Today I want to talk about how to grow the best apple trees. We have started an apple orchard here at the Simongetti North. We have also planted other fruit bearing trees as well. Like everything there is history, and so does the apple. Apples as far as 8000 BC, the Nomad moved apples throughout the Middle East.
The history of the apple in China around 5000 BC, a diplomat was recorded as giving up his job to concentrate on grafting fruit trees and that included apples. There are apple trees for just about every climate but varies with cultivar.
Definition – cultivar is a subspecies classification describing plants varieties which are produced through artificial selection. Cultivar, the word, comes from a combination of cultivated variety. Different forms of the same species are considered varieties.
Some quick apple facts;
- USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-9 (varies with cultivar)
- Height: Standard 20-30 feet, Semidwarf 12-15 feet, and Dwarf 7-10 feet.
- Spacing: Standard 25-30 feet, Semidwarf 15-20 feet, and Dwarf 7-10 feet
- Pollination: Apples need cross-pollination, plant at least two cultivars for good yields
- Pruning: late winter
- Special requirements; Thin the fruit to improve quality of harvest
- Bearing years: Standard 5-8 years, Semidwarf 3-5 years, and Dwarf 1-6 years
- Yield per Tree (Bushels); Standard 5-8, Semidwarf 4-10 and Dwarf 1-6
One of the best reasons that apples do well in just about every climate is, the apple’s popularity among home gardeners and its ability to adapt to the different soils and climates. Apples are the hardiest of the fruit trees, where many cultivars will grow where apricots, peaches and pears may not grow.
Tips for Choosing which Apple Trees
For growing the best crop for the conditions of where you live, consider the following before purchasing apple trees.
- Tree Size
- Suitability – Climate, cold or warm
- Resistance to pests and disease
- Flowering time – need at lease 2 cultivars, flowering near the same time for cross-pollination
- Fruit quality – color, flavor, texture (soft or crisp) and what are you using it for, cooking or just eating
- Yield – how many apples do you want?
Before purchasing an apple tree you will want to consider the tips mentioned above to make sure you have the proper place to grow the apple tree. Take into consideration of your hardiness zone. If you are in a cold climate, you will want cold hardy apples and if you are in a warm climate you will want not cold hardy apples.
Pollination and Apple Trees
For apples, pollination does matter. You must plant at least two cultivars near each other for cross-pollination by bees. The trees need to be within 75 feet for standard, 45 feet for semi dwarf and 20 feet for dwarf, from each other for cross-pollination.
There is a couple apple trees that are infertile; Jonagold, Mutsu and Winesap, which is normally mentioned in their description. These 3 apple trees do not produce pollen to participate in cross-pollination.
Take time to Understand Rootstocks
Just about any apple tree you purchase is grafted onto a rootstock. A rootstock is part of the plant, often an underground part, from which new above-ground growth can be produced.
It could also be described as a stem with a well-developed root system, to which a bud from another plant is grafted. The reason for is to control the size of the tree (not the fruit).
Rootstocks can also be used to make the tree hardier or even more tolerant of a particular soil or to combat pests or disease, to control suckering or to provide strong roots for better anchorage for windy days.
As you grow into apple orchard gardening you can custom-order root stock combinations from specialty nurseries or even create your own tree by grafting. Another term for grafting is “interstem” which refers to grafting the main cultivar onto the stem section, which in turn is grafted onto the rootstock, making a two graft union.
Planting Apple Trees
Depending on where you purchased the trees, if they came from a nursery or a garden center they are probably in large containers or with the roots wrapped in a burlap wrap. Both have their advantages over bare rooted plants. For those who aren’t going to plant right away, it helps to mound mulch or wood chips around the ball of the soil.
If you purchase mail-order trees are shipped bare-roots, packed in some sort of moisture-retaining wrap to help keep the roots moist. Once these bare-roots arrive, take them out immediately and get them in water for at least 3 to 6 hours but not over 24 hours. If the trees arrive on a cold day, slowly let them thaw before putting in water.
It is best to plant bare-rooted trees in the spring before growth starts in cold climate areas, zone 5 and colder. This will give the tree time to get well rooted and established before winter. If you live in zone 6 or higher where its warmer, you can safely plant in the fall.
Before getting ready to plant, take all the wrapping off but be careful to not disturb, and to not break the feeder roots. Make sure you chose a location with plenty of sun, at least 8 hours a day of sun, in a well drained soil, not in a low area in the spring where it will get too much water or freeze from standing water.
Follow the spacing recommendations before planting the tree. Set the tree in its hole so the graft union sits 2 to 4 inches above the soil. If the tree has an interstem, set the tree so that the lower graft (where the interstem joins) sit 2 to 4 inches above the soil.
Caring for the Apple Tree
Staking during the first 4 to 5 years will help trees get established better and more quickly. Its essential for apples trees grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks that don’t provide adequate anchorage for the tree. The apple tree is going to need some pruning.
Pruning is a little different depending on if you have spur and non-spur apples. Spurs are short, stubby wrinkled stems on a branch. Spurs make fewer limbs, which require less pruning. Spurs can live for many years, they only develop flower buds the second year and fruit beginning the third year. Non-Spur apple trees produce their fruits on spurs too, just spaced apart along the branches.
These are pruned normally.
- Pruning Tips
- Train a central leader
- Remove upright branches that compete with the central leader
- Identify the main scaffold branches and remove the others at an early age
- If most branches grow upright, spread some to make horizontal scaffolds
- Remove diseased, damaged, dead and rubbing branches
Watch for disease in the apple trees. Like any other living thing, they also suffer from illness. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on your orchard. The insect that is most likely to encounter are apple maggots. You may also see spider mites, aphids, and sawflies.
Schedule for Spraying Organic Apples
Only use a spray only if it’s essential and always follow label directions, even if displayed different in this post. Here is the list of sprays and the stage of the tree.
Do NOT spray apple trees during flowering stage, it will kill the bee’s. If the tree is in bloom with flowers, do not spray.
- Dormant – Dormant oil – kills eggs of aphids, mites; some diseases
- Green Tip – Sulfur (not within 3 weeks of oil) for disease prevention, Bt to control caterpillars and Neem oil for Aphids.
- Open Cluster – Sulfur Spray – for disease prevention
- King/first bloom – Repeat Sulfur and Bt, if needed. Don’t want to hurt the pollinating bees
- Petal Fall – repeat Sulfur and Bt and again 7-10 later, if needed
- Fruit Set – Sulfur spray or Bordeaux, if signs of disease, use every 14 days as fruits develop. Stop all spraying 30 days before harvest.
Taking care of your apples is something that is needed to have a good crop and a healthy orchard.
I hope you found this informative and be able to use this information in your own apple orchard or if you just have a tree or 2. We started an orchard here at the Simongetti North when we moved here a couple years ago. There are some older apple trees here that the previous owners didn’t take care of, we let the deer have those apples!
Please leave a comment below and let me know if you have any apple trees on your property!