Growing Apple Trees – The Easy Way
Growing fruit trees is incredibly rewarding. There is nothing like plucking sweet, organic apples, pears, cherries or apricots right off the tree. Sadly, fruit trees also have a down side because they experience pest and disease problems, poor production, and nutrient deficiencies.
But apple trees? Compared to the other types of fruit trees, they can be notoriously hard to grow. There are so many potential problems. Homegrown apples can be wormy, bitter and unappealing. And apple trees are a sensitive bunch, often falling victim to pests and diseases.
We North Americans don’t seem to worry too much about that. Each year we flock to garden centres to buy apple trees. Most of us are blissfully unaware of the potential problems that we will face in the decades to come. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little education, growing apple trees can be easy.
In this blog, I’m going to teach you how to grow apple trees the easy way. But first we need to know what it’s like to grow apple trees the hard way.
The Hard Way to Grow Apple Trees
Growing apple trees “the hard way” is a three-step process.
- Go to the garden centre and chose from the apple varieties that you’re familiar with, like Honeycrisp or McIntosh.
- Bring the tree home and plant it.
- Wait for the harvest.
So, what’s wrong with this approach? Let’s see where the problems lie.
- You’ve almost certainly chosen the wrong apple tree.
- You don’t know how to take care of it.
- You won’t recognize apple tree pest or disease problems until it is way too late.
Now, let’s see what the easy way looks like.
Growing Apple Trees, The Easy Way
The easy way to grow apple trees involves a bit more learning and research up front. But that little bit of work early on means that you will be prepared for your apple tree growing journey.
Here’s a metaphor for you:
Let’s say you want to run a marathon. You’ll probably prepare for it by training regularly for a while. You’ll spend some time building up your endurance. You’ll invest in really good running shoes. You may even take a class to perfect your running technique.
If you do all that, the marathon itself will be much easier. Heck, it might even be fun! The same goes for growing apple trees the easy way. Here are the three steps.
- Research your tree and order the right tree for your unique conditions.
- Learn how to care for your tree.
- Learn how to recognize and prevent the common apple tree pest and disease problems.
Have a look at the summary infographic below. Then let’s dig in and I’ll explain what each of those three steps involves.
1. Research and Buy Apple Trees that will Thrive in Your Unique Conditions
When I first tasted Honeycrisp apples I fell in love. They were the best apples ever! They are so large, crispy and sweet. Honeycrisp is a heavenly apple variety. But Honeycrisp trees are the devil to grow in your backyard.
That’s partly because Honeycrisp apple trees are vulnerable to bitter pit. This disorder can make the apple flesh spotty, spongy and bitter tasting. Bitter pit is a problem that even professional orchardists have trouble dealing with.
Sadly, Honeycrisp is not alone as a “problem child” amongst apple trees. Other popular varieties are vulnerable to diseases including fire blight, apple scab and powdery mildew. These diseases make it much harder to keep your tree healthy and productive.
Commercial orchardists use harsh and often toxic chemical sprays to protect their trees from these diseases. So, what’s an organic or home grower to do?
A. Buy Disease Resistant Apple Trees
Avoiding common apple tree diseases is easy if you buy apple trees that are “disease resistant”. With a disease resistant tree, you can rest easy. When fruit tree diseases start circulating in your community (as they inevitably will), your tree will be much less likely to become infected.
There aren’t a lot of common supermarket apple varieties that are disease resistant. But there are lots of other apple varieties that are. And you may have never heard of them before. Here are just a few disease resistant apple trees that I have planted over the years:
- Liberty – A crisp juicy red apple with yellow flesh, great for fresh eating, cooking or canning.
- Freedom – A large, juicy red apple for fresh eating, juice or sauce.
- Sweet Sixteen – A red striped apple with a faintly nutty flavour that’s great for pies and sauce.
- Pristine – an early season yellow-skinned apple that’s great for baking and fresh eating.
These are just a few of the disease resistant apple tree options. You’ll find these apple varieties and many more in your local specialist fruit tree nursery. And you can find and download my fruit tree nursery resource list here.
B. Other considerations when Buying Apple Trees
So, let’s say you decide you want to plant and buy a Pristine apple tree. You are excited about growing those sweet and juicy apples and dream about the great pies you’re going to bake!
You have discovered that Pristine is resistant to apple scab, an apple tree disease that is common in your community. What else do you need to know?
- Is this apple tree right for your climate zone?
You need to make sure that your chosen apple variety will survive in your climate. So, once you choose your specialist fruit tree nursery, check their catalogue to find out what climate these trees will survive in. Pristine apple trees, for instance, are hardy to Zone 4. So, if you live in Zone 4 (or even Zone 5 or Zone 6) these trees will be just fine. But if you live in the frosty climates of Zone 2, your fruit tree will not survive the winter. And if you live in a more tropical Zone 8 climate, the tree will perish due to the extreme heat. Your job is to ensure that your chosen apple tree variety will survive in your climate zone.
- Will this apple tree produce fruit?
Most apple trees are cross-pollinating. That means you need two different types of apple trees in order for the blossoms to be successfully pollinated. If you buy a single apple tree, and there are no other compatible apple trees in the neighbourhood, your tree may look pretty and blossom. But it may never produce fruit. Your job is to research your tree’s pollination requirements and ensure it has a compatible pollination partner.
- Will the apple tree fit in your yard?
Some apple trees can grow to be huge! Others can be quite small. And tree size has nothing to do with the apple variety you have chosen. That’s because all apple trees are grafted onto “root stock.” These are roots from a different but compatible tree and the root stock will determine how large your tree will be when it is mature. If you are planting apple trees grafted onto dwarfing root stock (like M26 or B9) they will grow to just 7 feet at maturity. If you want larger apple trees, you may opt instead for a semi dwarf root stock (like M106) that will result in trees that are up to 14 feet tall in maturity. Your job here is to research root stock options and choose a root stock that will work for your space.
All of this information and more will be available in your fruit tree nursery catalogue. And there’s lots more to consider when researching your apple tree. In my online fruit tree care training course, I’ll take you through it step-by-step in the 2-hour-long module on choosing your fruit tree.
One thing to keep in mind: Specialist apple trees sell out quickly so once you’ve carefully chosen your tree, you’ll need to order it up to 6 months in advance from your fruit tree nursery. The nursery will ship your bare root apple tree to you in the early spring or late fall. Plant it properly, water it well, and you and your apple tree have a wonderful start.
Do you find fruit tree care confusing? Let me simplify it for you.
Fruit tree care can be easy as I’ll show you in this eBook and video mini-course. It includes my 11-page eBook Growing Fruit Trees that Thrive, 30 minutes of video content, and two bonus eBooks. Register for free to get access to this course for 7 days!
2. Learn How to Care for Your Young Apple Tree
Wendy and Jack are a couple I know that were really excited about having their first child. They made it through the pregnancy and Wendy gave birth to a healthy little girl. They were overjoyed when they brought the baby home. Then they sat down at the kitchen table and it dawned on them that they had no idea what they had gotten themselves into.
“Oh my gosh. What do we do now?” Wendy said.
Well, that’s what it’s like with young apple trees. Babies are more communicative. Your baby will cry and squirm to tell you it has needs. In contrast, young apple trees suffer in silence. You may not realize that there’s a problem for years – and at that point it may already be too late.
New growers often have questions about caring for their young trees. The answers aren’t always straightforward and let’s explore them below.
A. How Much Water do Apple Trees Need?
If you’re wondering how much water young apple trees need, the answer is that it depends.
Young apple trees need lots of water. They need to be watered frequently and deeply. In our orchard park we water our newly planted trees up to three times a week with three large buckets of water each time. That’s about 15 gallons of water. We have clay soil which retains water. If you have sandy soil, you may need to water even more frequently.
Three or four months after planting apple trees, you can start to water a bit less – maybe once a week or so. The trees at this point have settled in and become a little bit more independent.
Older apple trees that are well established are much more independent. They have huge root systems that take in lots of water and nutrients from the soil. You’ll need to water older trees only during a drought or when the weather is really hot and dry.
Reading the four paragraphs above may make you feel frustrated. I’m sure you’d like me to tell you precisely how much water your trees need in your unique environment. I can’t fly all over the world to work with you on that. But here are two steps that will help you get your apple tree irrigation timing and technique right.
- How you water matters. Trees take in water through their root systems only, so water the area around the roots. DO NOT water the trunk, branches or leaves. Doing the latter can encourage fungal diseases and wood rot. Because of this, it’s best to avoid watering with sprinklers. Instead hand water or use a soaker hose.
- Water deeply and slowly. Even young fruit trees need a lot of water. So, water the roots, then allow that water to absorb before watering more. Give your tree a deep watering and then let those roots dry out completely before watering again later in the week or month. If your apple tree’s roots never dry out, it will become vulnerable to root rot,
B. What is the Best Fertilizer for Apple Trees?
Like humans, apple trees need food. Think about it. Your apple tree gets its nutrients from the soil and uses those nutrients to expand its root system, grow leaves, blossoms and branches, and to produce nutrient-rich fruit for us.
If you don’t feed your tree, it won’t have the energy to do any of those jobs very well. So, if your apple tree produces unappealing apples – or no apples at all – that may be because the poor thing is starving.
While it’s common for new growers to not feed their tree enough, the other problem happens when they buy the best fertilizer for apple trees that they can find in their local garden centre.
But these ready-to-go fertilizers or nutrients spikes can actually irreversibly damage your tree – and your soil – if they are not customized to your unique soil needs.
That’s why I always advise new growers to keep it simple. The best apple tree fertilizer is nutrient rich mulch. You spread it on the soil over the roots of your apple tree once a year, in the early spring. It will provide food for your tree and you won’t risk the damage linked with overfertilizing.
As you become more experienced, you can learn how to feed your apple tree based on its actual needs. You can determine what nutrients it needs by observing new growth, leaf conditions and general tree health and fruit production. When you are ready to learn more, you can take my course.
So, for a beginner, the best apple tree fertilizer is nutrient rich mulch applied in the spring. Here’s how you do it.
- In the early spring spread two inches of compost or one inch of well-rotted manure spread around the roots of the tree. Make sure the mulch reaches out to the edge of your apple tree’s canopy. Do not allow any mulch to touch your tree’s trunk as it can be an entry point for pests and can rot the wood on the trunk. So, your mulch circle will look like a donut. The hole in the middle is for the trunk and about six inches of empty space before the mulch begins.
- Avoid nutrient spikes and synthetic fertilizers. If you over-fertilize your tree you can damage the soil irreparably and damage your tree (or kill it) in the process. Instead, when you are ready, learn to identify nutrient deficiencies by observing your tree’s growth patterns. I’d also recommend testing your soil every few years to find out what nutrients need to be added to keep your tree healthy and productive.
C. Is Apple Tree Pruning Necessary?
If you’re growing your fruit trees organically, you probably do not want to use a lot of sprays to protect your fruit trees from pests and disease. That’s why pruning is an important tool that organic growers use to keep their trees healthy and disease free. Here are some reasons why we prune our trees.
- We improve tree health by improving air circulation within the tree. Good air circulation prevents apple tree pest and disease problems because many pests and most fungal spores need dark, damp and warm conditions to thrive.
- Correct annual pruning ensures that every branch of your tree has access to sunlight so that the apples on each branch can properly ripen and colour.
- Correct apple tree pruning helps you build a strong, sturdy fruit bearing structure for your tree. So instead of having a tree with hundreds of weak branches, your fruit tree will have fewer, stronger branches. And each of those branches will be capable of supporting a heavy harvest.
- Fruit tree pruning starts from the very first year you plant your tree. Watch the video below “Three Secrets of Fruit Tree Care” to see how to prune an apple tree on planting day.
- Older apple trees needed to be pruned and nurtured back to health slowly and carefully. Read about a project that restores old orchards here.
Once you’ve planted and pruned your young tree, you’ll need to continue pruning and shaping the tree over the years. And I’ll teach you about that in my online course in the two hour-long workshop on winter and summer fruit tree pruning.
3. Learn How to Recognize and Prevent Apple Tree Pests and Diseases
Finally, the best way to keep your apple tree healthy and productive is to know what fruit tree pest and disease problems it will be vulnerable to over its lifetime.
That’s because it’s easier to prevent apple tree pest and disease problems if you tackle them early on. Once these problems have spread, fruit tree pest and disease problems are really hard to cure.
So take some time to learn about some of the common diseases. I go through them in my Certificate in Fruit Tree Care course in more detail, but here are a few common apple tree problems.
- Apple Scab
- Apple maggot and coddling moth
- Oriental fruit moth
- European sawfly
- Cedar apple rust
The amazing thing is that once you know what to look for, fighting off apple tree diseases organically can be relatively easy. Some diseases can effectively be removed with pruning. Others can be prevented using organic anti-fungal sprays. And some pest problems can be defeated with a once a year spray with an appropriate dormant oil.
In Conclusion: Growing Apple Trees is Fun When You Know What You’re Doing
If you have a weekend or two, you can learn everything you need to know about growing apple trees. Do your research now and you’ll be able to grow apple trees the easy way.
It’s so much more fun to grow fruit trees with confidence, knowing that you have all the bases covered. You’ve bought and planted the right tree. You know how to care for it properly. And you know the potential problems early on and you have a strategy for dealing with them.
Alternatively, you can grow your apple trees the hard way and run out to the garden centre today, buy a potted tree, plant it and hope for the best.
I’ve done both myself. And for me? I’ll opt for the easy way.
Happy growing every one!
Director, OrchardPeople.com Fruit Tree Care Education Online
Susan Poizner is the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards and the creator of the award-winning online fruit tree care training portal at www.orchardpeople.com. She is the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast which covers fruit trees, food forests, permaculture and arboriculture. She is an ISA Certified Arborist living in Toronto, Canada with her husband Cliff and her fruit trees!