Do Apple Trees Need Full Sun, Partial Sun, or Full Shade?
Looking to plant some apple trees this season, but aren't sure if they need full sun, partial shade, or full shade? Finding the perfect place for your trees can be the difference between plenty of fruit, or none at all. In this article, gardening expert Merideth Corhs looks at the sun requirements for Apple Trees in your garden.
Apples are as iconic in the United States as hot dogs, hamburgers, and the 4th of July. They inspire a level of hominess and comfort that few other fruits can. But before you start planting them, it’s important to know when to plant them, and what type of sun orientation they prefer so they are placed in the right location.
Growing apple trees at home have never been easier. The industry has embraced the horticultural art of grafting, which has allowed for the production of dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees. Although the trees are more compact, the fruit is every bit as big and delicious as it would be if grown on a standard tree.
If you’ve been thinking about growing apple trees at home, one of the first questions you probably asked is how much sun they need. Let’s dive in to find out.
The Short Answer
Apple trees need full sun to grow properly and produce fruit. This level of exposure means the tree will see at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day. Anything less than this will result in poor fruit yields or a lack of fruit entirely.
The Long Answer
Understanding levels of sun exposure is critical for any gardener. Every type of vegetable, tree, flower, and herb requires a certain amount of direct sun each day to grow and thrive. First, let’s take a look at each type of sun exposure is, and the definition of each.
Full sun exposure means your fruit tree gets at least six to eight hours of direct, unfiltered sun each day. But when those sun hours occur makes a big difference.
A tree that gets full sun in the morning and early afternoon experiences a different growing environment than a tree exposed to full sun in the hottest part of the afternoon.
Direct afternoon sun – especially in the summer – is brighter and hotter, while the morning sun is softer. Young trees may have a tough time in certain climates if exposed to too much afternoon sun. Southern exposure is ideal if you have a space in your garden that provides it.
Partial sun or partial shade means a plant needs between three and six hours of direct sun daily. While the terms are often used interchangeably in the gardening world, the timing of sun exposure matters.
Partial sun means that a plant is sun and heat tolerant and will do fine with afternoon exposure. On the other hand, partial shade indicates that the plant needs to be protected from the sun in the afternoon.
Full shade doesn’t mean any sun. It just means that a plant only needs less than four hours of direct sun each day. Shade-loving plants (impatiens are a great example) enjoy a bit of direct morning sun or dappled light throughout the day.
Measuring Sun Exposure
Measuring sun exposure in your yard is pretty straightforward. Do you know how your southern-facing windows are the sunniest? The same is true in your garden. Knowing the direction of sun exposure your future orchard will receive is a great place to start.
South-facing areas receive the most sun exposure throughout the day. They’re well-lit by direct sun from sunrise to sunset if there aren’t any buildings or large trees that throw shade. This exposure is ideal for sun-loving veggies like tomatoes and sun-loving trees like apples.
North-facing gardens receive the least amount of light during the day. The space could be shaded almost all day if it’s too close to the walls of your house. You should only plant shade-loving plants, like impatiens or salad greens, in this area.
East-facing areas receive excellent levels of sun exposure, second only to southern. Plants will thrive in this area if they need full sun but are sensitive to getting hammered by it in the summer.
West-facing gardens are shaded in the morning but receive full sun in the afternoon. Plants will do well in this environment if they can handle the heat and intensity of the hottest summer sun.
How to Measure
Apple trees will do best if planted in areas that receive southern exposure. It’s the gold standard. They’ll also do fine with eastern or western exposure if you’re sure the site gets a solid 6-8+ hours of sun each day.
Measuring active sun hours is pretty straightforward. All you need to do is note when the sun first hits an area and when it leaves for the day. Be sure to note when the area is shaded as the sun moves through the sky. Large buildings or trees can throw shade when you least expect it.
A simple way of doing this is to set an alarm every hour from 8:00 am until 8:00 pm. Each time the alarm goes off, take a photo of your yard. Once you have all the images, you can be sure which areas receive the sun levels your tree needs.
Check sun exposure during every season. Your yard will get more sun in the summer and less in the winter when the sun is lower in the sky.
So How Much Sun Do They Need?
Apple trees need full sun exposure to grow properly and bear fruit. Anything less than that will result in a failure to thrive and a lack of yield. As mentioned in the section above, southern exposure is preferred, followed by eastern and western. Avoid northern exposure.
Can They Get Too Much Sun?
Strangely enough, apple trees can get too much sun especially under extremely hot and cold conditions. While they can grow in desert conditions, too much sun when it’s hot can cause sunburn. Similarly, too much sun under freezing conditions causes sunscald which can happen in colder, dry climates.
Young trees are especially susceptible to sunburn especially at the very base of the trunk. You’ll notice a reddish-brown discoloration of the trunk if your tree is sunburnt. If the problem is too severe, it can actually kill the tree. So, if you notice the problem, you need to take action immediately.
Sunscald is caused by sun exposure on freezing days and is more likely to affect young trees. Direct sun melts water under the surface of the soil, which quickly freezes again when the sun is blocked or sets. This process can cause cell damage to the trunk of trees.
Sunscald damage looks like an elongated area of dead bark most commonly found on the south or southwest side of the tree trunk. The affected area may be sunken with cracked bark that peels away to reveal dead wood beneath.
This type of damage usually occurs in regions with freezling winters and with trees that receive southern or western exposure.
Washington State University recommends painting young apple tree trunks and their lower branches with a white latex paint or wrapping them with reflective material. If you choose to wrap the trunks in the summer, be sure to leave room for proper air flow.
If your tree has already been affected by sunscald, do not paint or seal the affected area. Instead, wrap the trunk with a light colored material. This can give the tree a chance to heal without taking more damage.
Being able to grow apple trees in our backyards is a pretty incredible thing. Now that you know how much sun the tree needs to thrive and produce a high yield, it’s time to find the perfect spot. Remember that you’ll need room to plant two apple trees since they are not self-pollinating. Choose a dwarf or semi-dwarf variety if you have a smaller space. Happy planting!