How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Apple Trees
Are you thinking some apple trees would be the perfect type of tree to add to your home or garden? These fruit trees can liven up any home or garden. They can also be difficult to grow properly for first-time gardeners though, and have plenty of different problems you may encounter when trying to produce a bountiful apple harvest. In this article, gardening expert Madison Moulton explains how to plant, grow, and care for Apple Trees.
The apple is one of the world’s most familiar fruits. It’s littered in our figures of speech, is the subject of poetry and art throughout history, and is thought to be the infamous forbidden fruit in the story of Adam and Eve.
Home gardeners can keep a little piece of history in their backyard by growing the classic apple tree, Malus domestica. The flowers are a reward on their own, but the tasty fruits with so many uses in the kitchen are hard to argue with.
After covering everything from propagation and growing to the most popular apple tree varieties, you’ll have everything you need to become a pro-grower at home.
Apple Tree Overview
Plant Type Tree
Species Malus domestica
Native Area Asia
Hardiness Zone USDA 3-8
Exposure Full Sun
Maturity Date 4-5 Years
Groth Rate Moderate
Plant Spacing 20 feet
Plant Height 20-30 feet
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests Maggots, Fruitworms, Codling Moth
Diseases Rust, Fire Blight
Maintenance Moderate to High
Soil Type Any Well-Draining Soil
Attracts Bees, Birds
Plant History and Cultivation
The path the humble apple took to becoming the most well-known fruit in the world is difficult to pin down due to its extensive history. Archaeological evidence shows the wild ancestor of modern apple trees, Malus sieversii, was foraged more than 10,000 years ago.
The apple’s point of domestication is uncertain, with estimates suggesting it may have begun around 4,000 years ago. In the archaeological record, it’s difficult to distinguish between wild apple species and human-cultivated apples, making the domesticated apple’s true points of origin unknown.
What we do know is that various species traveled along the Silk Road from Asia to Europe, hybridizing in different regions to become the apples we know today, Malus domestica. This long history of transportation and hybridization has resulted in the apple’s status as the most diverse plant genome ever researched.
Apple trees were cultivated across Eurasia around the beginning of the Common Era, cementing their place as a quintessential fruiting tree.
Colonization, both Spanish and British, spread the tree to other parts of the world around the 16th and 17th centuries. Due to their ability to grow under a wide range of conditions, apple cultivation took off, particularly in North America. By the 19th century, the US produced hundreds of apple cultivars and is still home to thousands of them today.
China is the largest producer of apples globally, with the European Union and the United States not far behind. In grocery stores across the world, you will find a wide variety of apple types to choose from, from the ever-popular Gala apple to Granny Smith and more.
For commercial growing, apple cultivars are typically grafted onto the rootstock of another apple type. Popular apples can be more susceptible to disease and growth issues than others, so they are grafted onto a more stable rootstock to increase the chances of success. The process also produces fruits true to the parent plant far quicker than growing from cuttings.
If you don’t want to buy a grafted apple from your local nursery, you have two options for propagation – growing from seed and growing from cuttings. Unfortunately, neither option is recommended if you’re looking for guaranteed success.
Apples do not produce true to seed, so the resulting fruits you get from a tree planted from a grocery store seed will probably be nothing like the fruit you originally bought. Considering the massive diversity of a tree hybridized over thousands of years, you may get some truly surprising results, potentially with inedible fruits, or no fruit at all.
The other option is to propagate from cuttings, but this is not an easy process. Chances of success are quite low, meaning you’ll need to plant several cuttings at a time in the hopes that one takes. If it does manage to develop into a fully-fledged tree, you will likely have many problems with pests, diseases, and other health issues.
If you’d like to try propagation as a fun experiment, plant a few cuttings in the same pot and keep a close eye on them. You may not end up with a successful apple tree, but it’s great practice in propagation anyway.
Propagating From Cuttings
Take your cutting in late winter or early spring before the growing season kicks off. Remove a section of the branch around 8-10 inches long and remove all leaves from the bottom half of the cutting.
You can wait for the end of the cutting to callous by leaving it in the fridge for a few weeks, but this process is normally only used when grafting.
Fill a pot with a mixture of coconut coir, perlite, and compost, moistening the mix before planting. Cover the pot with a plastic bag, ensuring it does not touch any part of the cutting. Place the pot in a warm area away from direct sunlight and keep watered.
After several weeks, you should see leaves beginning to emerge if the cutting has rooted. If you’ve only planted one cutting per pot, you can leave it in the pot to grow more roots. If you’ve planted several cuttings, you can transplant the successful ones into larger pots for the next year.
The less the cuttings are disturbed, the better.
Apple trees are best planted in early spring once the ground has warmed slightly, but container-grown trees can be planted almost any time of year. Avoid low-lying areas of your garden where cold air can settle and damage the delicate blossoms, preventing fruiting. It should also be an area away from other trees or hardscaping elements to avoid root damage.
Since you’ll be planting more than one tree to facilitate cross-pollination, ensure they are spaced at least 20 feet apart. Dwarf trees can be planted around 10 feet apart. However, the more space you give the tree to grow the better, as this will increase airflow (limiting problems with pests and diseases) and prevent competition for resources between the two trees.
Start by preparing the planting hole. Remove any grass or weeds in the area and dig a hole the same depth as the current pot and around double the width. As they are not particularly fussy about soil quality, amending with compost is not a necessity, unless your soil is of poor quality.
If you’ve purchased a container-grown tree, remove it from the original pot and loosen the roots. If they are circling around the bottom of the pot, you may need to cut through them with a pair of shears to allow the roots to grow downwards.
Fill the hole with soil up to the same level as the tree, or leave the soil line slightly below the area around the trunk. This stops water pooling around the trunk, preventing rotting. After planting, water the tree thoroughly to encourage the roots to down downwards and outwards. Keep the area well-watered, especially in the first few months of growth.
How to Grow
Growing apple trees is not a small task for those without mental stamina, and fortitude. They can take some time to adequately root, and properly produce fruit. Fruits like cantaloupes or edible ground plants like strawberries are typically easier to plant for beginner gardeners. Let’s look a little deeper at exactly how to grow these magnificent tres.
Like most fruit trees, apples need ample sunlight in order to produce fruit. The minimum recommended amount is at least six hours, but the more sunlight the tree gets, the better your fruits will be. High sunlight also prevents water from sitting on the tree and in the soil, limiting the risk of disease.
Watering is key to tasty fruits. After all, each fruit is made up of 86% water, all provided by the tree. Correct watering is also essential to the health of your tree. Either overwatering or underwatering can cause stress, ultimately preventing flowering and fruiting.
After planting, your apple tree will need plenty of water. As the roots haven’t had the chance to spread and reach further parts of the soil, it will rely on you for most of its watering needs. However, once the roots have grown, rainfall should take care of most of it.
These trees require around one inch of water per week, depending on your environmental conditions. In seasons with little rainfall in your region, ensure you supplement with irrigation or regular watering.
As mentioned before, apple trees are not particularly fussy about soil. They will grow in almost any soil type as long as it drains well. Heavy clay is therefore not ideal, but other soil types won’t make too much of a difference to growth speed.
When planting in your backyard, assess the drainage of your soil before planting. While you may loosen the soil around the planting hole, the roots will spread farther than this small space. You could still experience problems with root rot if the surrounding soil is not well-draining.
Simply keep an eye out on your potential planting spot after a heavy rain, or water the ground and monitor how quickly the water drains. If it pools around the soil for long periods of time, the site is not suitable.
Poor quality soil in terms of nutrients or structure can be amended with a few handfuls of compost, but this is not always needed. Don’t add fertilizer to the planting hole either – apple trees won’t need extra nutrients until much later on. Plus, adding fertilizer while planting can cause more problems with growth than it will solve.
Apple trees prefer slightly acidic soil with a pH between 6 and 7. A soil test will determine the pH of your soil, and will tell you some other useful details about nutrients, but is not absolutely necessary. Apple trees do not mind a pH slightly out of this range, but it is recommended for the greatest chance of success.
Climate and Temperature
With many apple cultivars come many possible climates and temperatures for growth. Most apple trees grow best in USDA Zones 5-8, which is similar to peach trees. However, some cultivars labeled hardy or long season will grow in Zones as low as 3, while others are suitable for growth in Zone 9.
Apple trees need to spend a certain amount of time in temperatures below 45F in order to set fruit, known as chill hours. The number varies depending on the variety, but most need around 500-600 hours.
Those with higher chill hours are suitable for growing in lower zones, such as the McIntosh apple (900 hours), while those with fewer are able to grow in higher USDA Zones, such as Granny Smith (400 hours)
Check your local nursery to determine which cultivars grow best in your region. Always match the tree to your zone to ensure the plant will produce fruit. For example, cultivars that bloom earlier in spring will not do well in areas with spring frosts, as this will damage the blooms and prevent fruiting.
Apple trees do not require much fertilizer, especially when planted in fertile soil. If growth is incredibly slow, you can apply a slow-release fertilizer once in spring, following the instructions of the packaging precisely.
For most apple trees, regular application of compost will be enough to ensure healthy growth. This can be applied as a mulch layer over the soil, which also improves water retention and keeps weeds from sprouting.
Overfertilizing, especially with nitrogen-rich fertilizers, is important to avoid, as it can prevent fruiting by focusing growth on leaves and branches. It can also make the tree more susceptible to fire blight.
Along with mulching regularly, apple trees need to be pruned annually to manage growth, especially in small gardens. This isn’t necessary soon after planting but will become important later on to encourage outward branching.
In the first year after planting, prune some central branches growing upward to encourage outward branching and prevent overcrowding. Remove branches that are crossing over one another or any branches growing downwards. This early prune will lay the foundations for healthy growth later on.
Follow the same process each year, focusing on branches that cross over one another to promote airflow. Pruning is best done in early spring, or late winter in warmer climates, once cooler temperatures have subsided but before new growth begins.
Young trees may also require staking to prevent wind damage and to help the tree stay upright. Stakes are best installed just before or right after planting. This prevents any damage to the roots during installation later on. Use a flexible material to tie the tree to the stake to prevent cuts in the trunk.
Depending on your region and the pests in your area, you may want to make use of a tree guard. This protects your tree during the cold months and stops small mammals from injuring the tree. Once the tree ages, tree guards will no longer be necessary, but are helpful in the first few years of growth.
If you’ve purchased your tree from a nursery, it should take around 4 or 5 years to produce fruit. This depends on the variety. Some will develop fruit sooner, others later. If that is an important factor, check the specific varieties available in your area and choose accordingly.
There are a few indicators that tell you when your apples are ready to harvest. The first and easiest to identify is a change in the background color. When this turns a yellowish-green rather than straight green, you’re ready to harvest.
Size is also an indicator. Once you get to know your tree better over a few years, you may be able to tell which fruits are ready by their growth.
You can always pick a few fruits that seem ready and simply taste them to find out. A starchy apple still needs more time on the tree to convert these starches into sugars, producing the sweet fruits we all know and love.
When harvesting, gently twist the apple off the branch. It should come off without much resistance. Avoid pulling sharply downward as this can damage the branch or remove the spur, limiting your flowering the following year.
Most apple varieties are not self-pollinating, so you will need to plant two compatible trees to ensure you get fruits. The two trees should flower around the same time. You don’t want to be left with two flowering apple trees in different months and absolutely no fruits.
It’s also important to choose a cultivar suited to your personal tastes and potential uses. Some gardeners prefer to use apples for baking, while others like to eat them fresh. Different cultivars are suitable for different uses in the kitchen. Plus, you don’t want a whole tree of apples you don’t like the taste of.
Some of the classic apple varieties you may find in your grocery store include McIntosh, Fuji, Granny Smith, or Pink Lady. McIntosh is suitable for growing in Zones 4-7, while the others prefer higher Zones from 6-9 and require fewer chill hours. Gala apples and Honeycrisp apples are other popular options that are self-fertile. However, they will produce higher yields with a friend nearby.
Early Harvest is perfect for impatient gardeners who want their fruits as soon as possible and love a fresh apple, as early-season apples don’t store well. Those looking for something a little different can try Arkansas Black, an apple with deep purple to black skin.
If you live in a high humidity area, choose an apple variety that is disease-resistant, such as Jonafree. Also, check the pollination characteristics of your chosen varieties – some apples are good pollinators while others are poor performers.
Pests and Diseases
Unfortunately, apples are prone to quite a few pests and diseases. This is often the biggest gripe gardeners have with these trees. They may not be difficult to care for, but if you encounter a pest or disease problem, it can be very difficult to manage. Planting disease-resistant varieties are the safest option, but if you’re going with one of the other cultivars, look out for these potential problems.
Various bugs love apple fruits as much as we do, burrowing into them before we get a chance to harvest. You may encounter apple maggots, fruitworms, or codling moths whose larvae eat through fruits and leaves. Common garden pests like aphids and scale are also potential problems.
You can control some of these pests by picking them off your tree, but this is incredibly difficult/almost impossible for taller trees. Instead, apply horticultural oil to the affected areas to suffocate the bugs and any eggs they may have laid on the tree. Traps have also been developed to catch these pests that can be hung from the branches.
Deer may also wander into your apple patch and steal a few of your fruits without warning. If you frequently encounter problems with deer, ensure the area is fenced or place a barrier around the base of the tree.
Apples are susceptible to a number of damaging diseases, including rust, fire blight, and apple scab.
Apple scab is one of the most common problems, causing dark spots on the fruits and leaves, ultimately making them inedible. Rust is evident by rusty spots on the leaves, the most common of which is cedar apple rust. Fire blight, which also affects pears, causes leaves and branches to turn black as if they have been set on fire.
These diseases are incredibly difficult to control once discovered. An application of fungicide or other disease-management product may resolve the issue, but is normally used as a preventative measure rather than a control measure since diseases that are widespread are hard to eradicate completely.
The best way to manage diseases is to plant disease-resistant apples and practice good garden hygiene. Always clean your tools after use and clear the base of the tree of any plant debris that diseases can develop in.
Fresh apples picked straight from the tree will last 1-2 months in the fridge. The best way to keep them fresh is to individually wrap each fruit in some newspaper. When apples are left together in a drawer, they each emit ethylene gas – the compound that triggers ripening. Wrapping them individually limits the build-up of ethylene in one area, making the fruits last longer.
To store apples in the freezer, it’s best to prepare them first. Cut the fruits into sections of slices and dip them in a mixture of 50% lemon juice and 50% water to prevent browning. Place the individual pieces on a tray to freeze. Once frozen, remove it from the tray and pack it into individual bags for later use. Frozen apples will last up to a year in the freezer, and are best used for baking rather than eating fresh.
Apples are also great for canning. To prevent browning before you start, follow the same dipping process with the lemon juice mixture. Stack the slices into a sterilized jar and cover with hot syrup. For softer slices, you can cook them in the syrup for about 5 minutes before placing them in the jar. Seal the jar and place it in a water bath for about 30 minutes. Leave the jar to cool and store in a dry place.
The fruits can also be combined with sugar to prolong their life, a process seen in a number of popular recipes. Try making your own applesauce (great for roasts), apple jam, or apple butter. You can also use them as a base for chutney, or ferment them and make your own apple cider. The options are almost endless.
We’re all familiar with apple uses in the kitchen. They are the ultimate fresh snack, work well in desserts, and form the centerpiece of the humble American apple pie.
Not only do they have plenty of uses in the kitchen, but they are also great in the garden. The tall trees provide a bit of shade without overwhelming the space, and the beautifully fragrant flowers produce an irresistible scent. They also attract a range of pollinators to your garden, ultimately helping the rest of your plants and the environment at the same time.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I protect my apples from birds?
Birds love apples just as much as we do, and enjoy picking at the fruits. Usually, they will stick with apples that have fallen off the tree, but if they’re ruining your harvest, use bird netting to protect the fruits from prying beaks.
Can you grow apples in tropical climates?
Apples prefer mild climates and need a certain number of hours in temperatures below 45F to produce fruits. This means apples are not suitable for tropical climates, but some cultivars may grow in sub-tropical climates with the right attention and care, provided the winters are not too warm.
Can you grow apples in containers?
Apple trees, especially dwarf varieties, are suitable for container growing, with a few other factors to account for. The soil in the pot should be incredibly well-draining. The tree will also need much more water as containers dry out far quicker, especially in full sun positions. Keep in mind that you will likely still need two trees for cross-pollination (unless you have a self-fertile variety), so you’ll need two very large pots to get started.
There are hundreds of uses for apples in the kitchen and home, as well as in the garden. This makes growing your own totally worth the extra effort. These trees produce fruits reliably year after year with the right pollination partner. You’ll end up with more apples than you can handle, and some stunning new trees in your backyard.