Canopies overflowing with crisp, juicy apples right in your backyard may seem something that you could only dream about, but it is well within your reach. It is undeniable that apples are loaded with nutritional value and offer tremendous health benefits to those who consume them.
After all, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ But something is also comforting about the down-home charm, simplicity, Americana, and abundance that apple trees represent. Our comprehensive guide will enlighten you on how to plant a few apple trees and keep them growing their best from season to season. Before you know it, you’ll be basking in a bumper crop of apples that you are certain to be proud of.
First, choose a planting site that provides your apple tree with full sun, excellent drainage, and protection from harsh conditions like frost and wind. When planting any tree, it is essential to remember that your young tree will become a large mature tree.
For apple trees, this can mean a tree that reaches a good 20-30 feet in height, so be sure to take that into account when you choose your planting site. When selecting your backyard trees, consider dwarf varieties if space is limited. In some cases, they are more disease resistant, can be easier to care for, and may even produce fruit earlier.
Plant your apple trees in Spring or early Summer for the best success. Dig your hole as deep as the plant’s root ball and two to three times its width. Spread the tree roots, making sure that roots are not tangled up. If the plant looks to be root-bound, gently loosen the tightly wound roots and clip some of the roots to aid in loosening them.
Place the root ball in the hole so that the first root is even or slightly about ground level. Spread soil over the outspread roots. As you begin to cover the roots, firm the soil with your foot as you work to remove air pockets. Fill in the hole with soil, again pressing firmly with your boot until all air pockets are gone, and the soil base is firm and level with the ground. Mulch the area around the apple tree, leaving a one-inch space around the tree trunk.
Tree spacing is a vital part of the planting process for apple trees. Saplings should be planted 15 to 18 feet apart in rows. Dwarfing varieties can thrive 4 to 8 feet apart.
Apples require pollen from other apple trees to produce fruit successfully. Apple trees are cross-pollinators, so a different type of apple tree with the same bloom time must be planted nearby within about 1500 feet. Bees are an integral part of any pollination process, so it is vital to protect the bee population by growing your apple trees organically.
A soil test is beneficial before planting your apple trees. The ideal pH for apple trees is 6.0 to 6.5, but trees can tolerate a range of 5.5 to 7.0. Apple trees enjoy a moderate quality soil that drains well but still retains moisture.
Watering and Feeding
Apple trees require regular watering for a recommended average of three times per week as the young tree gets established. After a few months, when the tree takes hold in the ground, the young tree can be watered in well less frequently, but you should soak the soil generously when the ground is relatively dry. This will encourage the roots to reach further into the ground, making for a more vigorous and sturdy tree.
Feed your apple trees by applying a couple of inches of well-decomposed composed around the base of the trees two times per year. After your apple trees start producing fruit in a couple of years, provide your trees with a nitrogen-rich organic fertilizer, as apple trees become heavy feeders of nitrogen during fruit production. You may also find success with spraying foliage with seaweed extract during the budding process and when the flower petals fall to improve the abundance of your apple crop.
Apples require regular pruning both for creating a healthy yield, for aesthetic value, and tree health. The best time of year to prune an apple tree is in early springtime before the tree starts producing its leaves.
If you see any dead or weak branches, snip them off about an inch outside of the main branch. If the canopy of the tree seems too dense, you can trim minute branches to allow more sunlight to reach the plant.
If ‘water sprouts’ appear on the branches of your apple tree, snip them off flush with the branch. Water sprouts are thin shots that sprout upward from a developed branch. They will steal water and nutrients from your apple tree.
Next, observe the structure of your apple tree and keep an eye out for branches that cross over each other. They may not seem to be a problem now, but these branches will compete with each other and cause structural problems later if not dealt with swiftly.
Decide which branch looks healthiest and cut off the other branch. This will give the apple tree a better opportunity for fruit production and provide more efficient airflow, which will, in turn, help prevent disease.
The best ways to organically ward off the plethora of pests and diseases that plague apple trees are by prevention. Prune your apple trees regularly. Maintain clean grounds by picking up and properly disposing of fallen fruit, which may contain pests.
Protect the leaves of your apple trees in early spring by spraying them with organic horticulture oil, which will smother insects and their eggs. Catching common apple tree pests before they mate and lay eggs will give you your best chance of protecting your crop.
Many will say that spraying your apple trees is the only way to ensure a strong yield. If this is the path that you must choose, organic sprays are available and should be selected carefully, and directions must be strictly adhered to.
Wickson apples are a crab apple variety, ranging in size from 1-2” in diameter. These red-and-yellow apples rock the sweetness scale with a sugar content of up to 25%, creating an extraordinary taste. The fruit ripens in September and is ideal for cider-making, but don’t overlook it for baking.
Ashmead’s Kernel apples will never win a beauty contest. Their yellowish-green skin includes a gray-brown russet coating, so while it’s not the most attractive apple out there, the taste more than makes up for it. Known as one of the highest quality dessert apples around, the flavor is strong, sweet, and intense with a surprising sharpness, kind of like a Granny Smith on steroids. Ashmead’s Kernel ripens in September-October and is perfect for baking and snacking.
Arkansas Black has probably as many detractors as it does a fan following, and controversy in the apple world is too juicy to pass up. When it’s first picked in October, the dark red skin is very tough, and the fruit is as hard as a rock, leading many to cast aspersions.
This medium-to-large fruit has smooth greenish-yellow skin with splotches of crimson. The flesh is firm and crisp with a wine-like flavor, making it irresistible in tarts and other baking projects. It ripens in October, and like its parent Winesap, it has sterile pollen and is unable to pollinate other apple trees.
If you dismiss the Yellow Transparent apple because you took a bite and were disappointed by its somewhat bland flavor, you’d be missing out on an apple with a surprising number of desirable characteristics.
First, it thrives in both extreme cold and heat, so gardeners in a wide range of climates in the U.S. grow it successfully. Second, it’s an early-season apple, ripening in mid-June to late July. While they don’t store well and their flavor is not the best for snacking, Yellow Transparent apples are superior for making applesauce and apple butter. Fun fact: This variety is actually one that was introduced from Russia in the late 1880s.
There are many diseases that can negatively impact apple trees. When you strive to grow organic fruit trees, prevention, and cultural practices are your best bet in combatting these destructive menaces. Here are a few of the top apple tree diseases that you may have to contend with in your yard or grove.
Powdery Mildew looks just like it sounds. It produces a white powdery film on the leaves of apple trees and many other fruits and vegetables. It is essential to be observant of your apple tree leaves for signs of this disease. The disease can surface at any growing stage of the plant and, in severe cases, can prevent fruit from forming at all.
Plant trees with proper spacing and regularly prune to allow adequate airflow through the leaves and branches to help prevent powdery mildew from forming. Additionally, prune branches immediately if they show any sign of this white fungus. Mold spores can spread quickly through the air, so be sure to keep all of the trees and plants in your garden well spaced for proper airflow as well to avoid cross-contamination.
Apple Scab is a fungus that infects the leaves and fruit of apple trees and makes the fruit unfit for consumption. You can identify this fungus when your apple leaves present with dark green to brown spots or yellowing. If this disease is not caught early enough, the leaves will drop from the tree and weaken the tree over time. When it comes to growing organic apples, the best way to avoid this fungus is to seek out varieties that are disease resistant.
Phytophthora Rots, commonly known as root rot, can develop when the soil remains wet for an extended time period. The leaves on your apple trees will appear wilted and yellowed, and they may die. To prevent root rot, plant apple trees in well-draining soil that is not too dense and full of clay. Water should not be allowed to pool up at the base of the tree, and if they are prone to doing so, you may need to raise the planting site to save the tree from this tree decimator.