Apple trees are fast becoming one of the most popular additions to a home landscape. Whether you have room for just one or a whole orchard, an apple tree is a wise investment. Here’s some key information for selecting the right apple tree, planting it properly and harvesting the sweet rewards.
All varieties of apples available at your local nursery are created by grafting a desirable variety onto a hardy rootstock. The rootstock is used to control the mature size of the tree and is often selected for extra hardiness and more disease resistance. Standard rootstocks will produce full-size trees. These will mature to 20-25’ tall and 25’ wide. Standard apple trees generally begin producing 5 to 8 years after planting and are hardy to zone 3. Semi-standard rootstocks are also very commonly used. These trees grow to be about 12-15’ tall and 14’ wide at maturity. Semi-standard varieties produce apples 3 to 5 years after planting. These rootstocks are reliably hardy in zone 4 and will work in zone 3 if there is plenty of snow cover during the coldest months. Dwarf trees are not as commonly found but are great for the smallest yards. These trees grow to a mature size of only 8-10’ and typically bear 2-4 years after planting.
Apple trees are self-sterile and cannot produce fruit on their own. You will need to have at least two different varieties that are blooming at the same time to produce fruit. Flowers appear early, mid or late spring. Pick out two varieties that have either the same bloom time or over-lapping times, like early and mid season. If you only have room for one tree, chances are someone in the neighborhood has one that will work. Many flowering crab varieties will also work for pollination. The two trees need to be within 200 yards of each other.
You’ll also have to decide for what you are going to use the apples. Many varieties are multipurpose and are good for eating as well as baking. Some varieties are better for pies, while some others are tart and crisp – perfect for fresh eating. Here are some suggestions for each category – don’t forget there are many more varieties available!
Fresh eating apples – Sweet 16, Fireside, Zestar!™, Honeycrisp™
Cooking apples – Red Baron, Wealthy, Haralson/Haralred
Good for both! – State Fair, Winecrisp™, Cortland
Apple trees are very tolerant and adaptable. They grow in most soils except the rockiest and heaviest clay soils. They do need good drainage as they do not like wet feet. Apples also need almost a full day of sun in order to grow and produce acceptable fruit. Make sure you select a spot that leaves plenty of room for the branches to spread out and get good air flow.
Dig your hole about 10 inches wider than the root ball in all directions and clear away grass and weeds out further. The depth of the hole is determined by the location of the root flare. This is the spot where the trunk widens and the root begins. To locate the flare, you might have to peel away dirt from the pot. This root flare should be placed just above ground level and the soil under the root ball should be undisturbed.
While you are locating the root flare, check the rest of the root system. Gently tease the roots apart by hand and prune any damaged roots back to a clean cut. Make sure to inspect all container trees for girdling roots. Girdling roots grow around and against the trunk. As they grow and enlarge, they can stop the flow of water and nutrients up and down the tree. This can not only cause a slow death of the tree, it can also create a weak trunk that could snap in a strong storm.
Place the tree in the center of the hole, making sure the root flare is above the soil line and the roots are sticking straight out. Refill the hole with a mixture of the dirt you dug out of the hole and compost or planting soil. Gently compact the soil with your foot around the tree to minimize air pockets and water well. If some dirt settles after watering, add a bit more to even it out. Be careful to not pile dirt up around the trunk. You want to remember to keep the root flare at the soil surface.
Add 2 to 4 inches of mulch around the newly planted tree but leave an open space right around the trunk. Remember that piling mulch up around the trunk of the tree is the same as planting too deep. The mulch will help retain soil moisture and keep an even soil temperature. It will also keep weeds and grass from growing around the new tree.
Newly planted trees will need about 1-2” (3-5 gallons) of water a week for the first year. This includes whatever precipitation happens that week. If you have heavier soil, be sure to stick you finger in the dirt to check the moisture level before watering. Over watering can lead to saturated soil that causes root rot and other fugal diseases.
source: Trees for Seattle
source: UofM Extension
Harvesting and Storage
Each variety of apple will mature at slightly different times. This can be very environmentally affected as well. Keep note of the color changes on the fruit. Unripe fruit are greener and very hard. Ripe fruit will show more glossy red color and will be firm but not hard. Hold the fruit in the palm of your hand and twist slightly while pulling. Remember to grip gently as these fruit can bruise easily.
Each variety has a different storage quality. In order to get the longest storage out of your crop, keep them in a place that is close to 32 degrees. While the garage, basement or root celler is often around this temperature in the winter, a refrigerator is best because of the consistent temperature.
Handle with care but enjoy the fruits of all your hard work!