Inviting an apple tree into your home orchard can bring big payoffs for years to come. Whether your apple dreams lean toward crunching fruits right off the tree or slicing them into freshly baked pies, an apple tree will take you there. You'll also delight in the frothy, fragrant spring blossoms. While apples are among the easiest type of fruit tree to grow and maintain, paying attention to the tree's needs will increase and extend your crop.
Planting an Apple Tree
Select an apple variety that will work well with your climate. Find one that thrives in your hardiness zone, but also pick a tree that will produce fruit in the growing season your region offers. Check with your local Cooperative Extension Service if you aren't sure what to buy. Prepare to plant the tree in spring or in fall.
Pick a planting site carefully. Do not plant your tree in a low-lying "frost pocket" where cold air settles in. Pick a higher spot with sun exposure. Although apple trees are not prima donnas, they need at least six hours of direct sun every day in summer to produce fruit. When it comes to soil, good drainage is mandatory, while organically rich soil is discretionary but a big plus. Work organic compost into the soil to a depth of 12 to 18 inches before you plant. Remove all weeds in the area.
Dig a planting hole twice as wide as the tree's roots and about 2 feet deep, loosening the soil on the walls to allow roots to easily get through. If the tree is container-grown, remove the pot and set the root ball in the hole. If the tree is bare root, spread the roots on the soil and replace soil to cover them, firming it as you go to remove air pockets. Fill up the hole and irrigate well. Do not fertilize yet.
Irrigation and Fertilizing
Water is critical to a newly planted fruit tree. Irrigate the tree whenever the top 2 inches of soil are dry. Your watering should decrease as the tree's root system develops, but the tree will still need regular deep soaking. This can be provided either by rain or by a water hose, and use a drip system if possible since these are well suited to home orchards. Mulching with straw helps keep that moisture in the soil.
Don't overfertilize. Commercial apple growers feed their trees regularly, but home growers only need to do minimal feeding, and only if necessary. If your tree is growing nicely, it has all the nutrients it needs. If its growth is lagging, apply a high-nitrogen fertilizer in early spring.
Pruning a Mature Tree
Leave those pruners tucked away in the toolbox for the first few years. Pruning slows down a young tree's vitality and sets back fruiting. Only remove dead or damaged branches during the first few seasons after the tree is planted. When the tree has matured and has a full canopy producing fruit, it's time to start annual pruning. But think moderate pruning, nothing dramatic or extreme.
Prune a mature apple tree in early spring when it is dormant. Trim out the vigorous upright stems you see high in the tree's canopy; take out weak twigs that hang from the bottom of limbs, and shorten droopy stems. Do this every year without fail. After the tree has been with you for a decade, the stubby branches it fruits on need to be refreshed. Shorten up some of them and remove the most decrepit. If an entire limb stops fruiting vigorously as it ages, prune it back to allow younger branches to take its place.
Thin the Apple Crop
It may hurt your heart to do it, but ruthless thinning of the apples is in your interest in the long run. Thin when the apples are dime-size. Take off enough apples to allow 4 inches between the remaining fruit.
Pests and Diseases
Be proactive in an effort to fend off diseases and pests. To that end, keep a clean orchard, raking up fallen leaves and weeding regularly. Prune the tree to let in light and air. Whenever you trim, sterilize the pruners with a 10 percent solution of household bleach before and after use. Spray the tree with dormant oil every spring, at the first sign of leafing, to smother adult insects as well as eggs.
Keep your eye on the tree. If you see insects like the apple maggot, trap them with Tangle-Trap-coated balls hung from branches in summer. In you have other insect issues, determine what is going on and select an integrated pest management treatment. A regular spray program can you maintain high fruit quality. Use a premixed orchard spray from your garden store.