Apples are a favorite fruit for both adults and kids. They are sweet, healthy and super fun to eat. This guide will show you how to grow apples and offer tips to ensure they grow beautifully and healthy.
How to Select Apple Trees
There are about 7,500 varieties of apples grown throughout the world, but only about 100 varieties of apples are commercially grown in the United States. The best apple variety for your garden will depend on your hardiness zone. Even though apple trees can grow in almost any hardiness zone, apples grow best in climates where it's cold in winter, moderate in summer and has medium to high humidity. They can tolerate winter temperatures as low as - 40 degrees Fahrenheit. For specific varieties that do well in your hardiness zone, consult your local Cooperative Extension office.
Apple trees fall into three categories: standard, semi-dwarf or dwarf. Standard or full-sized trees can grow up to 30 feet tall and can take six years to bear their first fruit. Semi-dwarf and dwarf apple trees can grow from 6 to 20 feet tall and produce full-sized apples in about three years. Columnar apple trees are a dwarf variety that grow tall and narrow, reaching heights of 8 to 10 feet, but only about 2 feet in diameter.
Apple trees are available as bare root, balled-and-burlap or in containers. Availability and planting requirements vary, depending on which one you purchase.
- Bare root: Available in the winter and early spring. The trees are dormant and without leaves. Plant bare-root trees in spring as soon as the soil can be worked and before the trees begin to significantly leaf out.
- Burlap ball: These trees have their roots in soil and enclosed in burlap. They are mostly available in spring. Plant them as soon as the soil is workable in the spring.
- Container: These trees can be planted any time during the growing season.
Read plant tags and check the pollination needs of the variety you choose. Many apple trees are not self-pollinating and will need another apple tree nearby for pollination and to improve your harvest.
Sun and Soil
Apple trees need full sun—at least six to eight hours of sunlight during the growing season. The best soil for apple trees is moist and well-drained with a neutral soil pH of 6.0 to 7.0. If the soil in your planting site isn't suited for apple trees, you can try amending it prior to planting.
If you purchased an apple tree variety that needs cross-pollination, you will need two apple trees. The trees need to be planted within 50 feet of one another for adequate cross-pollination to occur. There are several self-pollinating apple varieties—these trees will set fruit without cross-pollination.
How far apart to plant apple trees will depend on the variety. In general, here are the spacing requirement for apple trees:
- Dwarf: 8 to 10 feet
- Semi-Dwarf: 12 to 15 feet
- Standard: 18 to 20 feet
- Columnar: 2 to 3 feet
In order for apple buds to develop into flowers properly, an apple tree must have a certain number of chill hours. Chill hours or chill units (CU) are the number of hours when temperatures stay at 32 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. This period of time is critical for apple trees. The number of chill hours an apple tree needs will depend on the variety. Most apple varieties need 500 to 1,000 chill hours. In order to have a successful apple crop, it’s vital to choose an apple variety suited to your climate and winter temperatures.
Planting Apple Trees
You can plant apple trees when temperatures are cool, especially if they arrive bare root and dormant. As long as your soil is workable and not frozen, you can plant your apple tree.
Bare root and burlap trees:
- Soak the apple tree’s roots in a bucket or large tub of water for one to two hours.
- Dig a hole in the selected full sun site. The hole needs to be deep and wide enough so the root system has plenty of room to spread and grow.
- Place the apple tree in the center of the planting hole with its roots down and spread out.
- Hold onto the trunk to keep it vertical, then backfill the hole.
- Create a rim of soil around the planting hole about two inches above ground level. This is called a berm and catches water so that it can soak in rather than running off and causing soil erosion.
- Add 2 to 3 inches of mulch around the apple tree’s trunk to protect the tree.
Apple Tree Growth Stages
Apples, like other deciduous fruit trees, go through an annual series of growth. These growth stages are crucial to monitor in order to effectively time treatments for various fungal diseases and pests as well as for applying foliar sprays on apple tree leaves. Here are the typical growth stages for apple trees:
- Dormancy: The stage at which apple trees overwinter and experience relatively little activity.
- Silver tip: The fruit bud scales are separated at the tip of the bud, exposing light gray or silver tissue.
- Green tip: The buds are broken at the tip and about 1/16-inch of green tissue is visible.
- Half-inch green: 1/2-inch of green leaf tissue emerging out of their fruit buds.
- Tight cluster: Blossom buds are mostly exposed and tightly grouped with short stems.
- Pink or open cluster: All of the buds in the blossom cluster are pink and have lengthened stems.
- Bloom: The period when just the first bloom in each cluster is open to full bloom (when all or most blossom buds are open.)
- Post bloom: When 75 percent of the tree's petals have fallen.
Growing Apple Trees from Seed
You can grow apples from seed, but it’s not recommended. Apples do not reproduce true to type—meaning that the seed will produce apples that will be different than the parent. Most apple trees are propagated through grafting. Also, it takes a long time to grow an apple tree from seed— it takes between 7 to 10 years before you will be able to tell if your tree will have good fruit.
Apple Tree Care
Newly planted apple trees require watering weekly. The key is to let the water soak into the soil slowly to allow for deep watering until it’s established. Once established, apple trees only require infrequent watering unless there are prolonged dry periods.
Apple trees will grow 8 to 12 inches each year. They don’t really need frequent feeding of supplemental fertilizers. Instead, apply a mulch of aged compost liberally around the base of the tree once or twice a year, in spring or in late fall after leaves have dropped.
Allow apple trees to become well-established before fruiting. Handpick flowers and young fruit during the first two years. This will give the tree increased energy to establish its roots instead of producing fruit. In the third year, you can allow the tree to bear a small crop, but thin the fruit to ensure the quality and size of the crop.
Apple trees benefit from pruning. Pruning will allow an apple tree allow the tree to get light and air. You should prune every year. However, never prune away more than one-third of the total tree in a single growing season. The best time to prune is in the late winter when the tree is dormant and before buds appear. Follow these steps to prune an apple tree:
- Remove all diseased, dead or broken branches.
- Remove all watersprouts— fast-growing vertical branches that usually have no side branches.
- Remove all suckers—fast-growing shoots that grow out of the soil from the roots below the soil surface.
- Remove tight V-branching crotches—formed by branches that will not support the weight of a full crop of fruit.
- Remove crossing or rubbing branches— where two branches cross and rub.
Pests and Diseases
Apples are susceptible to a number of insects and diseases. Among the pests that attack apples are scale, apple maggots, codling moths, fruitworms, leafhoppers and mites. Diseases include fungal diseases, Cedar-apple, powdery mildew, apple scab and fireblight. Many of these pests and diseases are difficult to control without the use of preventive spraying. A general spraying schedule for pests includes:
- Apply spray before buds open and when the temperature has been above 33 degrees Fahrenheit for 48 hours.
- Apply a multipurpose fruit tree spray when the buds begin to break.
- Do not spray when the tree is in bloom.
- When nearly all the flower petals have fallen you can apply a multipurpose fruit tree spray every 10 to 14 days.
- Discontinue all spraying two weeks before harvest.
For diseases, a preventative approach is best. Select tree varieties that are disease resistant to your region. Prune trees regularly to allow plenty of sun and air penetration into the crown of the tree and prune out any diseased branches, leaves or fruit. Keep your yard and garden clean of leaves, branches and other plant debris to discourage harboring fungal spores.
Most apples are ready for harvest from midsummer through late fall. The exact harvest time will depend on the variety of apple you planted. A mature apple will come away from the tree easily—simply lift the apple up and twist in a rotating motion. Store apples in a cool, dry area—a refrigerator just above 32 degrees Fahrenheit is best. Apples will keep for six to eight weeks.
Apples trees are an enjoyable fruit tree that not only bears delicious fruit but is a lovely asset to your landscape. Shop The Home Depot for apple trees, pruning tools and everything you need to grow apples.