The apple tree is a deciduous, fruit-bearing tree that produces the crisp fruit that gives it its name. It is a relatively small tree, reaching 25 feet in height and dwarf cultivars are available that are considerably smaller, 10 feet tall or less. Small (2 inches long usually, up to 4 inches long), ovular, slightly serrated leaves appear alternately along the branches with a very faint silvery fuzz on their underside. Five-petaled flowers appear in mid to late spring with white to pink petals and yellow interiors. Fruit are pommes, and ripen in late summer to late autumn, depending on the variety of apple. Apple fruits may be red, orange, pink, yellow or green or a combination of any of these. The flavor varies from sweet to tart, depending on the variety and the texture may be quite hard and crisp or mealy and moderately soft.
Apples are native to central Asia, were widely cultivated in Europe and brought to the United States by European immigrants. They are now naturalized throughout the US and much of the world. Apples grow best in growing zones 2 through 9. They prefer a dormant period for best fruit production.
Selecting and Preparing Your Site
Select a well-drained site that gets plenty of sunshine. It doesn’t have to be high ground, but your apple will not survive soggy roots for any length of time. A bit of shade is okay as long as your trees get 6 hours of good sun every day during the growing season. The tree should be somewhat sheltered to avoid breakage of branches during wind storms, but should also be far enough away from other trees that they don’t interfere with the free movement of air around your tree. This is at least 30 feet for standard size trees, 20 feet for dwarf and semi-dwarf sized trees.
Remember, you need to plant two different, compatible trees for pollination, so take this into consideration when you choose your site. If you have crabapples in your neighborhood, or your neighbor has a compatible apple tree, you’re probably going to be okay for pollination. Otherwise, you’ll need to purchase and plant at least two trees. Different varieties have different blooming times, so you’ll want to choose companion trees that have overlapping bloom times.
Once you’ve chosen your spot, you may wish to take a soil sample and send it for testing to make sure it’s right for your tree. Google “yourstate soil testing” to order a mailing kit and find out where to send it. Here in Michigan it’s the Michigan State University extension. The extension website will explain to you exactly how to take the soil test sample and, after you get it back, how to read it. Soil is important, but not as important as air circulation, sunlight and drainage.
You should clear away all grass and weeds in a four foot (or larger) circle around where you are planning to plant your apple tree. Grass is not a good companion for apple trees. You can keep the grass from creeping back in with a heavy much of woodchips or straw, or plant some suitable companion plants (see below) or both.
Digging the Hole
Dig your hole about three times as deep and wide as you think you need for your root ball to spread out in – or even bigger. Remove any big rocks and mix the soil you’ve taken out of the hole with some compost and any soil amendments your soil test indicated you need. Place some of the mixture in the bottom of your hole until its the depth you need it to be to rest the root ball on.
Planting the Tree
Apples can be planted in spring or fall when they are dormant. Here in Michigan, spring is better because or winters can be brutal. Our springs can be brutal too, but a long, brutal period of freeze and wind is easier for a tree to deal with after a season of root growth to get it firmly established.
Your tree will come to you either in a pot, or bare rooted. Hopefully it is dormant. It may have little buds on it, but no green leaves. It is a good idea to get your tree into the ground as soon as you get it home. If it is bare rooted, you can soak the root in water overnight before planting it. If it is in a pot, take it out of the pot and break up the soil around the root ball before planting.
If you bought your tree from a nursery it is most-likely grafted. Look for the graft union in the trunk of your tree above the root ball. You will find it near the bottom of the trunk. It will be a funny lump or mark, a scar, and the trunk will look slightly different above and below the funny bit. When you put the tree in the hole you have dug, the roots should be spread out nicely and the graft union should be at least an inch above the soil line.
Once that’s all handled, fill in your hole and tamp the soil down. Water thoroughly- much more than you think it needs, then cover the entire cleared area with a thick layer of mulch. Make sure the mulch does not touch the bark of your new tree as this can cause rot.
Protecting Your Apple Tree
If you are using a predator guard, may want to incorporate its installation with the covering of the tree’s roots. I like to use a wire mesh, like chicken wire or hardware cloth and sink it about two inches into the soil so it stands at least 3 feet above it. This might be taller than the tree. That’s okay. It keeps the deer out. You don’t want to bury the wire mess too deep, because eventually the tree will need to be released from it and you don’t want that to be too complicated an operation. You certainly don’t want tree roots growing through it. You will also want to put at least one stake in the ground to keep the predator guard steady.
There is also a thing called a gopher basket that you plant the tree right inside of that protects its roots from being chewed on by tunneling pests. I have no experience with such a thing, but if you have problems with such critters, it may be worth using.
If you are planting an entire orchard, it may be a better use of your time to enclose the entire thing with a temporary or permanent fence. It’ll need to be at least 6 feet high to keep out deer, though some deer will leap that with enough run up just fine. You’ll also want to bury the bottom of the fence several inches underground, though some predators will happily dig up to 4 feet down for the sake of snacks. I take a rather more elaborate approach to predators by planting all sorts of tall and delicious things outside my fence to distract them from what’s inside. Sunflowers are great for this. They interfere with a deer’s runup and the deer like to munch on them as much as anything else. I toss down whatever extra seeds I have after I’ve planted my garden for maximum distraction. The woodchuck is especially distracted by brussels sprouts.
Choosing and Acquiring your Apple Tree
Apple Trees From Seed
Apple trees can be grown from seed with a little effort, but the fruit you get from your tree is not likely to resemble that of the parent tree. Apples are not self-fertile and require a different type to pollinate. If your apples are pollinated by bees and other long-distance travelers, you really never know what you’re going to get. It could be other apples on your property, or the neighbor’s apples or ornamental crabapples that “father” the seeds, so the flavor of the fruit could be awful, or wonderful. It is worth the experiment if you’ve got the space and time, but not worth it if you’ve only got space for one or two trees and you’re impatient for apples. You can pollinate your apples carefully using a Q-tip to transfer pollen from one tree to another to create a hybrid of your choosing, but it’s still a grand experiment. It could be lots of fun, but it’s an experiment that will take several years to bear fruit.
That all being said, apple seeds like to be cold stratified. Then you can grow them like any other seed in good soil.
Apple Trees from Nursery Plants
Your local nursery likely has many apple trees that grow well and have proven popular in your area. Choose a tree that has been kept outdoors, not one that is displayed indoors. If the store is displaying trees indoors, it may have grown accustomed to the unnatural indoor climate and planting it outdoors cold prove a deadly shock to it.
If you are looking for more apple varieties than the old standbys that your local nursery stocks, you may wish to purchase apples online. These are likely to come to you as bare root stock and are probably only available for delivery at the right planting time for your area. Try Orange Pippen Trees in the Eastern US or Trees of Antiquity in the Western US or Bernewode Fruit Trees in the UK.
My husband and I like to grow historic varieties of things. (He says “It’s very Pagan of us.” Whatever that means.)
Remember that apple trees do not self-pollinate, so you’ll need to get two varieties unless you have close neighbors that grow compatible apples or crab apples.
Both varieties should be hardy for your growing zone and you must be sure that they bloom at the same time.
Early-blooming apple trees bloom in early April. Mid-blooming apple trees bloom in April to May.
Late blooming apple trees bloom May to June. If your two apple trees do not bloom at the same time, they can not pollinate each other.
Crabapples have a much longer blooming period, as they’ve been bred for their flowers and not their fruit, so they can pollinate over a longer period of time. But any offspring they produce are not likely to taste very good. (Crabapples are edible, by the way, they are just small and hard and not very sweet, but this is nothing some sugar and a bit of a simmer won’t fix.)
Be aware that some apple varieties have sterile pollen and are useless as pollinators due to uneven numbers of chromosomes. These are polyploid or triploid. You can read more about it here
A comprehensive encyclopedia of apple varieties can be found here:
Care of Apple Trees
Apple trees do not require regular care like garden plants, but they do require annual maintenance in the early spring and, if you find you have trouble with pests, in the late spring as well.
Pest and Disease Control
Many people do not spray their apple trees and it works out fine. If you cultivate beneficial insects, invite insect-eating birds to your yard and engage in strategic companion planting, and maybe let your chickens and ducks run around the orchard for a few weeks here and there, you may have no problems. If you do, some of them can easily be trapped without resorting to sprays. Many diseases and fungal infections can be kept at bay with proper pruning and spacing to ensure adequate ventilation throughout your trees’ branches as well as ensuring the tree’s proper nutrition by keeping competing weeds (grass) away from it and mulching it heavily with a a good, organic compost that will break down and feed it each year (and don’t forget to let your tree eat its own leaves too!). A healthy tree can withstand some pest pressure and will be able to resist diseases.
If you do run into problems with pests and diseases, you will have better luck identifying and treating the specific problem rather than dousing your tree with generalized pesticides which can harm beneficial insects and actually cause a boom in pest populations.
Pruning Apple Trees
While I do not recommend the severe pruning that some people do, your apple tree will require some pruning to keep it healthy and producing. Pruning should take place while the tree is dormant, in the late winter/early spring.
First, any dead or seriously damaged or diseased limbs should be removed. These block sunlight, add weight and may spread rot to the rest of the tree.
You also want to get rid of any unproductive limbs that are just shading out the rest of the tree and blocking circulation, as these can help create an environment that is conducive to fungus growth. Every year, your tree will send up some thin shoots that are pointing straight up along the trunk. These aren’t helpful and can be removed. Some of these will be the perfect size for wands or to slice into rune discs, but most will be quite slender and best suited to nibbling by bunnies.
Branches that cross over each other can interfere with each other’s growth, so it’s a good idea to choose your favorite and cut away the other.
Your apple tree will begin growing fruit about 3-5 years after you’ve planted it, depending on the variety. Dwarf apple trees begin producing sooner than standard sized trees.
Most apples mature about mid-autumn, though there are varieties that mature as early as July and as late as November. Temperature variations in any particular season can also affect the maturation of apples, a mild spring may mean an earlier-than-usual apple harvest. If you have inherited an apple tree when you moved into your house, you may not have any idea when the apple is supposed to be ripe or even what it’s supposed to look like when it is ripe. Never fear, when your apples are ready and ripe, they will separate from the tree with a quick twist. If they make you yank and struggle, they aren’t ready and you should leave them alone for another week and try again. If your apples start falling out of the tree, that’s a good sign that they’re ready to be picked.
If you have an early frost and your temperatures drop below about 28 degrees Fahrenheit but have not yet picked your apples, wait until your temperatures warm up and then pick your apples right away. They should still be okay after one freeze, but repeated freezing will cause serious damage to your harvest. The freeze will shorten your apples’ shelf life, so if you were planning on long-term storage for these apples, you may want to rethink your plans and process them into sauce and cider and pie filling or dry them instead. If they weren’t quite ripe, then cooking and freezing or canning is your best option for good flavor.
If you are planning to store your apples for fresh eating into the winter, pick them the moment they are ready and handle them carefully. Do not wash them. Examine each piece carefully before storing to ensure that you are only storing perfect specimens. Any bruises or insect damage can cause your stored apples to rot.
Apples can be stored in a cool, humid environment. The bottom drawer of your fridge is a good spot but I don’t have room for many in there with all the other stuff I keep in my fridge. I like to store apples in my basement. Lay them in a single layer, not touching in a cardboard box, place a sheet of corrugated cardboard or several layers of newspaper on top of this layer and put another layer of apples on that, repeat until your box is full. Store the box in the basement, off the floor and provide good ventilation. Check your stored apples periodically and remove any that show any sign of decay as this can quickly spread to the rest of your apple box.
Any apples that are not suitable for storage can be processed into dried apple rings, apple butter, apple sauce or Cranberry apple sauce or used in jelly recipes, where their natural pectin is very useful, or made into pies and frozen. Just cut off the bad bits and compost them.
French Marigold Tagetes patula or Mexican Marigold Tagates minuta, Comfrey, Southernwood, Strawberries, Thyme, Chives, Nasturtium, Fennel, Egyptian Walking Onions, Asparagus, Feverfew, Monarda, Dill, Garlic Chives, Tulips, Artichoke, Bush Beans, Camas/quamash, wintergreen, Ground cherry
Poultry can damage young trees but are of great benefit to the mature orchard.
lawn grass, roses, and cane fruit
Potential Pests and Diseases
aphids don’t usually do much damage to apple trees unless infestations are severe. You can keep numbers down with a strong stream of water, horticultural oil or insecticidal soap if needed. Creating a good environment for aphid predators is the best way to control them, and parasites will damage predators as well as aphids. Ants will protect aphids from predators and can be controlled by painting a sticky stripe of something like tanglefoot around the tree that will catch them as they climb up. Wooly aphids will attack the roots of some apple trees in some areas. Keeping the area clear of suckers and weeds will make infestations less likely. If they are a serious problem, wooly aphid resistant rootstock is available.
Tarnished plant bugs feed on the sap of leaves and young buds and inject digestive enzymes that cause the breakdown of the cell wall. Keeping weeds down in the area will prevent the proliferation of these bugs; they especially like aster and carrot family weeds, but like other flowering plants as well. Mowing down any tall weeds in the autumn will hamper overwintering. White sticky traps may be hung in fruit trees to capture invading adults. Nymphs can be knocked loose with a strong hose stream.
Green fruit worms are moth larvae. They rarely cause serious damage in trees, but can destroy crops by causing flower drop and fruits to be deformed and scarred. Adults can be caught in sticky traps and larvae can be picked off by hand. Bacillus Thuringiensis bacteria can also keep populations of larvae down.
Codling moth adults look like bird poop and their larvae burrow into apples and fill them with worm poop. Coddling moth traps attract and kill male adults using pheromone lures and should be used very early in the season. They are more useful for monitoring infestations than actually treating them. Later, individual fruits can be protected by enclosing them in a mesh or paper bag to prevent the larvae from getting into them (nylon footies work). Infested fruit should be removed and disposed of as soon as possible. You can cut the bad parts out of the fruit and still cook up the good bits. Early season varieties have fewer problems with these pests than late-season varieties do. Spinosad is effective, but it will also kill beneficial insects. If you have a severe infestation, follow the instructions carefully. There is a new product, codling moth granulosis virus that causes only codling moth larvae to get sick and die. It’s not yet widely available.
Oriental fruit moth can be controlled using similar techniques to codling moth.
Plum curculio is a weevil. A little beetle critter with an elephant snout with jaws at the end. The adults eat buds, leaves and flowers and lay eggs in the fruit. Kaolin clay can be applied to the developing fruit to prevent egg laying and feeding on the fruit. It is important to collect and dispose of damaged fruits to interrupt the life cycle of the weevil.
Apple maggot is the larva of a small black and white fly. Females lay their eggs in the apples, causing them to become dimpled and misshapen, then the maggots feed on the apples until they fall when they pupate in the soil to emerge as adults in the spring. Picking up windfall apples is very important to interrupt the life cycle. Letting your chickens scratch under your apple trees in the fall can only help. Bagging developing apples will restrict the females’ access to lay her eggs. Apple maggot traps are sticky, red spheres that trap females when they come to lay their eggs. You can make your own or purchase them ready mead, reusable or disposable. If you make your own, they should be about 3 inches in diameter and red. You can use actual apples for this. You can also hang these in Hawthorn or crabapple trees. Koalin clay makes the fruit less attractive to the female flies.
Leafrollers are the larvae of moths. There are many different types. They can cause damage to fruit, but its mostly superficial and you can usually just peel it off and the fruit is still good underneath. There are a number of species that parasitize or otherwise prey on the worms, including tachinid flies and ichneumonid wasps, lacewings and assassin bugs. Leafrollers don’t usually do a lot of damage and affected branches can be cut off and disposed of, but large infestations can defoliate a tree. Bacillus thuringiensis can be effective if it is sprayed as soon as possible after the worms hatch.
Apple budmoth is another moth caterpillar. These burrow into buds and feed on leaf and flower parts. They then create webby nests in which they later pupate. These can be cut down and destroyed. A second generation starts after the adults emerge and begin breeding. These pupate on the bark, making well-camouflaged nests on the bark where they will overwinter and emerge in the spring. They don’t cause a lot of damage unless they are infestations are serious, though they can result in spots on an apple that can be easily cut away. Parasitic wasps target these species and they can be managed much the same as leafrollers.
Leafminers are fly larvae create paths of damage through leaves that tend to be more unattractive than actually damaging, but they can allow secondary infections into a plant. They don’t usually do a lot of damage to apple trees and prefer other hosts. Minor infestations can be managed by squeezing the damaged leaves between your fingers, killing the maggots burrowing within. Yellow or blue sticky traps will capture adults and Neem oil can be used as a deterrent. Diglyphus isaea wasps prey on this species.
Leafhoppers cause leaf margin yellowing and rusting. They feed on sap and a leave sticky tarry honeydew substance behind. They can also carry diseases. Many leafhopper species have developed resistance to common insecticides and many of those that remain effective are very dangerous for beneficial insects. Ladybugs, lacewings and pirate bugs may feed on leafhopper eggs and destroying these will only make matters worse. Newly hatched nymphs can be dispatched with a direct spray of insecticidal soap, but adults are not so vulnerable. Young trees can be protected from leafhoppers by netting, but this obviously won’t work for adult trees. Leafhoppers overwinter in nearby plants, including roses and can fruit as well as vegetable and ornamental plants. Autumn cleanup and quickly discarding and burning garden waste will reduce the overwintering population.
Spider mites are arachnids that feed on plants. They are very tiny and a few spider mites won’t do much damage, but large numbers of them can cover leaves and fruit with tiny spots and webs. While you may lose some leaves, the damage is usually superficial. In dry weather, spider mites may cause more damage because they are using plants for their hydration needs, so hosing your trees down regularly in dry weather will be helpful. Predatory insects love spider mites and pesticides are more likely to kill them than the mites.
Japanese Beetles can cause serious problems on apple trees and closely related fruits and flowers as they can appear in droves and defoliate a tree quickly. Very young trees are most vulnerable and can be protected with a mesh covering. With a number of alternative hosts, you may need to treat your whole yard. Regular forays into your yard, collecting beetles and dropping them into a bucket of soapy water will make a dent. They are slow and easy to catch. A spray of 4 cloves of garlic to of the hottest peppers you can find in a gallon of hot water, steeped overnight is said to repel Japanese beetles as well as various mammal pests. Repeat after rain. Japanese beetles lay their eggs in moist soil and prefer short grass. Slacking off on your lawn mowing and irrigation may prove beneficial. You may wish to replace your lawn with non-grass groundcover wherever possible and keep the lawn out of the orchard. Japanese beetle traps use hormonal lures capable of drawing Japanese beetles from great distances. While they can trap and kill large numbers of beetles, they may actually attract beetles that might not have come to your orchard in the first place so should only be used when beetles are already present and should be offset somewhat from your vulnerable plants.
Uses for Apples
In the fall when I have an abundance of fresh apples, I like to load up the slow cooker in the evening with fresh, sliced, peeled apples and sprinkle a little cinnamon and sugar on them and set it on low. In the morning, after a quick stir, I have a yummy topping for pancakes.
It also tastes great mixed with yogurt after it cools down.
For an easy dessert, I add my favorite biscuit recipe with some cinnamon and sugar added and sprinkle some chopped walnuts on top. I turn it up to high and let it cook until the dough sets. This is great by itself or with ice cream.
I also like to chop and dehydrate my excess apples for use later. They are a great addition to baked goods and my morning oatmeal.
Eat an apple after a meal on the go to clean your teeth, freshen your breath and aid in digestion.
One large apple contains:
116 calories, 30.8 g carbs (5.4 g fiber, 23.2 g sugars), 0.4 g fat and 0.6 g protein
Apples are a good source of Vitamin C and Potassium
Apples are in season in late summer through autumn and store well into winter.
Check out Martha Stewart’s Apple Crafts
Apples are considered feminine in nature and associated with a number of Goddesses including Aphrodite, Hera, Athene, Eris and, of course, Pomona. Its element is Water and it resonates with the energy of the planet Venus.
Apples are used in magic relating to health, rebirth, longevity, strength, peace, love, fertility, abundance and hospitality. It represents the harvest and is a necessary component of many harvest festivals including Second Harvest, Samhain and Thanksgiving.
Apple blossoms can be used in love and healing incense.
Apple wood makes excellent wands and rune stones.
Apple cider is a suitable libation for many Gods.
Let us not forget the story of the little red house with no windows and no doors and a star inside. If you cut an apple across the middle, the seed cells form a star. (Usually 5-pointed.) This represents Venus, or the pentagram if you like.