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How to Choose an Apple Tree for Planting

Apple dwarf1
Apple dwarf
Dwarf apple tree

Before you buy and plant an apple tree consider the following:

■ Space to grow and form of the tree. How much space do you have? This will determine the form of the tree you choose.

■ Size of tree and type of rootstock. What size tree will fit the space? The ultimate size of an apple tree is determined by its rootstock.

■ Use of fruit: fresh eating or cooking. What kind of apple do you want? For fresh eating, cooking, or storing? Consider the cultivars and variety of apple you’d like to grow and eat.

■ Flowering time and harvest. When will the tree flower? This will determine pollination–apples require a second cultivar or variety to cross-pollinate–and harvest time.

Here is a review of each of these considerations:

Apple Tree Sizes

The space you have to grow an apple tree will determine the form of the tree. Here are apple tree forms and the space they require:

Standard-size apple tree can grow to 40 feet tall if not pruned and have a spread of 30 to 40 feet. More commonly standard apple trees are pruned to a height of about 20 feet. The trunk will grow to about 6 feet tall. Plant standard apple trees 30 feet apart in rows 30 to 40 feet apart. A standard apple tree will bear fruit in 4 to 8 years and will live to about 60 years old. Standard apple trees are very hardy and are a good choice for planting in very cold winter regions. Standard-size apple trees are not commonly planted in home gardens or even most commercial orchards.

Semi-dwarf or half-standard apple tree will grow to 15 to 20 feet tall if not pruned and will grow as wide. Semi-dwarf apple trees are commonly pruned to 12 to 15 feet tall and wide. The trunk will grow to about 4 feet tall. Semi-dwarf apple trees should be planted 12 to 15 feet apart in rows 15 to 20 feet apart. These trees can have a central leader (a single main shoot rising from the trunk) or several leaders–sometimes pruned to a cup shape. Semi-dwarf trees are very commonly grafted trees; a shoot (called scion) taken from an apple variety (which transmits the fruiting qualities of the variety) is grafted on to a particular rootstock (to provide vigor to the grafted scion) which determines the size of the tree. A semi-dwarf apple tree will bear fruit in 3 to 4 years and live to be about 60 years old. These trees often require a ladder to prune and harvest.

Dwarf or bush apple will grow to 10 to 12 feet tall and as wide. Bush apple trees usually have trunks that are 2 to 3 feet high. Plant dwarf or bush apple trees 12 to 15 feet apart in rows 15 feet apart. These trees can have a central leader (a single main shoot rising from the trunk) or several leaders. Dwarf or bush apple trees can be grafted–an apple variety grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock (see explanation above)–or genetic dwarf, a naturally compact tree growing to about 7 feet tall or so. Bush trees are commonly planted at about two years old. They bear fruit quickly–at 3 to 4 years old. Bush apple trees grow close to the ground and are easily picked and pruned without a ladder. Dwarf trees are not as hardy as standard trees and grow best in mild-winter regions.

Cordon apple tree is commonly a semi-dwarf or dwarf apple tree whose growth is trained to a single main stem or leader (called cordon) or multiple leaders (called double “U” cordon with two vertical leaders, or multiple cordons with three or four vertical leaders); the leaders are trained upright or oblique. Cordons are suited for small spaces as the tree is trained to a horizontal plane rather than allowed to form a bush or tree. Cordons produce fruit on short side shoots. Cordons must be pruned regularly during the growing season to keep their shape and size. The leaders on these trees are commonly trained at an angle of 45 degrees by being tied to two wires stretched at heights of about 2½ and 5 feet between posts rising 7 feet out of the ground and placed at 10-foot intervals. Cordon apple trees should be planted at a distance 1½ to 3 feet apart in rows 6 to 10 feet apart. Cordon trees are usually planted at about one year old.

Espalier apple trees are trees trained with a central vertical trunk or leader and two or three tiers of horizontal branches or arms trained to radiate to the left and right of the central leader. Espaliers are commonly trained to horizontal wires stretched 24 inches apart. Espaliers, like cordons, are good for small spaces. Plant apple trees for espalier 12 to 15 feet apart in rows 8 to 10 feet apart. Espalier apple trees are usually planted when three to four years old.

Dwarf pyramids, fans, or palmettes are apple trees trained to a small height on wires. These trees can be shaped as a pyramid or triangle, a fan–usually with two main leaders or ribs radiating from a short trunk with sub laterals forming a fan shape, or palmettes, a cross between an espalier and a fan with a central leader and arms radiating at angles rather than horizontally–shaped similar to an open palm. Similar to cordons or espaliers but smaller, these trees require less maintenance. Pyramids, fans, and palmettes commonly grow to about 5 feet tall on horizontal wires 18 inches and 3 feet above the ground. These forms can be planted 3 ½ to 5 feet apart in rows 7 to 10 feet apart. The plants are usually planted when 3 to 4 years old.

Stepover is knee-high, single, horizontal cordon bent at right angles close to the ground. These low horizontal trees can be used in small gardens as decorative borders. Stepovers are trained just as cordons only lower.

Columnar apple trees are single leader apple trees selected from a limited range of varieties suitable for columnar growth. The side spur branches are kept short. Columnar trees can grow to 8 feet tall and are often used for container growing in tightly limited space.

■ Size of tree and rootstock

Nearly all apple trees for gardens or orchards are grafted. The size of a grafted apple tree is determined by the tree’s rootstock. Rootstock–the root system of a grafted tree–controls a tree’s ultimate height. The growth of the scion or fruiting part of the tree is controlled by the rootstock, also called interstem. Some apple trees are genetically dwarf.

The most dwarfing rootstock is called M-27 (“M” stands for Malling in reference to the East Malling Research Station in England where the initial research on dwarfing rootstocks was done. “MM” stands for Malling-Merton, rootstock developed at Cornell University in the United States.)

Apple Rootstocks

• M-27: The most dwarfing rootstock produces a tree 3 to 5 feet tall. The first fruit will come in 2 to 3 years. M-27 requires rich, fertile soil. It is ideal for small garden and patio trees and the tree requires permanent staking.

• M-9: Dwarfing rootstock produces a tree 6 to 10 feet tall. The first crop will come in 3 to 4 years. M-9 produces a small garden tree that requires permanent staking.

• M-26: Semi-dwarfing rootstock produces a tree 8 to 12 feet tall. The first crop will come in 3 to 4 years. This tree will be heavier cropping with larger apples. M-26 establishes quickly in good, fertile soil and requires staking for the first 3 to 4 years.

• MM-106: Produces a tree 12 to 17 feet tall. M-106 is an all-purpose rootstock that grows well in most soils. The first crop will come in 4 to 5 years. The tree will require staking for the first 4 to 5 years.

• MM-111: Large tree producing rootstock. The tree will grow 17 to 21 feet tall and will take 6 to 7 years to produce its first crop. Trees on this rootstock will require a ladder for pruning and harvest and staking for the first 4 to 5 years.

• M-25: Produces a very large tree, 21 to 25 feet tall that can be difficult to prune and harvest. The first crop will be ready in 5 to 7 years. Stake these trees for the first 4 to 5 years.

Dessert and Culinary Apple Varieties

How you will use the fruit you harvest is an important question when choosing an apple tree. There are apples for eating fresh out of hand (dessert apples) and apples for cooking (culinary apples). There are apples that are sweet and others that are tart flavored. Some apples must be eaten within a few days of picking. Other apples can be stored for a month or two or more before eating–and actually improve in flavor with storage.

Dessert Apples: Use these apples for eating fresh: Adam’s Pearmain, Akane, Ashmead’s Kernel, Astrachan, Braeburn, Cortland, Court Pendu Plat, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Criterion, Egremont Russet, Ellison’s Orange, Elstar, Empire, Enterprise, Fameuse, Fiesta, Fuji, Gala, Gold Rush, Golden Delicious, Golden Gem, Golden Russet, Granny Smith, Gravenstein, Greensleves, Holland, Honeycrisp, Hubbardston Nonesuch, Hudson’s, Idared, James Grieve, Jerseymac, Jonagold, Jonamac, Kidd’s Orange Red, King, Laxton’s Superb, Liberty, Limelight, Lodi, Macoun, McIntosh, Melrose, Mother, Mutsu, Northern Spy, Paulared, Priscilla, Queen’s Cox, Red Delicious, Ribston Pippin, Spartan, Spigold, Spitzenberg, Stayman Winesap, Summer Rambo, Tolman Sweet, Tydeman’s Late Orange, Tydeman’s Red, Vista Bella, Westfield Seek No Further, White Astrachan, White Winter Pearmain, Worcester Pearmain.

Culinary Apples: Use the apples for baking, sauce, and cider: Arkansas Black (sauce), Astrachan (baked), Chehalis (sauce), Cortland (baked, cider), Cox Orange (sauce, cider), Earliblaze (baked, sauce, cider), Empire (baked, sauce, cider), Fameuse (cider), Golden Delicious (baked, sauce, cider), Golden Russet (cider), Granny Smith (sauce), Gravenstein (sauce), Grimes Golden (cider), Idared (baked, cider), Jonagold (baked), Jonathan (cider), King (baked), Lodi (baked, sauce), Macoun (baked), McIntosh (baked, sauce, cider), Melrose (baked, sauce), Mutsu (baked), Newtown Pippin (baked, sauce, cider), Priscilla (baked), Rome Beauty (baked), Roxbury Russet (cider), Spitzenberg (sauce), Stayman Winesap (baked, cider), Summer Rambo (sauce), Summerred (baked, sauce), Toman Sweet (baked), Transparent (baked, sauce), Tydeman’s Red (baked), Vista Bella (baked, sauce), Wealthy (sauce), White Astrachan (baked, sauce), White Winter Pearmain (sauce).

There are literally thousands of name apple varieties and cultivars. These lists are far from complete but name some of the most popular and readily available apple trees.

Apple Flowering and Harvest Times

Nearly all apples require pollination from a second cultivar or variety that flowers at the same time. Choose varieties that overlap their flowering time. That means very early and very late varieties are very likely to not cross-pollinate.

Early Season Varieties: Akane, Anna, Astrachan, Beverley Hills, Dorsett Golden, Earliblaze, Ein Shemer, Jerseymac, Liberty, Lodi, Summerred, Tolman Sweet, Tydeman’s Early, Vista Bella, White Astrachan.

Early to Midseason Varieties: Chehalis, Gravenstein, Jonamac, McIntosh, Paulared, Prima, Summer Rambo.

Midseason Varieties: Buckley Giant, Crimson Beauty, Gala, Gordon, Holland, Hubbardston Nonesuch, Jonamac, Jonathan, Tropical Beauty, Twenty Ounce, Wealthy, White Winter Pearmain.

Midseason to Late Varieties: Cortland, Cox Orange, Empire, Fameuse, Golden Delicious, Golden Russet, Jonagold, King, McIntosh, Priscilla, Spartan, Westfield Seek No Further, Winter Banana, Wolf River Yellow Newton.

Late Varieties: Arkansas Black, Baldwin Woodpecker, Criterion, Fuji, Grimes Golden, Granny Smith, Idared, Liberty, Macoun, Melrose, Mutsu, Newton Pippin, Northern Spy, Rome Beauty, Roxbury Russet, Spigold, Spitzenberg, Stayman Winesap.

Extra-hardy Varieties for Cold Regions: Honeygold, Red Baron, Regent.

Low-Chill Varieties for Warm Regions: Anna, Beverly Hills, Dorsett Golden, Ein Shemer, Gordon, Winter Banana, Winter Pearmain.

Poor pollinators: These apples produce poor pollen and cannot pollinate other varieties: Jonagold, Spigold, Mutsu, Gravenstein, Winsesap, Stayman.

Planting Apple Trees

Apple trees can be planted in spring or fall. They are best planted while the plant is dormant. In very cold winter regions, plant apple trees in spring. In mild winter regions, plant apple trees in the fall.

Plant apple trees in well-drained soil in holes large enough to spread the roots out freely. The graft or bud union of standard, half-standard, and bush trees can be set below the ground level. Set the graft union of a dwarf or semi-dwarf tree higher than the ground level. This will ensure that the scion will not root and negate the rootstock.

The scion is the top part of a grafted tree. The scion is selected for the type of fruit it bears. The rootstock is the root system on which a scion is grafted or budded. The rootstock determines the ultimate size of a grafted tree. Rootstocks are selected for their vigor.

Also of interest:

How to Plant, Grow, Prune, and Harvest Apple Trees

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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