Despite all the more exotic fruits around today, apples remain the top favorite with almost everyone. Their balance of sweet and sharp flavor, combined with great portability is the reason why. There is hardly another fruit that you can carry all day in a pocket or bag and take out in perfect condition to eat. Another plus is the long season of availability. There are so many varieties ripening at different times of year that it is possible to have a home-grown apple available on most days of the year, since many varieties can be stored for months. Plus, a mature tree will give upwards of 75 pounds of apples each year, so there is always plenty to eat fresh, store, bake or preserve.
It is hard to believe that there exist over 10,000 different varieties of apples, although only about 1,000 are reasonably available. Of these a good selection have special enough characteristics to make it to the nurseries of the Tree Center, so that we send you the pick of the crop.
Where do Apple Trees Grow Well?
Although growing fruit trees always takes a little care, apples are among the easiest and most accommodating of trees, especially in colder areas, although there are also plenty of varieties for hot regions too.
In general, apple trees do best in places with cold winters, summers that are not too hot, and in climates that are not too dry, although dry weather in fall is beneficial for ripening the crop. They prefer full sun, with some wind protection if possible and can be grown from zone 3 to zone 9, if the correct varieties are chosen. Most apple varieties need about 1,000 hours of winter cold with temperatures at or below 45 degrees, so if you live by the sea, or somewhere where the winters are very warm, then other fruit trees may be a better garden investment. In a very warm area, choose something more suitable, like an orange or lemon tree perhaps. That still leaves lots and lots of gardens, all across the country, that are perfect for an apple tree.
Choosing Where to Grow your Apple Trees
Apples grow well in a wide range of soils, from sandy to those with quite a bit of clay, but they do best in loamy soils that hold moisture. The do not do well in very sandy soils that are always dry, or in constantly wet soil. They prefer a soil around neutral for acidity and alkalinity. The ideal number is 6.5 on the pH scale. This is the number where most nutrients are released for plant-growth, although apple trees will be fine with neutral or slightly alkaline soils too.
An important consideration with growing apples is pollination. Some fruit trees will produce a full crop when grown alone – peaches and nectarines for example. Apples and most other fruit trees need another tree of a different variety nearby so that the trees can exchange pollen and produce fruit. Some types of apple trees will produce a good crop of apples when grown on their own and if your neighbors have apple trees, or if you have crab apples growing nearby then you have a good chance of a single tree producing a crop. Trees that are up to a quarter-mile apart will often cross-pollinate, but if you are completely isolated from other apple trees it is best to plant two different varieties within 50 feet of each other.
Choosing Varieties to Grow
With a full-sized tree growing up to 30 feet tall, your garden may not be big enough for two trees, but plant breeders have come to the rescue of gardeners short on space. With new varieties like the North Pole Apple Tree, the Green Columnar Apple Tree and the Red Columnar Apple Tree, the smallest garden can produce apples, even in containers. These trees only grow about 10 feet tall and 2 feet across, so a row makes a lovely screen between two parts of your garden and gives lots of delicious fruit too.
Another solution to limited space is to grow the amazing 4-in-1 Apple Tree, which has four different varieties, matched for pollination and growing conditions, all on just one tree. That way you get lots of variety from just one beautiful tree.
The ever-popular Granny Smith Apple is one variety that will produce a great crop all by itself, so if you want a single tree that is great for cooking and eating fresh, you don’t need to look any further than this outstanding variety.
For gardens in warmer zones, plant a Dorsett Southern Apple and an Anna Southern Apple together. These are varieties that need just a few hundred chilling hours, so they grow well even in zones 9 and 10 and bring apples to areas where they normally will not grow.
If heirloom food plants are interesting to you, because you like the history and the great taste they bring, then plant the Gravenstein Apple Tree, which can be traced back to the 18th century, when it was brought over by early settlers. It has the remarkable rich flavors that only traditional varieties can offer us in this modern world.
Here at the Tree Center we have lots of other varieties passing through the nursery, some rare and some top-sellers, so check out our Apple Trees to see our latest selection. By choosing early-ripening varieties, mid-season ones and some late harvesters for storage, you can enjoy your own apples from August to April, if you have a cool place to store them in.
Caring for Your Apple Trees
In the first year, make sure you keep your tree well watered while it settles into your garden. After that water as needed during the growing season to make sure the fruit gets the best chance of growing and ripening properly. It is normal for apple trees to drop some small fruit, so don’t be concerned. In fact, it is a good idea when the fruits are about the size of a quarter to go over your tree and thin the crop so that you have one apple every six to eight inches on the branches. That way you will good-sized fruit. The danger with leaving everything on the tree is that you will have lots of very small fruit that is not much use to you – really, thinning is a very positive thing to do, even if it feels wrong!
During the early years you want your tree to grow vigorously and develop its branch structure, so use a balanced tree food sprinkled around the tree each spring. Once the tree is established and growing well just a small amount of fertilizer each spring is all it needs.
Pruning Apple Trees
Once your trees are established it is time to start pruning. The best form for an apple tree is one with a central leader. This means a straight central trunk with short side-branches. The best time to prune is in late winter, before any signs of spring growth are seen. Remove any weak and damaged branches and the weaker of any crossed or touching branches. Always cut just above an outward-facing bud. Shorten back the central shoot, leaving it about two feet taller than the side branches. Each year shorten back the side branches to develop a more branched structure, but keep removing some of the weakest shoots back to the trunk each year so your tree does not get too crowded. During the growing season remove any strong shoots that come from the trunk – called water-shoots – unless you need them to replace a damaged limb.
Growing your own apples is great fun and very productive. You will love proudly bringing in your harvest and enjoy your very own fruit, freshly-picked and grown as you want your food to be grown – how ‘green’ a life is that!