Days to germination: Not usually grown from seed
Days to harvest: 5 years
Light requirements: Full sun
Water requirements: Regular watering
Soil: Rich and well-drained
Container: Possible with dwarf trees
For cooler climates, the apple is one of the most popular fruit trees for the home garden. Eaten fresh off the tree, or baked in a pie, the apple is a classic fruit that almost everyone enjoys. Most varieties are hardy to zone 3, but can’t handle more heat than zone 7.
There are more varieties of apples than can be listed out here, so you should see what your local nursery has on hand. There are subtle taste differences between many varieties, and then you will want to consider the harvest time. Some apples will produce their fruit earlier in the year than others. And you will also want to consider the size, as there are many varieties of dwarf apple trees too.
Starting Your Tree
You can start your tree by seed, but seedlings are the more common route. Technically, you could take a seed from a supermarket apple, let it chill in the fridge for a few months, and plant that. But you can never be sure if the resulting plant will produce the same variety of fruit as the original apple. It’s a
bit of a hit or miss process. It’s safer to buy a sapling or seedling.
You can plant your tree in the spring for cooler areas, but warm regions should do their planting in the fall.
Dig a hole about twice the size across as the root ball on your sapling. The hole should be deep enough to accommodate the roots, and keep the grafting point at least 3 inches off the ground. Most apple tree saplings will have apple tree branches grafted to sturdy rootstock. The “grafting point” is where the two are joined.
Set the tree in the hole, backfill with soil and add a layer of mulch.
If you have the space, you should plant at least 2 trees to improve pollination. But it can’t be just any 2 trees. You will need to have 2 trees of different varieties. Now that doesn’t mean you will end up with unexpected cross-variety fruit though. Your apples will still be true to the variety of tree you planted. Some dwarf varieties are self-fertile, and could be planted alone.
Dwarf apples can be 10 to 12 feet apart, but full-size standard apples need more like 20 feet between them.
The biggest issue you will have with taking care of your apple trees will be the pruning. It can be an intimidating chore to start chopping branches off your new trees, but it can make a huge difference in your harvests for years to come.
The main reason for pruning is to keep the tree a reasonable size for harvesting, and to provide the maximum amount of light for your growing apples. Good pruning also allows better air flow through the tree which will reduce disease. You’ll want to do your pruning in the winter, or very early spring while the tree is still dormant.
There are many things to look for when pruning, and it’s often better to see it in action so you understand what branches need to be cut. Ask at the nursery where you buy your apple saplings where you can see a pruning demonstration.
If you’re on your own, there are a few rules to follow. Always cut out any branches that grow straight upwards (called “suckers” or “water sprouts”). They usually appear around the base of the tree, or on the lower branches. Suckers are usually much greener than the other branches, and they are quite distinctive once you see them. Also cut out any broken branches, branches that cross one another and any branches that are growing downwards.
Other than pruning, there is little care needed. Just keep your tree watered during dry spells (particularly in the first year).
Trees of any kind are not generally a good choice for container gardening, but a dwarf apple tree can produce some fruit if grown in a large enough container. Your pot will have to be at least 20 to 30 gallons in size (half a barrel), and you will have to keep it pruned enough so that it doesn’t get too large. If you are only growing one, make sure it is a kind of apple that is self-fertile.
Pests and Diseases
Codling moth larvae will make a meal out of your apples, and they are one of the bigger pests for apple trees. You need to take action before the eggs are laid, because there is almost nothing you can do once the worm has hatched and is deep inside the fruit. Though they are moths, the females don’t fly. So you can help protect your trees by using a sticky trap around the trunk to stop any insects from crawling up. This works for tent caterpillars as well.
Insecticide sprays can be used but only with particular care. Apples are pollinated by bees, and any insect treatment will effect them as well.
As for disease threats, you will have to look out for apple scab. Grey to brown patches or “scabs” will appear both on the leaves as well as the fruit. It usually doesn’t do any significant harm to the tree, but can make your fruit look very unappealing. Cut off infected leaves, and rake away any debris under the trees. A fungicide treatment can usually help. Several varieties of apples are naturally resistant.
Harvest and Storage
New apple trees will likely start to produce fruit by their 4th or 5th year, based on their age, not the year you planted the trees.
Ripe apples are firm but are still delicate enough to bruise. Take care when handling, and don’t let them fall hard into your bucket.
Any apples that have naturally fallen will be chewed on by insects or animals almost immediately. Any intact ones should still be kept separate from the ones picked from the trees, because they are certainly bruised and should be used right away.
Unless you have a very well-pruned or dwarf tree, you will probably have to use a ladder. Use a step ladder, rather than one you have to lean against the tree.
The exact time of your harvest will depend on your apple variety. Whether or not your apples will change color from green or yellow to red will also depend on the variety you are growing. Once a few healthy apples have dropped, or you notice that the fruit comes away from the branch with just a slight tug, then your apples are probably ready to pick.
Never yank the apples, or you will damage the branches. Twist carefully and give a gentle pull.
Storing apples in the fridge will help them keep up to 6 weeks. Apples for late-fruiting trees will store the best (such as Winesap or Northern Spy). If you have a damp basement or root cellar that is cold and moist, apples can last for several months.