Growing Apple Trees (Malus)

Latin Name Pronunciation: may'lus

Growing your own fruit is very much like growing vegetables or flowers. Choose a sunny site with good, rich, well-drained soil, and nurture the plants until they're well established -- primarily by providing them with sufficient water. These simple steps will all but ensure your success. Inexpensive home soil testing kits are readily available and most state agricultural extension services (look in the blue pages of your telephone book, under state government) also conduct the tests for a small fee. A soil test is always a good idea, even in good, healthy, fertile soils, because it will allow you to make up any deficiencies and apply only the amount of fertilizer needed, reducing waste and runoff into ground water supplies.

Care of Plants On Arrival

Our Apple trees are shipped in dormant and bareroot. The most important thing you can do on receiving them is to keep their roots from drying out. Remove the plants from the shipping box and check the packing material around the roots. It should feel damp, but not soggy. If it's dry, moisten it, then pour off any excess water.

Bareroot plants should be planted as soon after you receive them as possible -- certainly within a week. If you must wait a couple of days, store your plants in a cool, dark place such as a garage or basement. Keep them in their original packing material, and be sure it remains damp until you're ready to plant.

If you're not going to be able to get your bareroot fruit plants into their permanent homes within a week, you should find them temporary homes. Dig a shallow trench and set the plants in place, their roots fanned out and well covered with soil. Water the plants thoroughly, and mulch with straw, leaf mold, or similar material to keep the root zone cool and moist.

Planting Fruit Trees

Siting and spacing. Choose a site with fertile, well-drained, slightly acid soil (a pH in the range of 6.5-6.8 is ideal) that receives a full day of direct sunshine. We recommend that you have your soil tested before you plant. Contact your county USDA Cooperative Extension Service for information on soil testing. Our semidwarf trees should be planted about 15-20ft apart (or even a bit more), depending on how open you'd like your orchard to feel. Mature canopy spreads will be 10-15ft.

Planting. When you're ready to plant, the first thing you should do is soak the roots of your fruit plants for an hour or so before they go in the ground. Use a 5-gallon bucket or equivalent and fill with water. Unwrap your plants, remove the packing material, and place their roots in the water. Don't let the roots dry out as you're planting.

If you're planting in loose, well-worked garden soil, dig holes wide enough to accommodate the roots without bending or twisting them. In unimproved soil, make the planting holes twice the diameter of the root span to provide plenty of soft, friable earth for the roots to expand into. Once you've dug your hole to size, scar the sides and bottom of the hole with a cultivator or garden fork to eliminate any glazing or compacting that may have resulted from digging the hole. Toss a bit of top soil back into the hole and form a gentle cone at its center. Remove your tree from the bucket in which it's been soaking and set it on this cone, spreading the roots out all around the hole and cutting off any broken or damaged roots. Have a friend or family member hold the plant steady and upright if necessary, then begin to backfill. The trees should be planted so that the graft union (the swollen-looking bump in the trunk near the base of the tree) will be 2-3in above the surface of the soil after the hole has been backfilled, tamped, and watered. If the tree is being planted in a location where strong winds are likely to buffet it, plant the tree so it's tilted ever so slightly -- just an inch or so beyond vertical -- into the prevailing wind.

If your soil is either overly sandy (causing it to drain too quickly) or composed primarily of clay (causing it to hold moisture too effectively, possibly resulting in root rot), add a generous amount of compost or aged (never fresh!) manure when you backfill. This organic matter will not only feed your plant, but even more importantly in the short term, it will improve the tilth (or texture) of your soil. This will enhance its ability both to drain freely and to retain essential moisture without completely excluding oxygen, as is the case in very sodden soil. Even if you're planting in nice, sandy loam, a few shovels full of aged manure or compost will help your new fruit tree get off to a good, healthy start.

When the planting hole is halfway full or so, water thoroughly to help settle the soil around the plant's roots and eliminate any potentially root-drying air pockets. Once the water has drained away, finish backfilling the hole, then either tamp or gently step on the soil around the plant to help settle it. Build a small donutlike ring around the outside of the hole to catch and retain water, then water again. Making sure a young fruit plant gets enough water in its first season is critical to its survival. It doesn't want to be in standing water (in fact, that could kill it), but it does need to have moisture available at root level at all times. It's often necessary to water weekly or even more frequently at first. You'll find watering recommendations for each of the individual fruits below, but, in general, if the soil around a plant is dry at a depth of 1in, you should provide a good, deep watering.

Finally, apply a generous layer of organic mulch around your plant to conserve soil moisture. Mulching is the best way to retain soil moisture, because not only does it reduce the frequency with which you have to water, but it also suppresses weed growth, which would compete with your young plant for both moisture and nutrients. Straw, salt hay, wood chips, and sawdust all make effective mulches. Spread the mulch so you have a layer 4in thick, but keep it a few inches back from the stems to prevent decay, disease, and the possibility of providing cover for mice or voles. Add supplementary nitrogen if using wood chips or sawdust as mulch.

Watering. Making sure your newly planted fruit trees get plenty of water (at least 1in, or 5-8 gallons, per week) is the single most important thing you can do to ensure their survival. Ultimately, drip irrigation is the best way to provide moisture, but in lieu of that you can simply make sure your trees receive a good soaking once a week whenever it's not provided by Mother Nature. In times of drought, don't hesitate to check the soil moisture level at 1in deep every now and again. If it's dry, water your plant. Also, keep trees mulched out to their drip line for the first few years of their lives to minimize competition for precious water and nutrients. Beyond these first few years, whether or not you mulch becomes a matter of preference and belief, with learned and experienced fruit growers diverging greatly in their recommendations. A little bit of reading will outline the arguments for all positions, from no mulch to gravel mulch and every option in between.

Fertilizing. Feeding of young trees in subsequent years should take place in late winter or early spring, while the trees are still dormant. Use a complete fertilizer.

Training, pruning, and winter protection

We highly recommend reading Stella Otto's The BackYard Orchardist to gain an in-depth understanding of how, when, and why to prune. A rudimentary primer follows, but just as no wise person would think of bringing a child into the world, embarking on a major career change, or making a significant investment decision, without reading up extensively on the subject, so it is with planting fruit trees. With some basic care, even the shortest-lived of these trees will last a couple of decades; many will still be around for your grandchildren to enjoy -- perhaps even your great grandchildren. Taking the time to acquire the knowledge and skills to prune these trees properly is time well spent and will result in healthier, potentially longer-lived, trees that are both easier to maintain and more productive.

There are essentially 3 different, primary reasons to prune, and they correspond to the 3 phases of a tree's life: planting (infancy), the early, nonbearing years (childhood and adolescence), and, finally, the bearing years (adulthood). A fruit tree is pruned when it's planted to eliminate much of the top growth, which would otherwise tax the ability of the newly planted tree's roots to provide water and nutrients. Removing this top growth gives the tree the opportunity it needs to establish a well-developed root system before being called upon to "feed" a substantial amount of foliage. The result is a stronger, more robust tree in the years to come. At the same time, this initial pruning stimulates vigorous side branching, which provides the basis for the tree's permanent structure of "scaffold" branches.

The goal in the next couple of seasons -- the tree's nonbearing years -- is to establish a nicely shaped tree with a well-balanced, roughly symmetrical framework of these scaffold branches. Done well, the pruning or training at this phase in a tree's life will result in greater productivity and reduced likelihood of disease down the line. Though the technique by which you'll accomplish it will vary somewhat by type of fruit tree (discussed below), the basic aim is the same for all of them. You want to shape the tree so that plenty of light makes its way into the interior (light ripens fruit and permits photosynthesis, the engine of the tree's growth); that any dead, diseased, or weak wood is eliminated; and, finally, that fruit, when it comes, is easily accessible -- not too high, nor difficult to harvest for other reasons, such as crossing or overly close scaffold branches.

Further out, once a tree has come into its bearing years, the primary goal is to keep it within bounds while maintaining or enhancing the structure established in its youth. At the same time, you'll continue to look after the tree's health by pruning away any diseased, dead, or dying wood, as well as judiciously pruning (on rare occasions) the odd branch rubbing against another, creating a wound (and an opportunity for disease), or one that's not receiving any light because a branch above it is too close. By this stage, however, observation and experience will have been good teachers, and you'll have developed a more intuitive, common-sense, sort of understanding of what to prune, when, and why. Because the subject of pruning is so involved, and experiential knowledge is absolutely essential to doing it well, the scope of our discussion on pruning will be limited to the first few years of a tree's life. Beyond that, experience and research will stand you in good stead.

When you plant your fruit tree, you should cut the leader (the main stem) back to 3ft or so, to just above a plump, living bud. Also, cut any side branches flush with the trunk. Over the course of the ensuing spring and summer, this pruning will stimulate the tree to send out branches, which will provide you with the beginnings of the scaffold. Don't do any further pruning, however, until the following year. Before winter comes, you should paint the trunk with white latex (not oil!) paint or wrap it with burlap, plastic, or paper tree wrap up to the tree's lowest branches. This will reflect away much of the solar energy that often causes premature and uneven thawing, which can result in bark splitting and even death of young trees as the trunk freezes again. Lastly, you'll want to wrap the tree with a homemade tube, 3- to 4in in diameter, of 1/4in mesh hardware cloth that extends up to the bottom branch. Make sure it extends down through the mulch around the base of the tree to soil level. This is to prevent mouse and vole damage to the bark of young fruit trees, it being a favored delicacy of these rodents as they're searching for food in midwinter. The guard can be left on for several years, until the tree has largely filled it. By this time, the bark will have become coarser and less tasty, and the tree itself will have become large enough to fend for itself.

In late winter or early spring of the year following planting, it's time to establish the basic framework of your tree. There are three primary shapes that fruit trees are pruned to, each designed to take advantage of the particular variety's natural habit (the general shape it would develop if left alone), while seeking to maximize productivity and ensure ease of harvest. These shapes are known as the central leader, modified central leader, and open center. We'll concern ourselves with the latter two, beginning with the modified central leader shape, which is well suited for home orchards.

Before the buds have begun to swell in late winter/early spring, take a good look at your tree after its first year of growth -- still a humble thing, but having responded to its initial pruning both by asserting a new leader (usually the highest bud will have grown straight up) and by branching out all along its trunk. Now close your eyes for a moment and picture a casual spiral of horizontal branches running around the trunk, beginning perhaps 2-3ft above the ground, with 6in or slightly more of vertical space between branches. Don't be dispirited, however, when you open your eyes and your tree doesn't seem to match what you've just envisioned in your mind's eye. Your task over the next couple of years is merely to approach this ideal, as best your tree will allow you.

It's likely your real-life tree will have both "extra" and "missing" branches as compared to your ideal tree. The "extra" branches -- those that are directly above or below one another, are too closely spaced, poorly angled (more on this in a moment), or the like -- need to be removed, but selectively. When you have to choose between 2 branches and determine which one to keep and which one to lose, you'll generally want to keep the one closest to horizontal, or, in other words, whose branch angle is most nearly perpendicular to the trunk. If it works out that it's also the branch that fits in better with the rest of the branches on the tree, so much the better. Branch angle becomes important in the bearing years, both because the more nearly horizontal a branch is, the stronger it is, and because horizontal branches tend to be bear more prolifically than branches that are more acutely angled.

For branches that are "missing," there's not much you can do but wait. Just keep in mind that this is a multi-year project, and that there's ample time for a nice, well-balanced structure to be coaxed into existence. Also, there are opportunities to help direct growth in this and the coming years. Now that you have the beginnings of a structure established, you've become more attuned to where you need and want other branches along the trunk. As winter begins to wane, buds swell, then open, and begin to grow, you'll notice which buds (nascent branches) are poorly placed and you can flick them right off the trunk in order to direct the tree's energy elsewhere, to branches you do want to develop. As the little branchlets are putting on size throughout spring and summer, some will tend to grow more vertically (at a very acute angle) than you'd like. While they're still young and pliable, you can use Popsicle sticks or the equivalent (with their ends notched) to help encourage branches more toward the horizontal plane. As the branches put on size, you can go to larger sticks to continue this training or switch to twine tied from the branches down to tent stakes (or the like) in the ground. In time, the branches will become more brittle and set, eventually maintaining the posture you've trained them to without any props.

Continue to prune and train your young tree in the same manner for the next few years, until your topmost branch in the spiral of branches is at about 6ft or so. At this point, you will have created your tree's scaffold structure, off of which all fruiting and future vegetative growth will occur. From here forward, you'll want to remove any further branches that bud out from the trunk, including (especially!) any that attempt to become replacement central leaders. You'll also want to keep an eye on the secondary branching -- all the branches growing off of your main scaffold branches -- making sure that they are well spaced, fairly symmetrical, not crossing, and so forth. Pruning at this level becomes largely a matter of experience and judgment, a training of the eye. If, however, you're still wary to start cutting, consider calling a local orchard in the spring to schedule a visit while (or soon after) their annual pruning is going on. Sometimes seeing what it is you're trying to achieve makes all the difference in understanding it.

Keep in mind, however, that what you're working with is an individual, particular living organism -- you probably won't achieve a perfect spiral, but that's not what's important. What is important is that you've selected and helped to create strong, nearly horizontal branches; you've helped ensure that the branches are well spaced around the tree, thereby attaining some measure of rough, natural symmetry; and, you have helped to create a structure that allows lots of light into the interior of the tree. Your tree is now well on its way to rewarding you with fruit and joy for many years!

Growing Columnar Apple Trees in containers.

Planting. When you're ready to plant, the first thing you should do is soak the roots of your fruit plants for an hour or so before they go in the ground. Use a 5-gallon bucket or equivalent and fill with water. Unwrap your plants, remove the packing material, and place their roots in the water. Don't let the roots dry out as you're planting.

Plant in a container that is 16-20" in diameter using good-quality potting soil. The tree should be planted so that the graft union (the swollen-looking bump in the trunk near the base of the tree) will be no more than 1" above the surface. Place the container outdoors in full sun for the growing season.


Watering. Plants in containers dry out more quickly than plants in the ground, so it’s important to water your plants regularly.

Fertilizing. We recommend against fertilizing at planting time because fertilizer can injure roots and your tree needs time to settle before being pushed to grow. The year after planting (and every year thereafter), fertilize your plants with a light application of 5-10-10 fertilizer once each month from April through August.

Pruning. In mid- to late summer, cut branches back by 1/3 to 1/2 to encourage branching. Do not prune off any fruit that is already set on the tree.

Wintering over. In colder climates (Zone 5), you can overwinter plants in their containers by storing them in a sheltered, unheated area such as a garage or shed once the leaves drop in fall. In warmer climates where freeze-thaw cycles occur, store plants on a protected porch. Where freezing is not a concern, plants can remain outdoors in containers and enjoyed year-round.

Recommended reading:

The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist by Michael Phillips, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, Vermont, 1998. Though the topic is fairly tightly delimited, much of what Phillips has to say is also applicable to other tree fruits, and he does mention these in passing. Inspiring and incredibly well researched and written -- essential reading for apple aficionados.

The BackYard Orchardist by Stella Otto, OttoGraphics, Maple City, Michigan, 1993. One of the best introductions to growing tree fruit that you'll find. Must reading for the incipient orchardist.

The Pruning Book by Lee Reich, The Taunton Press, Newtown, Connecticut, 1999. A comprehensive treatment: why to prune, tools to use, how a plant responds to pruning, and pruning methods for plants broken down by ornamental, edible, deciduous, evergreen, trees, shrubs, vines, houseplants, and perennials. There's a section on specialized pruning techniques, plus color photographs, line drawings, plants lists, and a glossary of pruning terms.

Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden by Lewis Hill, Storey Communications, Inc., Pownal, Vermont, 1992. Includes information on growing many tree fruits and nuts. An excellent introduction to the fundamentals of growing fruit and an entertaining and enjoyable read.

Fruit Trees for the Home Gardener by Allan A. Swenson, Lyons & Burford, Publishers, New York, New York, 1994. Good, comprehensive overview of getting started with fruit trees. Solid information on all the major tree fruits presented in a conversational and accessible writing style.

Taylor's Guide to Fruits and Berries edited by Roger Holmes, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, New York, 1996. Solid primer on growing fruit, with in-depth information about specific varieties. Also provides excellent explanations and very clear illustrations of training and pruning techniques.