Farms throughout the Midwest and beyond often have an old apple tree “out back”. They are surprisingly long-lived, one reason to choose your planting site carefully. The ancient apple tree seen here is on an old farmstead in South Carolina. The twisted trunk has character. The twiggy branches show that it has been a long time since anyone did any proper pruning on this relic.
How you prune an apple tree depends on how tall and wide you want it to become. You prune to create strong branches that will hold the fruit off the ground. You can purchase apple trees as standards, dwarfs, semi-dwarfs, and colonnades. The home gardener should look for the small growing varieties that are grafted onto strong rootstock.
Look for apple trees for sale in the fall when they are dormant. You can purchase apple trees as potted trees or sometimes balled and burlapped. Very small trees are often packaged as bare root-often “whips”. These will take the longest to bear a fruit crop. If you are willing to wait, then this is also the least expensive way to get an apple tree growing.
The whips are a single stem without branches. Feathered fruit trees have some branching.
Some apple trees, like this Granny Smith apple pictured here, are supposedly somewhat self-pollinating. If you choose one of these, you can get a small amount of fruit but you will always get more if you plant another variety as a pollinator within 40 feet. This companion should not be the same variety as your prized apple. It does, however, need to blossom at the same time. Interestingly, even a neighbor’s crab apple will pollinate your apple if it is close enough and blooming simultaneously. There are also apples available that have two varieties grafted onto the same tree. Look for these if space is an issue in your yard.
Plant your apple trees in the fall or winter, ideally when they are dormant. Often, when these trees are purchased, you might be afraid the tree is dead instead of taking its winter nap. A simple test will let you check for live tissue. Just take your fingernail and carefully scrape off a small bit of bark from the trunk. If the underlying tissue is green, the tree is alive. If it is black, the tree is dead.
To keep an apple tree small and within reach in a backyard garden, you should begin pruning as soon as you plant your tree. An open center with a few side branches is the easiest way to keep an apple tree under control and low to the ground so you can easily reach the fruit.
To prune, remove the central leader to just above a strong side branch. Identify the leader by following the trunk straight up. The central leader is at the top. Sometimes there are two leaders. Shorten them both. If your tree is a whip, cut it back to about three feet above the ground.
After cutting back the central leader, remove any weak side branches. Leave strong branches that grow almost straight out from the trunk. Now cut those branches back to just a few inches from the trunk.
The strongest branches will be at the lowest point on the trunk of the tree. These branches will be able to hold more fruit then branches farther up.
For more information on pruning, contact your local University Cooperative Extension Service. An excellent book on pruning, not just apple trees but just about everything in the garden is “The Pruning Book” by Lee Reich, published by The Taunton Press.
Choose a site in full sun. You should test the soil before you plant to see if you should incorporate lime. Apple trees prefer a soil pH of 5.8-6.5. Don’t plant apples in low-lying areas where water might collect around the roots. This can lead to root-rot. Sandy loam is the best soil, but since we seldom have perfect soil in our gardens, just make sure the soil will drain well.
Most apple trees are grafted onto stronger rootstocks. When you plant a grafted apple tree, look for the swollen area above the soil line on the trunk. This graft should stay two inches above the garden soil. As your tree settles in and even after it is mature, sprouts might grow from below this graft. Always remove these growths. They will weaken and can even overtake your selected tree. The apples that might form on these will be inferior.
Learn how to prune and fertilize your apple tree every year to keep it looking and bearing a heavy fruit crop. Otherwise, you could end up with a tree that has a trunk full of character but branches too small and tangled to fill up with apples.
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Many folks are surprised to learn that autumn runs a close second to spring as an ideal planting time, but it's true: cool temperatures, reliable rainfall, and short, bright days help plants make a quick and easy transition to your landscape.
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