Apple trees grow well in zones four to eight. However, just because they grow in those zones does not mean they will grow in all of the places covered by those zones. Apples can be challenging to grow in the South, where there isn’t much cold weather in the winter.
The first thing you have to decide when growing apples are what cultivars, or varieties, do you want to plant. In part, this is shaped by what varieties you enjoy eating. However, different cultivars grow best in different areas. Some areas require only cultivars that are resistant to the diseases found in that area. Areas have different patterns of cold weather, too, which influences when the apple trees bloom. You can get a list of the cultivars that grow in your area from your county Extension agent. You will have to plant two trees of different cultivars so that the apple trees can pollinate each other. One of the cultivars can be a crab tree. The trees need to be within 100 feet of one another to be effective in pollinating each other.
Bare root or potted?
Bare root trees are grown in a nursery for one to two years. They are then pulled out of the ground during the winter and the dirt is cleaned off of them. They are then shipped to nurseries for sale to consumers. These trees have a very good survival rate if planted within a day or two of bringing them home.
There is usually a greater selection of bare root trees than there is of potted trees. They are cheaper than potted plants. Bare root trees also have a larger root mass than potted trees.
They can be purchased from the nursery all year long and planted without worrying about dormancy. Potted plants often grow fruit a year or two earlier than bare root plants. They have often been given the initial pruning, while bare root trees have to be pruned by the buyer.
For the rest of this article, the instructions assume you are working with a bare root tree.
Planting the tree
Apple trees must be planted in full sun. Bare root trees should be planted within a day or two of purchase. If you cannot do that, you can “heel them in.” This means dig a shallow trench and stick the trees in it so the roots make contact with the soil. Fill in the trench to hold the trees upright. The longer you wait to plant the tree, the lower the survival rate will be.
To plant the tree, dig a hole twice as wide as the roots and half again as deep as the soil line on the tree. Carefully spread the roots in the hole. Cut any roots that circle or for a J hook off the root ball so they will not girdle the tree. Fill in the hole with dirt, making sure the tree trunk is buried to the soil line on it. Water in and fill the hole again so the soil is a bit lower than the surrounding dirt. This will help the tree to absorb water by pooling it around the tree.
Trees should be separated by six feet for dwarf trees and twenty feet for large trees. Most apple trees are grafted onto semi-dwarf root stock now so the tree will only grow to be eight to ten feet tall.
Prune the tree
Cut the trunk of the tree off at about thirty inches above the ground. Make the cut at a forty-five degree angle. This gives the roots a chance to become established before they have to support a heavy canopy. Pruning the tree in future years can take a whole article to explain, so it will not be further explained here. You can find an article on pruning apple trees in the archives.
After you plant the tree, install a tree guard around it. These are plastic sleeves that prevent mice, rabbits, and other small animals from chewing on the tree. After the bark become rough and scaly, you can remove the tree guard.
Staking the tree
It is a good idea to stake the tree the first few years of its life to make sure it grows straight. The stake should be as tall as the tree after the stake is pounded two feet into the ground. Tie the tree to the stake with something wide. Using wire or twine can cut the bark and hurt the tree.
Water the trees twice a week the first year. Give them one inch of water. You can do this by using an empty tuna can. Set it close to the tree. Run the sprinkler until there is one inch of water in the can, then stop. If you time it, then you can set your sprinkler to run for this amount of time each time it comes on. Do this every time you water the tree. After the tree has been in the ground a year, you can reduce the watering to once a week.
Your apple tree will set more fruit than it can bear without breaking some of the branches. Lots of fruit also means each apple is small. When the apples are about an inch around, thin them so that there is one apple every four to six inches on the branch. This will allow the apples remaining on the branch to grow to optimal size. When thinning an apple, grasp the fruit in your hand and lift it and twist at the same time to remove it. Yanking the apple off the tree may pull the stem off the tree, along with next year’s flower bud. Use the same motion to harvest ripe apples.
Dwarf trees can bear apples at two to three years old. Standard trees may take up to eight years to start bearing. Standard trees can produce up to ten bushels of apples. Dwarf varieties provide two to three bushels per tree.