The decision to plant a new apple tree signifies an investment not only of money, but of future intentions and hope for your home and yard. It is also no easy feat. Read on to learn the tips needed to give your tree its best shot at health and fruit production.
Siting Your New Apple Tree
To give any new tree the best chance of surviving, and ideally, thriving, choose the location carefully. It can be so tempting to plant a new tree someplace because you have a need for a tree there. Maybe you need shade over an outdoor seating area or want to block the view of a neighbor’s back yard. To avoid the regret and waste of tearing out a sickly apple tree in just a few years, make the placement of the new tree for the tree’s need your priority.
Prior to planting, survey your possible planting area and apply the factors below to determine whether an apple tree is likely to do well or whether an alternate spot may be better suited.
How to Plant Apple Trees: Climate
Before leaving the nursery with a new tree, confirm that it is appropriate for your intended area. Most local nurseries take pride in cultivating an inventory customized to the area, but big box stores may be less discerning. Because apple trees grow in all parts of the United States, one may assume that any apple tree at the store can grow anywhere, but unfortunately that is not the case.
Some types of apple trees are more cold hardy than others and not only thrive in areas with winter cold but actually need the cold to survive and produce fruit. Each apple variety requires a specific amount of chill hours.
Chill hours are the number of hours an area has that are between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and apple varieties all have a specific amount of hours needed. Temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit subtract from the total chill hours accumulated, and temperatures below 32 degrees do not count.
Chill hours refer to the process of vernalization where the hormone that keeps a tree in winter dormancy breaks down when the temperature is between 32 and 45 degrees. When sufficient vernalization occurs, the tree starts blooming and budding for spring.
If you plant a tree that needs more chill hours than your climate provides, then it will fail to bear fruit before winter weather rolls back in at the end of the growing season. If you plant an apple tree in a climate that provides more chill hours than needed, your tree should still grow and produce fruit as expected, and it may even hold onto its leaves for longer than other deciduous trees in the area.
The average number of chill hours based on location in the United States varies so check out a chill hours map to learn what number of hours your location can support. Be sure to compare that to the number of chill hours required by the apple tree you are thinking of planting.
Chill Requirements for Popular Apple Varieties
The Dorsett Golden is the only apple tree that can grow in tropical zones and produce fruit without chill hours.
How to Plant Apple Trees: Sunlight
Apple trees require full sun, defined as at least 8 hours of unfiltered sunlight. During the growing season, they can tolerate some shade providing they get the the needed amount of sun in addition to the shade.
Direct sunlight in the early spring protects the tree’s blossoms from being destroyed by frost, so it is particularly important to consider the sun exposure in the early spring. Planting near an evergreen that blocks the sun in April is much riskier than planting near other deciduous trees that leaf out later in the season.
The better the soil, the better your apple tree will do. Apple trees can live in many types of soil, but they will thrive and be most fruitful in loamy, neutral soil.
Loam soil is really what most people think of when they think of rich, fertile soil. It is dark, loose, and will clump together when squeezed, but then fall apart if poked. Water retention and drainage vary.
If your soil is thick, sticky, and gooey, and compacts together, it is likely clay or silt. Clay and silt soils are slow to absorb water and slow to drain.
Sandy soil is comprised of large particles and do not retain water.
If you are unsure of your soil type based on these descriptions, you can contact your local agricultural extension office for a soil test, and they can also check the pH. Apple trees do best in slightly acidic to neutral soil, about 6.0-7.5 pH. Digital soil pH testers are inexpensive online.
Apple trees come in three sizes – dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard. Dwarf trees should be spaced 6 to 8 feet apart; semi-dwarf apple trees should be 12 feet apart, and standard-sized trees should be 25 feet apart.
Properly spacing the trees helps them thrive by getting maximum sunlight and lot blocking the line of light for each other. Crowded trees are also more prone to disease thanks to decreased air circulation and increased spread.
Do make sure that at least one other apple or crab tree is within 100 feet to enable cross-pollination.
Cross Pollination – Make Sure Your New Tree Can Produce Fruit
Some trees produce fruit without another fruit tree nearby, but apple trees are not such a tree. When planting your new apple tree, be sure that there is another apple or crabapple tree nearby. Apple trees produce fruit only when they can cross-pollinate with another tree, meaning that pollinators like bees, birds, or the wind carry the pollen from one tree to another while the blossoms are open.
Related apples are usually poor pollinators for each other. For example, a Jonagold would likely be unhelpful for a Jonathan apple tree. Consult a cross-pollination chart if you want to plant compatible trees or match your new tree to another in your neighborhood.
If space is tight but your heart is set on an apple tree in a space that can only accommodate a single tree, take a look at 5-in-1 apple trees. Five different apple tree varieties are grafted onto one rootstock. Because there are so many types of apples on one tree, they can cross-pollinate each other without relying on another tree.
Selecting and Planting a New Apple Tree
Planting a new tree is much like moving; the end result is hopefully fantastic, but it sure is a pain getting there. Budding botanists must also pay for their tree with labor in addition to money. Using care and attention with planting will give your apple tree the best chance of long-term success and health.
Choosing a Bare Root or Container Tree
When you purchase a fruit true, it will be either bare root or containerized. Containerized trees are what we usually see lined up in nurseries in those big black pots or with burlap-wrapped root balls.
Bare root trees look like sad little twigs at first, but they are the most economical way to buy trees in bulk for a privacy screen. They can be shipped without soil, lowering the cost of shipping, so trees purchased from online orchards will likely be bare root as well.
Bare root trees look the way they do because they are dug from the ground during their winter dormancy when they lack leaves. The soil is shaken free from the roots and the tree is packed in a lightweight medium like sawdust to keep the roots moist.
If you are planting a tree by yourself, seriously consider a bare root tree to reduce the weight and bulkiness that you will have to haul around and maneuver.
Young, tender trees not yet hardened to the local weather can be damaged and fail to thrive by elements that wouldn’t phase a mature tree. Just as you harden off seedlings before planting outside, so too should you harden off any new apple tree before planting.
Remember, just because you purchased the tree off a hot, scorching parking lot where the sun beat down on the tree, that is no guarantee that the tree will succeed in that continued condition. Indeed, the tree is more likely already stressed from its harsh time in the lot.
When you get your new tree home, leave it outside in a shady spot for the first few days. Monitor the tree daily for signs of leaf wilt or scorch, and slowly move the tree so that it receives more direct sunlight each day. If the tree can tolerate the conditions for 7-10 days without signs of distress, it is ready to be planted.
Try to plant on a cloudy day.
Digging and Preparing the Planting Site
Before planting a bare root tree, hydrate the roots in water for no more than 24 hours. For either a container or bare root tree, dig a hole large enough to accommodate the current root system and to give those roots some space to spread out (do not jam or force the tree in a hole that is too small or just barely big enough). Ideally, dig the hole so that it is twice the size of the root ball. Situate it so that the trunk flare is level with the ground.
Most apple trees, and other fruit trees, are grafted onto root stock. This is one of the reasons why you will not end up with a clone of the original tree if you simply plant an apple seed. Be sure that the graft union is not below the soil. Allowing the graft union to be below the soil line could cause the tree to grow a second set of roots above the graft union, leading to a much larger than intended tree.
Back fill the hole, water, and let the soil settle. Add more soil and tamp to fill the air pockets. Cover the topmost roots with at least two inches of soil. Mulch with at least four inches of shredded bark, and keep the mulch a few inches from the trunk to prevent the spread of disease. The mulch prevents the soil from drying out as quickly as it would otherwise.
To Stake, or Not to Stake
Apple trees are grafted onto different types of root stock, and sometimes the result is that the tree cannot support itself. While this may seem inefficient, and it is in some ways, there is usually a net benefit to combining the two trees.
Root stock is frequently chosen for its hardiness, disease resistance, or mature tree size. The scion, or the part of the tree we see above the soil line, will be chosen for the qualities of its fruit, bloom-time, seasonality, and bark or foliage beauty.
Compare the rootstock of your new tree to a staking chart to learn whether your tree should be permanently or temporarily staked. A permanent tree stake should be planted with the tree to avoid damaging the tree roots at a later dig.
If you have less-than-ideal soil, you can add nutrients at the time of planting to give your new apple tree a sturdy start. Do avoid adding uncomposted manure to the planting hole because it can burn the little feeder roots.
Many local nurseries sell formulations that complement local soil. When trying to trouble shoot your own yard, consider adding compost or manure to make it more loamy. Sandy can add some breathability to thick, clay soil. Lime will increase the pH of acidic soil and sphagnum moss reduces the pH of alkaline soil.
When to Plant
The season of planting depends on your location. In areas with winters that barely dip below freezing, fall planting is recommended. If you routinely have harsh winters with regular temperatures below freezing, plan to plant as soon as the ground begins to thaw in spring.
Seedling producers work on an annual cycle where the trees are harvested in the fall and then shipped out that fall or the following spring. Most growers recommend placing your tree order over summer to receive a tree in fall or early spring.
New Tree Care
The work does not end with the tree in the ground. Continued care and supervision will be needed to help your new apple tree through its first year in your yard.
Additional water requirements depend on the heat and precipitation of an area. Container-grown trees are more prone to drying out.
For the first two weeks, water the new tree every day. For the first 3 to 4 weeks, water every three days, and then water weekly through the first 12 weeks. When watering, slow water around the base of the tree. Ensure that the roots do not become water-logged; overwatering is just as detrimental to a new tree as not enough water.
The amount of water at each watering is based on the caliper of the tree trunk. A tree 1 inch in diameter takes 1.5 years to be fully established and requires 1 to 1.5 gallons of water at each watering.
Buying a much larger tree to plant does take a bigger chunk out of your wallet, and it does take more time for the tree to become full established. A 6-inch caliper apple tree takes 9 years for the roots to become established, and requires 9 gallons of water at each watering. The University of Minnesota created a water-to-caliper chart, but remember that some locations will need more or less water depending on the heat and rainfall.
Tips to Ensure Proper Watering
- Keep the backfill soil moist. This encourages the roots to venture beyond the root ball.
- Dig a small moat or reservoir around the tree (not touching the trunk) to fill with water for watering over time.
- Consider a Treegator watering bag to take the guesswork and babysitting out of tending a new apple tree.
- Do not rely on sprinklers alone.
Pest and Disease Control
It is never too early to practice good pest and disease control for your apple tree. The stress of planting can leave trees more vulnerable to many types of disease.
If you have rabbits or deer, you must immediately protect your tender tree trunk. Both animals will ravage the tree by stripping the bark, and your newly planted apple tree will most likely die. Either fence in or wrap the tree trunks, or both.
In the fall, rake up and remove any debris at the base of the tree to prevent the spread of fungus and disease and to remove a rodent habitat. Trimming grass around and between the trees also lessens the likelihood of rodents.
New trees can take years to be fully established and resilient. Until then, your new apple tree will need some extra care to ensure it is not damaged by winter conditions. Even in warmer areas, the sun can burn the unprotected tree trunks in spring, summer, or winter. The burns create cracks in the bark that can weaken the tree.
Farmers whitewash the tree trunks to reflect the light off the trunks, and the paint also adds protection against boring insects. Adding a layer of white latex paint on the south side of the trunk will prevent it from thawing in the winter sun and then refreezing, which causes cracks.
Do not prune until late winter when dormancy is nearly over. Wait until late winter or early spring to add fertilizer. Encouraging new growth at the end of the growing season creates tender new growth at a time the tree is most susceptible to disease.
Pruning – Do Not Skip It!
Pruning is like taking your tree to its dental cleaning. If you don’t do it, you will regret it soon enough. Throughout your apple tree’s life, pruning will be key to protecting it from illness and injury. Apple trees need to be pruned to encourage maximum fruit production.
Apple trees require a special pruning at the end of their first year, and failure to do it really negatively impacts the tree’s potential. It creates the template for your tree to grow into of a strong center. Pruning in subsequent years will cement the shape of the scaffolding limbs.
Selecting the Right Tree
In addition to the tips regarding choosing a tree for your climate and for the available space, also consider what your goal is with the tree? Do you want one that produces apples good for cider? Or perhaps your plan is bake fall treats. Keep in mind that different apple varieties have varying uses.
Now You Know How to Plant an Apple Tree!
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