Before we get too far into growing apple trees, it is important to realize that, while apple seeds will grow apple trees, this is not how to cultivate the apples found at stores. When grown from seeds, apples do not stay true to their parent fruit, meaning the apples produced by the new tree aren’t the same as the apple that produced its seed.
Instead, choice apples are produced on trees that come from grafting, using the roots of a new tree but creating a trunk from the branch of an established tree. This is how we replicate the types of apples – Fiji, Golden Delicious, Honey Crisp, etc. – we find most delicious. For beginning growers, the best option for doing this is to visit a nursery and just fork out the cash for a good variety.
From there, it’s time to plant and get to the basics of growing apples at home.
Establishing the Right Conditions
Part of creating the right conditions for growing an apple tree is choosing the right kind of tree. “Hardy” apples are more suited for colder climates, such as USDA Zones 3 through 5, whereas “long-season” apples work better in Zones 5 through 8, where it stays warmer longer. It’s important to choose a variety with a comparable amount of “chill hours” as the climate where you live.
Next, it’s about choosing the right spot for the tree. The soil is going to be an important part of this process. Apples like well-drained, slightly acidic (pH 5.0 to 6.8) soils with some richness. Additionally, old-timers usually advise planting them in higher spots of the landscape so that their spring blooms will be safer from frost damage. Full sun, six hours a day, is recommended.
It is easy, in a fit of excitement, to dig a hole, stick the apple sapling in it, and start dreaming of pies to come. However, there is definitely a proper way of planting any tree, let alone a prized apple.
- Clear the area surrounding the planting spot of weeds and grass. The tree should have two to three feet of vacant space all the way around it.
- When digging the hole, it should be twice as wide as the root ball and a couple of feet deep. The loose soil should be added back to create the right depth for the base of the tree to be just above ground level. The graft union should be two or more inches above the soil line.
- When refilling the hole with the tree in it, the soil should be firmly pressed so as to get rid of all air pockets that might be around the roots. Watering the tree will also help to eliminate air pockets.
- Finally, the cleared area around the tree should be mulched with a thick layer, about four to six inches, of leaves or straw. However, a small space should be left immediately around the trunk so that the rotting mulch doesn’t touch it.
Taking Care of the Young Tree
Taking care of young trees is not that difficult, but it is vitally important.
They need to be trained so that they grow to be more productive. Trees should have one solid trunk that opens into around three or four branched leaders, starting at no less than two feet up and growing into a sort of goblet shape. Young trees should be pruned minimally, mostly removing dead, diseased, and broken branches, and always during dormancy.
Of course, it’s also very important to keep them watered, and maintaining that layer of mulch will help with this immensely, as well as protect the tree from competing plants.
Pruning Mature Trees
Once the trees are established, pruning should happen once a year, typically in late winter/early spring while they are still dormant. Water sprouts — thin, new branches going straight up — should be cut away, as should branches growing inward into the center cavity of the tree.
Later in the season, about a month or more after the blooms, the apples will begin to appear. For bigger, tastier fruit, it’s good practice to thin the apples out, leaving roughly six inches between them. Not only does this make the crop better, but it protects the branches from breaking under the weight of too much fruit.
The apple harvest comes in fall, and one tree, even a dwarf variety, can supply over 100 pounds of fruit. A full-sized tree could yield up to ten bushels, nearly 500 pounds of fruit or the equivalent to 150 pies. And, that’s every year! It seems worth putting in some effort early on.
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