Apples

Planting Apple Trees and Harvesting Apples

Apple Tree

Ever wish you could grow apple trees in your backyard? This guide will tell you all you need to know about apples, including how to plant, grow, and care for apple trees in your garden.

Apples trees aren’t just for people with acres upon acres of land. Even in a small space, you can plant a hedge of dwarf apple trees or an apple espalier and yield a successful crop.

Planting

Spring planting is recommended in central and northern areas. Where fall and winter weather is generally mild and moist, fall planting is successful.

Climate Considerations

  • Not every apple grows everywhere. Each variety has a specific number of days needed for fruit maturity.
  • Tree tags don’t always tell you where the variety grows best, but many catalogs do. Also check with your local Cooperative Extension Service for a recommendation specific to your area.
  • As a general rule, if a tree is termed hardy, it grows best in Hardiness Zones 3 to 5. If termed long-season, apple quality will be best in Zones 5 to 8. Check your zone here.
  • Each variety has a number of chill hours needed to set fruit (i.e., the amount of time temperatures are between 32 and 45 degrees F). The farther north you go, the more chill hours an apple variety needs to avoid late spring freeze problems. Check tree tags for chill hour information or ask the seller.

Site and Soil

  • Take a soil test prior to planting your apple trees. Your local Cooperative Extension Service can instruct you in collecting the soil sample, help you interpret the results, and provide valuable information about the soil in your county. Results from the soil test will determine the soil amendments necessary to correct nutrient deficiencies and adjust soil pH. The amendments should be worked into the soil to a depth of 12 to 18 inches where the tree will root, not just the planting hole. 
  • Apple trees need well-drained soil, nothing too wet. Soil needs to be moderately rich and retain moisture as well as air; mulch with straw, hay, or some other organic material to keep soil moist and provide nutrients as they decompose. 
  • Choose a sunny site. For best fruiting, an apple tree needs “full sunlight,” which means six or more hours of direct summer sun daily. The best exposure for apples is a north- or east-facing slope.
  • Tree spacing is influenced by the rootstock, soil fertility, and pruning. Seedlings or full-size trees should be planted about 15 to 18 feet apart in a row. A dwarfing rootstock might be 4 to 8 feet apart in a row.
  • Dwarf apple trees are notoriously prone to uprooting under the weight of a heavy crop, so you should provide a support system for your hedge. You can grow your trees against a fence, or you can provide free-standing support in the form of a trellis.
  • Make sure the tree will not be planted in a “frost pocket” where cold air settles in low-lying areas. Choose a higher site with a slip if possible so that cold air will flow away from the trees.
  • Do not plant trees near wooded areas or trees. 

Planting the Tree in the Ground

  • Before planting, remove all weeds and the grass in a 4-foot diameter circle. 
  • After you purchase the tree, protect it from injury, drying out, freezing, or overheating. If the roots have dried out, soak them in water about 24 hours before planting.
  • Dig a hole approximately twice the diameter of the root system and 2 feet deep. Place some of the loose soil back into the hole and loosen the soil on the walls of the planting hole so the roots can easily penetrate the soil. Spread the tree roots on the loose soil, making sure they are not twisted or crowded in the hole. Continue to replace soil around the roots. As you begin to cover the roots, firm the soil to be sure it surrounds the roots and to remove air pockets.
  • Do not add fertilizer at planting time, as the roots can be “burned”. Fill the remainder of the hole with the loose soil, and press the soil down well.
  • Most apple trees are grafted. The graft union must be at least 2 inches above the soil line so that roots do not emerge from the scion. The graft union (where the scion is attached to the rootstock) can be recognized by the swelling at the junction. 

See our video to learn how to plant a bare-rooted fruit tree.

Care

Minimize Pruning of a Young Tree

Pruning slows a young tree’s overall growth and can delay fruiting, so don’t be in a hurry to prune, other than removing misplaced, broken, or dead branches. There are several techniques to direct growth without heavy pruning. For example:

  • Rub off misplaced buds before they grow into misplaced branches.
  • Bend a stem down almost horizontally for a few weeks to slow growth and promote branches and fruiting. Tie down with strings to stakes in the ground or to lower branches.

Prune a Mature Tree Annually

Once an apple tree has filled in and is bearing fruit, it requires regular, moderate pruning.

  • Prune your mature tree when it is dormant. Completely cut away overly vigorous, upright stems (most common high up in the tree).
  • Remove weak twigs (which often hang from the undersides of limbs.
  • Shorten stems that become too droopy, especially those low in the tree.
  • After about ten years, fruiting spurs (stubby branches that elongate only about a half-inch per year) become overcrowded and decrepit. Cut away some of them and shorten others.
  • When a whole limb of fruiting spurs declines with age, cut it back to make room for a younger replacement.

Thin Ruthlessly

  • Thin or remove excess fruit. This seems hard but this practice evens out production, prevents a heavy crop from breaking limbs, and ensures better-tasting, larger fruit crop.
  • Soon after fruit-set, remove the smallest fruits or damaged ones, leaving about four inches between those that remain.

Pests/Diseases

Apples are prone to pests. Here are some pointers:

  • Keep deer at bay with repellents, fencing, or deer-resistant plants; deter mice and rabbits with wire-mesh cylinders around the base of the tree.
  • Sprays may be needed for insects like Japanese beetles, although one of the worst culprits, the apple maggot, can be trapped simply enough by hanging one or two round, softball-size balls—painted red and coated with sticky “Tangle-Trap”—from a branch in June through the summer. Reapply the sticky goo a time or two, as necessary.
  • Fend off diseases by raking apple leaves, burying them beneath mulch, or grinding them with a lawnmower at season’s end.
  • Pruning reduces disease by letting in more light and air.
  • To keep insects away from apple trees, make a solution of 1 cup of vinegar, 1 cup of sugar, and 1 quart of water. Pour this mixture into a widemouthed plastic jug. Hang the jug, uncovered, in your apple tree.

Harvest/Storage

Harvest Patiently. After all this pruning and caring, be sure to harvest your apples at their peak of perfection.

  • Pluck your apples when their background color is no longer green.
  • Different apple varieties mature at different times, so the harvest season can stretch from August to October.
  • At this point, the stem should part readily from the branch when the fruit is cupped in the palm of your hand and given a slight twist around, then up.
  • If the apple is overripe and soft, use for cooking!
  • Apples keep well for about six months at temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees F.

“Baked apples have an excellent effect upon the whole physical system, feeding the brain as well as adding to the flesh, and keeping the blood pure; also preventing constipation and correcting a tendency to acidity, which produces rheumatism and neuralgia.” –The 1898 Old Farmer’s Almanac

Recommended Varieties

Wit & Wisdom

  • March 11 is Johnny Appleseed Day, celebrating John Chapman, legendary American pioneer and folk hero who planted apple trees across the American Frontier.
  • Did you know that apples and aged cheeses can reduce tooth plaque? (Eat them together!)
  • A bad woman can’t make good applesauce. –proverb
  • Does an apple a day keep the doctor away? Find the answer and learn more about the health benefits of apples, apple cider, and cider vinegar.
  • This fall, try your hand at making an apple head or try one of our Top 10 Apple Recipes!

Recipes

Cooking Notes

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Malus domestica

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