Understanding proper apple tree care is a prerequisite for growing apples in your yard or garden. Having a fruit tree at home is great! But it’s not always as simple as we wish.
Caring for apple trees means knowing how and where to plant them, how to prune and water them, and how to recognize the signs of insects or disease. In this article, we’ll give you an introduction to cover everything you need to get started with your own apple tree.
Why Proper Apple Tree Care Matters
Knowing proper apple tree care is the difference between a healthy tree that produces good fruit for many years, a mediocre tree that struggles to produce, and an unhealthy tree that doesn’t bear.
Without proper care, an apple tree is simply an ornamental — and often not a very attractive one!
The good news is that you don’t have to be an expert to provide your apple tree with everything it needs to flourish.
Choosing Your Apple Trees
There are a few things to consider when choosing your apple trees. As a beginner, you may want to choose apple varieties that are hardier and produce fruit more quickly. However, there are a few other things to consider as well.
Some of the most popular varieties we see in grocery stores, such as Honeycrisp, are unfortunately very difficult to grow. They are often susceptible to insects and fungal infections.
Rather than choosing an apple variety that you are familiar with, do some research beforehand to find out what trees grow well in your region. Different types of apple tree thrive or fail depending on temperature, seasons, rainfall, sunlight, and the types of insects and fungi that thrive nearby.
Some apple cultivars have been bred to be resistant or even immune to common apple diseases. Consequently, they’re much easier for home gardeners to grow!
Disease-resistant apple varieties include:
- Liberty – resistant to fire blight, apple scab, cedar rust, powdery mildew
- Pixie Crunch – resistant to apple scab
- Goldrush – immune to apple scab, moderately resistant to powdery mildew and fire blight
- Crimson Gold – resistant to apple scab
- Crimson Topaz – resistant to apple scab, moderately resistant to fire blight and powdery mildew
- Freedom – resistant to apple scab, moderately resistant to fire blight
- Florina – resistant to apple scab, moderately resistant to fire blight and powdery mildew
- Enterprise – immune to apple scab, resistant to fire blight, cedar apple rust, moderately resistant to powdery mildew
It might seem obvious, but make sure that the apple tree that you choose will fit in your yard! While some varieties hit a maximum of about 15 feet, others can get much larger. This also depends on whether you buy a standard sized tree, a dwarf variety, or a semi-dwarf.
Dwarf trees are a popular choice for home gardens. These trees are about 50 percent as tall as standard apple trees, so they may be between 8 and 15 feet tall at full maturity. Semi-dwarf trees are about 80 percent as large as standard apple trees.
In order to grow properly and reap the most nutrients from the sun and soil, apple trees need between 12 and 25 feet of space, depending on their size. That means 12 to 25 feet away from any other structures, fences, walls, or other plants that could inhibit their spread.
Not every apple tree is independently fertile. Many varieties are sterile on their own, which means that they won’t produce any fruit. These varieties need a cross-pollinator, usually another variety of apple tree planted within 60 feet or so (though dwarf varieties should be planted about 20 feet apart).
Before you choose an apple tree variety to plant, research to find out if it is self-fertile or needs a cross-pollinator. If it is self-sterile, learn what other apple cultivars are best paired with that variety.
Planting Your Apple Tree
If you live in a cold climate, the best time to plant apple trees is in early spring. Alternatively, if you live in an area where winters are mild, either early spring or late autumn is acceptable.
As for finding the perfect place to plant your apple tree, choose a place in your yard that is far enough away from any other trees, plants, or structures. This spot should be in full sun, meaning that it gets at least six hours of direct sunlight every day.
Make sure the spot has good drainage and loamy soil, if possible. Don’t plant an apple tree in a depression or other low point, as these are prone to developing pockets of moisture or frost.
It’s a good idea to do a soil test before you plant your tree to test the soil pH. The ideal soil for growing apple trees is between 6.0 and 7.0. If the pH is too low, your tree will be vulnerable to disease. However, you always have the option of treating unfavorable soil with lime or sulfur to improve the pH.
How To Plant An Apple Tree
To plant an apple tree, clear the surrounding ground about four feet in diameter. Remove any growth so that you have bare dirt. If you are planting a root stock, you will need to dig a hole about two feet deep and twice the width of the root ball.
Bury the root stock loosely but leave the top above the soil. Water deeply just after planting. As the tree begins to spread its roots, you will need to water more. About a year after planting, you can switch to the method of watering mature apple trees, which is about once every 10 days.
Our guide to planting apple trees will take you step-by-step through the process.
Pruning Your Apple Tree
Pruning your apple tree annually is essential to its long-term health. Scheduled pruning ensures that all the necessary nutrients reach the most vital parts of the plant.
Make sure to prune your apple tree annually, usually in the late winter. Focus on removing lateral branches or dead limbs and opening the canopy. For more detailed instructions on how to prune an apple tree, check out our post here.
Sun, Shade, and Watering
As we mentioned above, apple trees need full sunlight. This means that they should get at least six hours of sun every day, though eight or more is ideal. This is another reason why you should plant the tree with plenty of space, so no nearby trees or structures block it from accessing the sun.
Winter Tree Care
When the apple harvest is over, it’s time to start thinking about winter and how to protect your trees when the temperature drops below freezing.
Some apple cultivars do very well in colder temperatures and only need moderate care, while others prefer warmer climates. If you live in a place with very cold winters, make sure to choose an apple tree variety that can withstand the chill.
There are a few things you should do to protect your apple tree during the winter.
Prune At the Right Time
Don’t prune your apple tree in the autumn, as this will encourage growth right as the colder temperatures set in. Instead, aim to do your annual pruning in the late winter, just before your apple tree starts to bloom.
Make sure to use clean pruning shears to reduce the risk of spreading bacteria. Focus on removing dead or crisscrossing branches, shaping the tree into an open “cup” shape.
Good Summer Care
Yes, you read that right — one of the best ways to protect your apple trees through the winter is to take care of them when the weather is still warm.
Practice deep watering throughout the summer and fall. This will help your tree’s roots grow more deeply, which will keep them healthy in the colder months. Make sure to fertilize during the warmer seasons as well, which will increase your tree’s health during the winter.
Clean Your Yard
When autumn comes around, it’s time to tidy up your yard. Rake your leaves and mow your lawn, especially around your fruit trees. This reduces the likelihood of pests taking shelter in nearby long grass or piles of leaves. It also reduces the risk of trapping harmful fungal spores, which can infect your tree invisibly during the winter and start to affect it as it blooms in the spring.
Practice Winter Maintenance
Even if your apple tree is cold hardy, you should still take steps to protect it in the cold. Following the first freeze of the year, use white latex paint to cover the south-facing side of the tree. That’s because bark can crack as it thaws, injuring or infecting the tree.
Similarly, make sure you use plastic sheeting or wire netting to wrap the trunk of the tree. This will keep it safe from rodents looking to strip its bark for food or shelter.
Apple Tree Pollination
Apple trees pollinate in several ways: by self-fertilization, by natural cross-pollination, by human-led cross-pollination, and by grafting.
How Pollination Works
Self-fertile apple trees, as the name implies, don’t need a cross-pollinator and produce fruit on their own. However, planting two self-fertile varieties can vastly increase the yield on both trees. Self-fertile apple cultivars include Cortland, Empire, Gala, Granny Smith, Grimes Golden, Jonathan, and Spartan.
Self-fertile apple varieties can also be used as cross-pollinators for sterile cultivars.
Cross-pollination refers to the practice of planting two complementary apple cultivars close together to increase the fruit yields of both. Natural cross-pollination happens as bees carry pollen between each tree.
Human-led cross-pollination may also help, usually as a support for the natural processes. There are several ways to share pollen between your apple trees. Some growers even take a regular paint brush and “paint” pollen from one tree onto the flowers of the other!
What Varieties Cross Pollinate Well?
Some of the most successful pairings include:
- Baldwin and fertile crabapple
- Red Delicious and Snowdrift
- Gala and Fuji, Braeburn, or Spartan
- McIntosh and Northern Spy
- Honeygold and Honeycrisp, Granny Smith, or Empire
Varieties that are not good pollinators include Baldwin, Winesap, Mutsu, Jonagold, Gravenstein, and King. However, that doesn’t mean that these varieties can’t be grown, even by home gardeners. It just means that they needed to be planted with an effective cross-pollinator, usually a crabapple variety.
When To Start Expecting Fruit
The general rule of thumb is that apple trees begin to bear fruit three to four years after planting. However, this can vary significantly based on the growing conditions, the care you provide, the apple tree variety, cross-pollinators, and many other factors.
Regular pruning and basic care may encourage earlier fruiting, but make sure you don’t encourage this too much, as it can inhibit later, healthier growth.
Apple Tree Diseases and Pests
Apple trees are prone to certain bacterial and fungal infections, though these range widely based on apple cultivar, growing conditions, and geographic region. It’s important to check your apple tree regularly for signs of pests and disease so that you can start treating it as soon as possible.
Not every disease affecting apple trees actually kills them. Some are simply superficial, affecting the appearance of the fruit, foliage, and branches. Others can kill the tree altogether.
The most common apple tree diseases include:
- Apple scab
- Powdery mildew
- Fire blight
- Sooty blotch and flyspeck
- Cork spot
- Phytophthora rot
- Cedar rust
- Black rot
- White rot
- Bitter rot
To learn more about common apple tree diseases and how to treat them, check out our post here.
Insect infestations can also happen to apple trees. The most common insects to infest apple trees include:
- Round-headed apple tree borer
- Apple maggot
- Codling moth
- Plum curculio
- San Jose scale
- European red mites
- Red banded leafrollers
- Green fruit worms
- Rosy apple aphids
- Wooly apple aphids
- Japanese beetles
Bark protection can also be necessary for apple trees to protect them not only from freezing winter temperatures, but also larger pests, including rabbits, voles, mice, and sometimes beavers.
Harvest & Storage
Apple harvest time varies drastically depending on the cultivar, with early varieties ready as soon as May and later ones extending all the way to November. However, most varieties are ready for harvest between August and October. This will also vary somewhat based on your growing zone.
A basic harvest schedule for common apple varieties includes:
How To Store Apples
Apples have a varying shelf life depending on the variety. However, in general, it’s best to store apples between 35 and 38 degrees and 85 percent humidity. This is about the temperature of a standard refrigerator and will extend their shelf life to several weeks.
Cooking With Apples
There are countless ways to cook with apples, from making classic apple pie to apple cider, baked apples, and apple crumble. Different varieties lend themselves better to cooking, baking, juicing, and eating fresh.
Good apple varieties for cooking include Jonagold, Honeycrisp, Granny Smith, Winesap, Pink Lady, Braeburn, and Mutsu. Trying making some homemade applesauce over pork chops, apple cheesecake galettes, or classic autumn treats like apple oatmeal cookies.
How do you take care of an apple tree for the first year?
One of the biggest differences between juvenile and mature apple trees is the amount of water that they require. While mature apple trees can suffer from overwatering, apple trees in their first year need regular watering.
Some gardeners recommend watering young apple trees as often as three times a week — and that’s if you have clay or loamy soil that retains some water. Sandy soil might drain too quickly and need even more frequent watering. However, this routine only lasts until the tree is three or four months old, at which point you should cut back to avoid drowning the root system.
Can you overwater an apple tree?
It is easy to overwater an apple tree. Watering an apple tree too much can increase the risk of infection and rot by creating a breeding ground for fungus.
Water an apple tree once every 10 days that your area goes without rain. The best way to water is to place a trickling hose deep into the root system and let it run for about an hour. This will provide sufficient moisture without drowning the roots.
How do you keep an apple tree healthy?
The best method for keeping an apple tree healthy is through a combination of proper positioning, pruning, watering, and applying fungicide or insecticide.
Will apples be affected by a hard freeze?
A single night of below-freezing temperatures is unlikely to ruin apples on a tree. However, several nights of freezes — specifically, temperatures below 28 F — will cause the fruit to start becoming soft, broken, or rotten.
How far apart do apple trees need to be?
Make sure to give apple trees plenty of space to spread their roots and canopy. How much space they need depends on whether they are standard, dwarf, or semi-dwarf trees. Standard apple trees should be planted 15 to 18 feet apart, while dwarf varieties should be 6 to 8 feet apart. Semi-dwarf apple trees fall somewhere in between.
Giving your apple tree proper care is vital to its long-term health, growth, and fruit production. Though it might seem overwhelming at first, mature apple trees need much less care. If you put in the work in those early months, you will soon have an apple tree that’s worth its weight in fruit!