Apples (Malus domestica) permeate North American culture, from wholesome apple pies to quintessential apple-picking excursions. There are well over 7,000 types of apples, and more than 100 of these are grown in the United States alone. Many people grow these tasty fruits in the comfort of their own backyard, but the best choices for you depend on your climate, winter conditions and growing space.
Picking the fruits at home isn't quite the same as heading to the orchard for a hayride and a mug of hot apple cider, but how about growing your own apples to bake a fresh apple tart? It doesn't get much better than that.
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Best Uses for Apples
Most people grow apple trees for their fruit. Apples are nutritious and delicious, so they're often grown for their culinary value. You can also grow apple trees for their ornamental value. The delicate blossoms are a showstopper, and the scraggly branch formations are a feast for the eyes, especially in winter when the leaves fall to reveal the bare branches.
Like with many trees, apple trees also offer shade. They grow to a maximum of about 30 feet in height. However, many saplings available for purchase are dwarf varieties that stay much smaller. The trees are host to various wildlife, including pollinators that love to snack on the pollen of apple tree flowers.
Avoid planting apple trees where they'll be fully exposed to heavy winds. Wind can damage and stress these trees. If you have limited options, protect plants from wind damage by positioning them near a sunny wall. If possible, plant trees where they'll get plenty of sun. In areas with mild winters, place your tree in a spot where it will be protected from hot afternoon sun. This may also protect it from midwinter thaws and freezes that can encourage premature growth and promptly kill it off.
How to Grow Apples
Apple trees aren't too fussy about the cold, so they're ideal for cooler climates. With a bit of care and attention, you'll be harvesting juicy apples in no time.
- Common Name: Apple
- Botanical Name: Malus domestica
- When to Plant: Ideally in the spring, but fall planting is OK in warmer climates
- USDA Zones: 3 to 8, depending on cultivar
- Sun Exposure: Full sun or partial shade
- Soil Type: Apple trees will tolerate various soils, from light, sandy soils to heavy, clay ones. However, the soil should ideally be well-draining.
- When it's in Trouble: Signs of disease include spots on leaves, blossom drop and general poor appearance. If your plant doesn't produce very much fruit, the problem may be poor pollination. Some pesticides can affect pollinator populations, so carefully consider the pros and cons before using them on your apple trees.
- When it's Thriving: A healthy apple tree will have pinkish-white blossoms in springtime, bright-green foliage and will eventually produce firm-fleshed fruit.
Starting an Apple Tree From a Sapling
Because Malus domestica is a hybrid, growing from seed won't produce reliable results. Growing from seed also takes a while. Apple seeds can take a year or more to germinate, so you're better off starting from a sapling. However, even a sapling will also take time to produce a crop. Small trees will take at least three years to bear fruit. Bigger varieties can take up to eight years to do so. So, if you want apples, get started now!
To pick the right sapling, you should consider your climate, how you plan to use the apples and how much space you have. Most apple trees available for purchase are grafted rootstock, available in dwarf, semidwarf and standard sizes. Fruit size is the same regardless of the rootstock. Smaller dwarf or semidwarf trees tend to produce earlier crops. Because of their size, they're also easier to maintain.
Another consideration is that you also usually need two different apple trees to produce fruit. Many cultivars require cross-pollination to bear a crop. That said, if there's another apple tree within 2,000 feet of yours — in a nearby yard, for instance — you can probably get by with one tree. However, it must be a different variety. In addition to other apple tree varieties, crabapples are also suitable partners for apple trees. While self-pollinating apple trees exist, they tend to produce better when they are cross-pollinated.
When you're ready to plant, weed the planting area. Get rid of grass and weeds in a 4-foot circular area. Space saplings about 18 feet apart and position them in rows. You might space them closer together if you're dealing with dwarf varieties. Don't hesitate to ask nursery staff about spacing and planting specifics for the particular rootstock you've chosen.
Dig a hole as deep as the rootball and at least twice as wide, and place the root ball into the hole. Spread the roots apart and gently place soil back in the hole. Firmly press down on the soil as you return it to the planting hole. Be careful not to bury the graft line of your tree. That line should be at least 2 inches out of the soil. To spot this area, look for swelling or a bulge.
Don't forget to consider your plans for the apples. Do you want to eat fresh apples? Are you planning to cook with them? Some cultivars are better for cooking versus eating fresh.
In What Zone Do Apples Grow Best?
Apple trees grow best in USDA plant hardiness zones 3 to 8, where they can withstand freezing winters. However, the flowers are vulnerable to cold and snow, and a late spring snow or a cold snap can easily wipe out an entire season's fruit potential, not to mention the beautiful blooms.
Apple trees prefer climates with warm and sunny summers. They also need a winter chilling period (with temperatures below zero) in order to eventually produce flowers. The trees also fare better in places where the average precipitation is approximately 24 to 32 inches per year.
You can grow apple trees outside of these zones, but you'll have to pay extra attention to the cultivar you choose. You'll also likely have a bit more work on your hands to keep conditions in line with the tree's needs. Most cultivars have a specific number of chill hours they need to experience to properly set fruit. Pay attention to this information so that you buy a variety that fits your climate.
When Should You Plant Apples?
Plant bare-root apple trees as soon as the soil is workable in the spring. If you've purchased a potted tree (e.g., one that's not dormant), wait until the chance of frost has passed to plant it. In warmer zones 7 to 8, you can plant in the fall. However, spring planting is preferred regardless of climate.
Soil, Sunlight and Water Recommendations for Apples
Apple trees aren't too picky about the soil on which they're grown and can tolerate different soil types. Soil should drain adequately to prevent pooling but should otherwise be kept moist. The soil's pH should be between 6 and 7 but ideally around 6.5 to 6.8. Apple trees prefer full-sun conditions but will tolerate dappled shade. Plants also need regular watering. Young trees especially need plenty of moisture. Soil should be kept moist but not soaking wet.
How to Harvest Apples
To get a quality apple crop, you should thin out fruit so that they're spaced about 8 inches apart. At some point midseason, some fruit will naturally fall to the ground. Thin out fruit after this has occurred. Don't forget to also remove abnormally small fruits and damaged ones. Why not keep all the apples around? Too many apples can break branches, uproot your tree or diminish the overall quality of your crop.
The fruit is typically ready for picking in the fall, but the timing depends on the particular cultivar and climate. In zone 5, apple-picking season usually starts in late August or early September, with a short picking window that stops in early October.
When fruits are ready for harvest, they'll easily come right off when plucked. You shouldn't need to pull or tug on the apple to free it. A slight twist should be enough to remove it from the branch.
Some apple varieties are better for storage than others. Late-season apples can be stored for several months in cold storage. Other cultivars are best used quickly after harvesting.
Common Pests and Other Problems for Apples
Apples are rewarding to grow, but pests are a significant problem with these types of trees. Some common pests that infest apple trees include aphids, apple maggots and coddling moths.
Unfortunately, because they're so vulnerable to pests and diseases, apples are tough to grow in an organic garden. This is something to keep in mind if you're primarily an organic grower. You can absolutely grow apple trees without chemicals, but it will be a challenge — something that's true of most plants. Most pesticides are toxic to humans and pets. Always use pesticides in a well-ventilated area and choose the option with the lowest toxicity. Use protective gear as needed and carefully read labels to prevent misuse. Only use them when absolutely necessary and never as a pre-emptive measure.
If you're wary about using pesticides, consider choosing disease-resistant cultivars to increase your chances of success. There are also a few natural pesticide options, such as neem oil, that can help control certain pests, like aphids. Natural pesticides may be less effective, but they aren't harmful to most beneficial pollinators and small mammals. It will take some extra TLC, but you're better off using natural pest control methods in the long run.
The fruit on your apple tree may also be the target of animals, like squirrels and birds. You can do the painstaking work of covering fruits individually with paper bags. Obviously, this is really only feasible with dwarf-sized trees. Unless all your apples are getting devoured by wildlife, you might ignore the problem and consider the small loss a sacrifice to Mother Nature.
If you notice your tree is not producing well, it may need to be pruned. You should prune your apple tree every year to ensure a sizable crop. When an apple tree is still young, stick to pruning dead branches. Prune once the tree has gone dormant for the year after harvest. Remove weak branches and twigs. Over time, highly productive branches may lose their vigor. You can cut these back to make way for new growth. Avoid overpruning young trees because this can significantly slow down growth.
Apple trees commonly get uprooted because of the weight of the fruit or because of harsh, windy conditions. To prevent this from happening, you can support your trees by placing them against a wall or fence. You can also provide some sort of trellising if you don't have a wall or fence at your disposal.
Common Diseases for Apples
Apples are susceptible to many common diseases, including mildew, scab, blight and black spot. Proper pruning and tree spacing can help decrease the risk of disease by improving air circulation.
Many fungal diseases aren't fatal to fruit trees, but they can cause undue stress that reduces fruit production and can make your tree vulnerable to other invaders. Fungal diseases are usually the result of damp conditions, so treating them involves removing affected fruit and branches and pruning to increase air circulation and light exposure. You can use fungicides to manage fungal infections, although they're most effective as a preventive (before a disease is present) than as a curative (after a disease is present). There are several organic fungicide options available on the market, so be sure to observe all label directions and precautions before using a product.
- Stark Bro's: Pest & Disease Control for Apple Trees
- North Dakota State University: Pesticide Safety: A Guide for Gardeners and Homeowners
- Purdue University Extension: Using Organic Fungicides
- Stark Bro's: 4 Benefits of Thinning Fruit Trees
- Better Homes & Gardens: Skip the Apple Orchard and Grow Your Own Apples!
- U.S. Apple Association: Apple Varieties
- Plants For a Future: Malus domestica - Borkh.
- North Carolina Extension Gardener: Malus domestica
- The Old Farmer's Almanac: Growing Apples
- University of Minnesota Extension: Growing Apples in the Home Garden
- Iowa State University Extension and Outreach: Can I Grow an Apple Tree From a Seed?