Every summer when my neighbor’s Annas and Golden Dorsets would bow under the weight of their fruits and their heavenly scent wafted down the street, he’d call us to pick apples. I don’t honestly remember picking many apples. I remember eating them. I remember the entire street smelling like my other neighbor’s famous apple cake—the one with the nutmeg and pecans. I also remember pestering him every week for the next two months about the horse apples. About the size of a clementine, these little tart apples possess an unforgettable taste that you can’t find in a grocery store. I lived for those apples.
Today, I grow my own.
Faithfully tended year after year, apple trees become part of the family. They grow slowly with care and time. They don’t shoot up overnight. They won’t fill your freezer in their first year or even their first four years. The first time they bloom you’ll throw a party and watching those first apples mature will become a daily obsession. In time, they’ll fill your pantry.
As times passes and your apple harvest grows, you may want to get a stall at the farmer’s market or donate part of your harvest to the local food pantry or a church.
Regardless, apples are one of the most rewarding fruits to grow. I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I have.
Understanding Scions and Rootstocks
Although apple seeds will sprout and eventually grow into trees, these heterozygous fruits rarely reproduce true to type. The odds of anyone saving gala apple trees, planting them, and growing a tree that produces delicious gala apples exactly like the one they bought five to ten years ago are slim. Whether they’re in a commercial orchard or a backyard, most apple trees are vegetatively propagated through grafting or budding.
Choosing a scion—the fruiting portion of your apple tree, which is also called the cultivar—and a rootstock is choosing two different trees. They just happen to occupy the same hole.
When you’re pouring over charts detailing bloom periods, flavor profiles, chill hours, and storage abilities, these charts are all about the scion. Some scions boast disease resistance to the dreaded fire blight and other diseases. Although disease resistance and virus free scions are important to your orchard’s overall production potential, it’s important to remember that the scion doesn’t influence the rootstock. The rootstock influences the scion.
The scion gets the following characteristics from its rootstock:
- disease resistance,
- height at maturity,
- fruiting age, also called precocity,
- drought tolerance,
- cold hardiness (in part),
- and soil preference.
Common rootstocks include M.9 (dwarf), M.7a (semi-dwarf), MM.111 (a larger semi-dwarf), and seedling (standard). Keep in mind that dwarf and smaller semi-dwarf rootstocks are more precocious than MM.111 or standard rootstocks.
Dwarf rootstocks, including M.9, require permanent trellis systems. In commercial systems, these trees often demand more intensive management and more frequent replacement. However, they’re lower to the ground and often don’t require ladders.
Some rootstocks are more prone to suckering than others. Suckers—the shoots from the base of the tree below the graft line—are a maintenance issue. The more your rootstock produces, the more you have to prune.
See the USDA’s Characteristics of Apple Rootstocks and Penn State’s Apple Rootstocks: Capabilities and Limitations to learn more about commonly available rootstocks. Why Apple Rootstocks discusses how different rootstocks perform in various soils and temperatures. Then contact your local extension agent or orchardist or your apple tree nursery. Tell them about your soil type, climate, and any recent droughts and let them help you make the best choice for your area.
Quick Tip: To estimate your tree’s maximum height, find its size on the USDA’s Characteristics of Apple Rootstock chart and multiply the percentage by 25. For example, MM.111 rootstock’s size is 80-85%.
25 x 0.8 = 20 ft
Years ago, I began my apple growing adventure searching for M.7a trees. After a long discussion with the excellent orchardist/apple tree nursery recommended by my county extension agent, I started my orchard with two MM.111 trees. Why? My county exports Georgia red clay, and we’ve experienced several droughts in recent years. I traded early apples for a more drought-resistant rootstock that doesn’t hate my dirt.
Tree Size and Life Expectancy
Within fifteen years, a high-density apple grower will yank out and replace every tree in their orchard. Partly, this is due to the lifespan of their dwarf rootstock. The other piece of the pie is changing market tastes.
Here’s the thing. The smaller the apple tree, the shorter its lifespan. There are reports of well-cared-for standard apple trees living upwards of 100 years. A standard apple tree will feed your grandchildren.
Semi-dwarf and standard apple trees don’t need permanent trellises. However, you won’t pick many apples without a sturdy ladder. You’ll need to weigh the costs of a trellis system, the advantages and disadvantages afforded by available rootstocks, and any concerns you may have about ladders.
|Type||Size as Percent||Size in Feet||Lifespan|
|Dwarf||30% – 60%||6 ft – 12 ft||15 – 20 years|
|Semi-dwarf||60% – 90%||14 ft – 22 ft||20 – 25 years|
|Standard||100%||24 ft – 30 ft||35 + years*|
* The Bramley apple tree is over 200-years old.
What About High-Density Orchards
High-density orchards require more intensive management practices and incur higher risks than lower density orchards. By planting dwarf trees, a high-density grower can see a return on their investment in half the time a more conventional grower will. Within a seven-year period, they’ll experience greater profits because their trees produce years earlier than their competition. Add in upwards of 1000 trees per acre and high-density orchards will experience better cash flows than low-density orchards.
However, these gains occur at wholesale prices. They also assume that they’ll be profitable during the early years, which is when your trees produce their worst fruit. These plantings are more prone to cold damage. Getting started requires a greater investment in trees, permanent trellis systems, chemicals, and fertilizers.
Due to their reliance on wholesale prices and their assumptions about falling wholesale prices, the financial analyses I reviewed all reward quantity over quality. Most of these apples are destined for applesauce jars, not the produce aisle.
Trees per acre in a high-density planting also varies greatly according to the region. Some Pacific Northwest orchards plant 5,000-9,000 trees per acre while NC State only recommends 450-600 trees for a high-density southeast orchard.
Due to the higher costs and intensive management, high-density plantings using wire supports and slender spindle pruning are not appropriate for home gardeners.
For small growers focused on direct to consumer sales, including farmer’s markets and CSAs, you need to weigh the higher short and medium-term costs against cumulative profits 20 years down the road.
More traditionally spaced orchards are both cheaper to establish and require less training and pruning, meaning they’re easier to manage. If you’re looking to add apples to your CSA baskets or put away a year’s supply of applesauce, a high-density apple orchard is likely not a good investment of your time and money.
Planning Your Apple Orchard
Don’t go into this thinking you’ll grow Honeycrisp apples in Mississippi on Annas in New York. Before you start investigating potential cultivars, check your chill hours. See “Know Your Chill Hours, the Fruit Grower’s First Rule” for more information.
Even though some apples are self-fertile, meaning they do not require a pollinizer, even self-fertile apples produce higher yields when planted with a pollinizer. You’ll need at least 2 varieties of apples or 1 apple and 1 crabapple that both bloom at the same time. If you want apples throughout the summer and fall, you should either focus your attention on cultivars with good storage potential or chart out each cultivar’s harvest time. Selecting a combination of summer and fall harvested apples will extend your apple season. Just make sure each cultivar pairs up with another (pollinizer).
If you opt to plant a crabapple tree, pay close attention to their bloom times and disease resistance. Some crabapples are more susceptible to fire blight. Be advised that you will only need 1 crab apple every 50 – 100’. Crabapples are a natural source of pectin. If you love making jams and jellies, try using homemade pectin. It adds an extra flavor note to your favorite strawberry jam.
For typical orchard layouts, see Planning and Establishing Commercial Apple Orchards in Wisconsin, page 9.
For centuries, apples were a regional affair. Arkansas Blacks filled root cellars, Esopus Spitzenbergs won tasting contests, and South Carolinians turned Father Abrahams into amazing cider. While the market homogenized and moved towards Fijis, Red Delicious, Galas, and recently Honeycrisps, some growers and gardeners kept their tried and true heirlooms alive and continued developing new cultivars with regional flares.
For market gardeners, heirloom apples offer several things the popular cultivars can’t. One, these apples have stories. You are not selling grocery store Gala apples. You are selling Roxbury Russets, America’s oldest apple with roots stretching back to the 1600s. Two, these apples often offer anecdotal disease resistance. Just don’t expect to find any research studies for non-standard cultivars. Three, they’re adapted to your climate. Four, more complex flavor profiles and the ability to offer cultivars suited for fresh eating, sauce making, and/or cooking will appeal to budding home cooks and gourmets.
Location and Site Preparation
If available, choose a south facing slope with a grade between 4% and 8% with full sunlight. If your land is flat, select an area with full sunlight. Apple trees appreciate well-drained soils. Do not plant trees in areas with periodic standing water.
If spring frosts damaging delicate blooms are a concern, review Methods of Freeze Protection for Fruit Crops and consider installing a sprinkler system.
Clear the land and then disc or till it as you would a vegetable garden. Test your soil’s nutrients, pH, and organic matter. Nematode tests are recommended in some areas. Consult your local extension office’s recommendations for establishing an apple orchard and amend your soil accordingly.
If necessary, install an irrigation system. Determining Your Irrigation Schedule provides a good overview of your orchard’s needs. In general, apple trees need about 1” of water every week. If you don’t install an irrigation system, plan how you’ll water during a dry spell. Rain barrels and water hoses are both good options.
Adjust the pH to between 5.8 and 6.8.
Planting Bareroot Apple Trees
Some nurseries sell 2, 3, 4, and even 5-year-old bearing age apple trees. Be patient. Don’t expect instant gratification. Stick with 1-year-old whips. Older trees are more likely to suffer from transplant shock and die. If they survive, they’ll still need several years before they adapt to their new home and begin producing apples. They’re not worth the added expense and risks.
Plant apple trees after the soil thaws and about 2-4 weeks before your last spring frost. If fall trees are available, plant them a few weeks after your first fall frost. In warmer areas (zones 8 and 9), you can plant apple trees throughout the winter. However, Zone 9 growers will find their selections limited to Annas, Golden Dorsets, and other extremely low chill cultivars.
Once your trees arrive, carefully unwrap them. Don’t be disappointed if they look like twigs with a few roots! Keep the roots moist with damp peat moss or wet newspapers. Plant your trees within a few days of receipt.
On planting day, prune broken roots and trim long ones until they’re between 12 and 18 inches long. Soak the roots in a bucket of water for an hour or two.
Eyeball your tree roots and dig a hole about 2’ wider than the tips of the roots and about 8”-12” deeper than needed for the roots to the graft line. (The graft line is often marked by a piece of black grafting tape or a healed bump.)
If your area has voles, dig the extra 4” and add 4” of gravel to the bottom of the hole. Add compost if desired.
Spread out the roots and plant the tree, so the soil is about 2” below the graft line. Do not bury the graft! Tamp the dirt. Then add a couple of gallons of water. Watch the soil around the trunk. If a depression forms, add more dirt. If the tree sinks, gently wiggle it until it the graft line is once again in the right position.
To protect the tree from mice and rabbits, split a 16” long piece of 4” black drain pipe (the kind with the holes) down the side and slide it over the trunk. Alternatively, bend a 16” by 12 ½” piece of hardware cloth into 16” long cylinder and slip it over the trunk.
If your trees don’t require a trellis system, drive in a 2×2 stake and tie the tree to the stake with number 9 wire or an old clothesline. Thread a piece of old water hose on the wire to protect the trunk. Don’t use any material that will stretch! Otherwise, secure them to the trellis.
Row Spacing: 2X the distance between trees
Tree Spacing: 25’ for standard apple trees, 16’ for semi-dwarf, and 8’ for dwarf
Note, the above tree spacings are guidelines. Consult Table 2 of Apple Rootstocks and Tree Spacing for the spacing for your specific rootstock.
A Word About Deer
To deer, baby apple trees are food. Really amazing food that they will mow down without a second’s hesitation even if there’s a cornfield next door. In the long term, plan on building a deer fence. In the short term, bend hoops of 6’ welded wire fencing into circles 6’ to 8’ across. Stake these hoops around your newly planted trees.
Regardless of age, inspect your apple trees regularly for signs of disease, particularly fire blight, and pests. Prune any infected branches immediately. Always maintain good hygiene and disinfect your pruning shears between each cut.
Apply herbicides and mulches as needed to control weeds. Avoid weed-whacking or tilling near young trees. Maintain 4” of mulch and replenish as needed.
Treat pests as needed.
Before your trees break dormancy bud out in the spring, apply Bordeaux mixture. This old-fashioned fungicide and bactericide remains one of the better defenses against fire blight. Wear a respirator, gloves, goggles, and long sleeves during both mixing and spraying. Hydrated lime, sometimes sold as pickling lime, is extremely caustic.
As new limbs come in, use clothespins to spread young limbs (1/4” around). This will make the limbs easier to spread during pruning.
Apply ½ lb of 12-12-12 fertilizer per tree around the edge of the planting hole about 1 month after planting.
Remove all early fruits. Yes, this means remove all your apples before they reach the size of a marble.
When the tree begins budding out, apply 1 lb of 12-12-12 fertilizer per tree at the edge of the tree canopy.
Remove all early fruits.
Year Three and Subsequent Years
Apply fertilizer as in year 2. If your tree’s limbs didn’t grow 12-18” in the previous year, increase the fertilizer. If they grew more than that, decrease it.
In year three, remove all early fruits from the central leader. Thin apples as discussed below.
If a frost damages the blossoms, skip the fertilizer. Otherwise, when your tree’s in full bloom, apply fertilizer as you did during its pre-bearing years except plan for 6”-12” of growth.
Consider getting a leaf analysis during bearing years. Calcium, boron, copper, and zinc are all important to apple development. You can add a few tablespoons of these trace elements to your annual fertilizer, but its best to check if you need them first.
In May or early June, depending on your climate, your trees will naturally drop little marble-sized fruits. This is normal, especially if you experienced a heavy bloom. After this natural drop, thin the apples to 1 per cluster and no less than 6” apart. Unless it’s damaged, always select the largest apple in the cluster.
Use a 10% bleach solution with a few drops of dish soap to disinfect your pruning shears between cuts. Never use undisinfected shears. These can spread diseases.
Prune your trees during the winter after their leaves fall and they go dormant. Although some older sources recommend summer pruning, modern sources find little benefit to the practice.
The central leader remains the most common (and easiest) pruning system for home gardeners and small market farmers. If you’re interested in a more decorative approach, try an espalier. High-density orchards frequently use a variant of the slender spindle. For more details on the central leader system, including year-by-year diagrams, see Pruning Apples and Pears in Home Fruit Plantings.
Use 1×2 strips of lumber with a finishing nail sticking out of each end to spread the limbs. You can also tie them to concrete blocks and gradually move the block away from the trunk.
Zero bees equals zero apples. Unless you’re already into beekeeping, focus your efforts on attracting and keeping native bees. Importing honey bees will actually depress your property’s native bee population because they compete for the same food sources. Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees is a good starting point. Mason bees are particularly effective. Just don’t import them from outside your region. They won’t survive.
Once your apples begin changing color or ripening on the tree, pick one and conduct a taste test.
If you have standard or semi-dwarf trees, invest in a sturdy tripod orchard ladder, preferably aluminum. Observe the usual safety precautions. Remember, moving the ladder is better than breaking an arm.
Hand pick ripe apples and place them gently into wooden or plastic bins. Handle them gently so you don’t bruise the fruit.
Store apples at 32⁰F, 90 – 95% relative humidity. They should keep for 2-5 months, depending on the cultivar.
Controlled-atmosphere (CA) and plant growth regulators can extend the storage life of your apples. However, these methods incur additional expenses. Post-harvest plant growth regulators may not be suitable for your cultivar.
At the Market
Display your apples in a shaded place. Mist them regularly. Avoid displaying more apples than you believe you’ll sell.
Use the less perfect fruits for applesauce, cider, and juice bags. If permitted, you can also offer fresh-squeezed apple juice samples.
Some customers expect shiny apples. If you don’t have organic certification, talk about how natural your apples are and discuss what you spray on them and what you don’t.
If you grow old heirlooms, don’t forget to share their stories with your customers.
If you harvested more than you eat over the next few months, break out the dehydrator and make apple chips. You can also freeze them or can them as home-made apple pie filling, apple jelly, and applesauce.
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