How to Grow Apple Trees in Your Back (or Front) Yard

Apples form the basis of folklore. ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ is a well-known phrase.   Though this may be something of an exaggeration, apples are a healthy addition to children’s lunch boxes, perhaps even to give to their favourite teacher?  A staple food throughout history, an apple was the biblical fruit with which Eve tempted Adam.  You can use apples to eat as they are, to make lovely puddings including the folk standard of apple pie, or to be turned into cider.

Apples are simply the crop that keeps on giving, and their beautiful blossoms are the first sign of spring.  There are many types and varieties of apples.  For eating they can be crisp and green, or full bodied, red and juicy. Many varieties are grown for cooking.  Apples provide a sweet tasting nutritious treat, and are a great source of Vitamin C and antioxidants, as well as a healthy source of energy.

Planting Apple Trees

When growing apple trees, your first consideration is the spot you intend to place them in.  Apple trees love full sun, particularly in the early morning.  In the spring, the roots must be warm enough to produce the fruit that forms after apple blossom.  Any areas that sustain frost after winter should be avoided.  This means they need to be placed away from shade – of high fences, of buildings and even of other trees, including apple trees.

Young apple saplings will suffer if they have too much competition, both for nutrients in the soil, and for sunshine.  If you have enough space for several apple trees, then ensure you allow at least 15 feet (about 5 metres) between each tree.  The roots of apple trees will not withstand being immersed in water, so always plant them in soil that drains well.  Typically, apple trees like soil PH of about 6.5.

When to Plant Apple Trees

Organic Fruit Growing: Your Complete Guide to Producing Fruit All Year Round, by Annette McFarlene

‘Organic Fruit Gardening’ by popular radio presenter Annette McFarlane was released by Gardening Australia in 2011.

Choose a sapling that is about a year old, and about 4 to 6 feet high (1.2 – 2 metres).  If the roots are dry, soak them for a day before planting.  Apple trees flourish in areas that have no competition for nutrients or water, and even grass needs to be cleared before planting. Remove all weeds, and also any grass within about a four feet (1.2m) circle diameter of your tree.

Though you can plant saplings at any time, it is best that you plant your young apple tree between late autumn and the middle of summer. Note that if you are planting a bare-rooted tree (a tree without dirt on around it’s roots), it should be planted out before the Spring growth starts.

To decide how deep the hole needs to be, consider the size of the root ball. A fair assessment can be made by looking at the pot that contains the sapling – usually, they are in 5 or 10 gallon pots. Then dig a hole to accommodate the roots. The hole should be twice the diameter of the root ball, and about two feet (0.6m) deep.

Loosen the Soil

Always loosen up the soil as apple tree roots need to penetrate the soil to thrive.  After inserting the roots, throw some loose soil in.  As you fill in the hole, try to remove air pockets without tamping down the soil too densely.   Then always water well after planting. Do not add fertilizer this early in the growing process, as you risk burning the roots before they become well established.

Now mulch around the roots. Mulching ensures the establishing apple tree roots have adequate moisture, and are not in competition with grass or weeds.  Newly planted fruit trees should be mulched annually for the first three or four years with bulky organic matter, like garden compost or leaf mould, in mid spring through to autumn.

When to Feed and Prune

Annual feeding of your tree in early Spring or late Autumn ensures a healthy crop of fruit follows on from beautiful spring blossom.  Bone meal or fish blood and bone is a good organic food for apple trees.

Start pruning the tree by removing all suckers.  These are thin shoots which grow from the base of the trunk, and are not fruit bearing.  They spoil the shape of the tree and leach out its energy – hence the name ‘suckers’.  Prune them back with secateurs.  This will give you a better overview of the shape of your tree, in order to continue with pruning.  Apple trees grow in various shapes – even espaliered along a fence or wall. A young tree needs little extra pruning.

Once your apple tree is a few years old, you can also prune the youngest branches in summer, which will slow growth – once your apple tree is well established you will want to keep it to a manageable size. According to Peter Cundall, while generations of gardeners have pruned their trees in the dormancy of winter, this is no longer considered best practice, as it only encourages new growth that you will have to prune back the following winter, to keep your tree manageable. Additionally, wounds heal more quickly when the tree is growing.

You can also completely cut out branches growing into the centre canopy at any time, training the tree into a vase shape, which looks attractive and also allows better air circulation and more sunlight to reach the fruit. As the new apples grow, thin them out when they are very small – about the size of a raspberry. Remaining fruits should be about four to six inches (10 – 15 cms) apart. This will ensure the resultant crop is healthy, but also that the branches will not be weighed down with too many apples.

When your tree is established, by frequent removal of dry apples and any dead or diseased wood, you will prolong its life. Always remove fallen apples and leaves from the base of the tree as if they are allowed to remain through the winter, they may harbour pests and diseases.

The application of natural insecticides and fungicides will also protect your crop – a friend of mine with a thriving orchard recommends using a spray of liquid seaweed (2 ounces per gallon of water), mixed with milk (2 ounces per gallon of water).

Choosing Varieties

Fuji Apple tree with one apple ripening

This Fuji apple tree is growing in our editor’s front yard, along with two compatible varieties.

Apple Trees do not self-pollinate, and most need to cross pollinate with a different variety.

Not all varieties can cross-pollinate each other. Varieties such as Granny Smith, Lodi, Gala, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, and Empire are considered to be self-fruitful but may produce very little fruit unless cross-pollinated.  Gravenstein and Jonagold apples, crisp and sweet apples famous in cooking sauces and baking dishes, can be pollinated by Gala, Red Delicious, and Fuji apple varieties.

On the other hand, there are some varieties like the Mutsu, Greening, Rhode Island, and Winesap which may not produce fertile pollen and therefore they cannot be used as pollinators.  They can, however, be pollinated by other varieties.

Crab apples can also make good pollinators to some apple varieties.  The Snowdrift crab apple is used to pollinate mid to late blooming apples such as the Golden Delicious and Rome apples, while the Manchurian crab apple for the early to mid blooming apples like the Beacon and Ginger Gold.  Other crab apple varieties that make potential pollinators include the Chestnut, Hyslop, Spur Winter Banana, and the Indian Summer.

When choosing apple trees you need to consider not only which varieties will pollinate each other, but also ensure their flowering period overlaps. If a nearby neighbour has an apple tree, you may find that will cross pollinate with yours, so that you need only one variety. If space is a factor, you can also purchase a multi-grafted apple tree, to get two or more varieties in one tree.

The University of Missouri website has a chart showing some common varieties and their cross pollination potential.

Eileen O’Sullivan is an English freelance writer, who once lived in beautiful Sydney (sigh!), where her first son was born. She passionately enjoys contributing to global health – and grow-your-own is a perfect start to sustainable living!