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 specimen. But unlike ornamentals, they will provide you with a delicious harvest of fruit. And because you'll be able to enjoy that fruit fresh off the trees (when it tastes best), you'll have added incentive to adhere to the old maxim about having one a day to keep the doctor away!
Nor are the aesthetic landscaping uses for apple trees limited by 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 -– 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’ tall) and semi-dwarf varieties (12’-16’ tall) are better plants for espalier than are standard apples (20’-30’ 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 that I discuss 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 determine 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 prospective varieties of apple trees before you commit to planting. Consider both taste, per se (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 entail selecting varieties different from what you’d choose for fresh snacking. The following are examples of varieties of apple trees that are good at producing fruit for particular tastes:
- For a sweet fruit: "Honeycrisp"
- For a tart fruit: "Granny Smith"
- For a crisp fruit: "Macoun"
- For pie-making: "Northern Spy," "Liberty" apple trees and "Golden Delicious"
Selecting Apple Trees – Varieties Resistant to Disease
But not all of us will want to let our taste buds make the decision for us; it’s ultimately our muscles we listen to the most -– as in avoiding sore muscles by adopting low-maintenance alternatives. In the latter case, disease-resistant varieties of apple trees may carry the day over varieties that require spraying -– regardless of nuances in taste. 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:
On Page 2 we'll look at some additional considerations in the selection of varieties of apple trees, as well tips on caring for them....
On Page 1 we learned about some of the apple varieties suitable for home landscaping. But part of the pleasure of growing apple trees on your own property derives from biting into 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 -- well, this approach somewhat defeats the purpose of growing delicious fruit. There's a better approach: staggering your crop.
By "staggering" your crop, I mean 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 some 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. The following are examples of varieties, based on blooming season:
- Growing Apple Trees That Bloom Early:
- Ginger Gold
- State Fair
- Growing Apple Trees That Bloom Mid-Season:
- Growing Apple Trees That Bloom Late:
- Golden Delicious
- Northern Spy
Forbidden Fruit: the Pollination Issue
While I am, indeed, recommending the staggered approach, I must emphasize that by no means do I suggest you should be growing apple trees of just one variety per season.
Rather, you must plant two or more varieties that bloom the same time in each apple planting. Why? Well, don't forget "the birds and the bees." Yes, I'm 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 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 obviously increases your leeway in terms of landscape design.
A couple of caveats, before leaving the issue of pollination:
- The pollen of some apple varieties is sterile, so don't rely on these as your pollinizers. Examples are Jonagold, Mutsu, Stayman and Winesap.
- The transfer of pollen from one apple blossom to another is largely the work of those busy little garden friends, the bees. So be careful not to apply insecticides during the blooming period -- or you'll lose your best means of pollination.
Now that we've gotten some of the initial considerations out of the way, on Page 3 it's time to look at the nitty-gritty of growing apple trees....
On Page 2 we learned about the strategy of staggering apple trees. But that strategy will be of little use without proper information about planting apple trees in the first place. The best spot for planting is an area with rich, well-drained soil and plenty of sun. Planting them where they'll get early morning sun helps reduce incidence of powdery mildew disease, as does locating them in a spot with good air circulation.
Early spring is a fine time for planting apple trees in the North. In the South, fall is perhaps the best time for planting apple trees: the roots will already have been established when next spring rolls around, giving your home apple trees a head-start.
In preparation, remove weeds and grass to form a bare circle for each transplant, about 4' in diameter. Your initial challenge in home apple tree care after bringing the apple trees 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 apple trees 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.
Planting Apple Trees
Begin digging a hole approximately twice the diameter of the root system, and about a foot deeper. When you think you have the depth of the hole approximately right, spread out the roots in the hole and check the level of the "bud union." The goal will be to have the bud union raised about 2" above ground level.
The bud union is where the scion meets the rootstock as a result of grafting.
You don't want the bud union at too low a level -- for two reasons. First of all, that would invite crown rot. Secondly, you don't want the scion taking root and overriding the contribution of the rootstock.
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 (see Page 4) guard around the trunk of your home apple trees, letting it protrude about 10" 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".
On Page 3 we discussed planting technique, but novices also need to know about pruning apple trees, once they get them in the ground. In pruning to try to give them an optimal shape and structure, you're essentially focusing on the leader and on establishing good scaffold branches. A prime objective in pruning them is to ensure good aeration. I.e., if air circulates freely through all 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 in your attempts to provide adequate care.
In addition to pruning, the branches are trained -- in a process called, "spreading" (illustrated in Marie Iannotti's tutorial on pruning apple trees) -- to form angles that will help them radiate out from the trunk, while maintaining sufficient strength to bear heavy loads. And speaking of loads, believe it or not, there can be such a thing as thing as "too many apples." While you're waiting for your young tree to produce any fruit at all, this can seem like an enviable problem to have. 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, consisting 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, and thereafter 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 or "meadow mice" are the next greatest menace to apple trees, after disease and insects. Please consult my full treatment of vole control for tips on how to identify and control these pesky nibblers.