An apple a day keeps the doctor away. That might be a horrible cliché, but growing apple trees in your garden really is a wonderful way to make sure you and your family stay happy and healthy. Growing these plants in your garden could be a great way to expand your home-grown diet, without having to spend hours maintaining your garden.
Learning when to plant an apple tree is a key part of successfully cultivating these attractive and productive plants. Armed with this knowledge you will find that, unlike other fruit trees, these specimens are surprisingly easy to grow. Once established these attractive specimens pretty much take care of themselves. Select the right variety and plant it in a favorable position and, with just a little care, the plant will produce an abundance of fruit for many years to come.
These attractive specimens add both height and interest to the garden.
The apple tree (Malus domestica) originated in Central Asia, where one can still find its wild ancestor Malus sieversii. These fruits have been grown for thousands of years throughout Asia and Europe, and were brought by early European colonists to North America.
The first orchard was planted on North American soil by William Blaxton in 1625. (Though crab or common apples are a native species). Cultivars brought as seed from Europe were spread along Native American trade routes as well as being cultivated on American homesteads. John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, was a nurseryman who introduced the fruit to many states and he is viewed as a key figure in the history of the fruit in North America.
Though not native to North America, apples have come to play an integral part in the image of America and the ‘American psyche’. By the 1940s, the phrase ‘as American as apple pie’ had been coined.
If you want to add a couple of fruiting plants to your garden, this guide will take you through everything that you need to know, including when to plant apple trees.
Where and When to Plant an Apple Tree
Thinking about growing apple trees? Learn how to grow an apple tree from a seed in our detailed guide. Here, an apple tree partly in full sun, partly shaded, in a forest garden.
Before you learn when to plant an apple tree for your garden, it is important to consider whether or not these attractive specimens are suitable for cultivation in your area. Luckily, the wide variety of available cultivars means that there are suitable varieties for most temperate climate gardens. However, in order for your apple tree to flourish it will need to be planted in a suitable position.
Try to position your chosen specimen in a sunny and relatively sheltered spot, away from any frost pockets. While these plants prefer a sheltered position in full sun, they can tolerate a fair amount of shade and may even benefit from some shade during the warmest summer months. As a general rule, aim to plant an apple tree somewhere where it will get at least half a day’s sunshine during the fruit ripening period.
These plants do best in soil that drains well but not too quickly. This gives the roots time to absorb as much moisture as they need without the risk of developing root rot. While there are a number of ways to improve clay or heavy soil, if your site is prone to waterlogging or flooding, or has particularly shallow soil, then these plants are probably not the best choice.
Aim to plant your apple tree in soil that is loamy and well-draining to a depth of at least 2 ft.
As well as considering how well your soil drains, when deciding if these plants are the right choice for your garden, you should also think about the pH of your soil. Apples prefer an acidic to neutral soil. They typically thrive planted in soil that has a pH of between 5.8 and 7.0. If you are unsure, a soil test kit will tell you the condition of your soil as well as the pH levels. This information enables you to make any necessary amendments before planting.
Another consideration is the location of any overhead obstacles. While dwarf and small cultivars rarely pose a problem, taller specimens can interfere with power lines or cables. Your chosen site should be free of any potential overhead problems.
If your soil conditions are not ideal for growing apples, don’t be too disheartened. You may still be able to plant an apple tree. Dwarf varieties can be just as attractive and productive and are suitable for growing in containers and planters.
Of course, one more thing to consider when researching where and when to plant an apple tree is whether or not you and your family will actually use the fruit. There is no point in planting anything in your garden that you will not actually use when harvest time comes around.
Choosing an Apple Tree
When considering a fruit tree for your garden, it may be tempting to simply plant a pip and wait for it to grow. However, trees grown from pips, or seeds, rarely grow true to type. Plants grown from the seeds of even the most delicious fruit may be small and disappointing. There is also a chance that the fruit will be inedible. This is because there is a huge amount of genetic diversity within the apple family and many of the apples sold in stores are grown from hybrids or by grafting two specimens together. This range of genetic diversification is also the reason why there are so many modern cultivars to choose from.
Choosing the right specimen can be a somewhat confusing process. The first and most important thing to understand is that since seeds will not produce a reliable result. Almost all modern cultivars are created through a method known as grafting.
Grafting is a process by which the rootstock of one tree is joined to the top section (scion) or a different one. This process results in healthy and productive plants that consistently produce edible fruit.
The rootstock that is used on a grafted apple tree determines how vigorous the specimen will grow as well as its mature size. While some rootstocks can create a dwarfing habit, other rootstocks can encourage the plants to develop in a certain shape. They can also be used to modify disease resistance.
When choosing your plant, it is important, therefore, to consider how much space you have available in your garden, as well as your other growing and planting requirements. All of this information should be taken into account when deciding which specimen is right for your garden.
Different Cultivars and Varieties
This cultivar offers cooking apples.
There are literally thousands of different cultivars and varieties available for you to either grow from seed or purchase as a young sapling, ready for planting.
The properties of the fruit that you grow are largely determined by the scion plant that it used on the grafted apple tree. Cultivars for apples that you can grow are largely divided into two main categories – eating or dessert apples, and cooking (or cider) apples. In certain circles, these two types have been eloquently described as ‘biters’ and ‘spitters’. (Dessert apples need full sun, ideally, while cooking apples can cope with less sun.) But which of these two categories the fruits belong to is only one of the things to consider when choosing a suitable specimen for your garden.
Other key points to consider include:
- The taste and texture of the fruits. Try to choose a fruit that appeals to your taste. There is no point spending all this time and effort growing fruit if you are not going to eat it.
- How easy the fruits are to store as well as how long they can be stored for. Some types keep much better than others.
- Disease resistance. While older heritage or heirloom varieties often have a better flavor, many modern cultivars are more disease resistant.
When choosing cultivars, one thing to consider is that you can help to protect modern diversity in food production by opting for heritage varieties and keeping the apple’s genetic diversity alive. Even though there are thousands of cultivars, commercial production is rather more limited. Commercial growers tend to focus their growing efforts on the few varieties which produce long lasting, commercially viable fruit. This lack of diversity can bring problems, and make food production more precarious. As a home gardener, you can do your part in improving the sustainability of the fruit by growing more unusual varieties in your garden.
When selecting any plant, it is always a good idea to choose cultivars that grow locally. These are more likely to be suited to the conditions where you live. These are more likely to succeed in your garden and are less likely to require any extra care or attention.
If you are unsure which variety to select, don’t be afraid to ask the experts at local plant nurseries or garden centers. Other gardeners, especially people with allotments or fruit trees, are also a rich source of useful information.
Grafted trees are usually sold as named cultivars by garden centers, plant nurseries or online suppliers. Order bare root trees for best results. While the plants can be ordered at any time of year they are usually dispatched when they are ready for planting.
Plant More Than One Specimen to Increase your Yield
When planting for food or fruit, it is important to consider the yield of the plant. To encourage a large yield it is recommended that you plant more than one apple tree, ideally from a different cultivar that flowers at the same time. This is because, in order for fruit to form, the flowers must first be pollinated.
Domestic plants can be pollinated by wild specimens that are growing close by. However, the best way to encourage a healthy yield is to plant more than one specimen.
The flowers are pollinated by insects. When you plant your apple tree, consider adding some companion plants that encourage pollinators. Some of the best companion plants include nasturtiums, rosemary and lavender.
Bug hotels are another great way to encourage more beneficial insects to your garden.
A row of plants encourages pollination and improves yield.
When To Plant an Apple Tree
Like many other plants, these specimens are best planted when they are dormant. This is usually from late fall, once flowering and fruit production has ended for the winter, until early in the spring, ideally before new growth starts to emerge. Your soil should be workable.
When you are ready to plant, try to wait for a cool, dry and sunny day. These conditions are less likely to overly stress the plant during the transplanting process.
Once you have selected and purchased your ideal plant, aim to plant it out as soon as possible. Do not allow the root system to dry out.
How To Plant an Apple Tree
Now that you know where and when to plant an apple tree, the next step is learning how to plant it correctly.
After selecting and hardening off your selected specimen, the next important stage of learning when to plant an apple tree is preparing the planting area. Make sure that your selected site is clear of weeds.
Any amendments should be worked into the soil about 2 weeks before planting. This gives the soil time to settle and avoids the risk of burning or damaging the sensitive root system.
If you are planting your specimen in the center of the lawn, remember to completely kill the grass beforehand. The easiest way to do this is to place cardboard over the intended planting area. Combining the cardboard with a layer of organic mulch not only kills the grass but also breaks down, enriching the soil in the process. You can also build up a growing area around your new trees using the ‘lasagna’ method. Just be sure not to allow the mulch to rest around the trunk of the sapling, as this could cause it to rot.
When you are ready to plant, dig a large hole in the soil. The hole should be wide enough to hold the entire root system without compacting or squashing it. To check that your hole is deep enough, place the sapling in the center of the hole. The top of the root system should be in line with the soil level. If your soil has drainage issues, plant so that the top of the root system is slightly above soil level. This encourages excess water to drain away from the plant.
After positioning the sapling in the hole, backfill with a mix of fresh soil and compost. As you fill the hole, you may wish to add some mycorrhizal fungi. This helps the sapling to settle more quickly.
When the hole is filled, firm the soil down to remove any air pockets. Be careful not to compact the soil, this can impact on drainage.
Once planted, your sapling should be upright. Support, such as a Dalen Tree Stake Kit, is an easy to install way to support a young sapling. It is particularly useful if you are planting in an exposed position and want to be sure that your sapking will grow up to be straight and healthy.
After installing your support, water well.
When planting more than one specimen, ensure that the saplings are correctly spaced out. Planting too closely together can cause plants to become entwined or may stunt growth. It can also have a detrimental impact on airflow around the plants. If air struggles to circulate diseases such as powdery mildew are more likely to form.
Planting in a Pot
If you want to plant an apple tree in a pot, you will need to select a large pot. A large pot not only gives the roots room to spread and develop, it is also more stable when the plant is laden with fruit and potentially top heavy.
Ideally the pot should be at least 18 inches wide or have a capacity of 10 to 15 gallon or 38 to 57 Liters. You can plant an apple tree in a more modest pot, but it will require more frequent watering and fertilization. The pot should have ample drainage holes in the bottom.
Placing the pot on a Metal Plant Caddy, enables you to easily move it around your garden. Ideally, the pot should be placed on the plant caddy before you fill it with soil and it becomes difficult to lift.
Fill the pot with fresh, well balanced potting soil. Plant as described above.
After Planting Care and Pruning
When you have planted the sapling, it is time to turn your attention to encouraging a good branch framework to form. This is particularly important if you are growing in a container.
Prune your young fruit tree by cutting back any long shoots by a third to two thirds, depending on their starting length. This early pruning encourages branching. It also prevents any branches that do form from becoming overly long or weak.
Early pruning is a long term investment in the health of your tree. While it may discourage flowering and fruit production in the first year, in the long term your plant will grow to be healthy and sturdy.
Regularly water your sapling after planting. Do not let the soil dry out. At the same time you don’t want to overly soak your plant, drowning the roots and potentially causing root rot. A soil moisture sensor helps you to accurately gauge the ideal time to water your plants.
Regular care and pruning encourages the sapling to become strong and productive.
General Care & Pruning
When establishing themselves in their new position, plants require regular watering. The soil should also be kept clear and weed free. A layer of mulch around the tree helps soil moisture retention as well as discouraging weed growth. Just make sure that the mulch isn’t touching the trunk, this can cause disease to form.
Like other fruit trees, apples require regular fertilization to encourage both healthy growth and fruit production. The best time to fertilize established specimens is in the spring. While you can continue to apply fertilizer throughout the summer months, it is advised that you cease applying fertilizers high in nitrogen by early July. Too much nitrogen can cause excess leaf production, usually at the expense of flowering and fruit yield.
Just after planting, put a little bone meal or a starter fertilizer in your watering can and soak into the soil. Aim to apply the water as evenly as possible around the tree. Once the plant is established, and new growth is visible, apply a fruit tree appropriate, balanced fertilizer evenly around the trunk.
When young, up until about 3 years of age, saplings typically grow at least one foot a year. If this growth rate isn’t being achieved, increase the amount of fertilizer you apply in the second or third year by up to 50%. Once trees are 4 years old, growth slows to an average of 6 inches per year. If this isn’t achieved, continue to apply an extra dose of fertilizer.
When applying the fertilizer, ensure that you cover the entire root system. This can extend 1 and a half times past the tree canopy. When you fertilize, start to apply the product 1 ft away from the trunk and continue to apply well beyond the drip line.
Liquid fertilizers can be incorporated into watering routings. Alternatively, a slow release, evenly balanced, granular fertilizer can be scattered evenly around the plant.
An apple tree guild in a forest garden.
Create an Apple Tree Guild
To further promote healthy growth and productivity, why not replace grass and competing weeds with a guild of beneficial plants?
Some of the most beneficial plants include comfrey, borage, yarrow and alliums such as garlic or shallots. Aromatic herbs are also useful, helping the soil to store nutrients while repelling pests and attracting beneficial insects and pollinators.
When plants are established, you can underplant the empty soil with perennial shrubs to form an understory. Planting a range of plants of different heights and spreads enables you to make the most of your space.
Pruning Apple Trees
Like many other plants, these specimens are best pruned during their dormant period. In most parts of the northern hemisphere, this is between November and March. Wait until the foliage has fallen from the tree before pruning. While pruning in the fall is common, you can also prune in early spring, before any new growth has emerged. The best time to prune depends on where you live, and the conditions that are to be found locally. The timing of these events can not only vary depending on the climate in your area, but will also vary according to weather conditions year on year.
In my personal experience, it is best to prune apple trees after the worst of the winter weather has passed, but before the spring. Pruning in late-winter/ early-spring will make it less likely that your plants will encounter any problems with disease or rot, which can set in when pruning cuts are made. As plants grow and develop you may need to invest in specialized garden tools such as loppers.
When pruning, try to remove any dead, damaged or diseased wood. You should also prune for shape and size. Aim to encourage free-standing plants to develop an open canopy. Plants can also be pruned to stand espaliered against a wall where space is tight.
Pruning for Health
The first reason to prune apple trees is for the health of the tree. A healthy tree, stripped of dead or damaged branches, is not only better able to flower and produce well formed fruit, it is also more likely to produce a bigger yield towards the end of the growing season.
Begin pruning by removing any branches that are rubbing against one another. This prevents damage such as bark from wearing away, creating an entry point for pests and disease. Cutting back growth to a degree can also improve the health of your apple trees by encouraging them to put more effort into growing fruit rather than an excess of foliage. By thinning out the canopy of the plant, you also ensure that sunlight reaches the heart of the tree. Again this encourages a larger yield to form.
Pruning for Size
Another reason to prune apple trees is to reduce their size. This may be for their own health, as they may be outstripping the local resources. It may also be for our own reasons – to reduce the shade cast on surrounding growing areas, for example, or to maintain a view from the windows of our homes.
Pruning for Shape
The third and final reason to prune apple trees is for shape. Where space is limited, or at a premium, apple trees can be shaped to form a low hedge, trained into a fan shape or espaliered against a wall. While, where possible, it is usually better to allow an apple tree shape to develop more or less naturally, in certain situations, pruning and training for shape can provide a valuable solution for home growers.
In this image you can see the basket I use to collect fruits.
Depending on the variety and local growing conditions, apples are usually ready to harvest between July and October. Planting a combination of early, mid season and late varieties helps to extend your harvest period.
To see whether your fruit is ready to harvest, gently cup it in the palm of your hand. Push and twice the fruit gently, in an upwards motion. If the apple comes away easily from the tree, it is ripe and ready to harvest.
Dessert apples can obviously be eaten fresh, straight from the trees that produce fruit. If you have more than you can eat, however, some can also be stored in a cool, dry place over winter. You could also consider:
- Preserving by canning, or making into jams, jellies or chutneys.
Eating apples, of course, can also be treated in these ways. They can also be used to make a wide range of different culinary treats, from the traditional apple pie to crumbles and cakes, soups and stews, and a plethora of other sweet and savory recipes.
Learning when to plant an apple tree is a vital skill if you are looking to establish a healthy and productive garden. Fruit trees not only provide you with a source of healthy, organic food but also benefit your garden and local wildlife population.
Elizabeth Waddington is a smallholder, permaculture designer and environmental consultant. When not designing food producing systems or advising growers around the world, she is to be found in her own garden. On her 1/3 of an acre patch of land she has a walled forest garden orchard (home to rescue chickens), a polyculture vegetable plot, a polytunnel, wildlife pond, wild woodland garden and more and is working every day towards greater self-sufficiency. She is passionate about sustainability and loves to inspire others about the wonderful things home gardeners can do for people and planet.