How to Grow and Care for Apple Trees

By Elizabeth Hannigan , last updated February 4, 2011

If you're thinking of growing apple trees on your property, you'll probably want to know how to care for them as well. Did you know that Johnny Appleseed planted apples for cider, not for eating? Early Americans were not able to grow grapes for wine or wheat for beer in New England, but they sure could grow apples for cider. The apples they brought over from Europe weren't any good for eating. They were tough and bitter and could only be consumed in drink. In contrast to his current reputation as a wholesome pillar of United States history, John Chapman actually traveled across America sowing apple seeds to make hard cider. That's because you can't grow a sweet eating apple with just seeds. In fact, you need to splice rootstock and scion. If you are going to plant and grow an apple tree in your yard, you are going to have to buy a sapling from a nursery.

Planting Location

Begin by choosing the best spot for your new apple tree. Try to find a high up spot on a hill. You should not plant your apple tree near a fence line or wooded area. You should definitely not plant your tree at the bottom of a hill or in a valley. That is because all of these locations tend to become frost pockets. This means that during the spring, when the weather is warming up, cold air tends to get trapped in these places. This could kill your apple blossoms or any developing fruit. Apple trees also require full sun. Do not plant them near buildings or other big trees that will shade them during parts of the day. Don't plant your young apple tree too close to other apple trees either. Keep them away from streams. Streams attract animals who will want to eat you apples.

Soil Testing

Once you find a spot that seems good, take a soil test. Your local Country Extension Center can tell you how to do this, including how to interpret the results. They will also give you some tips about soil in your county. This test will show you whether your soil is good for apple trees, or whether you need to correct nutrient deficiencies and adjust soil pH. If you do need to correct nutrient deficiencies or adjust soil pH, you will need to do so to a depth of 18 inches, where the roots will grow. You need to avoid heavy and poorly drained soils. Apple trees cannot survive if water stands in the root zone.

Weeding

Pull out all of the weeds growing where you want to plant your apple tree. You also need to take out all of the grass in a four foot diameter circle around where the tree will grow. The grass could compete with the tree for water and nutrients and will slow the growth of your tree down. Plant seedlings about 15 feet apart from one another.

Choose Your Tree

Pick out your new tree. Choose a healthy one year old that is 4 to 6 feet tall for best results. Look for a good root system and protect the roots from injury, dehydration, freezing, overheating and pests. If the roots are dry, soak them in water for a day before planting. You should plant your tree sometime between late fall and early spring. Dig a hole twice the diameter of the roots and two feet deep. Put some loose soil back in the hole and make the walls of the hole soft so that the roots can penetrate the soil. Spread the tree roots around the loose soil and slowly fill the hole with soil, making sure to remove air pockets. Don't add any fertilizer just yet because you risk burning the roots. Fill the hole with soil and pack it down snugly. Do not bury the graft. this needs to be at least two inches above the ground. When you finish planting, water your tree well.

Planting

After you plant your tree, you may need to support it with a scaffold while it is young. Wait until the buds on the tree begin to grow in the spring before you try pruning. Once buds grow, cut off any branch lower than 36 inches from the ground. This will make your tree easier to work with later in life. You may also need to scaffold train the branches of your tree. This means to weight down some branches so that they don't grow too upright. This will make your tree more stable as it gets bigger. All upright growth should either be pulled down to a horizontal position or removed when it is three or four inches long.

Pruning, Harvesting and Care

If you prune your apple tree in the winter while it is dormant, you will invigorate it and cause it to grow more branches the next season. You should only do this during late winter or early spring, though, when the treat of severe freeze has passed. Don't forget to remove any dead wood or dried apples. Pruning your tree during the summer will have the opposite effect. You will de-vigorate the tree and cause it to grow fewer branches the following year.

Good, healthy apple trees will grow more apples than their limbs can withstand. This may sound good to you, but if you don't thin the fruit you risk damaging your tree. Every apple blossom results in a bloom cluster. Thin the apples when they are about the size of a dime so that the remaining fruit are spaced at least four to six inches apart. Each cluster should be left with a single fruit. You aren't wasting the fruit you remove. Thinning out your fruit results in higher quality fruit. It also reduces chances for pests and disease.

Pests

Pests and disease both pose serious threats to your apple tree. You need to practice good sanitation by cutting off all dead or diseased wood. You should also remove any dry apples and always keep the foot of your tree free from fallen leaves. Disinfect your pruning tools with household disinfectant like Lysol or bleach between uses. Use all natural fungicides and insecticides to protect your trees on a regular basis. You can also spray your apple tree with horticultural oil to suffocate pests after full bloom and throughout the summer.

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