Caring For Apple Trees (5 Important Things To Know)


Whether you’re starting an orchard or growing a couple of trees at home, picking and enjoying apples from your own trees is incredibly rewarding. 

Apple trees come in many different cultivars, which grow anywhere from zones 3-9, depending on hardiness. To plant your own, you’ll need two apple trees that can cross-pollinate successfully, a sunny spot, and well-draining soil.

Growing your own fruit takes a lot of research, maintenance, and patience. But as long as you have the time and motivation, your hard work will pay off. This article will take you through the planting process, and tell you how to care for your new trees.  

Caring For Apple Trees

Apple trees require a fair amount of research and knowledge about care, training, pruning, fruit production, and pest management. Once you have your trees planted and a maintenance schedule in mind, though, they are fairly simple to manage.

apples on tree
Apple trees require some research and knowledge to ensure proper care, but the payoff will be worth the work!

Before you decide on planting an apple tree, keep in mind that:

  • Apple trees are cross-pollinators, meaning that two different varieties are needed to produce fruit.
  • You will need a spot that receives a minimum of 8 hours of sun for your apple trees.
  • Dwarf apple trees start to produce fruit 2-3 years after planting, but standard size trees can take as many as 8 years to fruit. 
  • Certain cultivars are more susceptible to disease and pests than others, and will need a rigorous preventative care routine.
  • Mature apple trees need to be pruned every year. 

Let’s take a closer look at some aspects of apple tree care.

Planting Apple Trees

Before you plant your apple trees, decide which variety of fruit you’d like yours to produce. Most fruit trees, including apples, are almost always sold as two trees grafted together.

Grafting is a propagation technique that allows growers to choose which type of fruit they’d like their tree to bear. The tree’s top part (scion) determines the fruit variety, and the bottom part (rootstock) influences characteristics such as lifespan and size. 

apple tree grafting
The lower part (rootstock) of an apple tree is joined to the upper part (scion) to give you a tree with good qualities of both varieties.

The best way to ensure accurate identification of what you want to purchase is to get your tree from a reputable local nursery. The staff there can also help you pick a tree that will flourish in your location.

Apple trees can grow in zones 3-9, but not every species will be successful in each of those zones. So, it’s important to acquire one that can be planted in your climate. 

frost
Most apple trees are hardy in zones 3 through 9, so they might not do well if it is too warm in your area.

Another important thing to consider before going tree shopping is that apples need pollen from another apple variety to bear fruit. For successful pollination and subsequent harvest, you should buy two apple trees.

Once you have your new trees, wait for the proper time of year to grow them. If you’re planting a bare-root tree, wait until early spring, as soon as the ground is soft enough to dig into. If you have a container-grown tree, you can plant it anytime during the growing season.  

Step One: Pick a Spot

Apple trees need full sun to thrive, so pick the sunniest part of your property to plant them. The soil should be relatively well-draining, but they can grow in mostly any type of soil.

daylight
Apple trees need full sun, and well-draining soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0 is best.

If you don’t know your soil’s pH level, you can pick up a test kit to make sure the pH is between six and seven. 

Step Two: Prepare Your Site

Clear out grass and weeds in a 4-foot diameter where you’d like to plant. Depending on the size your trees are expected to reach, the holes could be anywhere from 4-15 feet apart.

apple tree spacing
You can plant as many apple trees as you want – space permitting. Don’t crowd them together!

Check the tag on your trees or contact the grower to find out the proper spacing.  For example, dwarf apple trees will not need as much space as standard varieties.

Step Three: Dig The Holes

The holes for apple trees should be twice as wide as the root system and about 2 feet deep. 

Step Four: Place The Trees

First, line the hole with a small amount of loose soil so that the roots can establish themselves easily. Place each tree so that the top of the rootball is at ground level, and all of the roots are covered. The graft union should be about 4 inches above ground

apple tree
Place apple trees in their holes so that the top of the rootball is at ground level. The roots should be covered with soil, with the graft union 4 inches above ground.

Spread the roots outward, making sure they aren’t twisted. Finally, fill the hole in with soil, gently firming the dirt around the roots to avoid air pockets.

Watering Apple Trees

The first time you water your apple trees will be immediately after planting them. Water them thoroughly, and add more soil if the dirt settles below the level you planted them. 

It’s important to be vigilant about watering a newly planted tree. Dehydrated roots will struggle to establish themselves and begin to grow.

hose spray nozzle
Water your apple trees right after planting to prevent dehydrated roots. Add soil if watering causes the ground to settle a lot.

During the first several years of its life, an apple tree should be watered weekly. When the weather is especially hot and dry, it might be necessary to water every 2-3 days. 

Depending on the variety, it could take anywhere from 4-8 years for your apple trees to mature. Mature trees don’t need to be watered as frequently, but they will appreciate it every 10-14 days during the growing season. 

Fertilizing Apple Trees

Freshly planted trees should not be fertilized during the first month, since it could burn the roots during a vulnerable time. After a month, you can apply your fertilizer to the area – about 18 inches from the trunk. Spread a half pound of the fertilizer evenly in a circle. 

From the second year on, you can fertilize every spring. For each year, increase the amount of fertilizer your tree receives by a half pound. 

ammonium nitrate
Add a little fertilizer in the spring to give an apple tree nutrients for growth.

Generally, an all-purpose fertilizer formulated for fruit trees, or any 10-10-10 commercial fertilizer is sufficient for a healthy tree.

If your tree is struggling and you suspect a nutrient deficiency, consider testing your soil. The results will allow you to supplement with additional nutrients as needed.

TimeFertilizer
(10-10-10)
1 month
after
planting
0.5 pounds
in spring
2 years
after
planting
1.0 pounds
in spring
3 years
after
planting
1.5 pounds
in spring
4 years
after
planting
2 pounds
in spring
5 years
after
planting
& beyond
add 0.5
pounds
of fertilizer
per year,
in spring
This table summarizes a sample
fertilizer schedule for apple trees.

Do Apple Trees Need To Be Pruned Every Year?

Most experts agree that regular pruning is essential to your apple tree’s health and contributes to a successful harvest. However, pruning at the wrong time could do more harm than good. 

When your apple trees are young, the first several years after planting are reserved for training it to grow into the desired form.

pruning shears
Prune established apple trees every year to get the shape you want, encourage fruiting, and get rid of damaged branches.

You should stick to minimal pruning during these years, and only cut what is necessary to achieve the shape you want. Diseased, dead, or broken limbs can be removed anytime. 

When your trees are mature, yearly pruning will help them maintain their shape and continue to yield an optimal amount of fruit. 

Aside from removing dead, diseased, or broken branches, pruning should be done during dormancy, just before the growing season starts. Pruning too early could leave your tree more vulnerable to injury and cold damage. 

Apple Tree Pollination

Aside from a few exceptions, most apple trees require cross-pollination to grow fruit. Cross-pollination is when bees move pollen from one tree to another, providing that both varieties are compatible.

apple tree flowers
The flowers on an apple tree need help with pollination, so try to attract bees with flowers (and avoid pesticides!)

Crabapple trees are a favorite among orchard owners for cross pollination, since they usually have longer bloom times than other apples and are easy to maintain.

Pollination occurs in a short window – typically in a 9-day period. To make sure the odds are in your favor, it’s a good idea to be hospitable to your pollinators.

bee
Bees are one type of pollinator that can help to pollinate flowers on your apple tree to give you more fruit.

There are many things you can plant in the garden to attract honey bees, which are the most important pollinators for apple trees. You should also be careful about using pesticides and insecticides, which can hurt pollinators. 

Apple Tree Diseases & Pests (Plus Remedies)

Even the most mature, healthy apple trees are prone to certain types of diseases and pests. Be sure to watch for the signs of the most common culprits and be proactive with treatment. Here are some diseases and pests to look out for:

  • Apple Maggot: Potentially the most destructive pest, these maggots are a little smaller than a housefly, and have white stripes on their abdomen. Apple maggots lay eggs in the fruit, causing them to be deformed and eventually rot from the inside. Unfortunately, the only way to treat them once the damage is spotted is through use of insecticides. 
  • Apple Curculio: Curculio is a type of weevil that lay eggs inside of developing apples. Their larvae then burrow into the fruit and feed on its seeds. Affected fruit will rot and drop from the tree. A chemical spray is necessary to manage this pest, but removing any fruit that has dropped will help to reduce next year’s population.
  • Apple Scab: Scab, which is caused by a fungus, is one of the most common apple tree diseases. The disease affects both foliage and fruit, and often renders apples inedible. Apple scab can be treated with an all-purpose fruit tree fungicide. 
  • Fire Blight: Blight is a bacterial infection that can lead to the death of the entire tree. It begins as a sunken in area of discolored bark, and causes the tree to appear burned as the spot gets bigger. To control the spread, remove the infected areas at least 6 inches behind the affected spot. Be sure to disinfect your pruning tools to avoid spreading the infection. 
apple scab
Apple scab is a common disease caused by a fungus.

You can learn about other reasons that fruit drops from apple trees here.

Conclusion

Taking on a pair of apple trees may seem intimidating at first, but knowledge and experience are powerful weapons. Even the most experienced gardeners have a long history of trial and error behind them. 

If you also want to grow peach trees, you can learn about how to care for them here.

If you like apple trees, you might also want to try pawpaw trees – you can learn more here.

You can learn about lots of other cold-hardy fruit trees here.

You can learn about all types of self-pollinating pear trees here.

You can learn about growing small fruit trees in pots here.

About the author:
Kathryn is a plant enthusiast and freelance content writer who specializes in home and garden topics. Based in New York, you can get in touch with Kathryn at https://kathrynflegal.journoportfolio.com/.

Kathryn F.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

Recent Posts