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When to Plant Apple Trees: The Best Time for Planting

There’s an old proverb that says the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today.

When to Plant Apple Trees

While that’s great advice for motivating people to start projects, it could be a crucial mistake when it comes to actually suggesting when to plant apple trees. Read on to learn about the ideal part of the year for when to plant apple trees!

Why is Timing So Important?

Apple tree

The question of when to plant apple trees is crucial to determining if your seed will survive and be able to thrive into a full-grown tree. You could have the most fertile soil and strongest seeds, but if planted during the wrong time, they will not thrive. You’ll have to start over and invest more money.

If you plant your seeds too soon, they will not take. If you plant when the weather is too hot or too cold, then it will make it harder for your plant to thrive. 

Seeds need to be incubated in a cool, damp environment before being planted into the ground. You can create this space for them in a few ways.

Put the seeds and dirt in a seed starter tray and position them in a spot inside your home where it’s climate-controlled, but where they also get exposure to the sun. Seed starter trays are the best containers for growing seeds, but if you don’t have one, you can use a cup. 

Seeds will stay in the starter tray for a few weeks until they’ve begun sprouting. This ensures that they are strong enough to survive outside. You should also wait until the weather is the right temperature. If you’re experiencing an unexpected heat wave in the fall, then you can keep the seeds in starter trays an extra week until it breaks. 

Another way to germinate apple seeds is to wrap your apple seeds in a damp paper towel, then put the towel and seeds inside a plastic bag. Place the plastic bag, opened a little bit, in your refrigerator for six to eight weeks. Check on it every few days to make sure it maintains its dampness.  

At the end of the incubation period, you’ll hopefully find some of your seeds have started to sprout, which means they are ready to be planted in the ground. 

When do you finally plant your apple seeds outside, you can plant them in pots for a few weeks. This is an optional extra step that can keep them safe from animals looking to forage. If your garden or backyard gets many animal visitors, it may be worth doing this extra step. 

Apple Tree Seasons

Apple Trees

There are three seasons that apple trees go through in one year: Bloom, Harvest, and Dormancy. The question of when to plant apple trees relies heavily on these seasons.

Bloom

Apple trees bloom in early spring, with mid-April to mid-May being the sweet spot. Blooms depend more on the climate than the time of year, so whatever time of year you approximate will welcome in a balmy spring without any post-winter frost, that’s when you’ll see blooms. Check your planting zone to see when you’re out of the risk of frost!

Blooms only last about a week. A bloom means that your apple tree will sprout flowery buds on its branches, signaling that in a few months, those buds will be full-grown apples ready to be picked in our next season. 

Harvest

When we think of apple trees full of fruit for the picking, we’re thinking of harvest season. This is when you get to enjoy the literal fruit of your labor. The prime harvest season is late summer to mid-fall. This makes sense as this is when most orchards open their doors for picking season and when most supermarkets are flush with apples for sale. 

Different varieties of apples can have different harvest times, and it can also depend on the climate. Some will harvest in August, while others need a longer time between bloom and harvest and will be ready in October. 

The best way to determine if your apple tree is ready for harvesting is to taste one of the apples. If it’s sour, bitter, or extremely tart, then it needs a few more weeks to sweeten and ripen. 

Dormancy

Apple trees aren’t 24/7 assembly lines. Like any living thing, they need time to rest and recharge. After harvest, when apple trees are picked clean, they go dormant for a period that lasts from December through March. In this time, they don’t produce any buds or fruit. 

Apple trees need the cold climate to help flush out the hormones exercised during bloom and harvest, so that they can begin building it back up for a new season. Without dormancy and cold weather, your apple tree will not produce buds for the bloom. 

Some varieties need more chill time than others. McIntosh Apples need about 900 hours of cold weather, and more than double that is needed by Granny Smith. 

When to Plant Apple Trees

Apple Trees

Now that we’ve covered the different periods an apple tree goes through in one year, we’re left with the question of when to plant apple trees. Would they thrive best planted during the bloom, harvest, or dormancy?

The best answer to the question of when to plant apple trees? Early spring. This is between the tail end of dormancy and before the bloom season. You want to wait until the ground is thawed after the frost season is over. Getting in right after frost is ideal. The ground will be soft enough to be worked, making it easy to plant your apple seed. 

If you live in a warmer climate that’s considered Zone 7 and above, then you’ll want to wait until early fall to plant. Planting vulnerable seedlings right before a harsh summer is a recipe for disaster. Your seedlings will have a better chance of surviving the summer if they have a year in the ground under their belts first. In the US, this is best for farmers in California, the Pacific Northwest, and the Deep South. 

Hopefully, your apple seed has been incubating for a few weeks at this point and starting to sprout. That will give it a head start, making for an easier transition to the ground and a higher chance of survival. 

Don’t focus too much on official frost dates, though it is good information to have when deciding when to plant apple trees. Those are conservative, and you don’t want to lose your chance by being overly cautious. Go off your gardening gut. Only you know your own soil. Only you can tell if it’s able to be shoveled, or if it’s too hard. You can determine if it is thawed enough and soft enough to make way for plants, but make sure you know your area! If your home is prone to late frosts, it might be a good idea to follow the official recommendations.

When the soil is thawed, it can begin providing nutrients to your plant. Also, animals are still away in early spring, either hibernating or in warmer temperatures via migration. With fewer animals and birds around, your plant won’t face threats of being foraged. 

Before you plant, you may want to check on how fertile your soil is. If it’s not very fertile, then no matter what you decide about when to plant apple trees, it will have a small chance of survival. You can use pH tests and nutrient tests to gauge the acidity and mineral richness of the ground. Apple trees do best with soil that has a neutral pH, ideally 6.5 on the pH scale. 

If your soil does need more nutrients, then you can supply those with fertilizer. 

If you are planting multiple apple trees, you’ll need to think about how far about to space them. Planting multiple trees helps with cross-pollination, giving the apple trees a greater chance of blooming. You’ll want to give enough space to make way for the branches that will spring up in a few years’ time. 

Sixteen feet is the ideal amount of room between apple trees. If you’re growing dwarf varieties, you only need spacing of seven feet. In addition to giving trees space, this also helps you. You don’t want to be squeezing in tight areas when you’re trying to prune. 

Now You Know When to Plant Apple Trees!

Choosing when to plant apple trees isn’t rocket science, but it’s not something to be winged either. Being deliberate about when you plant and incubate seedlings will ensure that they make it through cold winters and hot summers to one day bear delicious apples. 

If you live in a colder climate with all four seasons, then your best bet for when to plant apple trees is in early spring once the ground thaws. But if you’re in an area where the ground doesn’t freeze in the winter, then you’ll want to wait until early fall for when to plant apple trees and thus avoid a cruel summer. 

If you’re on the fence about trying to plant an apple tree, do it! It can seem daunting to grow a fruit tree in your garden, but it’s not as difficult as you’re imagining. Millions of apple trees are planted annually across the world, and they bear lots of delicious fruit in personal gardens and backyards. Explore our complete guide to growing apple trees to learn more.