*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*
Apples are so ubiquitous in the grocery stores that it almost seems like a novelty to actually grow them. However, I have always loved the idea of growing as much of my own produce as possible, that it felt rude to leave apples out of my back yard “orchard”. So a few years ago we found a multi-budded apple tree with a few varieties all grafted together and plunked it into the ground.
Many people tend to think of apples as a cool climate kind of tree, and many varieties, especially the heirlooms, are. However, there are now several new types that have become available that don’t require as many chill hours, and in fact even thrive in hotter weather climates. This means that there is likely a cultivar that will be perfectly suited for your yard, and maybe something you’ve never seen at the store!
Modern agri-business has narrowed down the selection of a variety of produce types due to multiple factors, many of which are related to ease of production, disease resistance, ability to be transported, shelf life, etc. These are not necessarily things you need to worry about in your own garden, however some of them are. Diseases and pests, climatic conditions, size of the mature plant and other considerations need to be thought about at home, too.
Apple trees are often grafted onto a type of rootstock that is not the same as the apple variety itself. Some rootstocks will regulate the size the tree can grow to, and/or confer resistance to certain soil-borne pests that could damage or kill your tree. Standard sized apple trees can grow quite large, up to 30 feet tall and wide, however semi-dwarf and dwarf sized trees will be much smaller, and pruning can also be used to keep apple trees even smaller as needed. Be sure to check the label of any tree you decide to grow to find out what size you will have.
Diseases & Pests
As far as diseases and pests are concerned, there are a lot! Many of the diseases can be prevented or minimized by doing a few things that will help keep them under control. Most of the diseases that affect apple trees are caused by bacteria and fungi, both of which thrive in moist conditions. By doing regular pruning during the winter to remove branches in the middle of the tree, criss-crossing branches, or areas where branches are too dense, it allows for more air circulation that reduces the humidity in the tree’s canopy making it less hospitable for these diseases. Word of warning: be sure to sterilize any clippers or saws you use in pruning in between each and every cut, as you may transfer diseases that way, too! Make sure that sprinklers don’t hit the branches and leaves, and also remove fallen leaves from the previous year as they may have the spores that can start a new infection (do NOT put these into your compost as they can spread disease to other plants!). There are a whole host of sprays available that can also be used, including organic, to help defeat these diseases, or at least keep them under control.
The most common disease affecting apple trees and their relatives is fire-blight. The signature signs are blackened leaves on “crookneck” shaped stems that don’t drop from the tree. This disease is spread by all sorts of vectors, including the bees you need to pollinate the flowers for fruit production. Some apple varieties are resistant to this, but many are not. I am just going to have to suck it up that my tree will be in a continuous battle with this disease as the varieties that will grow in my climate are not resistant, and I am surrounded by other homeowners who have different trees that are infected, but don’t remove them. The same strategies used for other diseases will help to some extent with fire-blight prevention. Trees that get infected can die as quickly as that growing season, or can live for years and be somewhat affected by it. Trimming off parts of the tree showing infection at least 8-10 inches lower down on the branch can help keep the bacteria from spreading further into the tree through the sap. Copper-based sprays are also useful in helping to minimize infection and transmission. This article by the University of California provides more helpful information for the home gardener.
Apple trees need a certain amount of “chill hours” in order to produce flowers that will be able to eventually become fruit. This is the accumulation of time below 45° F during the trees dormancy in winter. There are other factors that affect the tree, but this is the basic definition. It is important to have an idea of how many chill hours your location gets each year before choosing a tree. High chill varieties will disappoint you if you live in a warmer winter area because you will get no fruit. Low chill varieties may not work out in colder climates if summers aren’t hot enough, either. Find varieties that match your zone. Keep in mind that humidity will contribute to disease transmission, so it’s really important to find resistant types if you live in a humid area. My Central California location is very dry, which has actually helped to reduce the damage to my tree from the fire-blight it has contracted.
Production & Harvest
Apple trees will usually start producing fruit within a couple of years of first being planted, though that will also depend on the age of the tree at that time. Production will start off slow, however it will quickly increase as the tree matures. We have only had our tree for a few years, but have already seen a dramatic rise in the quantity of fruit produced. A tree we had at a previous home was producing a large number of fruit just within five years. If you decide to plant multiple varieties, be sure to choose ones that will ripen at different times so that you can tackle your produce without being overwhelmed. Multi-budded trees like the one I have allow for different varieties to be grown in the space of a single tree, and have types that will ripen over the period of a couple months to spread out the load.
Apples are ripe when they can be easily removed from the tree. Don’t tug on the apple or that may damage the branch and cause other apples to fall prematurely. By lifting the apple and twisting it a few times it should come away with the stem intact on the fruit. Apples of the same variety won’t all be ripe at the exact same time, but will instead ripen over a two to three week period of time. This means you will need to check on them periodically to get the ones that are ripe before they fall to the ground. After you use your delicious apples, be sure to keep any cores and peels for a source of pectin for the best homemade jams and jellies! It’s kind of like two bites from the same apple!
- Perennial: Trees may live for several decades or longer
- Height: depends on variety, anywhere from 10-30 feet
- Width: depends on variety, anywhere from 10-30 feet
- Sun: full sun
- Water: regularly, periodic deep watering is best but be sure not to waterlog soil
- Soil pH: neutral to slightly acidic
- Soil type: amend heavy clay or loose sandy soil
- Key nutrients: fertilize as you would for other fruit producing trees, but may not be needed unless soil is poor
- Planting time: best to plant as bare-root plants available in mid-winter to early spring
- Zones: will depend on variety