How to grow and prune an apple tree

Nothing beats the crunch and taste of a fresh apple. So why not grow your own? An apple tree can be so much more than just a fruit tree.

What you need to know about an apple tree

Name: apple (various Malus species and cultivars)

Plant type: small to medium deciduous tree

Height: 10m or more, but generally maintained to less than 5m

Foliage: oval-shaped with a slight pointed tip, sometimes slightly serrated. Dark green above, slightly grey beneath due to fine “fur”.

Climate: cold temperate, warm temperate, sub-tropical (select varieties only).

Soil: prefers deep, well-drained quality soil, but adaptable. Intolerant of wet feet.

Position: full sun, some wind protection in extremely windy or coastal spots.

Flowering and fruiting: spring flowering, autumn fruiting.

Feeding: little required after establishment.

Watering: young trees need reliable moisture while establishing.

Apple

Appearance and characteristics of an apple tree

There is something deeply satisfying about growing even just the smallest amounts of your own food. When you start growing apples that feeling is amplified, knowing that unlike with a seasonal veggie crop, you’ll be leaving a legacy that may last for generations to come. Most fruit trees make very handsome additions to the landscape, providing not just fruit but also useful design impact. Apple trees are perhaps one of the most spectacular types of tree and, owing to their smaller size, one of the most useful. They are also extremely long-lived—at least a century is not unusual, with some living for hundreds of years and still producing fruit!

The typical apple tree has a short trunk—less than 2m—and a rounded canopy to around 3 or 4m in height. There is, however, a lot of variation on this. Left to their own growth, some trees can reach heights of 10m or more with age, although they will still naturally maintain a rounded crown.

If space is an issue, look for the columnar forms. These will grow around 600mm wide and 3.5m tall, making them perfect for courtyards, against walls, in narrow garden beds and even in large pots or planter boxes.

Being a deciduous tree, an apple brings a lot to a garden beyond just fruit. In spring it bears masses of beautiful apple blossoms as the new season’s vibrant green foliage is developing. Across summer the foliage deepens in colour, and provides cooling shade as the fruit develops. Come autumn the apples should be ready for picking, and then the leaves colour up a little before falling, leaving the elegant framework of branches bare across winter.

Uses for an apple tree

Apple trees can be grown for a variety of uses, including:

  • Food gardens
  • Feature tree
  • Excellent for summer shade and winter warmth
  • Some varieties can be espaliered (trained flat) along walls and fences
  • Columnar forms for courtyards, small gardens or narrow garden beds
  • Columnar forms for large pots, tubs and planters on decks and balconies.

How to plant and grow an apple tree

Most apples perform best in regions with a distinct cold season. Varieties bred as sub-tropical can produce good crops in warmer zones. Plant your apple in a full-sun position. They like lots of sunlight hours, especially as fruit is developing, but dislike intense heat.

Apples have a mild degree of wind tolerance, but will always perform better if sheltered from strong or drying winds. They will only do well in coastal areas if they have good shelter.

The best growth will come from good-quality, deep soil that is reliably moist in the warmer months. An apple is, however, very adaptable and will grow in both sandy and clay soils, provided it does not become waterlogged. It can be a wee bit fussy with soil pH, preferring a neutral soil of pH 6–7. In most garden situations this should not be an issue.

Chill hours

“Chill hours” is an expression you will encounter with many of the deciduous fruit trees. It refers to the number of hours the tree requires below around 8˚C. Without these chill hours, your tree will not develop flower buds and therefore fruit. It is important that you select an apple that suits your local climate. If the information for your area isn’t readily available, you can use the climate averages data from the Bureau of Meteorology webpage to help you calculate the hours. Talk with a plant specialist in the nursery for advice.

Planting tips

1. Apply good planting practice by creating a hole at least twice as wide as the pot and improving the soil with a quality compost or composted manure to assist with establishment.

2. Mulch well.

3. Ensure taller plants are appropriately staked, using at least two stakes, at planting time. Remove these once established.

4. One of the best times to plant apples is in winter, when you will often find them available dormant and soil-free as “‘bagged” or bare-rooted stock.

5. If planting a bare-rooted apple, make sure that you don’t over-water. They will only need moderate watering until leaf and flower buds start to appear.

Apple trees like company to assist with pollination. Some hybrids are reliably self-pollinating, but fruiting of every variety will be improved by planting another apple that is a compatible cross-pollinator. Ask a plant specialist in your local nursery for advice.

Caring for an apple tree

An apple tree will require the most attention during establishment. Keep your tree well mulched and ensure adequate water—moist but not wet when in leaf.

Look out for any shoots from below the graft. The graft will be a conspicuous scar, generally reasonably low down the trunk. These shoots are root understock and will not produce the fruit you have planted, and they will come to dominate. Just pinch them off when seen.

Established trees can perform quite well without fertilising, but performance will always be improved with the annual application of a quality controlled-release fertiliser for fruiting trees.

Although established apple trees can thrive without additional fertiliser, old growers say that you’ll get better performance from green fruit varieties, such as “Granny Smith”, if you annually apply a fertiliser that has higher levels of nitrogen (that’s the N in the NPK), or by adding a little extra nitrogen.

How to prune an apple tree

1. As the young tree grows, prune to the desired shape. For the first couple of years, shaping is of more importance than fruit production.

2. Professionals recommend that pruning be conducted in early summer to avoid possible fungal problems.

3. Apples tend to develop a lot of internally crossing and congested branches. Reduce these and keep a neat framework.

4. Apples will produce fruit on the same lateral-spur branches—strong side-shoots from the main leading stem—for several years, so avoid pruning these off.

5. The tree label will likely contain pruning advice for your particular variety. Read this carefully and retain it for future reference.

Apples can be successfully, and easily, trained as espaliers flat against fences or walls. Seek advice if you want to try this.

 

Pests and diseases affecting an apple tree

Apples are prone to a few pest and disease problems, but healthy trees that are well-maintained should be relatively problem free.

  • Sap-sucking insects: scale, aphids and similar. If treated when first seen, these are easily managed. They are most likely to appear on new growth.
  • Fungal disorders: most of these can be avoided by pruning to keep good air circulation through the centre of the tree and by collecting and disposing of fallen leaves and fruits.

Talk with the plant specialist in your local nursery for identification of problems and appropriate treatments.

Growing an apple tree from seed

Apple trees can be grown from seed, but there is dramatic variation in the outcome. This means the variety may not fruit much, if at all, and the fruit may bear little resemblance to that of the parent tree. It will also take at least five years before fruit is seen. Apple seeds can also be very hard to germinate, taking up to a year to start and needing a couple of months of cold to trigger them off.

In short, for the degree of difficulty involved, the outcome is unlikely to be worthwhile.

Growing an apple tree by grafting

Grafting is the best way to propagate apple trees, and this is how it is done commercially. This can, however, be a complex process.

If you like this then try

How to plant a fruit tree: foolproof and simple steps for tree-planting success.

Daffodils: perfect for planting beneath your deciduous apple tree for a gorgeous flowering display.

Mint: you’ve grown the apples for apple sauce, now add some mint for mint sauce!

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