I’m doing a permaculture design plan for a client who wanted to grow an apple orchard. However, they didn’t know where to start. To help them out, I put together this guide on growing apple trees.
The best way to grow apple trees is to select the right variety for your site, plant in loamy soil, provide 6+ hours of daily sunlight, only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry, and use fertilizer or compost. Follow with 4 inches of mulch every 3-6 months, and prune in the late winter.
Want more details? Let’s take a closer look at the 10 steps to growing an apple tree.
1. Find Your Hardiness Zone
Before you grow your apple tree, you should know your USDA hardiness zone. Hardiness zones are a classification that shows the average minimum temperature in your area.
Apple trees grow best in USDA zones 3-8.
Apples are largely temperate fruits, so they don’t do well in hot climates. While it’s possible to grow apple trees in warmer areas such as Texas and Florida, it’s often an uphill battle.
For example, I tried growing a fuji apple tree in Florida (zone 9), and it didn’t do so great. The hot and dry climate quickly turned the leaves brown and the plant’s health declined.
Many apple trees also need chill hours, which are the number of hours under 45ºF, to fruit properly (more on this later). So, a cooler climate is ideal for growing apple trees.
However, if you do want to grow apple trees in warmer climates, Beverly Hills and Anna are 2 good varieties to plant. You can also try growing apple trees in pots and moving them indoors during hot and dry weather.
2. Identify the Planting Site
Before you plant, find an ideal site for your apple tree. This gives it the best chance to grow, so you’re not digging up a dead apple tree in a few months.
There are 3 main steps in selecting a site to plant:
Plant apple trees at least 5 feet from other trees and at least 25 feet from structures such as walls, fences, or foundations.
While apple tree roots are not invasive, they can destabilize the soil under structures and lift small stones or pavement.
Keep apple trees within 50 feet of other fruiting trees and pollinating plants such as flowers. This increases the likelihood that pollinators from other plants also visit the apple tree’s flowers.
Apple trees prefer full sun (6+ hours daily).
While some apple trees can grow in partial shade (4 hours or less), they often get reduced growth and fruiting. Proper sunlight is required for photosynthesis and is how the apple tree develops energy in the form of sugar.
Sunlight also helps ripen fruit and deters pests, diseases, and mold.
For maximum sunlight, plant apple trees on the south side of your property (if you live in the southern hemisphere, plant on the north side).
If you live in a warmer climate, provide apple trees with some afternoon shade. Even a 2-hour break from the western sun significantly cools the apple tree and prevents issues such as under-watering and brown leaves. You can create shade by planting larger trees, using shade sails, or other structures.
While apple trees can grow in clay or sandy soils, they do best with loamy soil (a mix of clay, sand, and silt). This is because loamy soil strikes a balance of holding nutrients while still draining well.
|Sand||Good drainage||Doesn’t hold nutrients well|
|Silt||Holds nutrients well||Poor drainage|
|Clay||Holds the most nutrients||Even worse drainage than silt|
|Loam||Holds nutrients well||Well-draining|
The best way to find your apple tree’s soil type is to do a jar test. While this test seems complex, it was surprisingly quick and we ended up testing 3 different areas of our backyard (see photo below).
Once you find your soil type, you can amend it accordingly.
For example, clay soils benefit from amendments such as sand, compost, and mulch. Similarly, sandy soils are improved by clay, compost, and mulch.
Compost is by far the best soil amendment as it improves both poor-draining soil and fast-draining soil.
It does this by adding organic matter to the soil, which improves the soil’s richness. More organic matter retains more water and breaks up the clumps of soil, promoting better drainage.
Recommended: Are Coffee Grounds Good for Apple Trees?
3. Plant The Tree
There are many methods to successfully planting apple trees, but here’s the most reliable one I found:
- Have the new ground (or new pot) prepared
- Remove as much of the plant’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
- Grab the base of the plant’s stem and wiggle lightly until it’s free from the container
- Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
- Lightly place the plant in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
- Make sure the soil is at the same level on the stem as before
- Apply 2 inches of compost and 4 inches of mulch to the top of the soil
- Water generously and add more soil as needed
If you did the soil test above and find you have heavy clay soil, it’s better to avoid digging and instead plant on a mound of soil.
Here’s how to plant in a mound of soil:
- Build a mound of soil 1-2 feet high and as wide as the tree’s canopy
- Make a hole in the center of the mound as tall and wide as the tree’s rootball
- Plant the tree in the hole and lightly pack the soil
- Place 4-12 inches of mulch such as leaves, wood chips, or straw on top of the mound
- Water the soil and make sure it’s saturated
- Only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil gets dry
“No matter how large it is or how much good quality growing medium is thrown in, a hole in clay is not a good idea.”Mark from the Self-Sufficient Me YouTube Channel
By planting the apple tree in this loose, rich soil, the tree’s roots grow without the compact clay soil restricting it. Over time, the clay soil underneath will become amended, allowing other nearby plants to grow with ease.
I wish I could tell you a set amount of water to provide apple trees, but the truth is there are dozens of factors that make your soil different than even your next-door neighbor’s.
To help with this, I found a golden rule for watering.
The best way to water apple trees is to only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry. I check this by pushing a finger into the soil.
By only watering when the soil is dry, we’re avoiding both under-watering and over-watering. The goal is to have soil moisture similar to a wrung-out sponge.
To dramatically boost the water retention (and nutrients) of your soil, I recommended applying 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months and 4-12 inches of mulch every 3-6 months.
Compost adds organic matter, which increases the soil’s richness. With every 1% increase in the soil’s organic matter, an additional 20,000 gallons of water is held per acre.
Compost also feeds beneficial soil life such as earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi, leading to benefits such as increased nutrients and pest and disease resistance.
Mycorrhizal fungi promote many aspects of plant life, in particular improved nutrition, better growth, stress tolerance, and disease resistance.Department of Biology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
On the other hand, mulch significantly reduces evaporation, prevents erosion, and regulates soil temperature. Avoid using mulch with poorly draining soil as it can prevent evaporation and make soil drainage worse.
The three main nutrients plants require are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
Nitrogen (N) is the primary nutrient for trees to grow foliage while phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) are used to grow flowers and fruits. Too much nitrogen discourages flowering and fruiting.
Apple trees prefer a balanced ratio, or 1:1:1.
For example, a fertilizer with a 10-10-10 NPK works nicely. You could also go with a different fertilizer and add amendments to balance the NPK yourself.
I suggest using Down to Earth’s Fruit Tree Mix (6-2-4) and adding wood ash (0-1-3) or bone meal for an extra kick of phosphorus and potassium. This should balance it and make it closer to a 6-6-6 fertilizer.
Alternatively, gardeners have been finding that compost not only provides sufficient nutrients but promotes beneficial soil life, leading to improvements in water retention and pest and disease resistance. For this reason, compost is replacing fertilizers in many gardens.
If you’re using compost instead of fertilizers, provide 2 inches every 1-2 months underneath the apple tree’s canopy or drip line.
Keep in mind that while nutrients are essential, they aren’t everything.
Apple trees prefer a soil pH of 5.8-7.0.
The reason apple trees (and most plants) prefer a slightly acidic soil pH is that it dissolves the nutrients in the soil, making them more accessible to the plant’s finer roots.
Fourteen of the seventeen essential plant nutrients are obtained from the soil. Before a nutrient can be used by plants it must be dissolved in the soil solution. Most minerals and nutrients are more soluble or available in acid soils than in neutral or slightly alkaline soils.Donald Bickelhaupt, Instructional Support Specialist, Department of Forest and Natural Resources Management
When apple trees have an imbalanced soil pH, they develop issues such as discolored and dropping leaves. Additionally, their flowers and fruit drop early and the plant is more likely to develop other growth issues.
Two good ways to test your soil’s pH are with pH strips or a meter. I prefer using a pH meter since they’re affordable and easy to use. To see which pH I recommend, check out my recommended tools page.
If you find your apple tree’s soil is too alkaline (above 7.0), provide acidic amendments such as peat moss, sand, and coffee grounds.
On the other hand, if your soil is too acidic (under 5.8), provide alkaline amendments such as charcoal, wood ash, and lime.
The majority of apple trees are self-pollinating and don’t require a second tree to be planted nearby. However, apple trees greatly benefit from cross-pollination by growing larger and more fruits.
“All varieties of apple trees require some cross-pollination for fruit set. Even though some varieties are listed as self-fruitful, they will set fruit more heavily and more regularly if they are cross-pollinated.”Washington State University
Apple trees also benefit by having other pollinating plants nearby such as flowers and other fruit trees.
To see the plants that benefit apple trees the most, check out my other post: The 10 Best Companion Plants for Apple Trees.
Keep these plants ideally within 25 feet, and no more than 50 feet. This increases the chance that pollinators visit the companion plant’s flowers as well as the apple tree’s flowers.
If you find your apple tree has plenty of flowers, but poor fruiting, consider pollinating the apple tree’s flowers by hand. You can do this by using a clean q-tip, toothbrush, or paintbrush, and lightly brushing the pollen from flower to flower.
This is especially helpful for indoor apple trees or those without access to sufficient pollinators.
Pruning apple trees is not necessary, but it’s helpful if you’d like your apple tree to have:
- A cleaner appearance
- Encouraged fruiting or growth
- Discouraged pests and diseases
The best time to prune is in the late winter, just before the apple tree is coming out of dormancy. This allows the apple tree to hit the ground running and focus on healing and growing when spring hits. It’s also the time when most pests and diseases are dormant and won’t infect the tree’s wounds.
If you prune too early in the winter, the apple tree might not survive the stress of cutting along with the cold winter.
If you prune too late and the apple tree has started growing, you could stunt it and introduce it to the now active pests and diseases.
Pro-tip: Prune a young apple tree’s flower and fruit to encourage faster growth. Similarly, prune a mature apple tree’s branches to encourage flowering and fruiting.
If you’d like some expert tips on how to prune, check out this short guide by The University of Kentucky’s Horticulture department.
8. Winter Care
Apple trees are deciduous, meaning they go dormant and shed their leaves in the fall and winter. This is a survival strategy to preserve nutrients until springtime.
While most apple trees can survive temperatures as low as -40ºF (zone 3), there are some tips to make sure they receive enough chill hours.
- Provide 4-12 inches of mulch to insulate the ground and the tree’s roots. This also provides nutrients and retains water in hot and dry weather.
- Cover apple trees with a tarp during ice storms to prevent damage from hail and the weight of ice buildup.
Apple trees do best when they have around 600-800 chill hours (hours under 45ºF) each winter. This helps them stay dormant and reserve nutrients and energy until the spring. Growing leaves in winter is a taxing resource.
While it’s fairly rare for apple trees to get pests or diseases, I went ahead and listed the most common top 3 for each.
Keep in mind that pests and diseases are much more likely to infect apple trees that are stressed from issues such as improper watering, nutrients, and drainage. To help prevent most pests and diseases on your apple tree, follow the above best gardening practices!
1. Codling Moth
Codling moths are a common pest for apples, pears, and crabapples. The moths emerge after winter and lay their eyes on the fruit trees. The caterpillars then hatch and eat the leaves and fruit.
These moths can have as many as 3 generations per season, from spring to late summer.
To tell if your apple tree has codling moths, here are some common symptoms:
- Small holes in fruit
- Occasional larvae in fruit
- Fruit drop
- Fruit rot (usually with holes)
Treatment for codling moths includes fruit thinning, removing infested fruits, and bagging fruit. While some sprays are effective, they usually aren’t recommended as they can make the fruit inedible.
2. Aphids and Spider Mites
Aphids are small bugs that suck the sap from underneath the apple tree’s leaves. This loss of sugar and moisture causes the leaves to curl, yellow, and drop. They also cause some apple tree diseases.
When aphids suck the plant’s sap, they deposit honeydew—which attracts ants. If left unchecked, aphids can damage the plant’s health and potentially stunt or kill it.
These bugs come in multiple colors including white, yellow, or black, and usually are found hiding underneath the leaves. Typically, aphids won’t cause damage to the fruit, but because they suck sap from the plant, they can compromise its health and therefore reduce fruit size and yield.
Spider mites are similar to aphids, except they are part of the spider family. They also feed on apple trees and cause leaves to yellow, red, and drop.
The main differences in appearance between aphids and spider mites are the spider mite’s ability to spin webs. These webs can cause damage to other parts of apple trees such as the twigs and fruit.
So, if you see small dots on your apple tree leaves, see if they’re depositing honeydew or webs and you’ll identify the pest.
Borers are small beetles that burrow into trees such as apples. This is most common when apple trees are stressed by factors such as drought. The dry and weakened wood makes it easier for the borer to dig into the tree.
You can tell if your apple tree has borers if you see sawdust at the base of the tree, dead limbs with holes in them, and flaking bark.
Prevent and treat borers by ensuring the tree has enough water, nutrients, and pruning. While some sprays work to prevent larvae from entering the trees in June and July, they can have negative effects on the tree and its fruit.
1. Fire Blight
Fire blight is a highly infectious bacterial disease that affects members of the rose family—including apple, pear, crabapple, rose, cotoneaster, mountain ash, hawthorn, quince, spirea, and pyracantha. Fire blight causes browning and disfiguring of the leaves and fruit, sometimes killing the tree.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for fire blight. However, this disease can be managed and its effects greatly minimized.
For more information on fire blight and its treatments, feel free to check out my recent post: Fire Blight: The Most Effective and Natural Treatments.
2. Powdery Mildew
Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that appears as small white spots (spores) on the apple tree’s leaves. It causes apple tree leaves and twigs to curl and die, as well as leaves and fruit to drop.
This issue is made worse in areas with high humidity and poor ventilation.
For example, if your apple tree’s canopy is thick, it’ll have reduced airflow and sunlight—promoting fungal diseases such as powdery mildew.
You can control or prevent powdery mildew by pruning to improve ventilation and sunlight and using a spray (I recommend saving this as a last resort).
To start, prune overlapping or clustered branches. Pruning an apple tree’s canopy also trains it to spend less energy on foliage and more on fruiting (great for mature apple trees). It also allows it to grow more fruit on fewer branches.
Avoid over-pruning as it weakens the tree and can make its recovery harder.
3. Root Rot
Root rot, also known as Phytophthora root and crown rot, is a water mold that typically starts in the apple tree’s roots and spreads to the rest of the tree. Branches, leaves, and fruit can also become affected over time. The most common cause of root rot is overwatering or soil with poor drainage.
Root rot can be treated by repotting the tree with fresh potting soil.
Symptoms of root rot on fruit trees include:
- Brown and rotting branches, leaves, and fruit
- Leaves and fruit dropping
- Sopping wet and swampy-smelling soil
If root rot is left for too long, the roots will decay, killing the rest of the tree. Fortunately, root rot can be prevented and treated by allowing for proper drainage and aeration in the soil.
For example, my potted Kaffir lime tree suffered from root rot. After discovering that the soil smelled like a swamp and wasn’t draining, I repotted the tree with fresh potting soil. From there, it was a quick recovery!
So, if your planted apple tree is affected by root rot, hold off on watering and amend the soil to increase drainage.
You can amend the fruit tree’s soil by adding 2 inches of each sand and compost, or by transplanting the tree to a mound or raised bed.
Raised beds are often the most expensive item in the garden, but a little secret is there are some nice, affordable ones. See which raised beds we use and recommend.
However, you’ll have to weigh the risk of transplanting the tree as it can potentially cause more damage. If your tree is dying from root rot, and you can’t amend the soil in place, transplanting it into fresh soil makes sense.
Can You Grow Apple Trees From Seeds?
Apple trees grown from seed take an average of 5-10 years to reach a mature size and begin fruiting. However, because apple trees from seeds are genetically different than their parents, they often have different fruit. As a result, some apple trees have inedible fruit. Other times, some never fruit.
Because apple trees grown from seed take a long time to fruit, most growers use grafted trees due to their benefits and speed of growth.
Grafting is when you take a piece of wood (called a scion) from a mature apple tree and fuse it with a rootstock from another apple tree. If all goes well, the rootstock should adopt the scion, making it a part of the tree.
Need More Help?
You can always ask us here at Couch to Homestead, but you should know the other resources available to you! Here are the resources we recommend.
- Local Cooperative Extension Services: While we do our best with these articles, sometimes knowledge from a local expert is needed! The USDA partnered with Universities to create these free agriculture extension services. See your local services.
- 7 Easy Steps to Grow Fruit Trees (Free Guide): Need more fruit tree help from the ground up? See our free guide to make growing fruit trees a breeze.
- Ask the Free Community: Join The Couch to Homestead Community and connect with other members discussing gardening, homesteading, and permaculture.
- 30-Day Permaculture Food Forest Course: Learn how to turn your backyard into a thriving food forest in just 30 days with our online course.