Probably the most famous fruit tree for the backyard orchard, apple trees come in some varieties that are well suited to just about any space. A single tree can yield enough fruit for the whole family to enjoy, and provide a shady corner for relaxation, while a row of trees can make an attractive and fruitful privacy screen.
Apple trees come in three sizes: dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees are most famous for backyard cultivation, because their manageable size fits into smaller areas and because their compact growing habit makes harvesting easier. Dwarf trees reach a mature height of 5' to 8'. Semi-dwarf trees grow to 12' to 16' feet, while standard trees reach 20' to 30'. Standard and semi-dwarf trees are hardier and require less support than dwarf trees.
Size is not the only thing to consider when selecting apple varieties. Apple trees are prone to some diseases, but choosing disease-resistant varieties can circumvent the most common problems. Most types of apples require a pollinator, which means you must plan to include two or more trees into your landscape, but there are a few self-pollinating varieties that will produce fruit on their own.
Apples come in a wide range of tastes, from the Delicious, lovely varieties to tart Mutsu and Granny Smith. Sample fruit from different types, and think about what you plan to do with your harvest when making your selection. Finally, take into account the fruiting season of each variety. Apples come in early, mid-season and late ripening cultivars.
Apples are available in bare root and potted plants. Regardless of which you choose, look for a plant that is 1 to 2 years old. Older trees may look more attractive because they are bigger, but younger trees are more natural to get established in the garden.
Select a sunny planting site with fertile, well-drained soil. Early morning sun helps to prevent powdery mildew, a common problem with apple trees. Clear a space approximately 4' in diameter to prepare for planting, and dig a hole about 2' wider than the root of your tree. The hole should be thick enough to position the bud graft, where the fruiting variety is grafted onto the rootstock, several inches above the ground. Once the tree is planted, mulch around the trunk to a depth of 2" to 3" to retain moisture in the soil.
Pruning and Care
Pruning is an essential part of growing apple trees. In years two and three, select 8 to 10 active, side branches to preserve as scaffolds. These branches should originate about 2' from the ground and every 8" to 10" above that. Selecting chapters all around the tree for balanced growth is essential.
The ideal angle for scaffold branches is 45 degrees, which encourages an open canopy and will support the weight of the fruit. If there are active branches that do not branch off at the correct angle, they can be trained to do so using branch spreaders. These spreaders can be scrap wood, clothespins, or commercially produced products. They are inserted between the branch and the trunk in early spring and left in place for two seasons, to establish the correct angle of growth.
Pruning should be done in early spring as well, just as new growth is beginning. The primary aim of pruning an apple tree is to establish and maintain good air circulation throughout the tree, to ward off powdery mildew and other moisture-related ailments. Pruning can also be done to train the tree as it grows to fit a specific space.
Apple trees take several years to fruit for the first time, but when they do, they fruit abundantly. Crops can grow to such a size that they can damage the tree if not reduced early in the season. When young apples are approximately the size of marbles, remove all but one fruit per cluster. This will result in more abundant fruit and less strain on the tree.
Fertilizers should be used throughout the growing season, from the time the tree begins to blossom until the fruit is mature. A balanced fertilizer will help ensure healthy growth and high yields. Pesticides can ward off pests that feast on ripening apples but should be avoided until blossoms have faded, so as not to discourage necessary pollinators like honeybees.
Apples ripen in late summer and early fall. For many varieties, fruit color is a sure sign of maturity, but others do not change markedly. The best way to determine if the fruit is ready for harvest is to try to pick one.