Faculty Feature: A Johnny Appleseed shares growing passion


Dailey shows online how apples are grown.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Though the Red Delicious at the grocery store may look enticing with its waxy sheen and perfect heart shape, in taste it’s not worth much, at least according to William Dailey.

Dailey, an avid fruit grower, is a self-professed apple connoisseur. He also happens to be a professor of chemistry at Penn. But he’d rather spend his time talking apples, not molecules.

Seven years ago Dailey found an outlet for his passion as a member of the Backyard Fruit Growers (BYFG), a Lancaster-based association of amateur gardeners. The 250-member organization, started in 1990 by a handful of fruit lovers, grew for reasons simple enough. “Everybody likes to eat, and you like to eat the best,” said Dailey.

But eating the best becomes a bit difficult when you have only six or so varieties to choose from out of the thousands available. So the members of BYFG pooled their research, trading tips and advice on how to grow fruit. That sharing process became even easier once BYFG went online in 1997, thanks to Dailey, who took it upon himself to learn HTML for just that purpose.

With a few simple clicks, visitors can learn everything about breeding fruits, from how to graft and when to spray to where to buy an exotic variety. Though primarily dedicated to apples, the site also has information on other fruits, such as oranges, pears and gooseberries. It even has a picture gallery for those of us who just want to look and admire.

“I’ve been trying to include descriptions and pictures of these various fruits because there really isn’t one place [where] you could go and say, ‘What would a Jonamac apple look like,’” said Dailey. “You see a description sometimes, but a picture is worth a thousand words. And to have it in one place is really valuable.”

If you think all of this information is excessive and that growing the perfect fruit is as simple as planting a seed, think again.

Growing fruit from seed is very much like reaching into a grab-bag full of surprises. You can never be sure what you’ll get.

“It’s like people,” said Dailey. “When you have a child, it’s not exactly [that] you’re them. [They] may look very different from you.”

These days, grafting, or taking a piece of wood from a desired tree and putting it into a fresh root, eliminates the wait-and-see aspect of fruit propagation.

Without grafting, Dailey wouldn’t be able to enjoy the 100 or so varieties of apple that now sit on his quarter-acre yard. But Dailey also has other tricks up his sleeves. Through a technique called dwarfing, he limits the size of his trees while still enjoying full-sized fruits. Even better, since he’s the grower, he knows what chemicals have gone into his fruits.

Beyond biting into that perfectly crisp and tart apple, there’s something else that Dailey finds satisfying about fruit growing—watching others enjoy the product.

“I’ve got a couple of kids who are young teenagers now and they’ll go out with their friends into the yard and harvest the berries and have the apple. It’s a family kind of thing,” he said.

Interested in raising your own perfect apple? Come to one of the Backyard Fruit Growers’ many workshops, where they’ll treat you like a do-it-yourself “Renaissance man,” said Dailey, and bring you one step closer to that satisfying crunch.

Find the Back Yard Fruit Growers online at www.sas.upenn.edu/~dailey/byfg.html.

Originally published on February 21, 2002