My Fuji apple tree just got delivered, and while it has some green leaves, it doesn’t look the healthiest. I was concerned it was dying, so I did some research to find out more. Here’s what I found out about saving a dying apple tree.
The best and most effective method to revive a dying apple tree is to first identify the root of the problem. Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can take the necessary steps to address the issue. As long as you provide a solution fairly quickly, your apple tree should survive.
So, while dying apple trees can be saved, what does a dying apple tree look like, what are the common issues, and most importantly—how can we save it?
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How Do You Know Your Apple Tree Is Dying?
You can tell if your apple tree is dying if it’s losing leaves in the summer or if it has other growing conditions such as brown leaves or fruit. To check if your apple tree is still alive, prune a small tip of a branch and inspect the inside for any green. If there is green, the tree is still living and can be saved.
Here are some signs that show apple trees could be dying:
- Leaves dropping in the summer
- Leaves yellowing or browning unnaturally
- Fruits are small and/or brown
- No new leaf growth in the spring
Because apple trees are deciduous trees (naturally losing leaves in the fall), it can sometimes be hard to tell if they’re dying or not.
Additionally, most apple trees live quite a long time, with standard apple trees living 50+ years and dwarf varieties living to 15+ years.
If your apple tree is younger than this, and it’s showing some signs of declining health, check to see if it has one of the symptoms listed above.
However, this is not an exhaustive list, and different apple varieties can be more or less vulnerable to certain growing conditions or diseases.
So, to help with this, I’ve included 3 steps to save a dying apple tree along with the top 4 most common reasons they die.
How To Save a Dying Apple Tree
The good news is that you can save your dying apple tree if you act fast enough. Here are 3 steps you can use to revive your apple tree and restore its health.
3 Quick Steps To Save a Dying Apple Tree
1. Identify the Possible Issues
The first step in reviving a dying apple tree is identifying the possible issues. After all, the process of elimination wouldn’t work if we didn’t know which options we were eliminating!
If you haven’t seen it yet, for more information on the most common apple tree issues, reference the above section.
2. Isolate the Actual Issue
Once you’ve checked the specific symptoms your apple tree has, you can now cross off potential issues from your list.
Try to get it down to 1-3 potential issues that best match the symptoms your apple tree is exhibiting. This will give you the best chances to provide the right solution for it (you don’t want to spray the tree with neem oil if the problem is a watering issue).
If you’re still not sure about the issue your apple tree has, that’s okay! Call up your local nursery and get their opinion on what’s happening. You may need to talk to a few people to get their experience, but there’s a strong chance they’ve seen it before and can point you in the right direction (or even provide you with the solution!).
3. Test Solutions
Now that you have a narrowed-down list of the potential issues, it’s time to try the solutions one at a time.
Start with the least invasive and work your way up to the most invasive (for example, providing less water is much easier than going through the process of repotting the tree. Try to save that option for last).
Continue testing the treatments you believe are most likely to fix the issue. Hopefully, one of them sticks.
Worst case scenario, start from step 1 and make a new list of possible issues. There’s a chance you might have missed something or notice something new the second time around.
Stay persistent! It’s easy to say, “Dumb plant, why don’t you want to live?”, but there’s always a reason why plants act the way they do. Keep the course and see if you can uncover it.
The Top 4 Reasons Why Apple Trees Die
While the above steps are a good way to troubleshoot and resolve issues that your apple tree may have, I also wanted to provide you with some examples of the most common growing issues that affect apple trees.
1. Over or Under-Watering
Watering is a tricky practice, and it’s incredibly easy to either over or under-water your apple trees. Fortunately, there are a few tips you can use to check their water levels and make them easier to water.
Common symptoms of overwatering include:
- Premature leaf drop
- Yellowing leaves
- Curled leaves*
*Curled leaves are more likely to be caused by under-watering.
The easiest way to tell if your soil is over-watered or has poor drainage is by digging a 1-foot by 1-foot hole near your apple tree and filling it with water. If the hole drains slower than 2 inches per hour, it has poor drainage.
Overwatering and poor drainage is especially common in clay soils. This is because the soil’s particles are denser in clay and don’t have many gaps for the water to drain through. Clay is also alkaline, which isn’t ideal for apple trees as they prefer slightly acidic to neutral soil pH (5.8-7.0).
How to Fix:
If you find your apple tree’s soil has poor drainage, you can try amending it with compost and sand. This will help break up and aerate the clumps of soil. Simply apply 1-2 inches of each compost and sand 1-2 times per year. Potted apple trees with poor drainage can benefit from repotting with fresh, loamy soil.
By adding compost and sand to the top of the apple tree’s soil, they’ll slowly work their way into the ground, providing more space for air and water. While this can take a while for planted apple trees, potted apple trees with poor drainage can be repotted anytime (only repot when necessary as it can cause transplant shock).
Common symptoms of under-watering include:
- Premature leaf drop
- Dried or curled leaves
- Brown leaves
The best way to tell how much water to provide your apple is by using a finger to check the first 2-4 inches of soil. If the soil is sopping wet, it needs less water (or more drainage). If the soil is bone dry, it needs more water (and more mulch).
Generally, you can tell if your apple is under-watered if the leaves are drying and if the soil is bone dry. Under-watered apple trees are common in areas that have:
- High temperatures
- Strong winds
- Poor rainfall
- Soil with too much drainage
How to Fix:
You can fix under-watered apple trees by providing compost and mulch in 1-2 inch layers under the drip line of the tree. The compost will increase the water retention of the soil while the mulch will prevent evaporation. Reapply the compost every 1-2 months and the mulch every 3-6 months.
Not only does compost provide a great supply of nutrients (often replacing fertilizer completely), but it dramatically improves the soil’s richness. And the richness is directly tied to how much water the soil can hold. For example, each 1% increase in a soil’s organic matter can help hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre.
Some good mulches for apple trees include leaves, bark, straw, and pine needles.
Keep both the compost and mulch at least 3 inches away from the tree’s trunk to prevent mold from spreading.
2. Wrong Growing Environment
Apple trees prefer to grow in zones 5-8, with some hardier varieties growing in 3-5. Additionally, apple trees prefer loamy soil with a pH of 5.8-7.0. Provide them with full sun if possible and keep the soil moist. Fertilizer can be applied 1-2 times per year or compost every 1-2 months.
Generally, these are the best recommendations to grow apple trees:
- Grow in USDA Hardiness zones 5-8 (unless you have a hardy variety)
- Avoid temperatures below -25ºF or higher than 100ºF.
- Use loamy soil with a pH of 5.8-7.0
- Full, direct sunlight (6+ hours)
- Water to keep the soil moist
- Plant with at least one other apple tree for pollination
If you provide all of the above, you should dramatically minimize the chance your apple tree develops any growing issues. However, there are other ways your apple tree can start to die.
3. Lack of Nutrients
You can tell that your apple tree needs more nutrients if it has:
- Pale green or yellow leaves
- Small leaves
- Small fruit
If your apple tree has any of the above symptoms, and it hasn’t been fed nutrients recently, there’s a good chance it needs fertilizer or compost.
The best way to provide your apple tree with nutrients is to use a balanced fertilizer or quality compost. Provide fertilizer 1-2 times per year or compost every 1-2 months. Avoid fertilizing in the fall and winter when the tree is dormant. Don’t use high nitrogen fertilizer if your apple tree has a disease.
Generally, mature apple trees prefer fertilizer with a balanced NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), while younger apple trees can benefit from a bit more nitrogen.
Alternatively, I like to use compost when I can. You can either buy your own compost or make your own homemade fruit tree fertilizer at home.
Keep in mind that soil pH is just as important, if not more, than providing your apple tree with nutrients. Without the right soil pH, the plant will be unable to absorb nutrients from the soil. This will slowly kill the tree.
A good way to check the soil’s pH is by pH strips or a pH meter. To see which pH meter I use, you can check out my recommended tools page.
For more information about apple tree nutrition, including what certain deficiencies may look like, take a look at this page by Michigan State University.
4. Pests and Diseases
Some of the symptoms that apple trees will show from pests and disease include:
- Leaf drop in summer
- Spotted leaves
- Holes or chunks of leaves missing
- Brown or shriveled fruit
- Brown and black leaves*
*Especially with a scorched appearance (this is commonly caused by fire blight, hence the name).
Pests and diseases typically affect apple trees during the spring and during wet weather. This is because they normally breed in warmer weather and are more dormant in the cold. Wet conditions also spread diseases from leaf to leaf. This is why pruning apple trees is such an important practice, especially before spring arrives.
Let’s take a look at some of the most frequently seen diseases apple trees can get, what they look like, and what we can do about them.
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.
If you believe your apple tree has fire blight, or for more information, feel free to check out my recent post: Fire Blight: The Most Effective and Natural Treatments.
Apple scab is a fungus that creates dark lesions on the leaves and fruit of apple and crabapple trees. The infected leaves can fall off in the summer. Like other diseases, apple scab normally appears in the spring. The best way to prevent and manage apple scab is to prune and pick up any infected leaves and fruit.
Treatments for apple scab include pruning, picking up leaves in the fall, and planting apple scab resistant trees.
Here are some apple tree varieties that are resistant to apple scab:
- Crimson Crisp
- Gold Rush
- Royal Beauty
For more information about apple scab, including other susceptible and resistant varieties of apple trees, check out this resource by the University of Minnesota.
Root rot is a fungus 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 soil.
Symptoms of root rot on apple trees include:
- Brown and rotting branches, leaves, and fruit
- Leaves dropping
- Sopping wet and swampy smelling soil
While my apple tree hasn’t been affected by root rot, my Kaffir lime did suffer from it at one point. After discovering that the soil smelled like a swamp and wasn’t draining, I repotted the tree in fresh soil. From there, it was a quick recovery.
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.
Other Pests and Diseases
As much as I’d like to cover all of the pests and diseases that can affect apple trees, this post would be way too long and wouldn’t be a good experience for you.
So, if you’d like more information about other pests and diseases, such as Cedar Apple Rust and Powdery Mildew, check out this pest resource by Clemson University or this disease resource by the University of Georgia.
Can Apple Trees With No Leaves Be Saved?
Apple trees with little to no leaves can be saved, as long as the tree is still alive. To check if your apple tree is still alive, prune a small branch and inspect the core. If it’s green, the tree is alive and can typically be saved. However, this all depends on the issue it has and how it’s treated.
Apple trees are deciduous trees, so it’s normal for them to lose leaves in the fall and winter. On the other hand, if your apple tree is losing leaves in the summer, then it likely has a growing issue and requires treatment.
More Tips to Keep Your Apple Tree Alive
- Mulch and compost all apple trees, especially if you’re in a hotter climate
- Plant apple trees in a south-facing direction for maximum sunlight and warmth
- Provide 2 hours of afternoon shade in hotter climates. This will give the apple tree the chance to cool down.
- Use compost for the highest quality nutrients. While chemical fertilizers are effective, it’s usually a short term benefit at the expense of the tree’s long-term health. Additionally, chemical fertilizers (along with pesticides, herbicides, and other sprays) kill beneficial soil bacteria and pollinators.
- Keep apple trees within 25-50 feet of each other for optimal pollination. Even though many apple trees are self-pollinating, they dramatically benefit from cross-pollination.
If you suspect your apple tree is dying, first check the four common issues I covered earlier. If it looks like your apple tree has a different issue, then follow the 3 troubleshooting steps from the beginning of this post to identify the issue and get you a quick solution.
If all else fails, there are a few local experts you can contact for more information specific to your region or area:
- The seller
- A local nursery or professional orchard
- County extension office