ground. It’s really a shame that DWN can’t get some sort of agreement to allow (more) tours, especially for CRFG chapters. What a great educational opportunity that would be. Or, UC Irvine open this experimental station to tours, like the UC Riverside Citrus Variety Collection does. But, certainly, if UC Irvine is going to invite anyone to see their big high chill apple experiment, it would be you, since you’ve been doing this for a long time, and now, you have some nice corroboration of all the high chill apples you’ve been successfully growing at your place.

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Thanks Kevin for this report – you may not have your name on the eventual research report but i doubt this experiment would have happened without you. The UC Irvine site does do a couple of tasting events for other fruits each year but they don’t seem to be especially organized about it. I would happily pay to support the site to get a tour (I drive by it regularly). I’m no Master Pruner but I’d also volunteer for a half day of fruit thinning this Spring. And no need to open a roadside stand – these would sell out in minutes at the Great Park Sunday Farmers Market.

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Those are the extremes that I’ve encountered with this variety, except winey, as that would probably appeal to me. The “greasy” outside is a thing? I thought it was WFS adding a waxy coating to them. I tried to wash that grease off with no luck. I’m not a big apple fan outside of ‘Pink Lady’, so I might not be the best judge.

I live 10 minutes from the UCI Field Station in the Tustin Foothills and have a mini orchard that is two years old. Same weather as in Irvine but different soil conditions. Here in the foothills, the soil is mostly hard clay. My trees are on M111 and G.41 rootstocks and they seem to do well in clayey soil.

Anyhow, my first apple appeared this year - a King David! It’s huge and a thin branch is bent trying to support it. I thought the apple was going to drop but it’s still hanging on.

I’ve read that Kind David rippens in November in Socal. Mine is already dark red, near purple. Should I pick it or wait until November?


No first hand knowledge but if Nov is the accepted date you should wait. Many fruits color up well before being ripe. It is hard to wait. 9 of 10 pick too early.


Hey Greg. Welcome to the Forum. I’m really close to you (near 17th/Hewes) and can’t talk specifically on King David (just grafted it on to another tree this year), but I agree that it’s probably better to wait. Even though the Irvine soil is different, my guess is the overriding influence on maturity is the climate. Apples are still much harder for me to gauge maturity than anything else I grow. Unfortunately, the squirrels are very good at it and get to most of my apples before I do. I’ve had good luck protecting the figs from the rats this year with Organza bags and I’ve done similar with my Sundowner apples – although I’m much more skeptical they will keep out a hungry squirrel. On those apples (a very late apple), I’m going to try to hold out until December. Good luck!


Hey Neighbor, I’ll wait until November to pick my first apple. Never tasted a King David before but I hear it’s one of the best varieties to grow! I also planted Red Fuji, Hawaii, Rubinette, Gold Rush, Ashmead’s Kernel, and a few others. The names wore off on the tags so I forgot which tree is which. I’ll have to wait for next season to find out and you’re welcome to come get scion wood if you want.

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We should definitely chat as we get closer to January (if not sooner). I don’t have a full list, but I’ve got a couple dozen apples, most first or second year trees from @applenut and his Kuffel Creek Apple Nursery. Mostly vertical sticks at the moment like the picture below, but have decent size Dorsett Golden, Anna, Pink Lady and Sundowner. Apple growth is already slow in our climate and I’m finding that I seem to be making them grow even slower with lack of watering enough. Trees are healthy, just small.

I’ve also got most of the major retail plum and pluot trees, grapes, berries, etc. Big winners this year for us were Flavor King Pluot, Arctic Star Nectarine, Sweet Treat Pluerry, Candy Heart Pluerry, Prime Ark 45 blackberry, Lakemont Grape, Thomcord Grape, Flavor Grenade Pluot, Santa Rosa Plum and Burgundy Plum.

Yes, this hobby is addictive…


Bob, you have one hella of a list of fruit trees. That’s awesome. I was thinking of getting a Flavor King and an Emerald Drop plout trees. Do you have clay soil too? My soil is like cement when it’s dry but it drains.

I just got done pruning, mulching, watering, and dusting the trees off with diatomaceous earth to get rid of the aphids. It was relaxing. I never understood why my family growing up liked gardening. A few years ago, I visited my mother and she had planted fruit trees. She picked apples off her Fuji tree even though they weren’t ripe and I was blown away b/c I’ve never tasted an apple so good.

I found Kevin’s site online and bought his ebook and then I got hooked. Bought a few trees from Kevin (some I threw away b/c I left them in small pots too long and I though they were dead but now i know they were just dormant). After I finally rototilled my side yard, I planted them a year later and they survived. I even let low side branches grow out even though I knew I should have pruned them but was too excited to get them on my M111. They were pruned off today.

Now I am trying to fight off the rabbits and the neighborhood squirrel (one crafty one). I setup a trap but he managed to avoided it. I was so upset at that one squirrel b/c he was responsible for eating my pomegranates just before they were ready to be picked. He eats them right on the tree and takes a big bite and goes to the next one.

I planted my trees about 6 feet apart. I read that the M111 is 80% of a standard and that scared me b/c I planted them so close together and about four feet from my side wall. I know i can keep them from getting too tall with pruning but I don’t want stumpy looking trees. Anyhow, I’m very inexperience to all this.


Don’t worry about the mistakes – that’s part of the fun. We have very heavy clay soil as well. I’ve amended quite a bit of the dirt with sand and, to a lesser degree, potting soil. Have you been to any of the lectures at Laguna Hills Nursery? They are great with fruit trees (and many other things). I’ll message you my contact info and hopefully we can get together sometime soon! Bob

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@applenut, do you happen to have an update on the Irvine orchard this year?

Would also love to have any updates on your orchard as well, if you have the time. Looks like you sold out pretty quick this year.



Yes, we just did a pruning of them yesterday on a glorious Friday AM under blue skies and 75F. The trees are doing well, nice vigour in the fertile soil. They had a very nice fruit set this year, and lots of fruit buds for next season. Tom hopes to get a report written next season, stay tuned.


I too think your low chill work is fantastic. I’m in Texas and we have just planted our first apples. On your advice we planted Hunge and Reverend Morgan to pair up with our Bramley’s but have added King David and Goldrush. Now this year we are already sitting at ~700 hours (about twice what we got last year) with snow and ice coming tonight and a forecasted 28/14 tomorrow. However we will have some heat this summer for the trees to tolerate. Just wondering how they will do. I enjoy your reports.

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700 hours is absolutely arctic to us; I’m not sure if we have any chilling at all this season so far, definitely not in Orange County. You’ll get a nice crop from your trees, and excellent choice on the varieties.


@applenut I see your Blacktwig has yet to fruit according to your website? How has it been for disease resistance?