A client of mine has an apple tree that’s not growing new leaves, no matter what they do. They asked for help, so I put together this guide. Here’s what I found.

Apple trees won’t grow new leaves due to improper watering, sunlight, and nutrients. Transplant shock can also stunt apple trees. For best results, only water when the soil is dry, apply compost or balanced fertilizer, and provide at least 6 hours of daily sunlight. Transplanted trees can take up to 1 year to recover.

So, while apple trees won’t grow new leaves for several reasons, how can you tell which issue is causing it, and how can you fix it? Let’s take a closer look.

1. Under-Watering

watering a young apple tree

The best way to water apple trees is to only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry. You can easily check this by pushing your finger into the soil. By only watering when the soil is dry, you’re preventing both under and over-watering.

In addition to watering, applying compost and mulch can greatly benefit your apple tree.

Compost provides valuable nutrients, amends soil, and greatly retains water. Did you know that every 1% increase in the soil’s organic matter leads to an additional 20,000 gallons of water held per acre? It’s pretty incredible!

Mulch is also a great addition to your apple tree’s soil. It dramatically reduces evaporation, regulates soil temperature, and prevents soil erosion. Since apple trees evolved as understory plants in forests, they’re used to plenty of mulch in the form of fallen branches and leaves. As permaculture guru Geoff Lawton says, “A forest grows on a fallen forest.”

To get the best results, apply 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months and 4-12 inches of mulch every 3-6 months. Keep both materials at least 3 inches from the plant to prevent moisture buildup and mold. With these tips, your under-watered apple tree should be thriving in no time!

2. Over-Watering

If your apple tree is over-watered, the best course of action is to only water it when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry. This will help prevent over-watering and ensure that your apple tree is receiving the right amount of moisture.

doing a soil percolation test in our backyard
Doing a soil percolation test in our backyard

Also, check the soil as over-watering is often caused by poor drainage. To test the drainage, you can do a percolation test by following these steps:

  1. Dig a 12-inch by 12-inch hole.
  2. Place a yardstick in it and fill it with water.
  3. Measure the drainage over 1 hour.

Good soil drainage is around 2 inches of drainage per hour. Keep in mind that this is a guideline and not a rule, so don’t worry if your soil is too different.

Once you know if your soil is draining too fast or too slow, it’s time to amend it.

If your soil is draining too quickly, increase its richness with compost and mulch. This encourages more organic matter and soil life, which holds more moisture and reduces the soil’s water content from evaporating.

If your soil is draining too slowly, you’ll also want to increase its richness. This is because the organic matter in the soil not only retains water but breaks up the larger clumps of soil—allowing for ideal drainage.

However, avoid mulching your apple tree as the mulch can prevent evaporation and trap moisture.

3. Lack of Sunlight

apple tree in the sun with lots of fruits

Generally, apple trees require at least 6 hours of sunlight to photosynthesize properly. Without it, their growth is halted. Additionally, their leaves turn yellow from the lack of chlorophyll and they’re unable to develop sugars for the tree.

Over time, this low energy leads to the tree’s declining health, which eventually dies.

Recommended: 3 Quick Steps To Revive a Dying Apple Tree

Tips to Increase Sunlight

  • Plant the apple tree on the south side of your site for maximum sunlight (north side if you live in the southern hemisphere)
  • Plant the apple tree along a south-facing wall to reflect more sunlight and heat onto the plant (some heat from the wall even persists into the night. Again, this is north if you’re in the southern hemisphere).
  • Prune overstory trees that are blocking the apple tree’s canopy from the sun. Additionally, consider pruning excess and overlapping branches to allow some sunlight to reach into the canopy.
an organic companion planting guide ebook square

    4. Lack of Nutrients

    Nutrient DeficiencyLeaf Symptom
    NitrogenEntire leaf is pale or yellow
    IronDark green veins, rest of the leaf is yellowing
    ZincYellow blotches
    ManganeseBroadly pale leaves, foliage color looks mottled or smeared
    Source: The University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources

    While different deficiencies have different symptoms (shown in the table above), a balanced fertilizer or compost contains sufficient primary and secondary nutrients for apple trees.

    Apple trees that have imbalanced nutrients often get deficiencies—which leads to issues in growth. These deficiencies are also often caused by outside factors such as poor soils, leaching, and other conditions such as improper pH.

    For example, nutrient leaching occurs when the soil’s nutrients seep too far down, out of reach of the plant’s roots (beyond about 2-3 feet). This normally happens when soils have too much drainage or are over-watered. Sandy soils in particular are notorious for their excess drainage and leaching quality.

    An easy way to prevent leaching is by using compost and mulch to retain the nutrients in the soil for longer.

    But what happens if you need to use fertilizer to address your apple tree’s nutrient deficiencies?

    The Best Way To Fertilize Apple Trees

    Tyler holding Down to Earth fruit tree fertilizer
    The fertilizer I use and recommend for apple trees

    The two main ways to fertilize your apple trees are with fertilizer or compost. If you choose a store-bought fertilizer, aim for a balanced NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). For example, use a 10-10-10 NPK. For compost, choose one with the highest quality and freshness if possible.

    Keep in mind there’s a difference between organic fertilizer and chemical fertilizer. Organic fertilizers are typically made from animal or plant matter and are great for the soil.

    On the other hand, while chemical fertilizers have nutrients in quantity, they typically don’t have quality nutrients.

    Even though chemical fertilizers might be sufficient over the short term, over the long term they often short-circuit the nutrient exchange between the plant and its beneficial soil life (such as mycorrhizal fungi). This leads to dry and dead soil (AKA dirt) and overall decreased plant health.

    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

    Alternatively, compost provides more than sufficient nutrients, increases water retention, and promotes healthy soils. Many gardeners are even finding that compost is replacing their fertilizers. When selecting compost, choose one of quality and freshness as its beneficial soil life and bacteria will still be alive.

    Either route you take—you can see my recommendations for both compost and fertilizer on my recommend fertilizer page.

    Soil pH

    ph scale couch to homestead

    While nutrients are important, they’re nearly useless if the soil does not have a proper pH. This is because a slightly acidic pH is necessary to dissolve the nutrient solids in the soil and make them accessible for 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

    Apple trees prefer a soil pH of 5.8 to 7.0 (source).

    Two good ways to check your soil’s pH are either by using a pH strip or a pH meter. I prefer using a pH meter since they’re affordable and easy to use. To see which pH meter I use and recommend, check out my recommended tools page.

    If you find that your apple tree’s soil is too alkaline (above 7.0) you can add acidic amendments such as coffee grounds, sand, and peat moss. On the other hand, if your apple tree’s soil is too acidic (below 5.8), add alkaline materials such as wood ash, charcoal, or lime.

    Additionally, cold and/or wet soils are not good for nutrient uptake as the apple tree will either be dormant during the cold or too stressed in wet soils.

    5. Transplant Shock

    If your apple tree was recently planted or repotted, and it hasn’t been growing since, it’s likely due to transplant shock. Transplant shock occurs when a plant is exposed to a new environment and has to establish a new root system.

    Avoid transplanting apple trees unless necessary as it can take up to 1 year for recovery.

    To help avoid transplant shock, I like to plant with the following steps in mind:

    1. Have the new ground (or pot) prepared
    2. Remove as much of the plant’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
    3. Grab the base of the plant’s stem and wiggle lightly
    4. Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
    5. Lightly place the plant in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
    6. Make sure the soil is at the same level on the plant as before
    7. Apply 2 inches of compost and 4-12 inches of mulch to the top of the soil
    8. Water generously and add more soil as needed

    How to Make Apple Trees Grow Faster

    By following the above steps, your apple tree should continue growing new leaves soon. Keep in mind, that fruit trees can take up to a year to get established in new soil.

    However, I wanted to leave you with a quick recap as well as a couple of extra tips to get speed up your apple tree’s growth.

    • Nutrients: Apply 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months and 4-12 inches of mulch every 3-6 months. Optional – provide an organic fertilizer with a balanced NPK
    • Sunlight: Provide 6+ hours of daily sunlight
    • Loam Soil: For best results, provide loamy soil, which is about 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay. This not only balances the soil’s drainage, but its nutrient retention. To check what kind of soil you have, try doing a quick jar test.
    • Pruning: flowers and fruit on young apple trees to redirect the energy to grow leaves. Mature apple trees can have increased flowering and fruiting by pruning excess branches and leaves.

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