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How to Grow: Apples
Learn about ways to select and plant your own apple tree.
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Apples (Malus domestica) are one of the easiest fruit trees to grow in our climate. Don’t believe me? Just look around. There are thousands of wild apple trees growing in abandoned fields and meadows, left overs and off spring from cultivated varieties on old farms. Some actually taste pretty good and I love wandering fields in fall taste testing these wild apples. While most heirloom or old fashioned varieties grew on trees that could reach 40 feet tall, newer varieties grow on dwarf trees (as short as 8 feet tall), making apples much more accessible for a gardener with a small yard. Also, pests used to discourage home gardeners from growing apple trees. There’s nothing worse than codling your apple tree only to get wormy, scab-infested fruits. Now there are varieties that are disease-resistant and there are traps that make pest control much simpler.
The diversity of apple varieties is staggering. They’re like the tomatoes of the fruit world. Skin color includes, red, yellow, gold, orange, and green. Some varieties are great for eating fresh, while others are better used cooked. If you’re not eating apples fresh off the tree you can make cider, juice, or sauce from them. Whatever apples you leave behind the deer will gladly take care of.
When to Plant
Plant bare-root trees (trees with no soil on their roots) in late winter or early spring as soon as the ground is thawed and dried out. These trees are usually shipped through the mail from nurseries to your home in time for planting. Plant container trees from a local nursery anytime in spring or summer. If planting just a few trees and you’re not particular about the varieties, container trees are more expensive, but easiest to purchase. If planting unusual varieties or many trees, stick with bare root.
Where to Plant
Apples are widely adapted, but need full sun and well-drained, fertile soil that’s slightly acidic to grow their best. Don’t plant in a low lying area where ground water might accumulate or that’s prone to late frosts. Apples don’t grow well in soggy soils. Planting on a gentle slope is best to avoid wet soils and late frosts that might kill the blossoms in spring.
How to Plant
Cultivate the soil removing sod and weeds. Amend the soil with compost and plant trees as far apart as their ultimate height. Dwarf trees grow to 12-feet tall, semi-dwarf 15-to 25-feet tall and standard sized trees up to 40-feet tall. Dig the hole for bare root trees deep enough so the roots aren’t bent when placed in the hole. If the tree is a grafted variety (the top of the tree is a different variety than the root stock), make sure the bulge on the lower stem or graft union is 2-inches above the soil line. This will allow the dwarfing rootstock to keep the tree short, but the desired variety grow above ground and produce the apples you desire. Some varieties are now on their own rootstocks so don’t have a graft union. this means if the tree dies to the ground, the shoots that emerge from the roots will be the same variety are the top. Some specialized varieties, such a columnar apple trees, can be planted as close as 2 feet apart.
Many apples will produce a crop on their own, but most produce more apples if grown close to another variety that the bees can cross pollinate. If no other apples are in your neighborhood, it’s good to grow at least 2 trees of different, compatible varieties.
Care and Maintenance
Keep the area around young trees weed free and well watered, especially the first few years of life. Add compost around the trees in spring, and based on the growth rate, supplement the compost with an organic fertilizer, such as 5-5-5, to stimulate growth. You should have about 1 foot of new growth on your apples each year.
Dwarf apple trees will start producing fruits within a few years after planting. Standard or large trees may take up to 5 years to produce a good crop depending on the variety. Apples will naturally drop fruit during the June drop because the tree often sets more fruit than it can mature. After the June drop, you’ll have to thin even more fruits to get fewer, but better quality apples. Thin clusters of apples to one cluster of two fruits, every 6 inches. If the tree produces too many apples branches may break from the weight load and the tree may not bear as well the next year.
There are many insects and diseases of apples. Apple scab, cedar-apple rust, fire blight and powdery mildew are some of the main diseases. Controlling diseases usually isn’t a big issue until the trees starts fruiting. Growing disease resistant varieties such as ‘Liberty’ and ‘Mac-free’ takes the pressure off spraying frequently to keep the fruits looking good. Insects, such as apple maggots, codling moths, and plum curculio, can damage apples so much they look like a cratered moon. Clean up fallen apples well in fall, use traps to control and monitor the pest, and use sprays to kill the insects at the most opportune time to avoid frequent spraying.
Protect young tree trunks in fall from mice and voles chewing the bark, by placing a tree wrap around the trunk. Remove the wrap in summer so wood boring insects can’t hide and tunnel into your tree. Protect young trees from deer eating the twigs with fencing.
Prune apples in winter so the trees stay open in the center. Remove any water sprouts (straight upward growing branches off a main stem) or suckers (sprouts from the root system) anytime. Prune off dead, diseased or broken branches whenever necessary. Prune so upper branches don’t shade lower branches and are evenly arranged around the main trunk. Remove thin, crowded branches that reduce the air flow and light penetration. Air flow helps reduce disease problems and good light penetration helps color up the apples better in the center of the tree.
Start checking your apples for ripeness once the fruits have their mature color and are full size. If the apple separates easily from the tree when pulled, and the skin is firm, it’s ready to pick. Your tree will probably produce so many apples, that tasting them is another good way to tell they’re ripe. Some early varieties may have firm flesh and a tart taste while later maturing varieties may be sweeter, but have a softer texture. Later varieties are often good for cooking and processing.
While ‘McIntosh’, and all her crosses, are the kings of apple varieties in the Northeast, there are many other old and new varieties worth trying. For most home gardeners look for dwarf or semi-dwarf, disease-resistant varieties. It’s best to taste different varieties from your neighbors, farmer’s markets or grocery store to get an idea of the flavors you like, then research that apple and how it grows in our region.
Some newer varieties that have become popular include ‘Gala’, ‘Goldrush’ and ‘Honeycrisp’. Older varieties are often geared towards specific uses. ‘Northern Spy’ makes mean pie. ‘Winesap’ makes a sweet-tart flavored juice. ‘Cox Orange Pippin’ is good for cider making and cooking. ‘Mutsu’ is a good storage apple.
Some crabapple varieties such as ‘Dolgo’ produce large-sized fruits that are great for fresh eating. Columnar varieties such as ‘North Pole’ produce an 8-foot tall tree with no side branches. Fruits form along the main trunk. Columnar apples can be spaced as close as 2-feet apart and are great for a very small yard.
Text excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.
What fruit is associated with the names John, Betty and Steve? It’s the apple. That would be Johnny Appleseed, Apple Betty and Steve Jobs. Okay, I admit the last name was a trick answer, but you get the point. Apples are the All-American fruit but, many gardeners shy away from growing their own apple trees. But with new varieties and techniques apple growing can be easy for a homeowner even with a small yard.
The first task is variety selection. For a small yard, plant dwarf and semi-dwarf trees. Standard sized trees grow 40 or more feet tall and produce an abundance of fruit. However, they start maturing later and require lots of space. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees grow a more manageable 10 to 20 feet tall. These produce sooner, and though not as long lived as standard-sized trees, are easier to care for.
The second consideration is disease-resistance. Apples in the Northeast get many diseases, such as apple scab. Grow resistant varieties, such as Liberty and Williams Pride. You’ll still have to control for insects such as apple maggot, but at least you won’t have to spray so often for diseases. Finally, plant your trees on a north or east facing slope, if possible, on well drained soil. Try to avoid south-facing slopes because the trees may bloom too early in spring and the blossoms get killed by a late frost. On heavy clay soil, amend it well with compost and plant on a mound to improve water drainage. Poor drainage results in stunted or dead trees. Mulch well around the base and consider planting ground covers of clover, yarrow and comfrey to build up the fertility of the soil and attract beneficial insects.