Is there any other fruit more iconic than the apple? These fruits are one of the most popular around and play an important role in cultures around the globe.
Personally, apple trees have a very special place in my heart. My family would visit orchards in the summer to go apple picking. I always hoped that I would one day have some apple trees of my own for my family to enjoy.
After I bought my property, I knew that turning that dream into a reality would take some time. Due to the lengthy growth cycle of apple trees, I had to get started as soon as possible! So, I learned how to grow an apple tree. I’m happy to say that my trees are looking better than I could have ever imagined!
What Are Apples?
While apples are often viewed as an “All-American” fruit, they actually originated in Central Asia. It’s thought that these fruits were originally domesticated as far back as 10,000 years ago. Then, they were brought to Europe and spread like wildfire. In North America, apple cultivation started in 1607 when seeds were taken from Europe to the Jamestown colony.
Today, apples are grown all over the world. In the United States alone, farmers harvested over 11.4 billion pounds of apples in 2017!
There are no signs of this popularity going away any time soon. Apples are incredibly versatile. They can be eaten raw or incorporated into a wide range of dishes. Not only that, but the fruit is used in wines, cider, candy, and more.
It’s not just the taste that’s appealing. The fruits also come with a ton of great health benefits.
Health Benefits of Apples
As the old saying goes: an apple a day keeps the doctor away!
There’s a lot of truth to that old idiom. Apples are chock-full of vitamins, nutrients, and minerals. While there are small traces of several different vitamins, apples are considered to be a very good source of Vitamin C and Potassium. Both of these nutrients support many bodily functions and can improve overall heart health.
Apples are also filled with antioxidants. They can fight off free radicals and prevent cell oxidation.
Many studies have been performed to analyze how apples affect specific ailments, too. Researchers found that consuming these fruits regularly can reduce your chances of stroke, lower your cholesterol, lessen your chances of getting Type 2 Diabetes, and even decrease your risks for several types of cancer.
Truth is, the health benefits of apples are plentiful. Having a tree in your backyard can help you take advantage of these benefits for years to come.
What Are the Different Varieties Available?
Take a stroll through your local grocery store and you’re bound to see a few different kinds of apples on the shelves. In total, there are more than 7,500 unique cultivars grown around the world!
You can get everything from sweet and crisp red apples to green fruits with a tart flavor. The possibilities are endless, so it’s good to take some time exploring what options are available to you.
Generally, apple trees can be separated into three distinct categories. These categories are different in how the tree grows.
Dwarf Apple Trees
If you have limited space in your garden, dwarf apple trees may be the way to go. As the name would suggest, these trees are grafted to limit height and spread. Most varieties will reach heights of 4 to 8 feet. With some cultivars, you can even keep them in large containers.
Semi-Dwarf Apple Trees
Like dwarf apple trees, semi-dwarf plants are cultivated for stunted growth. However, semi-dwarf apple trees get a bit taller. Depending on the particular cultivar, you’re looking at trees as tall as 16 feet.
Despite their smaller stature, semi-dwarf and dwarf trees are fully capable of producing a healthy harvest. In fact, these smaller trees usually blossom much sooner than standard varieties.
Standard Apple Trees
A standard apple tree can grow more than 25 feet tall. These trees are great if you have space. Though, they can be difficult to maintain once you get to the pruning phase.
There are tons of standard varieties available. Some of the most popular include the Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Macintosh, and Gala.
The Difference Between Rootstocks
Young apple trees are typically sold in rootstocks. Branches from a healthy tree are grafted onto a separate root system to control how the plant will grow.
It’s the rootstock that’s going to influence the overall size of the tree. That’s why you can find your favorite type of apple in dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard varieties. This grafting process is pretty unique, but it plays an important role in modern apple cultivation.
You see, apples can take up to a decade to start producing fruit from seed. Not only that, but these plants don’t grow that well using their own roots alone. By attaching a graft to stock, you increase your chances of successful growth in the long run.
When you’re choosing a plant at your local nursery, there are two components to examine. The first is the rootstock itself. This is a genetically unique stump with an established root system. Typically, the roots are bare and ready for planting. This is the portion that’s going to determine the height of your plant.
Next is the scion. This is the grafted branch that’s fused to the rootstock. It determines the variety of apple you’re going to get.
When Is the Best Time to Plant?
Once you have chosen which variety you want to go with, you need to figure out when to plant them. We don’t recommend buying your rootstocks too early. But if you need to wait for prime planting time, you can store them for a bit. As long as you prevent them from freezing, overheating, or drying out, the rootstocks can hold up well until you’re ready to put them in the ground.
When to plant your new apple tree will depend on your climate. For most areas with moderate climates, spring is the best time to plant. However, you might be able to plant in the fall as well. This is usually done in areas where the winters are mild and moist.
Remember, apple trees can take several years to start producing fruit. Choosing the right planting time can start your trees on the right foot.
Where Can You Plant an Apple Tree?
Finding the right spot for your new apple tree is important. Despite their resilience, apple trees can be a bit finicky if things aren’t just right. So, preparing your planting area is paramount. Here are some things to consider.
The cool thing about apple trees is that they can grow pretty much anywhere. These fruits are grown in Zones 3 through 9, which spans most of the United States.
With that said, you will see more success if you have temperate climates with changing seasons. Unlike other plants that die in the presence of cold, apples thrive in it.
Let me explain…
Apples need to have a period of chill time. They must have exposure to temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The exact number of hours your tree will need depends on the cultivar. Luckily, most nurseries provide that information to help you get a good idea of your plants’ needs.
The chilling period is crucial because it causes dormancy hormones to break down. Essentially, it signals the tree to start blooming and producing fruit.
Because of this requirement, apples can be harder to grow in southern states or any location near the ocean.
Soil quality is an important factor to consider as well. Regardless of the variety you choose, your apple tree is going to need some enriched soil to reach its full potential. This is especially true during the first couple of years when the plant is getting established.
A pH balance between 5.5 and 7.0 should do fine. However, a pH of 6.0 to 6.5 is ideal. To ensure that your soil is properly balanced and has the right nutrients, you can mix in some compost several weeks before planting.
Apple trees can do fine in a wide range of soil types. However, they tend to do best with higher sand content. Loam soil is great because it provides adequate drainage and plenty of flexibility for the roots.
Steer clear of soil that has a high clay content. Not only does this make it harder for the roots to break through, but you could end up with poor drainage. This could lead to root rot if you’re not careful.
Apple trees love the sun! Choose a spot in your yard that has 6 to 8 hours of full sun exposure every day. It’s recommended that you plant on the north side of your home for the best exposure.
Avoid planting your tree near heavily wooded areas or next to buildings. Remember, your plant is going to get pretty large. Plus, those obstacles could block out some important sunlight.
Another thing to think about is space. We’ll get into proper tree spacing in a bit. For now, you need to make sure that your apple trees have plenty of exposure to the wind. Tall plants, such as the apple tree, take advantage of the wind to get stronger.
Furthermore, proper air circulation throughout the branches can reduce the chances of fungal infections after heavy rain.
How to Plant an Apple Tree in the Garden
When you’re ready to put the rootstock in the ground, clear out the area surrounding your plant site. You should create a 4-foot diameter free of grass and weeds.
Now, dig a hole that’s about twice as wide as the roots and about 2 feet deep. Gently place the rootstock into the hole. You can add some water as you position the rootstock to give your plant its first good drink.
When you’re positioning the plant into the hole, make sure that the graft union is a couple of inches above the dirt. Once everything is perfect, cover the root system with dirt. It’s not a huge deal if the covered plant creates a slight mound. This will even out with time as the root system expands.
Remember how we said that air circulation is important? Well, proper spacing can promote good airflow if you’re dealing with multiple plants.
For dwarf apple trees, you need about 10 feet of space between each plant. Semi-dwarf trees can thrive with 16 to 18 feet of space.
Standard apple trees need the most space of all. They will need between 16 and 30 feet of space depending on the particular species. If you’re doing rows, leave about 20 feet of space between each one.
How to Take Care of an Apple Tree
Getting your new tree into the ground is only the beginning. Apple trees can live for several decades. To keep ensure that your trees produce bountiful harvests, you must provide them with the proper care.
During the first year or so, you’ll need to stay on top of watering. The root system is expanding and constantly searching for water. The goal is to keep the soil moist without drowning the plants.
Of course, all soil is unique. Sandy soils tend to drain a bit faster. So, check the moisture levels regularly and hydrate your plants accordingly.
Contrary to popular belief, you should not fertilize new apple trees when you plant them. Newly planted trees are very sensitive. A sudden kick of fertilizer may cause the roots to burn.
It’s a good idea to wait until your tree starts to produce fruit before you start applying fertilizer. This may take a couple of years, but giving the plant time to establish itself organically can lead to a healthier plant later on.
After your tree has started to produce fruit, you only need to fertilize annually during the spring. Just sprinkle a nitrogen-rich fertilizer around the drip line.
Weeding is only a problem for apple trees in the first couple of years after planting. Weeds leach off essential nutrients and water, making it difficult for your new tree to get the things it needs to grow. Thus, weeds should be taken care of swiftly.
You can manually remove weeds by hand as they pop up. Light raking works, too. Just be careful not to damage your tree’s root system.
Applying some mulch around your apple tree is a great way to retain moisture and prevent weeds from growing. This can be done throughout your tree’s life.
Just apply some wood chips, straw, or hay to the drip line. Leave several inches of space around the trunk of the tree to prevent rot. It’s also a good idea to pull the mulching back in the fall to ensure that mice don’t burrow near the root system.
Pruning is an essential part of keeping your apple tree healthy. The whole concept of pruning is to divert energy where the tree needs it most. You can prune the tree to help maintain its shape as well.
You don’t need to start pruning until your tree has started to produce fruit. The best time to do this is between February and April when the tree is still relatively dormant.
Start by removing any dead or diseased branches. Also, pay close attention to the direction that the branches are growing. You might notice small wispy branches that are growing straight up. Nip those off. The same goes for any branches growing inward toward the trunk.
The healthiest branches are the ones growing at a 45-degree angle from the trunk. This angle can prevent the branches from sagging too much once the weight of fruit comes into the mix.
In addition to removing branches, you might want to get rid of some fruits as well. Thinning the tree and removing smaller plants will send most of the tree’s energy into growing the biggest fruit possible.
You can remove small fruit about 4 to 6 weeks after blossom. Aim for one fruit per cluster to see the best results.
How to Harvest and Store Apples
After spending the last several years keeping your tree healthy, you can finally reap the rewards of all your hard work!
There are a couple of ways to tell when your fruits are ready. If you have a red apple variety, you have it easy! Just pick off the plants when there is very little green on the apple.
For all other colors, you will have to use your best judgment based on feel. Typically, apples that aren’t ripe just yet will feel noticeably firmer than those that are ready. You can also take a look at the seeds inside. Ripe plants have dark brown seeds whereas growing plants have white ones.
To remove your ripened apples, cup the fruit in the palm of your hand. Then, give it a gentle twist. The stem should pop right off. Don’t yank the fruit, as this could damage your tree and cause disease.
Apples can last a surprisingly long time in storage. In a standard refrigerator, they can stay fresh for up to 6 weeks. However, you can bump that storage time to 6 months in temperature between 30 and 32 degrees.
If you have a lot of apples you want to stow away, you can wrap them in tissue paper and keep them in a cool spot with good ventilation. Separate root cellars or sheds are a good option.
Before you do that, make sure to remove any bad apples. Rotting apples produce ethylene gas, which speeds up the spoiling process for every fruit in the vicinity. You also need to make sure that no fruits are touching. There should be good air circulation throughout to keep each fruit in good shape.
What Are the Pests and Diseases That Affect an Apple Tree?
Apples are heavily affected by pests and diseases. Thanks to the sweet aroma they produce, they’re a magnet for bugs! Some common pests you’ll need to deal with include apple maggots, moths, fruit worms, aphids, and more.
Pesticides are a must-have when you’re growing an apple tree. You can choose from organic products, such as oils, to keep things healthy. We recommend choosing a pesticide that targets the specific pests you’re trying to get rid of. The last thing you want to do is use an all-purpose product that drives pollinators away.
When it comes to diseases, fungal infections are the most common thing you’ll have to take care of. Powdery mildew, fireblight, apple scab, and apple rust are all fungi-based issues that plague apple trees.
Again, commercially available fungicides are the best way to treat these problems. You can also reduce the chances of fungus issues with regular pruning. Typically, these diseases are all caused by excess moisture and mold after rain. Improving air circulation around the plant can speed up the evaporation process and keep fungus at bay.
Apple trees can be an intimidating plant to grow. They’re a decades-long commitment after all!
With that said, they’re not too difficult to care for once you get things started. The first step is to choose the right cultivar and rootstock. Once you have prepared the planting site, it’s a matter of getting the plant into your garden and supporting it until it starts producing fruit.
Before you know it, you’ll have a generous supply of sweet apples to enjoy for many years to come.