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  • Writer's pictureBrad DeBroux

Planting and Caring for Bare-Root Apple Trees

Updated: Apr 28

I am planting a Honeycrisp, McIntosh, and Haralson this year, and I'll use them in the examples and pictures in this article. Planting bare-root apple trees is an affordable and effective way to start your home orchard on your porch, patio, or lot. This guide serves to get your trees planted and started well, care instructions to ensure their healthy growth, and how to harvest, store, and use your bounty.

When to plant, Apple trees are sticklers for being on time:

"There's a time for planting, a time for growing, and a time for harvesting, said Forrest Gump as he ran through the rows of his apple orchard. Just as Forest was wise to recognize the importance of timing in life, knowing when to plant, grow, and harvest in a garden orchard is crucial for success. Today is an exciting time to grow or to start growing your food. The advancement of technology has significantly impacted time management in gardens, urban farms, and orchards. Technology has revolutionized how we grow and care for plants, from automating processes to improving efficiency. A look at how managing time has changed with technology in the garden:

  1. Automation: With the advent of automated systems such as irrigation and fertilization, gardeners and orchardists can now manage their time more effectively. These systems allow us to focus on other tasks or expand our operations.

  2. Mobile apps and software: Thanks to specialized apps and software development, Garden planning, and management have become much more efficient. These tools help growers plan, schedule, and track garden activities, making it easier to stay on top of tasks and manage time more effectively.

  3. Online resources and communities: The internet has made it easier for gardeners and orchardists to access information and connect with others in their field. Online forums, blogs, and social media groups have created a wealth of knowledge and support, enabling growers to learn from each other and make better decisions, ultimately improving their time management.

  4. Climate control: Technology has also made it possible to create optimal growing conditions in greenhouses, polytunnels, and indoor gardens. By controlling temperature, humidity, and light, growers can extend growing seasons, accelerate plant growth, and produce higher yields, contributing to more efficient time management.

Technology has changed my time management; I often use timers and reminders. Examples of automation, remote monitoring, precision agriculture, mobile apps, online resources, and climate control have all contributed to increased efficiency and productivity, allowing growers to grow more, and get it done in less time while improving crops' overall health and success.

The best time to plant bare-root apple trees in USDA Hardiness Zone 5a is during late winter to early spring (March to April) when the ground is workable and before the trees break dormancy. This allows the trees to establish their root systems before the growing season begins. I wrote this guide with the help of AI; I used Chat Cpt and Bard to write. I know that even with AI assistance, the ideas, thoughts, and emotions in my writing are mine. I direct the AI, decide what to include or exclude, and ultimately craft the final product. Using AI as a writing tool does not diminish my role as a writer or authenticity; it enhances my skills and helps me grow as a creative person.

As with any tool, using AI responsibly and ethically is essential. I am giving credit where it's due, not plagiarizing or misrepresenting AI-generated content as my original work. I am aware of potential biases or inaccuracies in AI-generated text. As long as I responsibly use AI and continue to hone my writing skills, I enjoy writing and creating like never before.

Your tree's and where you'll put them.

Choose a well-drained location that receives at least 6-8 hours of sunlight daily. Avoid low-lying areas where cold air or frost can settle. Make enough space for each tree to grow and mature; this will depend on each rootstock and mature size.

The mature size of apple trees depends on the specific cultivar and the rootstock on which they are grafted. Rootstocks determine the size and growth rate of the tree. Here are the general size ranges for apple trees based on rootstock categories:

Dwarf (Dwarfing rootstocks such as M9, M26, or Bud 9)
  • Mature height: 8-12 feet (2.4-3.7 meters)

  • Mature spread: 8-12 feet (2.4-3.7 meters)

Semi-dwarf (Semi-dwarfing rootstocks such as M7 or MM106)
  • Mature height: 12-16 feet (3.7-4.9 meters)

  • Mature spread: 12-16 feet (3.7-4.9 meters)

Standard (Standard or vigorous rootstocks such as M111 or MM111)
  • Mature height: 18-25 feet (5.5-7.6 meters) or more

  • Mature spread: 18-25 feet (5.5-7.6 meters) or more

I wanted to understand more about Root Stock;

Apple rootstocks determine many characteristics of the resulting apple tree, such as its size, yield, and resistance to pests and diseases. They also significantly impact the tree's hardiness, crucial for survival in colder climates like USDA Zone 5a. Here are some apple rootstocks that are suitable for Zone 5a:

Malling Series (M Series): Developed in East Malling Research Station, England, this series has various types that are widely used.

  • M.27: Extremely dwarfing rootstock that produces trees about 6 feet tall. Requires staking.

  • M.9: Dwarf rootstock producing a tree of about 8-10 feet. Needs staking and is good for high-density plantings.

  • M.26: Semi-dwarf rootstock creating a tree around 10-15 feet. It requires staking in its early years and is suitable for smaller gardens.

  • M.7: Semi-dwarf rootstock producing a tree of 15-18 feet. It's more robust and does not usually require staking.

Geneva Series (G Series): Developed by Cornell University, these rootstocks are known for their disease resistance.

  • G.11: Produces trees similar in size to M.26 but with more disease resistance.

  • G.16: Comparable to M.9 in size but more disease-resistant and hardier.

  • G.30: A more vigorous rootstock that creates a tree about 12-15 feet tall, comparable to M.7 but with better disease resistance.

Budagovsky Series (B Series): Developed in Russia, these rootstocks are very hardy and disease-resistant.

  • B.9: Dwarf rootstock that creates a tree similar in size to M.9 but with better cold hardiness.

  • B.118: A vigorous rootstock that produces a tree similar to a semi-standard size, around 85% of a seedling.

East Malling/Long Ashton (EMLA): This series is a virus-free version of the Malling series.

  • EMLA 26: Semi-dwarfing, similar to M.26 in size but virus-free.

  • EMLA 7: Semi-dwarfing, similar to M.7 in size but virus-free.

MM Series: This series is a cross between the Malling series and the 'Northern Spy' apple tree.

  • MM.106: Semi-vigorous rootstock producing a tree of about 15-20 feet.

  • MM.111: Vigorous rootstock producing a tree of about 20 feet.

When choosing an apple rootstock, consider the hardiness, the desired tree size, soil conditions, and disease resistance. Consult a local extension service or nursery for specific recommendations tailored to your local conditions.

For the specific cultivars I'm planting today:

  • Honeycrisp: Honeycrisp apple trees can range from 8-25 feet (2.4-7.6 meters) in height and spread at maturity.

  • McIntosh: Similar to Honeycrisp, McIntosh apple trees can vary in size based on rootstock, with a mature height and spread of 8-25 feet (2.4-7.6 meters).

  • Haralson: Haralson apple trees can also range from 8-25 feet (2.4-7.6 meters) in height and spread at maturity, depending on the rootstock used.

When buying a bare-root apple tree, look for essential information on the tag to choose the right tree and care for it properly.

  1. Tree variety and cultivar: The tag should clearly state the specific variety and cultivar of the apple tree (e.g., Honeycrisp, McIntosh, or Haralson). This information is crucial for understanding growth habits, fruit characteristics, and care requirements.

  2. Rootstock: The tag should indicate the rootstock on which the apple tree is grafted. Rootstocks determine the mature size, growth rate, and some disease-resistance traits of the tree. Common rootstocks include M9, M26, M7, MM106, and M111, each with different size and vigor characteristics.

  3. Pollination requirements: The tag should provide information about the tree's pollination requirements, such as whether it needs a pollinator or is self-fertile. If the tree requires cross-pollination, the tag may suggest compatible pollinator varieties.

  4. Harvest time: The tag should indicate the approximate time of year the fruit will be ready to harvest. This can help you plan your orchard and stager harvest times if planting multiple varieties.

  5. USDA Hardiness Zone: The tag should list the USDA Hardiness Zone range in which the tree can be successfully grown. This information will help you ensure the tr e suits your climate.

  6. Planting and care instructions: The tag may provide brief planting and care instructions, such as recommended planting depth, spacing, and initial pruning advice. More detailed care instructions may be available on the website or through additional resources.

  7. Disease resistance: The tag might mention any specific disease resistance traits the tree possesses, which can be a tree if your area is prone to certain apple tree diseases.

I noticed the tags on a few of mine did not have the rootstock, so I researched to ensure I took the proper steps.

The Honeycrisp apple is a popular, modern cultivar developed by the University of Minnesota and released in 1991. Known for their juicy, sweet-tart flavor and exceptional crispness, Honeycrisp apples have become a favorite among consumers. Here's what I need to know about the Honeycrisp apple tree:

The tag indicates my Honeycrisp apple tree is 5-7 feet tall. As a "Semi," it is likely grafted onto a semi-dwarfing rootstock, typically resulting in a mature tree height of 12-16 feet (3.7-4.9 meters) and a similar spread. Common semi-dwarfing rootstocks include M7 and MM106. I then found the tag on the other Honey Crip I got.

Pollination: Honeycr sp apple trees are not self-fertile and require cross-pollination from a different apple variety to produce fruit. Plant another apple tree of a"There'svariety that blooms around the same time within 50 feet (15 meters) of the Honeycrisp tree to ensure adequate pollination. Compatible pollinator varieties include McIntosh, Gala, or Golden Delicious.

Apple tree tag
Apple tree tag with more information

When selecting a bare-root apple tree, ensure the tag provides as much of this information as possible. In addition to the tag, ask nursery staff any questions you have about the tree's care, planting, or compatibility with other apple varieties.

Once you know your cultivar, the"where" part is fun; I planted 3 of them on top of my old mound system, well-drained soil that gets a lot of sunshine!

Growing Apple Trees on Porches or Patios: Container Options

Growing apple trees in containers is an excellent option for those with limited space, like a porch or patio. Dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties are best suited for container growing, as they have smaller root systems and require less space. Here are some options for containers and tips for successfully growing apple trees in them:

Choose the suitable container:

When selecting a container for your apple tree, consider the following factors:

  • Size: Choose a large container that provides enough space for the roots to grow. Aim for a container at least 18-24 inches in diameter and depth. A half whiskey barrel, for example, is a popular choice for growing fruit trees in containers.

  • Drainage: The container must have drainage holes at the bottom to prevent waterlogging, which can lead to root rot. If your container doesn't have drainage holes, drill some yourself.

  • Material: Containers can be made of various materials, such as plastic, ceramic, terracotta, wood, and cloth. Each material has its pros and cons:

  • Plastic: Lightweight, less expensive, and retains moisture well but may deteriorate in sunlight over time. Airpots are new to the market, and although I've tried them for apple trees, I'll try them next year.

  • Ceramic and terracotta: Attractive and sturdy but can be heavy and may crack in freezing temperatures.

  • Wood: Natural-looking and insulates well but can be heavy and may rot over time.

  • Cloth: also known as fabric pots or grow bags, can be used to grow apple trees, particularly dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties with smaller root systems. Cloth pots offer several advantages for growing apple trees in containers:

  1. Improved aeration: The porous fabric allows for better airflow to the roots, promoting a healthier root system and preventing issues such as root rot and overwatering.

  2. Root pruning: When roots reach the edge of a cloth pot, they naturally stop growing, preventing them from becoming root-bound, a common problem in traditional containers. This "air pruning" results in a more fibrous root system that can better absorb water and nutrients.

  3. Better temperature regulation: Cloth pots provide better insulation, protecting the roots from extreme temperature fluctuations. They stay cooler in hot weather and warm up more slowly in cold weather compared to plastic or ceramic pots.

  4. Easy storage and transport: Cloth pots are lightweight and foldable, making them easy to store and transport when not in use.

  5. Drainage: The porous fabric ensures excellent drainage, preventing waterlogged soil.

  6. Cost: cloth pots cost less.

However, there are also some challenges when using cloth pots for growing apple trees:

  1. Frequent watering: Due to the porous nature of the fabric, water evaporates more quickly from cloth pots, requiring more frequent watering than traditional containers.

  2. Durability: Cloth pots may not be as durable as plastic or ceramic pots and can degrade over time, particularly when exposed to harsh weather conditions.

  3. Limited sizes and shapes: Cloth pots are available in various sizes, but they may not provide the same range of shapes and designs as traditional containers.

  4. When growing apple trees in cloth pots, choose a dwarf or semi-dwarf variety and ensure the pot is large enough to accommodate the tree's root system. A pot with a diameter of at least 18-24 inches and a similar depth is recommended. Regularly monitor the tree's watering and nutrient needs, and provide proper pruning and training to maintain the tree's size and shape.

Prepare the container:
  • Add a layer of natural wood and leaves to the bottom of the container to improve drainage.

  • Fill the container with a high-quality soil mix. Avoid using garden soil, which can become compacted and limit root growth. Use a mix that contains a blend of peat moss or coco coir, compost, perlite or vermiculite, and aged bark. This will ensure good drainage and provide essential nutrients for your tree.

Plan your apple tree:
  • Gently place your apple tree in the center of the prepared container.

  • Fill the container with the soil mix, leaving a 1-2 inch gap at the top for watering. Ensure the graft union (where the fruiting variety is grafted onto the rootstock) is above the soil line.

  • Water the tree thoroughly to settle the soil around the roots.

Here's a custom potting mix for a 25-gallon container. Using B-1 or Sun Gro Professional Growing Mix as a base is a great way to provide your apple tree with the nutrients it needs to thrive.

Base mix (B-1 or Sun Gro Professional Growing Mix):
  • Start with approximately twenty-two gallons of your chosen base mix. Both B-1 and Sun Gro Professional Growing Mixes are high-quality commercial mixes containing a blend of peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, and a slow-release fertilizer. These mixes are designed to provide good aeration and drainage, which is essential for container-grown plants.

  • Compost: Add Two gallons of well-aged compost to your base mix. Compost adds organic matter to your potting mix and provides essential nutrients and beneficial microorganisms that promote healthy root growth and soil structure.

  • Aged bark or wood chips: Mix in one gallon of aged bark or wood chips. Aged bark or wood chips help improve drainage and aeration in the potting mix while adding organic matter. Make sure the bark or wood chips are well-aged and decomposed to avoid nitrogen depletion in the mix.

  • Additional nutrients (optional): Add organic slow-release fertilizer, such as blood meal, bone meal, or a balanced granular organic fertilizer, to provide extra nutrients to your apple tree. Follow the instructions for the appropriate amount to use based on the volume of your potting mix.

Mix the ingredients thoroughly:
  • Combine all the ingredients in a large container, like a wheelbarrow or large plastic tub, and mix them thoroughly to create a uniform blend.

Fill your container:
  • Add a layer of coarse gravel, pebbles, or broken pottery pieces at the bottom of the container to improve drainage.

  • Fill the 25-gallon container with the custom potting mix, leaving a 1-2 inch gap at the top for watering.

Now your 25-gallon container is ready for planting your apple tree. Using either B-1 or Sun Gro Professional Growing Mix as a base, this custom potting mix recipe will give your apple tree the necessary nutrients and growing conditions to thrive in a container environment. Regularly monitor and adjust your container-grown apple watering and fertilizing needs to ensure health and productivity.

  1. Care for your container-grown apple tree:

  • Watering: Container-grown trees require more frequent watering than ground planting. Check the soil moisture regularly and water when the top 1-2 inches of soil feels dry.

  • Fertilizing: Apply a balanced, slow-release fertilizer to your apple tree according to the package instructions. Alternatively, you can use an organic fertilizer like compost or well-rotted manure.

  • Pruning and training: Regularly prune and train your apple tree to maintain its size and shape. Container-grown trees can be trained as espaliers, cordons, or fans to save space and create an attractive display.

  • Repotting: Every 2-3 years, you may need to re-pot your apple tree into a larger container or root prune and refresh the potting mix to maintain health and vigor.

Soil preparation:

Apple trees prefer well-draining soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Conduct a soil test to determine the pH and nutrient levels, and amend the soil as needed with lime (to raise pH) or sulfur (to lower pH). Incorporate compost or well-aged manure to improve soil fertility and structure.

Soil plays a crucial role in apple trees' health and productivity; understanding and meeting their soil requirements will ensure a strong foundation for tree growth and fruit production. This guide covers the essential soil aspects for apple trees, including soil type, pH, fertility, and drainage.

Amendments to bare-root planting
Adding amendments to bare-root planting

Soil type:

Apple trees can grow in various soil types, but the ideal soil for apple trees is a well-draining loam with good fertility. Loamy soils balance sand, silt, and clay particles, offering the right mix of nutrients, water-holding capacity, and aeration.

  • Sandy soils: Apple trees can grow in sandy soils, but these soils tend to drain quickly and may lack nutrients. You may need to water and fertilize more frequently to compensate.

  • Clay soils: Apple trees can also grow in clay soils, but these soils can become compacted and have poor drainage, which may lead to root rot. Amend clay soils with organic matter to improve drainage and aeration.

Soil pH:

Apple trees prefer a slightly acidic soil pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Soil pH affects nutrient availability, and an optimal pH ensures that apple trees can access essential nutrients for healthy growth.

  • Test the soil: Conduct a soil test before planting to determine the pH and nutrient levels. Many local extension services or gardening centers offer soil testing services.

  • Adjust the pH: If it is too low (acidic), apply lime to raise it. If the pH is too high (alkaline), apply sulfur or aluminum sulfate to lower it. Follow the soil test recommendations for the appropriate application rates.

Soil fertility:

A fertile soil provides the nutrients for apple tree growth and fruit production. Maintaining soil fertility is essential for a productive orchard.

  • Organic matter: Incorporate compost, aged manure, or other organic matter into the planting hole and surrounding soil to improve fertility, soil structure, and water-holding capacity.

  • Fertilizing: In the first year, apply a balanced slow-release fertilizer in early spring. In subsequent years, base fertilization on the soil test results, typically applying nitrogen in spring and other nutrients as needed. Avoid over-fertilizing, as excessive nutrients can lead to excessive vegetative growth at the expense of fruit production.

  • Mulching: Apply a 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch around the tree, keeping it a few inches away from the trunk. Mulch helps retain soil moisture, suppress weeds, and gradually adds nutrients to the soil as it decomposes.

Soil drainage:

Apple trees are sensitive to poorly drained soils, which can cause root rot and other issues. Ensure that the chosen planting site has well-draining soil to prevent waterlogging.

  • Assess the drainage: To test the soil drainage, dig a hole approximately 1-2 feet deep and fill it with water. The soil has adequate drainage if the water drains within a few hours. Consider amending the soil or selecting a different planting site if it takes longer.

  • Amend the soil: To improve soil drainage, incorporate organic matter such as compost, aged manure, or well-rotted leaf mold. This will help improve the soil structure and facilitate better water movement.

Avoid over-amending your soil when planting apple trees, as excessive amendments can imbalance the structure and nutrient content. Over-amended soil may lead to an overly rich environment that encourages excessive vegetative growth at the expense of fruit production, or it can create a soil composition drastically different from the surrounding native soil, making it difficult for roots to spread and establish.

Here are some guidelines for properly amending your soil when planting apple trees:

  1. Test your soil: Before making any amendments, conduct a soil test to determine the pH, nutrient levels, and texture. This will help you identify any specific issues that need to be addressed and avoid over-amending.

  2. Amend moderately: If your soil requires amendments, such as organic matter, to improve fertility or structure, apply them in moderation. A good rule of thumb is to mix a small amount of compost or aged manure (around 25% or less) with the excavated native soil when backfilling the planting hole. This ensures that the root zone has some enriched soil without being drastically different from the surrounding native soil.

  3. Adjust pH carefully: If your soil test indicates the pH needs adjusting, follow the recommended application rates to avoid over-correcting the pH. Remember that making minor adjustments over time is easier than correcting a significant imbalance.

  4. Monitor and maintain: Mon tor your apple growth and health and test your soil every 2-3 years. This will help you identify ongoing or emerging issues and make appropriate amendments. As your trees mature, focus on maintaining soil fertility with proper fertilization and mulching practices.

  5. Raised beds or mounds: If drainage remains an issue, consider planting apple trees in raised beds or mounds to elevate the root system above the poorly drained soil.

Regularly monitoring and amending your soil as needed will help maintain optimal conditions for your apple trees throughout their life.

Planting steps:

  1. Soak the roots: Before planting, soak the roots of the bare root trees in water for 1-2 hours to rehydrate them.

  2. Dig the planting hole twice as wide and slightly deeper than the tree's root system. Create a small mound of soil at the bottom of the hole to support the roots.

  3. Place the tree: Position the tree in the hole so that the graft union (the bulge where the rootstock and scion meet) is 2-4 inches above the soil line. Spread the roots out evenly over the mound.

  4. Backfill the hole with the excavated soil, gently firming it around the roots to eliminate air pockets. Make sure the graft union remains above the soil line.

  5. Water: Water the tree thoroughly to settle the soil and establish good root-to-soil contact.

  6. Mulch: Apply a 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch around the tree, keeping it a few inches away from the trunk to prevent rot and discourage pests.

  7. Prune: Prune the newly planted tree to encourage a strong structure and balance the top with the root system. Remove any broken or damaged branches, and cut back the main leader by about one-third.

Care instructions: Watering your apple trees

Wisconsin covers USDA Hardiness Zones 3-5, so apple tree care may vary slightly based on your location. However, the following guide provides advice on watering apple trees throughout Wisconsin:

  • Newly planted apple trees:

  • During the first year, water newly planted apple trees regularly to establish a strong root system. Keep the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged.

  • Established apple trees:

  • During the first year, water newly planted apple trees regularly to establish a strong root system. Keep the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged.

Watering frequency: Water the trees every 7-10 days during the growing season or more often if the weather is particularly hot and dry. Provide 5-10 gallons of water per tree each time.

Adjustments: Pay attention to rainfall and adjust your watering schedule accordingly. If there has been significant rainfall, you may need to water less frequently.

As your apple trees become established, reduce watering frequency while ensuring they still receive adequate moisture, especially during critical growth stages.

  • Watering frequency: Water established trees every 2-4 weeks during the growing season, depending on soil type and weather conditions. Sandy soils may require more frequent watering than clay soils.

  • Watering amount: Provide 1-1.5 inches of water per week, including rainfall, during the growing season. This equates to approximately 15-25 gallons of water per tree per week, depending on tree size and soil type.

  • Critical growth stages: Make sure to provide adequate water during the following critical growth stages:

  • Bud break and early leaf development

  • Flowering and fruit set

  • Fruit development

  • Drought conditions:

  • Increase the watering frequency during drought or extended dry spells to ensure the trees receive enough water to prevent stress.

  • Watering frequency: Water the trees every 7-10 days during drought.

  • Watering amount: Increase the amount of water to 1.5-2 inches per week, or approximately 20-30 gallons per tree per week, depending on tree size and soil type.

  • Watering techniques:

  • Soaker hoses or drip irrigation systems directly provide slow, deep watering to the root zone, minimizing water waste and reducing evaporation. Place the soaker hose or drip tubing around the drip line, which is the area directly under the outer edges of the tree canopy.

  • Basin watering: Create a shallow basin around the tree by forming a soil berm approximately 2-3 feet from the trunk. Fill the basin with water, allowing it to infiltrate the soil slowly.

  • Avoid overhead watering: Overhead sprinklers can lead to wet foliage and increased disease risk. If overhead watering is your only option, water early in the day to allow the foliage to dry quickly.

  • Monitoring soil moisture:

  • Monitoring soil moisture is important to provide the right amount of water for your apple trees. Use a moisture meter or finger test to gauge soil moisture. Insert a finger about 2 inches into the soil; if it feels dry or slightly damp, time to water.

Remember that your specific watering needs may vary based on local weather conditions, soil type, and tree variety. Research the tree you select and make a plan to water it.

Pollination of your apple trees:

Pollination is crucial for fruit production in apple trees. Most apple varieties are self-incompatible, requiring cross-pollination from another variety to produce fruit. To ensure successful pollination with container-grown or in your orchard of apple trees, consider the following strategies:

  • Choose suitable varieties:

  • Select two or more compatible apple varieties that bloom simultaneously to ensure successful cross-pollination. Check with your local nursery for recommendations on suitable varieties for your region.

  • Alternatively, you can choose a self-fertile apple variety, like Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, or 'Scrumptious, which can produce fruit without cross-pollination. However, even self-fertile varieties may produce a more abundant fruit set when cross-pollinated.

  • Plant multiple trees:

  • Suppose you have enough space on your porch or patio, plant at least two compatible apple varieties in separate containers. This increases the chances of successful cross-pollination and fruit production.

  • Make sure to place the containers and planted trees relatively close to each other (within 20-50 feet) to allow for easy transfer of pollen by pollinators or wind.

  • Encourage pollinators:

  • Attract bees and other pollinators to your container-grown and orchard apple trees by planting various flowering plants that bloom simultaneously with your apple trees. Choose flowers with varying colors, shapes, and bloom times to provide a continuous food source for pollinators throughout the growing season.

  • Provide a shallow water source, like a bird bath or a dish with pebbles, for pollinators to drink and rest.

  • Avoid using harsh chemical pesticides that may harm pollinators. Instead, opt for organic or Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies to control pests and diseases.

  • If your apple trees aren't being pollinated effectively by natural means, you can try hand pollination as an alternative.

  • To hand-pollinate, collect fresh pollen from the flowers of a compatible apple variety using a small paintbrush or cotton swab. Gently brush the pollen onto the stigmas (the receptive part of the female flower) of the flowers on your container-grown apple tree.

  • Repeat this process daily during the bloom period to increase the chances of successful pollination.

By implementing these strategies, you can ensure successful pollination and fruit production for your apple trees. With a little planning and effort, you can enjoy the beauty and bounty of apple trees even in a limited space.

Apple trees require cross-pollination to set fruit. While I have a good mix of varieties, they bloom simultaneously to facilitate cross-pollination. I also plant additional pollinator trees, pear and peach, cherry, and other flowering plants, like borage and nasturtium, to attract pollinators such as bees and other beneficial insects to the apple trees.

Fertilizing apple trees:

Proper nutrition is essential for the health and productivity of your apple trees. Using organic methods, you can supply your trees with the necessary nutrients while supporting soil health and minimizing environmental impact: organic fertilizers, application timing, and best practices for feeding your apple trees.

Types of Organic Fertilizers:

Organic fertilizers are derived from natural sources, such as plants, animals, or minerals. Here are some common organic fertilizers suitable for apple trees:

  • Compost: A well-aged compost provides essential nutrients, improves soil structure, and supports beneficial microorganisms. It can be made from various materials, including leaves, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and manure.

  • Aged Manure: Animal manure, such as from co s, horses, or chickens, can be an excellent source of nutrients. Use well-rotted or composted manure to avoid burning the roots or spreading pathogens.

  • Blood Meal: A rich source of nitrogen, blood meal can be used to promote leafy growth. Use it sparingly, as excessive nitrogen can lead to excessive vegetative growth at the expense of fruit production.

  • Bone Meal: High in phosphorus, bone meal helps promote root development and fruiting. It also contains calcium, essential for preventing apple disorders like a bitter pit.

  • Fish Emulsion: Derived from processed fish poop, fish emulsion is a balanced source of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrients.

  • Kelp Meal: Made from dried seaweed, kelp meal provides trace minerals and plant growth hormones to support tree health and stress tolerance.

Timing of Fertilization:

Timing is essential when it comes to fertilizing apple trees. The following schedule provides a general guideline for applying organic fertilizers:

  • First Year: In the first year, apply a balanced, slow-release organic fertilizer (such as compost, aged manure, or a balanced fish emulsion) in early spring after planting. This will provide a gentle nutrient boost to help establish the young tree.

  • Second Year and Beyond: As the tree matures, base your fertilization schedule on a soil test and the tree's growth habits. In general, apply nitrogen in early spring to support new growth. Follow the recommendations based on your soil test results for phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrients.

Best Practices for Feeding Apple Trees Organically:
  • Soil Testing: Conduct a soil test every 2-3 years to determine the nutrient levels in your soil and identify any deficiencies or imbalances. This will help you apply the right amount and type of organic fertilizer to meet your needs.

  • Application Method: Apply organic fertilizers in a wide circle around the tree's drip line, where the feeder roots are concentrated. Avoid placing fertilizer directly against the trunk, as this can cause damage.

  • Mulching: Apply a 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch, such as wood chips o shredded leaves, around the tree, keeping it a few inches away from the trunk. Mulch helps conserve soil moisture, suppress weeds, and gradually release nutrients as it decomposes.

  • Foliar Feeding: Besides soil applications, consider foliar feeding with a diluted fish emulsion or seaweed extract during the growing season. This can provide a quick nutrient boost, and help address minor deficiencies.

  • Monitor Growth: Keep an eye on your apple trees' growth and overall health. Adjust your fertilization practices if you notice weak growth, yellowing leaves, or other signs of nutrient deficiency.

Feeding your apple trees organically provides the nutrients they need to grow strong and productive.

Pruning and training your apple trees:

Apple trees require pruning and training to promote healthy growth, improve fruit quality, and maintain their structure. The best time to prune and train your apple trees Is during late winter to early spring before new growth begins. Pruning and training in late winter/early spring (Late February to March). Pruning during this period also helps stimulate new growth and improves sunlight penetration and air circulation in the canopy.

Pruning is best done in late winter or early spring while the tree is still dormant, as this helps to minimize stress and potential exposure to disease. However, if you missed the ideal window, you can still prune your apple trees, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Be Gentle: Since the tree is now actively growing, it's important to be more conservative in your pruning. The tree will need to heal all of the cuts you make, which is harder to do during the growing season when resources are already heavily allocated to new growth.

  2. Prioritize Corrective Pruning: Focus on removing dead, diseased, or damaged wood, as well as any branches growing inward or causing crowding. This will help improve air circulation and sunlight penetration, which benefit fruit production and overall tree health.

  3. Watch for Signs of Stress: Keep an eye on the tree after pruning. If it seems to be struggling, consider providing supplemental water (especially if conditions are dry) or a balanced fertilizer to help support recovery.

  4. Be Aware of Disease: Pruning in late spring and summer increases the risk of certain diseases. Be sure to sanitize your pruning tools between each cut, especially when removing diseased material, to prevent potential spread.

Remember, it's better to prune a little late than not. The main goal of pruning is to keep the tree healthy and productive, and even late pruning can contribute to this. Just be mindful of the tree's response and adjust your care accordingly.

Tools needed to prune your apple trees.

  • Pruning shears

  • Loppers

  • Pruning saw

  • Pole pruner (for taller trees)

  • Gloves and safety glasses

Steps to prune and train apple trees:
  1. Remove dead, diseased, or damaged branches: Remove any branches that are dead, diseased, or damaged. Make clean, angled cuts close to the branch collar, ensuring not to damage the collar itself.

  2. Remove crossing or rubbing branches: Prune any branches that cross or rub against each other to prevent damage and potential disease entry points.

  3. Remove suckers and water sprouts: Eliminate suckers growing from the base and water sprouts from the branches, as they consume energy and nutrients but do not contribute to fruit production.

  4. Pick your pruning style, Central Leader System, and Open Center (Vase); I outline them all next.

  5. Establish the central leader: Identify the strongest vertical branch as the central leader and remove any competing branches. This helps maintain the structure and promotes healthy growth.

  6. Thin out crowded branches: Reduce the density of branches to improve sunlight penetration " and air circulation. Aim for a well-spaced, balanced canopy.

  7. Shorten long branches: Prune overly long branches to encourage lateral branching and fruit production. Ensure not to remHere'sve more than 1/3 of the total branch length in a single season.

  8. Train young trees: For young trees, use a combination of pruning and physical supports (stakes or wires) to establish the desired shape and structure.

When pruning and training apple trees, there are several shaping options you can choose from, depending on your preference, available space, and desired fruit production. Here are some common pruning and training systems for apple trees:

Central Leader System:

The central leader system is the most common method for training Google's apple trees. This system maintains a single main trunk (the central leader), with tiers of scaffold branches growing outward and slightly upward. This system promotes a strong tree structure suitable for standard and dwarf varieties.

Modified Central Leader System:

Similar to the central leader system, the modified central leader system maintains a single main trunk but allows for more lateral branching. This system is often used for semi-dwarf and dwarf apple trees and can result in a slightly bushier appearance.

Open Center (Vase) System:

The open center or vase system removes the central leader and trains the tree to have three to four main scaffold branches that grow outward and upward from the trunk. This system creates an open, vase-like shape that allows for better air circulation and sunlight penetration, which can help reduce the risk varieties of diseases. The open center system is commonly used for peach and plum trees but can also be adapted for apple trees.


Espalier training involves pruning and shaping a tree to grow flat against a wall, fence, or trellis. This system requires more intensive pruning and training but can be a beautiful and space-saving option for growing apple trees in small gardens or urban settings.


Cordon training involves growing a single vertical stem (cordon) with short fruiting spurs along its length. This system is often used for growing apple trees in small spaces or as a fruiting hedge. Cordons can be grown as vertical uprights or at a 45-degree angle (oblique cordons).


The fan training system involves pruning and training the tree to form a fan shape, with several main branches growing outward and upward from the central trunk. This system is ideal for small gardens or growing against a wall and can create an attractive display when in bloom.

Each pruning and training system has its advantages and challenges, and the best option for your apple tree will depend on factors such as available space, desired aesthetics, and fruit production goals. Regardless of your chosen system, regular pruning and maintenance are essential for promoting a strong tree structure, healthy growth, and abundant fruit production.

Summer pruning (June to August)

Summer pruning is typically unnecessary for apple trees in Zone 5a, but it can be useful for managing vigorous growth, maintaining tree size, and improving light penetration. Focus on removing water sprouts, vertical shoots, and long, unproductive branches. Summer pruning should be done conservatively, as it can reduce fruit production the following year.

Pruning and training practices may vary depending on the type of apple tree (dwarf, semi-dwarf, or standard) and the desired training system (central leader, modified central leader, or open center). Always sanitize your pruning tools before and after use to minimize the spread of diseases.

Pest and disease management:

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for Apple Trees

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an environmentally friendly approach to controlling pests and diseases in your apple orchard. It focuses on using cultural, biological, and chemical methods to maintain pest populations while minimizing harm to beneficial organisms and the environment. Consider this in-depth look at common apple pests, including Japanese beetles, and IPM strategies to control them:

Common apple pests:

  • Aphids: These small, soft-bodied insects suck sap from the leaves and stems, causing distorted growth and potentially spreading diseases.

  • Apple maggot: The larvae of this fruit fly tunnel through the fruit, causing it to become soft and unmarketable.

  • Codling moth: The larvae of this moth burrow into the apple, feeding on the fruit and leaving behind frass (excrement).

  • Mites: Spider and European red mites are tiny arachnids that feed on apple leaves, reducing the tree's ability to photosynthesize.

  • Japanese beetles feed on apple trees' leaves and flowers, skeletonizing the foliage and potentially reducing fruit production.

Cultural control methods:

  • Pruning: Regularly prune your apple trees to maintain an open, well-ventilated canopy. This reduces humidity and makes the tree less attractive to pests.

  • Sanitation: Remove fallen leaves, fruit, and debris around the tree to eliminate hiding places and breeding sites for pests.

  • Resistant varieties: Choose apple varieties resistant to common pests and diseases in your area.

  • Trap cropping: Plant trap crops that are more attractive to pests, like Japanese beetles, to lure them away from your apple trees. For Japanese beetles, plants like zinnias, marigolds, or evening primrose can be effective.

Biological control methods:

  • Beneficial insects: Encourage the presence of beneficial insects, like ladybugs, lacewings, and predatory mites, by planting a diverse mix of flowering plants and providing habitat in and around your orchard.

  • Nematodes: Beneficial nematodes can help control soil-dwelling pests, like apple maggots and codling moths, by parasitizing their larvae.

  • Birds: Attract insect-eating birds by providing nesting sites, perches, and a water source in your orchard.

Chemical control methods:

  • Pheromone traps: Use pheromone traps to monitor and control pests like codling moths and apple maggots. These traps lure the male insects, reducing mating and reproduction.

  • Insecticidal soap: Apply insecticidal soap to control soft-bodied pests like aphids and mites. Follow the label instructions and apply only when pests are present.

  • Neem oil can help control various pests, including Japanese beetles. Apply according to label instructions, targeting the early stages of infestation.

MonitoringHere'sand decision-making:

  • Regular inspections: Inspect your apple trees regularly for signs of pests or disease. Early detection is key to successful IPM.

  • Thresholds: Determine action thresholds for eHere'sch pest, which is the point at which pest populations are large enough to cause economic damage. Only apply control measures when these thresholds are reached.

  • Record-keeping: Keemanufacturer's records of pest populations, control measures used, and their effectiveness. This information can help guide your future IPM decisions.

An integrated pest management approach is well worth the effort; you will effectively control pests and diseases in your apple orchard while minimizing harm to beneficial organisms and the environment. This holistic approach ensures the long-term health and productivity of your trees.

Since we're having issues with Japanese beetles, here are some additional IPM strategies specifically targeting these pests:

  • Hand-picking: If you have a small number of apple trees, hand-picking Japanese beetles in the early morning when they are less active can effectively control them. Drop the beetles into a bucket of soapy water to kill them.

  • Milky spore: Apply milky spore powder to the soil around your apple trees. This naturally occurring bacterium infects and kills the soil grubs of Japanese beetles, reducing their population over time.

  • Trapping: Japanese beetle traps can help monitor populations but may also attract more beetles to your area. If you choose to use traps, place them at least thirty feet away from your apple trees to avoid attracting beetles to the trees themselves.

  • Plant repellents: Certain plants, like garlic, chives, and tansy, can help repel Japanese beetles. Plant these around your apple trees as part of your IPM strategy.

Remember that no single control method will eliminate Japanese beetles, and the key to effective IPM is using a combination of strategies to manage pest populations. By implementing a comprehensive IPM plan, you protect your apple trees from pests like Japanese beetles and promote a healthy, productive orchard. Regularly inspect your trees for pests and diseases, and treat them promptly with appropriate cultural, biological, or chemical controls. Keep the area around the trees clean and debris-free to minimize disease pressure.

Thinning the fruit:

  • Timing: Thin the fruit about 4-6 weeks after full bloom, when the fruits are still small and easier to remove.

  • Spacing: Aim for about 6-8 inches between each fruit on a branch. This allows the remaining fruit to "row larger and reduces the risk of limb breakage due to heavy fruit loads.

  • Removal method: Gently twist and pull the excess fruit from the branches, or use small pruning shears to clip them off.


Harvesting apples at the right time ensures the best flavor, texture, and storage quality. The following section will help you determine when your apples are ready to pick and how to handle them properly during the harvest.

Signs of ripeness:
  • Color: Apples develop their full color as they ripen. Familiarize yourself with the mature color of your specific apple variety, which can vary widely from green to red or yellow.

  • Firmness: Ripe apples will be firm but not rock hard. Press the skin with your thumb; the apple is likely ripe if it gives slightly.

  • Separation from the tree: Ripe apples should easily separate from the tree with a slight twist. If the apple resists, it may need more time to ripen.

  • Aroma: A ripe apple will have a pleasant, fruity aroma. It might not be ripe if you can smell anything, or the apple smells overly sweet.

  • Taste test: The most reliable way to assess ripeness is by tasting the apple. If it's sweet, juicy, and has the right texture, it's ready to harvest.

Harvesting technique:
  • Hand-picking: Gently grasp the apple and twist it slightly while lifting it upward. The apple should come off the tr' e with the stem attached.

  • Avoid bruising: Handle apples carefully to prevent bruising, which can lead to spoilage. Place the apples in a basket or container with paddings, such as a towel or foam, to cushion them.

  • Use a fruit picker: If you have a tall tree, consider using a long-handled fruit picker to reach the higher branches. These tools have a basket and a tree's law-like mechanism that helps you grip the apple and detach it from the tree without damaging it.

Staggered harvest:
  • Multiple harvests: Some apple varieties ripen unevenly on the tree, requiring multiple harvests over several weeks. Monitor the tree closely and pick apples as they ripen.

  • Harvest from the outside: Apples on the outer branches and those exposed to more sunlight usually ripen first. Start harvesting from the outside of the tree and work your way inward.

Use and Storage of your Harvest:
  • Sort apples: After harvesting, sort your apples by size and quality. Remove any damaged or bruised apples, as these will spoil quickly and can affect the other apples in storage.

  • Ideal storage conditions: Store apples in a cool, dark place with high humidity, such as a refrigerator or a root cellar. The ideal apple storage temperature is between 30-32°F (-1 to 0°C) with a relative humidity of 90-95%.

  • Proper ventilation: Ensure proper ventilation in your storage area to prevent the buildup of ethylene gas, which can cause apples to ripen and spoil prematurely.

  • Store apples separately: Apples give off ethylene gas, which can cause other fruits and vegetables to ripen and spoil more quickly—store apples separately from other produce to prevent this.

Following these planting and care instructions, you can ensure your apple trees' successful establishment and growth with amazing harvests!


As your apple trees grow and bear fruit, it may be necessary to support the branches to prevent breakage. Use sturdy wooden or metal stakes and soft ties to support heavily laden branches.

Winter protection: In USDA Hardiness Zone 5a, winter temperatures can be harsh. To protect your trees, apply a light-colored tree wrap around the trunks in late fall to prevent frost cracking and sunscald; remove the wrap in spring when temperatures rise. Additionally, ensure the trees are well-watered in fall before the ground freezes to help prevent winter injury.

You're well on your way to enjoying a bountiful and healthy home orchard.

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