Who says that only ornamentals can be used in landscape design? Apple trees (Malus spp.) are as lovely in bloom as any strictly ornamental flowering tree. But unlike ornamentals, they will give you a delicious harvest of fruit. And you'll be able to enjoy that fruit fresh off the trees (when it tastes best).
Nor are the landscaping uses for apple trees limited to their blooming periods. A row of apple trees can act as an attractive privacy screen all summer and fall, while fully leafed out. Or perhaps you already have a privacy fence, but it looks too bare, and you’d like to dress it up. Dwarf varieties of the apple can serve as the “clothing,” trained along your fence in an art form known as espalier. Dwarf varieties (5-8 feet tall) and semi-dwarf varieties (12-16 feet tall) are better plants for espalier than are standard apples (20-30 feet tall).
But don’t depend on dwarf varieties to be as hardy as semi-dwarf varieties and standards. For a homeowner living in planting zone 3, for instance, it’s probably safest to restrict your selection to standards. Those of you, however, who live in a climate suitable for dwarf varieties should take advantage: You won’t have to wait as long for a mature yield of fruit (a couple of years) after planting as with standards (five or six years). Note, however, that in addition to apple tree variety, the other factors discussed throughout this article have an impact on how long it will take for the branches of your new apples to start straining under the burden of a bumper crop.
Selecting Varieties of Apple Trees: Climate and Taste
Beyond the consideration of dwarf vs. standard varieties, the first thing you should do to decide on the varieties of apple trees you’ll be growing is to ensure that you select the varieties that grow best in your region. Your local county extension office can provide you with this information. The following are examples of varieties that can be grown in zones 3-8, which covers most of the continental U.S., except for the southernmost states (apples are plants of the North by nature since they have chilling requirements):
- Golden Delicious
After you know what varieties of apple trees you can grow, the question becomes which of those you’d prefer to grow. For this part of the apple tree selection process, you get to rely at least in part on your good old taste buds. Sample fruit from varieties of apple trees you think you might want before you commit to planting. Consider both taste—that is, sweetness or tartness—and texture (some of us care more about the crispness of the fruit than the taste). Of course, it also matters how you’ll be eating them. If you’re thinking in terms of pie, that may mean selecting varieties different from what you’d choose for fresh snacking. Here are some examples:
- For a sweet fruit, grow Honeycrisp.
- For a tart fruit, grow Granny Smith.
- For a crisp fruit, grow Macoun.
- For pie-making, grow Northern Spy, Liberty, and Golden Delicious.
Selecting Apple Trees: Varieties Resistant to Disease
But not all of us will want to let our taste buds, alone make the decision for us. For some of us, time may be at a premium. If this describes you, then growing plants that are low-maintenance may be a priority. Disease-resistant varieties of apple trees may carry the day over varieties that require spraying. Four diseases commonly attack apple trees: fire blight, apple scab, cedar apple rust, and powdery mildew. The following are varieties of apple trees that offer at least some resistance to these diseases, reducing the need to spray:
Spread Out the Harvest by "Staggering"
Part of the pleasure of growing apple trees on your own property comes from biting into the freshly-plucked fruit. So getting a bumper crop from your orchard in fall, eating a few of the fresh fruits, and storing the rest away somewhat defeats the purpose of growing the delicious fruit. There's a better approach: staggering your crop.
By "staggering" your crop, what is meant is growing apple trees that are early-season bloomers, mid-season bloomers, and late-season bloomers. By taking this approach with your crop, it's less likely you'll be forced into storing away most of your produce. Instead of having an excess of fresh fruit all at once, your harvesting will be spread out over three periods, with a more manageable amount to consume fresh at each harvest. Growing apple trees using the staggered approach also aids your landscape design efforts: Just as the blossoms of one group fade, another will take up the torch, adding color to your yard. Let's look at examples of varieties based on blooming season:
The following types bloom early:
- Ginger Gold
- State Fair
The following types bloom mid-season:
The following types bloom late:
- Golden Delicious
- Northern Spy
Forbidden Fruit: the Pollination Issue
Even if you do decide to use the staggered approach, you still must plant two or more varieties that bloom at the same time in each apple planting. Why? Well, don't forget "the birds and the bees." Yes, we're talking about sex: pollination.
Most apples aren't keen on incest, requiring trees of a different apple variety for pollination (even with the exceptions, pollination is still superior when it comes from another variety). Oh, by the way, apples don't look down their noses at crabapples, as if the latter somehow weren't "real" apples. No, apples are sometimes quite willing to be pollinated by their ornamental cousins. This fact gives you more leeway in terms of plant choices.
A couple of warnings, though, before leaving the issue of pollination:
- The pollen of some apple varieties is sterile, so don't rely on these as your pollinators. Examples are Jonagold, Mutsu, Stayman, and Winesap.
- The transfer of pollen from one apple blossom to another is largely the work of bees. So be careful not to apply insecticides during the blooming period, or else you'll kill the bees and lose your best means of pollination.
Planting Apple Trees
The best spot for planting apple trees is an area with rich, well-drained soil and plenty of sun. Planting them where they'll get early morning sun helps reduce the chances of getting powdery mildew disease, as does locate them in a spot with good air circulation.
Early spring is a good time for planting apple trees in the North. In the South, fall is perhaps the best time for planting: The roots will already have been established when next spring rolls around, giving your apple trees a head start.
In preparation, remove weeds and grass to form a bare circle for each transplant, about 4 feet in diameter. Your first challenge in apple tree care after bringing your plants home from the nursery will be keeping their roots moist, both before and after putting them in the ground. Soaking their roots in water for 30 minutes before planting is a good first step. If the roots look dried out, extend that soaking period to about 24 hours in order to revive them.
When you make the trip to your local nursery to buy the plants, look for bare-root stock, one-year-old. Although it may seem that you'd be getting a good deal (because the plants are bigger), avoid planting apple trees that are more than three years old. Younger trees are easier to get established.
Digging the Hole, Installing Your Plant
Begin digging a hole about twice the diameter of the root system, and about a foot deeper. When you think you have the depth of the hole about right, spread out the roots in the hole and check the level of the bud union (the bud union is where the scion meets the rootstock as a result of grafting). The goal will be to have the bud union raised about 2 inches above ground level.
You don't want the bud union at too low a level, for two reasons. First of all, that would invite crown rot. Secondly, if you are growing a dwarf or semi-dwarf variety, you don't want the scion to root and become dominant. You want the rootstock to remain the dominant partner since it controls tree size.
Apply water as you fill the hole back in with soil, to remove air pockets. Add soil amendments at the same time. This is also the time to install a vole guard around the trunk of your apple trees, letting it stick up about 10 inches above ground level. Water well again after the transplant is complete. To help retain some of that moisture (and also keep the weeds and grass from growing back), mulch around the plant to a depth of 2-3 inches.
Tips on Pruning Apple Trees
In pruning your plants to try to give them an ideal shape and structure, you're essentially focusing on the leader and on establishing good scaffold branches (the primary limbs growing out of the sides of the trunk). A prime goal in pruning them is to ensure good aeration. That is, if air circulates freely through all of the branches, there's less chance of a problem with powdery mildew disease. Pruning also restricts their vertical growth, making it easy for you to get at them to care for them.
But there's another goal in pruning. The branches should be trained to form angles that will help them radiate out away from the trunk while keeping enough strength to bear heavy fruit loads. This process is called "spreading." And speaking of loads, believe it or not, there can be such a thing as "too many apples." While you're waiting for your young tree to produce any fruit at all, this might not seem like a problem. But a problem it is, and it's dealt with through a process known as "thinning."
Thinning promotes larger fruit size, improves next year's blooming, and reduces the likelihood of limbs snapping off. Thinning works on two levels: the blossom level and the branch level. Apple blossoms form a cluster, made up of five or six potential fruits. You'll want to thin these down to one fruit, once the baby apples have reached about the size of a marble. At the branch level, remove enough fruit so that the remaining apples are spaced about 4-6 feet apart.
Even if you have disease-resistant varieties, you still have to worry about insect pests. To combat scales, mites, and aphids, spray a horticultural oil on apple trees just after full bloom is over. After that, spray every 10-14 days throughout the summer. For apple maggots, codling moths, green fruitworms, and plum curculios check with your local county extension office for the best pesticide to apply in your area. Some apple tree growers are experimenting with neem oil as an organic alternative for curculio control.
Voles are the next greatest enemy for apple trees, after disease and insects.