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Growing apples in the home garden

Dr. Emily E. Hoover, Emily S. Tepe and Doug Foulk

Close up of apples on branch

About apples

You certainly don't need to plant a whole orchard to enjoy apples right off the tree. Two trees will reward any family with enough fruit to enjoy and share with friends. Even though apples require pollen from a different cultivar to set fruit, if you only have room for one tree most likely there are plenty of crab apples in your neighborhood that will provide the pollen your tree needs.

Before choosing an apple tree to plant, take a look around your neighborhood. A pollen source should be within 100 feet of the apple tree you plant to ensure the pollen gets to your tree. If you don't see any crab apples or other apple trees that close, your best bet is to plant two trees of different varieties. Don't worry-most apple trees are grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks these days, and only grow to be about 8-10 feet tall. So even if you're short on space, you probably have space for two of these trees.

Helpful hints

  • Apple trees need at least 8 hours of sun per day during the growing season.
  • Plant trees 6 to 20 feet apart - the lower end of the scale for dwarf trees, more for semi-dwarf, and the most for standard size trees.
  • Two cultivars are required for successful pollination. One can be a crab apple.
  • Prune annually to keep apple trees healthy and productive.
  • Dwarf apple trees will start bearing fruit 2 to 3 years after planting. Standard size trees can take up to 8 years to bear fruit.
  • Some cultivars are more susceptible to insect and disease damage than others.

Cultivars

The cultivars listed here have performed well in trials at the University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station and at commercial orchards throughout the state. There are additional and older cultivars that are hardy to this region; however some are difficult to find, have mediocre fruit quality, or too many challenges to make them good choices for the home garden.

Apple flowers must receive pollen from another cultivar of apple to produce fruit. Therefore, plan to plant two or more varieties of apple. Crabapple trees or other apple trees in your neighborhood will work as pollen sources. Apples are insect pollinated, with bees and flies transferring pollen from flowers of one tree to those of another. For best pollination, trees should be within 100 feet of each other.

long row of apple trees

At the Univeristy of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, cultivars, rootstocks, and production systems are continuously tested to determine which are best suited to our climate.

Minnesota map showing hardiness zones

Minnesota Fruit Hardiness Zones. Generalized map based on the 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Visit planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/ for the official, detailed map.

Apple cultivars recommended for northern gardens. Cultivars listed in bold are University of Minnesota releases and include date of introduction.

Cultivar Hardiness Average harvest date Best uses
Zone 4
Zone 3
   
Chestnut (1949) Excellent Very good Early to mid Sept. Fresh eating, sauce.
Large crabapple with russeted skin. Rich, intense, nutty flavor. Fruit stores for 4 to 5 weeks. Moderately resistant to apple scab and fireblight.
Cortland Good Fair Late Sept. to early Oct. Fresh eating, cooking, salad.
Medium size. Sweet to tart, aromatic flavor. Flesh is slow to turn brown when cut. Susceptible to apple scab and fireblight.
Freedom Good Fair Sept. Fresh eating, cooking.
Crisp, juicy and sweet. Immune to apple scab and moderately resistant to fireblight.
Frostbite™ (2008) Excellent Very good Late Sept. to mid Oct. Fresh eating, cider.
Intensely sweet, firm and juicy. Extremely cold hardy, small in size. Stores for 3 to 4 months. Good for areas too cold to grow anything else. Moderately resistant to apple scab and fireblight.
Haralson (1922) Very good Good Late Sept. to early Oct. Fresh eating, cooking. Great pie apple.
Medium size, striped red. Especially good pie apple. Fruit stores for 4 to 5 months. Moderately resistant to apple scab and fireblight.
Honeycrisp (1991) Very good Good Late Sept. Best for fresh eating. Good for cooking.
Medium-large fruit is extremely juicy and crisp. Flesh is slow to turn brown when cut. Stores well for 7 months or more. Moderately resistant to apple scab and fireblight.
Honeygold (1970) Good Fair Early Oct. Excellent for fresh eating. Good for cooking.
Medium size, golden to yellow-green. Crisp, juicy, and sweet. Stores for 2 to 3 months. Susceptible to apple scab and fireblight.
Liberty Good Fair Early Oct. Fresh eating, cooking.
Moderately resistant to fire blight. Medium size, well-balanced flavor similar to the McIntosh, but firmer. Immune to apple scab and resistant to fireblight.
Regent (1964) Good Fair Early to mid Oct. Fresh eating, cooking.
Red-striped. Crisp and juicy, with well-balanced flavor. Stores for 4 to 5 months. Susceptible to apple scab and fireblight.
SnowSweet® (2006) Good Fair Mid Oct. Fresh eating, salad, cooking.
Large, bronze-red blush fruit. Low-acid, sweet flavor. Flesh is slow to brown when cut. Stores for up to 2 months. Moderately susceptible to apple scab and fireblight.
Sweet Sixteen (1977) Very good Good Mid to late Sept. Fresh eating.
Medium to large size, stripes and solid wash of rosy red. Crisp, juicy, very sweet with spicy, cherry candy flavor. Stores for 5 to 8 weeks. Moderately resistant to apple scab and fireblight.
Wealthy Good Fair Early Sept. Fresh eating, cooking.
Medium size, slightly acidic. Resistant to apple scab and fireblight. Doesn't store as long as others.
William's Pride Good Fair Mid Aug. Fresh eating, cooking.
Medium size, slightly acidic. Resistant to apple scab and fireblight. Doesn't store as long as others.
Zestar!® (1999) Good Fair Late Aug. to early Sept. Fresh eating, cooking.
Large, crunchy, juicy red fruit with a balanced sweet-tart flavor. Stores for 6 to 8 weeks. Susceptible to apple scab. Some resistance to fireblight.

Getting started

Tree on the ground, arrows point to various parts

Jon Clements, University of Massachusetts

Parts of a grafted apple tree. The scion is the part of the tree above the graft union that contains the branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit. The scion is the cultivar (ex. Honeycrisp). The rootstock is the part of a grafted tree below the graft union that contains the roots. The graft union is where the scion and rootstock were joined. Recognized by a bulge in the trunk several inches above the roots.

Buying plants

When purchasing an apple tree, you are actually selecting a plant made up of two genetically different individuals grafted together, the scion and the rootstock. The scion is the aboveground part of the tree that produces the type of fruit desired (for example, 'Honeycrisp' or 'Haralson'). The rootstock, on the other hand, plays a major role in determining the tree's ultimate size and how long it will take to bear fruit. When purchasing an apple tree, you should know both the scion and the rootstock you're getting.

Seedling or standard rootstocks may cause the tree to grow 20 or more feet tall. Dwarfing rootstocks reduce tree size by up to 75%, so that a tree may be only 8, 12, or 15 feet tall when mature, depending upon its rootstock, scion variety, and growing conditions. Whether the fruiting variety is grafted onto standard or dwarfing rootstock, the fruit size and quality will be the same. Standard trees can yield up to 10 bushels of fruit per tree. Dwarf trees are likely to produce 2 to 3 bushels per tree.

Choosing an apple tree on a dwarfing rootstock has many benefits. Because the trees are shorter than standard trees, pruning, pest control, thinning, and harvest are all simplified. Trees grafted to dwarfing rootstocks require only 3 to 4 years to begin bearing fruit, while standard-sized trees may require eight years or more. Because the trees are also proportionally narrower in spread, you may be able to fit two or three trees into a small space, making them a better choice for the urban landscape.

There are, of course, advantages to standard sized apple trees as well. Standard rootstocks are more tolerant of both wetter and drier soils, and are better anchored than are the dwarfing types. If these factors are of primary importance to you, and you have the space, then a standard sized tree may be your best choice.

If you have limited space and want to grow an apple tree, pay particular attention to the rootstock. Often the nurseries will label the trees dwarfing, semi-dwarfing, and standard. If you have an interest in a specific rootstock, talk with your local nursery. They might be able to order a tree for you. Otherwise, you might want to order trees from a nursery that grafts each cultivar on various rootstocks to get the combination you desire.

Common rootstock for Minnesota

Seedling

A 'seedling' rootstock is actually grown from the seed of an apple, often McIntosh or another common, hardy variety. Although one will not know exactly what one is getting with a seedling rootstock - every single seed is a genetically different individual - hardiness, anchorage and adaptability to different soil types are generally excellent.

MM.111

This rootstock, sometimes termed 'semi-dwarfing,' other times 'semi-standard,' produces a tree about 80 percent the height of a standard tree. In many areas of Minnesota, this can work out to roughly a 14-18 foot tree. MM.111 is a hardy, well-anchored rootstock that can withstand drier soil conditions, making it an excellent choice, especially for western parts of the state.

M.9 (also: EMLA 9 - virus-free)

This rootstock performs well under many conditions and produces a tree 40-50% the height of a standard tree. It produces fruit very early in the life of the tree. M.9t has poor anchorage due to brittle roots and a high fruit: wood ratio which means it requires staking for the life of the tree. M.9 is very susceptible to fire blight. It produces moderate amounts of root suckers and burr knots.

M.26 (also: EMLA 26 - virus-free)

This dwarfing rootstock produces a tree 8-10 feet in height. Trees planted on M.26 generally require staking for the first few years of growth or, on windy sites, for the life of the tree. M.26 is reliably hardy, but is especially susceptible to fire blight. Fruit is produced very early in the tree's life, sometimes within three years from planting.

To learn more about apple rootstocks, see our resources at www.extension.org

Preparation

Apple trees require full sun, so choose a spot where the sun shines directly on the tree for at least 8 hours each day. When it comes to soil, apple trees can grow in most soils as long as there is no standing water and the pH of the soil is between 6 and 7. Avoid areas where water stands for several hours after a rain. If you are unsure about your soil pH, conduct a soil test to determine soil conditions before planting and amend the soil as suggested by the results. In Minnesota, get information about soil testing from the University of Minnesota soil testing lab.

Spacing

How much space do you need for apple trees? A good rule of thumb for a garden fruit tree is to provide at least as much horizontal space as the anticipated height of the tree. Closer planting will make it more difficult to keep the tree in its allotted space, increasing shading and reducing the number and quality of the fruit coming from your tree.

Planting

Dig a hole for each tree that is no deeper than the root ball, and about twice as wide. When you dig the soil out of the hole, pile it on a tarp or piece of plywood so it's easier to get it back in the hole. You may mix in up to one-third by volume compost, peat moss, or other organic matter. Most of what goes back in the planting hole should be the soil you took out of the hole. There is no need to add fertilizer to the hole.

If you purchased bare root trees, closely examine the root system and remove encircling roots or J-shaped roots that could eventually strangle the trunk. For containerized trees, inspect the root systems for encircling woody roots. If woody roots are wrapped around in a circle, straighten them or make several cuts through the root ball prior to planting. This may seem destructive, but it actually helps the plant produce a stronger root system and prevents the formation of girdling roots that eventually weaken the tree.

Video courtesy of Jon Clements, University of Massachusetts.

Position each tree so that the graft union is about 4 inches above the soil line. You can identify the graft union because there is a swelling where the cultivar meets the rootstock. If the graft union is placed close to or below the soil line, the cultivar will root, causing trees to grow to full size. Spread the roots of bare root trees, making sure none are bent. Have someone help you get the tree standing up straight. Begin adding the soil, tamping to remove air pockets as you go.

After the hole is filled, tamp gently and water thoroughly to remove remaining air pockets. The soil may settle an inch or two. If this happens, add more soil.

Tree spacing

  • Standard trees: 20-25 feet
  • Semi-dwarf trees: 12-15 feet
  • Dwarf trees: 6-8 feet

Initial pruning

If you plant a larger tree, remove any limbs originating from the base of the tree and any branches lower than 24 inches. If there are 2 or more branches competing to be the leader, choose one and remove the others.

Diagram of a small tree trunk

Prune an unfeathered tree to about 30 inches tall, just above a bud. Make this cut at a 45° angle.

Diagram of a small tree trunk with protruding branches

For a feathered tree, prune out any branches that are competing with the leader, that look weak, or that grow at an odd angle. Leave 2 to 3 strong, well-spaced branches.

If your tree has numerous branches, select 4 or 5 scaffold branches from those that remain, pruning out any other branches that are growing just above or just below scaffolds. The scaffold branches should have wide angles, at least sixty degrees relative to the trunk.

If you have purchased a small tree with little or no branches, prune the trunk to about 30 inches above the ground. This will induce branching, resulting in scaffold branch options the following year. If the tree has a few small branches, choose 2 or 3 sturdy ones at least 18 inches from the ground to keep as scaffolds and remove all others.

Planting is a good time to install a tree guard to protect your tree from winter injury and bark chewing by small mammals. These are usually made of plastic and are available at most nurseries and online. Tree guards exclude voles, also called meadow mice, and rabbits, preventing them from feeding on the bark. Guards also reflect sunlight from the trunk, which helps prevent the trunk from heating up on a cold, sunny winter day. If the bark temperature gets above freezing, water in the conductive tissue under the bark becomes liquid and begins to flow through the cells. When the sun goes down or behind a cloud, the liquid water suddenly freezes, damaging the cells and sometimes killing all the tissue on one side of the trunk. This is called sunscald.

Once the tree has rough and flaky mature bark, neither winter sun nor chewing animals can harm it, so tree guards will not be necessary. For the first years of its life, however, it's important to protect the trunk of your fruit tree.

Watering

Throughout the life of the tree, you should water its root zone thoroughly during the growing season whenever there is a dry spell. Ideally, the tree should receive one inch of water from rainfall and/or irrigation every week from May through October.

Thin tree trunk next to a metal bar

Jon Clements, University of Massachusetts

Metal conduit makes a good stake and is readily available at most home improvement stores.

Support

It's a good idea to stake the tree for the first few years. Either a wooden or metal stake will work. A stake should be about the height of the tree after being pounded two feet into the ground. Use a wide piece non-abrasive material to fasten the tree to the stake. Avoid narrow fastenings such as wire or twine, as they may cut into the bark.

Through the seasons

Fertilizer and mulch

Once established, an apple tree planted on a favorable site, in properly prepared soil, should thrive with minimal fertilization. Nitrogen is normally the only mineral nutrient that needs to be added on an annual basis and can be added using compost.

The branches of non-bearing young apple trees will normally grow 12 to 18 inches per year while the branches of bearing apple trees will grow 8 to 12 inches in a season. If growth exceeds these rates, apply no compost at all, as excessive growth inhibits fruit production, and lush growth is more susceptible to fireblight infection.

Follow this list of tasks to keep your apple trees healthy and productive.

Things to do When to do them
Plant bare root trees as soon as the soil can be worked April, May
Plant potted trees after threat of frost has passed May, June
For existing trees, prune before growth begins, after coldest weather has passed March
If last year's growth was less than 12 inches, apply compost around the base of tree April, May
As flower buds begin to turn pink, start watching for insect and disease symptoms May, June
Thin fruit - remove smallest apples to encourage larger fruit June, July
Water trees as you would any other tree in your yard May through October
Harvest. Taste fruit when it appears to be fully colored. If too starchy, wait a few days August through October
Rake up fallen leaves and fruit; compost or discard October, November
Apply tree wrap to prevent winter injury November
Look for deer, vole damage; put fencing around tree if needed November through March

Biennial bearing and thinning fruit

Tree branch with new fruits, x shows which to remove

Terence Robinson

When thinning apples, leave one or two fruits per cluster.

An apple tree will set an abundant crop if conditions are favorable during bloom. Some of the fruit will naturally drop off the tree in mid June, but the tree may be left with more fruit than it can support.

In addition, heavy crops can exacerbate a phenomenon known as biennial bearing in which a heavy crop of small, green apples is followed by little or no crop the next year. Thinning fruit off the trees by hand will minimize biennial bearing and promote larger, higher quality fruit.

The goal of thinning is to leave one or two fruit per flower cluster, or for truly optimal fruit quality, about 4 to 6 inches between fruit on any branch.

Thinning should be done when fruit is about marble size, in late June or early July, after some of the fruit has dropped naturally. Although it may be difficult to make yourself remove the fruit, the quality of the apples you'll harvest in the fall will be greatly improved. Also, you'll be more likely to get fruit every year.

Weeding

For the first three to five years, grass and weeds should be removed from about a three foot radius around the tree. Grasses particularly can deplete soil moisture rapidly and will reduce tree growth. Applying a few inches of mulch around the base of the tree will help prevent weeds. Keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunk to prevent rodent damage and fungal growth.

Three apples in plastic bags on a branch

Bagging apples when they are small and keeping the bags on throughout the season can prevent many problems on fruit. Be sure to cut a small hole in the bottom of the bag to allow condensation to drain.

Insects and other creatures

There are several insect pests that commonly affect apples grown in Minnesota. You might not see these every year, but knowing how to recognize them will help you prevent damage.

The difficult part of controlling insect damage is that often the damage is done before you actually see the insects. Once established, they are difficult to control during that year. If your apples have suffered insect damage in the past, chances are it will happen again. The surest way to reduce infestation is to cover the fruit with a plastic bag when it is about the size of a quarter. Covering the fruit with a bag and cutting a small hole in a corner for condensation to drain works well for controlling apple scab and apple maggot.

Apple maggot

This can be the most destructive of all the insects that attack apples. The adult flies are slightly smaller than houseflies, emerging from the soil in early July. Female flies lay eggs under the skins of apples. After the eggs hatch, the maggots bore into the fruit. In heavy infestations, many larvae can be found in a single fruit, and can be noticed by the brown tracking seen in the fruit. Picking up and destroying fallen fruit once a week from early August through harvest reduces the potential for maggot infestations the following year. Again, covering the fruit reduces infestation by this insect.

Lures and traps can be helpful in detecting the presence of apple maggot flies and reducing the number of fruit they damage. These should be placed in the trees before the end of June to catch flies as they first attempt to lay eggs.

Fly on the tip of a leaf

Joseph Berger, www.bugwood.org

The apple maggot fly is a little smaller than a house fly.

red ball covered in brown dots on a branch

Apple maggot traps like this one are available at fruit tree nurseries and online.

Codling moth

The larva of this moth is a worm found commonly in homegrown apples. Adult moths deposit eggs on leaves and fruit usually around the time the petals are falling off the flowers. The codling moth larva is up to 1/2 inch long, and has a pinkish body with a brownish head. The larvae often tunnel towards the apple cores and feed on the seeds before exiting the fruit.

Crumbly golden-brown frass (excrement) is sometimes found at the hole where the larva exited the apple.

Good sanitation helps prevent codling moth infestations. Remove and destroy any fallen apples throughout the season and after harvest.

Plum curculio

This small, 1/4-inch long weevil lays eggs in apple fruit. Adults overwinter in sheltered areas and emerge in the spring when newly formed fruit is exposed-around petal fall in apples. Females deposit eggs in the fruit, causing small crescent-shaped scars. The larvae bore into the center of the fruit to feed. Infested fruit often drop to the ground in June. Picking up and destroying all drops in early June helps reduce developing larvae. One way to reduce female weevils is to pick or beat them off of the tree.

Other creatures

Small mammals might discover your newly planted apple trees in winter and chew on the young bark. This can be prevented by wrapping the trunk with plastic tree guards or putting a hardware cloth cage around the trunks. Plastic spiral tree guards are easy to use and exclude voles and rabbits, preventing them from feeding on the bark.

Push plastic tree guards or hardware cloth cages into the soil to a depth of two inches. This will keep voles from burrowing under them to get at the trees. Loosen plastic spiral guards periodically to allow the tree to expand and to keep moisture from building up around the trunk. Once the tree has rough and flaky mature bark, chewing animals will not harm it, so tree guards can be removed.

Deer can also be problematic, chewing on young branches of apple trees or rubbing antlers on the trunks. If deer are common in your yard, you may want to put a ring of fencing around the tree, especially in winter, to prevent damage. Make the fence tall enough so the deer can't reach over the top to nibble branches. If you have a lot of trees and significant deer populations, it would be wise to fence your entire planting.

See Pest Management for the Home Apple Orchard.

Diseases and other challenges

The two primary diseases affecting apples in the upper Midwest are apple scab and fireblight. The easiest way to prevent these diseases is to plant resistant cultivars. If you plant susceptible cultivars, there are ways to prevent and manage infection. First and foremost, keep the area around apple trees tidy and free of debris, fallen fruit and foliage, pruned branches, and weeds throughout the year.

Apple scab

The first signs of this disease can often be found on the under surface of the leaves as they emerge from the buds in the spring. Apple scab spores are blown around in the air and land on the the under surface as that is the first to be exposed as the leaves begin to grow. As the leaves continue to grow, both surfaces can be infected as can the fruit. The signs to look for on leaves are velvety, brownish, small circles. As the infection takes hold, these lesions start to grow together and the surfaces of leaves and fruit become distorted.

Tree with several yellow, brown spotted leaves

Apple scab symptoms on foliage.

Apple with blackened and cracked lump

Alan Biggs, West Virginia University

Apple scab symptoms on fruit.

Keeping scab infection to a minimum begins with raking and removing leaves from under the tree the previous fall. Planting cultivars that are resistant to scab is another way to minimize infection. William's Pride, Freedom, and Liberty are immune to this disease. Honeycrisp has some immunity as well. If the cultivar you plant is not immune and you see signs of scab early in the season, the best way to protect the fruit is by covering it with a plastic bag or applying a well-timed spray of organic fungicides such as lime sulfur.

Fireblight

Single curled branch with dead leaves

The telltale symptom of fireblight is brown, 'shepherd's crook' shoots.

Fireblight is caused by a bacterial infection that can kill blossoms, shoots, and eventually entire trees. You might see this disease on the trunk or limbs of a tree as a sunken area with discolored bark. As the lesion gets bigger, it begins to crack around the edges and the tree will look like it has been burned, thus the name fireblight. You also might see the disease developing on new shoots as they grow in the late spring. When shoots are infected, they turn from green to brown to black, also appearing as if burned. The shoot will develop a crook at the end of the shoot.

The best approach to managing fireblight is prevention. Planting fireblight resistant cultivars is a great first step. Next, plant trees in a spot that is well-drained, has full sun and plenty of air circulation. As always, keep the area around the tree very clean and free of debris, fallen fruit and foliage, pruning debris, and weeds.

If you see symptoms of the disease, timing is critical because the disease moves quickly through the tree. To control fireblight on affected shoots, prune out the infected shoots at least 6 inches behind the browning area of that shoot. Remember, the infection is within the tree, so after each pruning cut, disinfect the pruners in a dilute bleach solution so you don't spread the infection with your pruners. Similarly, if branches have fireblight lesions, prune those out well behind the infected area. This may affect the look of your tree, but it will potentially save the life of your tree.

Fireblight is most prevalent in young, fast-growing trees. Avoid hard pruning while the tree is young (up to 3 years) and limit nitrogen fertilizers, both of which cause excessive growth.

See Pest Management for the Home Apple Orchard.

Hail damage

Dented and cracked fruits on a branch

Alan Biggs, West Virginia University

These small hail damaged fruits should be removed to prevent insects and diseases.

Bruised fruit on a branch

Alan Biggs, West Virginia University

If the skin on hail-damaged fruit is not split, the fruit may still be usable. If the skin is split, remove the fruit immediately to prevent diseases and insect pests.

Hail is common in the upper Midwest, occurring at times during the height of summer. Depending on the size of the hail, time of year, and duration of the hail event, damage can occur on flowers, fruit, foliage, shoots, and branches. In many cases damage to the tree itself is minimal, and the tree can usually recover. Monitor the tree for any damaged areas that start to change color or spread. Hail might cause splits in the bark of shoots and branches, making the tree susceptible to diseases. Prune out severely damaged branches immediately. Do not fertilize a hail damaged tree. This would result in excessive vegetative growth, and increase the risk of diseases.

If fruit is dented it might be okay, and is worth keeping on the tree. It may result in a bruise, which would be cut out before eating. If fruit skin is split from hail, it's best to remove damaged fruit because this could attract insect pests and increase chance of disease infection.

Pruning and training

There are many methods of pruning and training apple trees, which can become a bit overwhelming if you take it too seriously. Mainly, you want to prune a tree to have well-spaced branches and a balanced appearance, while eliminating problematic branches (those that are broken, diseased, or dead). If you want to keep it simple, follow the general guidelines below and you will have a perfectly fine apple tree. If you want to understand pruning in a little more detail, read on. If you really want to get into the nuts and bolts of pruning and training, check the additional resources listed below.

General pruning guidelines

  • Remove diseased, broken, or dead branches
  • Remove any downward-growing branches
  • If two limbs are crossed, entangled, or otherwise competing, remove one of them completely at its base.
  • Remove any limbs along the trunk that is getting bigger in diameter than the trunk.
  • Remove suckers coming up from the roots or low on the trunk
  • Remove watersprouts, which are vigorous vertical branches
  • Make pruning cuts close to the branch collar at the base of the limb. For larger limbs, start the cut from the underside of the limb to avoid tearing the bark
  • Remove large limbs first, starting with the top of the tree
  • Thinning cuts remove entire branches at the branch collar and are almost always the recommended type of cut. Heading cuts remove only part of a branch and encourage vegetation growth below the cut, and are not as common.

Fruit trees should be pruned on an annual basis in late winter/early spring, preferably after the coldest weather is past, and before growth begins. Prune minimally, especially with young trees, as excessive pruning will delay or reduce fruiting and create too much leafy growth.

Once the first set of scaffold branches has been selected, select a second set above it. Scaffold branches should be spaced about 12 inches apart. Always keep the conical form in mind when pruning.

Many apple trees are pruned and trained to allow a central main stem, or leader, to be the foundation of the tree off of which side branches, or scaffolds grow. The tree ends up with a conical or pyramid form. In orchard-speak, this is called central leader. This is a simple pruning method, and it makes for a compact, balanced, easily managed tree, with fruit that has maximum access to sunlight and air circulation.

Diagram of three trees

Figure used with permission. http://learningstore.uwex.edu/assets/pdfs/A3639.pdf

This shows the first three years of pruning in the central leader method. You can see how the central trunk is the main structure of a tree that has a pyramid shape.

Renovating old apple trees

Have you moved into a house that has an old, overgrown apple tree? Are the branches overlapping and going every which way? Don't lose hope. This tree is probably fine, it just needs a little work to get it back in shape and productive again.

Reclaiming a mature apple tree that has been neglected for several years can be a challenge, and will take a few years of pruning to make the tree productive again. Here are a few guidelines for renovating a neglected tree:

Training

As you prune your young tree to achieve a good form, you may also need to train it. Training primarily consists of bending young, flexible branches that are growing vertically into more horizontal positions, toward an optimal 60 degree angle from the main stem. Some apple varieties produce strongly vertical growth and need more training; others tend to produce branches that are naturally well-angled.

Training branches at about a 60 degree angle from the main stem slows down the production of new leaves and branch growth, and encourages fruiting. The more vertical a branch, the more vigorously it grows, and the less fruit it tends to produce. Branches that have relatively wide crotch angles are also stronger and better able to support the weight of the crop. Branches that grow more vertically often break away from the tree under the weight of fruit. You don't want to train a branch to be truly horizontal or to grow downwards; it should still be growing more or less upwards.

If a young branch is well placed, but has a narrow branch angle, the use of a device called a "spreader" may help. The spreader - as simple as a notched stick, but otherwise available in various forms at a well-stocked garden center - is wedged in between the branch and the trunk to create a wider angle. To train new branches less than six inches in length, use a wooden spring-type clothespin. Clip the clothespin onto the leader and position the flexible shoot between the other ends of the clothespin. Move the clothespin up or down the leader until you have the young shoot at the proper angle. Always go back and remove the spreaders at the end of the growing season.

Harvest and storage

The redness of an apple is not always a good indicator of its ripeness. When assessing the maturity of apples, look for a change in the background color, the part of the skin not covered with red color. When the background color (also called ground color) begins to change from green to a greenish yellow color, the apple is starting to ripen. Other than Honeygold, all other apples we recommend should have a green-turning-to-yellow background color when fully ripened.

Pick a few apples that appear to be ripe and taste them to be sure they are at the maturity stage you prefer. As apples ripen, starch in the flesh is converted to sugar. An unripe apple will be starchy and leave a sticky film on your teeth. A ripe apple may still be tart, but it should have developed aromatic flavors. You may need to pick the fruit from the same tree several times over the course of a week or two in order to get all the fruit at the right stage of maturity.

How to pick an apple

Clump of red apples

David Hansen

Frostbite™ apples, ready to pick.

To pick and apple, gently take the fruit in the palm of your hand, then lift and twist in a single motion. Alternatively, use one hand to hold the short, thick fruiting spur that bore the apple, and the other hand to lift and twist the fruit. Avoid pulling or yanking the fruit as you could pull off the spur, taking with it next year's flower buds.

Storing apples

Apples last the longest at standard refrigerator temperatures, about 33°F to 38°F, with about 85% humidity. Although garages, basements, and root cellars may provide adequate storage conditions, the best place to store apples at home is usually the refrigerator. Warmer temperatures always shorten the storage life of apples. Apples stored near 33°F may last as much as 10 times longer than apples stored at room temperature.

High humidity helps reduce the shriveling of apples in storage. If the storage environment is low in humidity, as most refrigerators are, the fruit should be stored in a perforated plastic bag or a loosely covered container. Although apples are lovely displayed in a fruit bowl, such conditions will dramatically reduce their usable life.

Row of apple trees.  Base of trunks are surrounded by white tube

Tree guards help prevent winter injury and damage from rodents.

Winter protection

White plastic tree guards or tree wrap can help prevent winter injury, or sunscald, to young trees. The white material reflects sunlight from the trunk, which helps prevent the trunk from heating up on a cold, sunny winter day. If the bark temperature gets above freezing, water in the tissues under the bark becomes liquid and begins to flow through the cells. When the sun goes down or behind a cloud, the liquid water suddenly freezes, damaging the cells and sometimes killing the tissue on one side of the trunk.

Tree guards can be removed once the bark becomes thick and scaly, after about 6-8 years. In the mean time, loosen the guard periodically to allow the tree to expand. A good practice is to remove the tree guard for the growing season and put it back on in the fall.

Additional resources

Downloadable eBook

cover of book Growing Fruit in the Northern GardenGrowing Fruit in the Northern Garden
eBook for iPad, iPhone and Mac
University of Minnesota Department of Horticultural Science

Pruning and training

Fruit Production for the Home Gardener
Penn State University Extension
Fruit Growing Guides for Commercial and Home Growers
Cornell University
Growing Apricots, Cherries, Peaches, and Plums in Wisconsin
University of Wisconsin Extension

WW-01125

Revised 2015

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