GROWING APPLE TREES
When somebody says, “Imagine a tree,” almost everyone envisions an apple tree, and when they say “Think about a fruit,” almost everyone mind jumps to apples right away.
Who in childhood did not climb the trees and ate green apples?!
Growing apple trees may seem daunting, but it’s a rewarding investment. Let’s get started. What These Trees Need.
Right up front: lots of sun and lots of drainage!
Like most fruit-producing plants, apples want as much sun as they can get to grow their best. They’ll need at least six hours of sun each day, preferably in a location where they are spared the worst of the summertime late-afternoon sun.
Apple trees will do their best when they are planted in well-drained soil that doesn’t get too wet. They should never be planted in low-lying or wet patches; that’s a job for willows and bald cypress!
An ideal location would be a northern or eastern slope, with the apple tree planted near the top in a sunny location. You’ve got your sunshine and your drainage, and that’s a pretty good start.
A Bit of Room to Grow
You’ll find two types of apple trees: the dwarf variety and the full-size variety.
Dwarf apple trees tend to grow to a height of about four to eight feet, while the full-size trees grow significantly larger, up to about twenty or thirty feet tall. There are advantages and disadvantages to either size.
Dwarf trees are smaller and more contained. Many are ideal for espalier-style growing.
Their fruit production is typically small, but they take up far less room in the backyard than larger cultivars. You can also fit more trees in one area, providing a wider array of tastes and longer periods of fruit availability. They’re easier to harvest from too.
Unfortunately, dwarf trees tend to have weaker root systems. They’re more susceptible to being blown over during strong storms, and can even topple over under a heavy fruit crop. Be sure to grow these dwarf trees against a fence or with adequate support.
The full-size trees don’t have the same issues with their roots, but they are larger and thus demand more space.
Comparatively, dwarf apple trees are ideal for a casual gardener or somebody who isn’t inclined to do extensive pruning. Full-size trees are for the more serious grower, or the one with the space and inclination to work on these larger plants.
How Far Apart Do They Need to Be?
Every tree has different spacing needs, but in general, dwarf trees should be planted four to eight feet apart. Full-size trees need distances of fifteen to eighteen feet in between to provide enough space to grow.
For a tree to pollinate another, they must be in bloom at the same time. This is an important factor for picking which plants you’ll place in your yard.
In general, other fruit-bearing trees that produce flowers at the same time as your apple trees are viable for cross-pollination. It’s always best to cross-pollinate within the same genus, but this could also include crabapples and pears, since they are all pome fruits.
Pretty Good, Not Great Soil
Sure, they need ample sun and good drainage, but at least apple trees don’t need rich soil! They tend to do their best in moderate-quality soil, nothing too poor or too rich.
When they are first planted, apple trees don’t need any fertilizing. In fact they don’t need anything by way of nutritional supplementation until they’ve been established for between two and four years. The actual number here depends on the cultivar you’ve chosen, and when your tree starts to produce fruit.
After the tree starts producing fruit in the springtime, you’ll want to provide it with a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer. This is because apples start to gobble up nitrogen in large amounts after fruit production begins.Follow the directions on the back for application rates, but remember, we aren’t fertilizing our trees the first year they’re in the ground.Avoid the temptation to overfeed your plants and fertilize sparingly on an as-needed basis.
Choosing the Best Option
Your geographic location will dictate what apple trees you are looking to buy. You’ll also need to check the “chill hours” for trees you’re considering, and map this against your average climate. Chill hours are the period time per year that an apple tree needs to be in temperatures ranging from 32 to 45°F.
Due to this requirement, you’ll probably have a tough time attempting to grow apples in the extreme south.
Choosing a variety of apple tree that is resistant to pests and diseases is vital to the long-term health of your garden, and it’s also important when it comes to producing fruit.
Proper Planting Practices
Planting is the first step we can take to ensuring we’ve got healthy, happy trees. Almost all apple trees are at their best when planted in the spring. But spring can be a tricky season to get a handle on.
The ground shouldn’t be frozen and cold weather should not be expected in the forecast, and yet it also can’t be too hot out. Not too hot, not too cold.
First things first, we remove a patch of grass around the intended planting area. Ideally, this will be a four-foot circle of removed turf and sod.
The hole you dig should have a diameter at least six inches larger than the pot size, and it should reach down to a depth of between eighteen inches and two feet. We don’t need to add any fertilizer or amendments to the soil unless it’s in really poor shape.
If you purchased a container-grown tree, you’ll want to remove the container and loosen the root ball. Don’t be afraid of slicing through some roots – you aren’t hurting the tree if you do this.
The roots of a container grown tree tend to grow in a circle around the bottom of the container. By slicing through the roots and loosening things up, we encourage roots to grow down in the direction they’re supposed to be going. It’s okay to really loosen up the root ball.
If you purchased a bare root tree, then you don’t need to do this.
Plant the tree in the hole so that it’s about an inch or so above grade, fill the hole back in with soil, and pack it in firmly. The planting area around the tree should be slightly mounded, but don’t worry – this will settle eventually and become flat with the the ground.
It’s safe planting practices to never bury the trunk of any tree. That applies to mulching as well; don’t pile mulch up around the trunk.
Avoid pruning or fertilizing young trees. In the majority of cases, you can get away without pruning or fertilizing the tree until it begins producing fruit.
Time for a Bit of a Haircut
Whether it’s for fruit production or just a nice looking tree, apples require some regular pruning.
Springtime is the best time of year to prune an apple tree, preferably before it starts to set leaves. There are structural pruning and maintenance pruning.
The trees need strong limbs to grow fruit on, so the first thing to eliminate when structurally pruning are weak limbs. The best limb for growing fruit is positioned at a 45° angle from the trunk, or the “ten and two” angles we’re familiar with when keeping our hands on the steering wheel.
Eliminate weak and dead limbs. The longer a branch produces fruit in terms of years, the more likely it is that this portion will eventually need to be removed. The same goes for any damaged, diseased, or dying wood: cut it off!
This takes a bit more confidence in your pruning skills.
Right off the bat, you’ll want to remove water shoots. These are the thin, whiplike growths that shoot straight upward. Cut these off aggressively, right to the branch.
Next up are crossing branches. Have you ever noticed how some branches get turned around and start growing back towards the trunk instead of away from it? Sometimes you’ll have two branches crossing over each other. We want to remove competing branches, and open the tree up for good airflow and better fruit production.
By taking care of these competing branches, we encourage more fruit production on the existing limbs.
Ensuring a Good Harvest
After the fruits begin to develop, you’re going to want to thin them out on the branches. This seems counterintuitive to having a larger harvest, and you may find yourself wondering, “Why the heck am I removing soon-to-be apples?”
Well, imagine the expenditure that goes into producing fruit. A tree can only produce a finite amount of energy for its fruit production. If that energy is spread out over five hundred apples, you’ll get a lot of poorly developed, lackluster fruits.
However, if we remove the weakest fruits, the ones that are smaller and cracked and using up valuable resources, we’ll have a crop of, say, two hundred apples – but they’re all going to be large, healthy, good-tasting fruits.
It’s the same idea behind thinning out your seeds and deadheading spent flower blooms, just on a different playing field.
Once the fruit starts developing and you’re removing the weaker, smaller, or cracked fruits, aim to keep about four inches between each remaining apple. This helps to guarantee adequate airflow and a healthier crop of produce.