in , ,

How to Plant, Grow, and Prune an Apple Tree

Apple tree with fruit1

Sharing is caring!

The apple is a hardy, deciduous woody perennial tree that grows in all temperate zones. Apples grow best where there is cold in winter, moderate summer temperatures, and medium to high humidity.

There are apples for fresh eating, some for cooking, and some for preserving. Some apples are sweet and some are tart. Some apples come to harvest in summer, some in autumn.

Apples can grow from 10 to 30 feet tall and nearly as wide. They are moderately fast-growing, but growth slows with age. Apple trees can live for 100 years or more.

Apple trees bloom in the spring, set fruit, and take from 100 to 200 days to reach harvest depending upon the variety.

Related article:

Here is your complete guide to growing apple trees.

Best climate and site for growing apples

  • Apples grow in Zones 3 to 9. Some can tolerate winter temperatures as low as -40°F. Choose an apple tree suited for winter temperatures where you live. See Chilling Hours below.
  • Apples generally do not grow well close to the ocean where temperatures remain moderate most of the year.
  • Apples grow best in full sun. An apple tree planted in partial sunlight will not bear as many fruits like an apple planted in full sun.
  • Apples grow best in well-drained loamy soil, although they will grow in more sandy soil or in soil with some clay.
  • Apples grow best in a neutral soil pH of 6.0 to 7.0.
  • Plant apples sheltered from a prevailing wind or breeze. Avoid planting apples in a low spot where cold air or frost can settle.
  • Late spring frosts can kill apple flowers. Apples bloom in late spring after peaches, cherries, and almonds. Early fall frosts can damage the fruit. Choose a variety suited to your growing region.
  • Avoid planting in the same spot where apple trees have previously grown. Pests and diseases that attack apple trees may still live in the soil.
Apple trees in spring

Choosing the right apple for your garden

  • There are nearly 10,000 different varieties or cultivars of apples. About 7,000 varieties or cultivars grow in North America. Only about 1,000 are grown commercially or in home gardens. Contact the nearby Cooperative Extension Service or a nearby garden center to learn which varieties grow well in your area.
  • When choosing an apple or apples to plant consider how you want to eat your apples; some cultivars are for fresh eating, some for cooking, and some for preserving.
  • When choosing an apple or apples consider when the fruit will come to harvest; some apples ripen in midsummer, some in late summer, and some in autumn. If you have room, you may want to plant one of each to extend the harvest.
  • Check to see if the apple you want to grow needs a pollinator; many cultivars require a pollinator. You may need to plant two or more trees to get fruit.
  • Check the rootstock of the apples you want to grow; some rootstock is suited for very cold regions, some tolerate drought, some tolerate wet soil, and some are dwarfing or semi-dwarfing. The nursery or grower can tell you if the rootstock is suitable for your garden and needs.
  • Some apple varieties are “sports” or accidental mutations of another variety and others are bred–meaning they are created by apple breeders through cross-selection. Not every sport is productive and worthy of growing.
  • Space to grow and form 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 apples 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.

Fruit Tree Care Products from Amazon:

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 trees

Standard-size apple trees 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 trees

Semi-dwarf or half-standard apple trees 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 a scion) taken from an apple variety (which transmits the fruiting qualities of the variety) is grafted onto 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 trees

Dwarf or bush apple trees 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 trees

A 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 of 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

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

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 apple trees

Stepover is a 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

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 dwarfed.

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.)

Opening spring buds of apple tree
Opening spring buds of apple tree

Spur-type and branching-type apple trees

  • Apples can be divided into spur-type or branch-fruiting-type trees.
  • Spur-type trees bear fruit on short twigs called spurs.
  • Branch-bearing trees bear fruit along branches.
  • Spurs tend to grow close together and so spur-type cultivars bear more fruit than the branch-bearing or non-spur trees. Spur varieties tend to bear fruit earlier in life than branching varieties.
  • Individual spurs may bear fruit for ten years or more. Standard non-spur trees bear on twigs that tend to be short-lived.
  • Spur-type apples are pruned differently than branch-fruiting apples.s

Apple chilling requirements

  • Apples have chilling requirements or chilling hour requirements. This is the number of hours at 45°F (7°C) or less than the cultivar or variety requires each winter in order to flower and leaf out in the spring. Chilling hours can vary from 1,000 or more to as few as 400 hours.
  • It is important to choose an apple variety with chilling hours suited to your climate and winter temperatures.

Apple pollination

  • Most apple varieties have flowers that contain male and female parts and so are self-pollinating. These trees will set fruit without cross-pollination. However, there are some varieties that are self-infertile and require a pollenizer.
  • Even trees that are self-pollinating may have a better fruit set if there is cross-pollination.
  • Apples can be pollinated by bees and insects or by pollen that floats on the wind.
  • Plant your apple tree within 40 to 50 feet of another apple tree that blooms at the same time or graft a branch from a suitable pollinator onto your tree.
  • Flowers that are only partially pollinated will tend to bear fruit that prematurely drops.

Apple pollination groups

Not all apple trees flower at the same time; some flower early in spring, some in early middle spring, some in late middle spring, and others in late spring. Apples are divided into three flowering groups–A, B, and C; the apples in each group flower at the same time. To ensure pollination—even if an apple is self-fertile—plant two or more apples in the same group; some may flower at the same time as an apple in an adjoining pollination group.

  • Group A flowers in early spring and includes the varieties: ‘Gravenstein’, ‘Egremont Russet’, ‘Idared’.
  • Group B flowers in mid-spring and includes the varieties: ‘Cortland’, ‘Cox’, ‘Granny Smith’, ‘Honeycrisp’, ‘Jonagold’, ‘Baldwin’, ‘Braeburn’, ‘Fuji’, ‘Gala’, ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘Rome Beauty’.
  • Group C flowers in late spring and includes the varieties: ‘Court Pendu Plat’, ‘Edward VII’, ‘Mother’, ‘Sheepnose’.

Apple rootstock and tree size

  • An apple tree can be a standard or full-sized tree which grows to 30 feet tall; standard trees can take up to 6 years to bear their first fruit.
  • An apple tree can be a dwarf or semi-dwarf tree that grows less than half the size of a standard. A dwarf will grow 6 to 10 feet tall; a semi-dwarf will grow 12 to 20 feet tall. Most dwarf and semi-dwarf trees are grafted onto a rootstock which keeps them small. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees produce full-sized apples in about three years.
  • A grafted apple tree has a root system that is different from the fruit-producing portion of the tree. Some apple trees have more than one graft; they will produce more than one variety of fruit on the same tree.
  • Apples are dwarfed as a result of the type of root system onto which they are grafted. Many apple varieties can be purchased as either standard or dwarfs or semi-dwarfs depending on the rootstock. Root systems are identified by their growth at maturity and planting needs. Here are some, but not all, examples:
    • ‘Seedling’: this is a full-growth tree with strong roots.
    • ‘M.27’: this tree makes 15 percent of full growth and is good for containers.
    • ‘M.9’: this tree makes 25 to 35 percent full growth; plant in moist, well-drained soil.
    • ‘M.26’: this tree makes 30 to 40 percent full growth; plant in well-drained, dry soil.
    • ‘MARK’: this tree makes 30 to 40 percent full growth and is very cold hardy and resistant to fireblight.
    • ‘M-7’: this tree makes 40 to 60 percent full growth and can be grown in wet soil.
    • ‘MM.106’: this tree makes 45 to 65 percent full growth; it can be planted in wet soil but may be susceptible to root rot.
    • ‘MM.111’: this tree reaches 65 to 85 percent full size, tolerates a wide range of soil, and is drought-resistant and fireblight resistant.
  • Many apple dwarfing rootstocks originated in England at the Malling Research Station; this accounts for the “M” in their names.

Apple rootstocks listed

  • 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.

Apple yield

  • An apple tree can yield from 75 to more than 130 pounds of fruit each year.

Spacing apples

  • Space apple trees according to their height.
  • Standard apples can grow to 20 or 30 feet tall; they should be spaced 25 to 30 feet apart.
  • Semi-dwarf trees that can grow to 12 to 15 feet tall; they should be spaced 15 feet apart.
  • Dwarf trees that can grow 6 to 10 feet tall; they should be spaced 8 to 10 feet apart.
  • Allow enough room for sunlight and air circulation to reach all parts of the tree.
  • If you are short on space, plant dwarf trees.
Gardener planting an apple tree into a prepared hole – variety is Bramley

Planting apples

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.

  • Apple trees can be purchased either bare-root, balled-and-burlapped, or in a container.
  • Bareroot trees are available in the winter and early spring when the trees are dormant and without leaves. Plant bare-root trees in spring as soon as the soil can be worked and before the trees begin to significantly leaf out. Bareroot trees are commonly grafted and without branches, and so are called whips. Make the planting hole large enough that the roots can be spread out fully. Look for the soil line on the tree and plant the tree at that level or an inch or two deeper. If the tree is grafted, set it in the hole so that the graft is visible when planted, an inch or so higher than the surrounding soil.
  • A balled-and-burlapped tree is a tree whose roots are in soil; the roots are enclosed in burlap. Balled-and-burlapped trees are commonly available in spring; however, they may be found later in the year. Plant a ball-and-burlapped tree by positioning the tree in the planting hole at the same depth that it was growing at the nursery. After positioning the root ball into the hole, remove all twine or rope used to hold the burlap and ball together. Then open the top of the burlap and slide it out of the hole. Lightly tamp in soil around the root ball; see General Planting Instructions below.
  • A container-grown tree can be planted at any time during the growing season. Remove the container carefully and plant the root ball at the same depth as in the container.
  • Avoid planting apple trees in hot, dry weather.
Planting apple seedling in the spring
Planting apple seedlings in the spring

Apple planting step-by-step

  • Prepare a planting site in full sun that is sheltered from a prevailing breeze or wind.
  • Work well-rotted compost or manure into the soil and add a cupful of all-purpose fertilizer to the bottom of the hole.
  • Dig a hole half again as deep and twice as wide as the tree’s roots.
  • Put a tree stake in place before planting. Drive the stake into the ground to the side of the hole to be at least 2 feet deep.
  • Set the tree in the hole so that the soil mark on the stem is at the surface level of the surrounding soil. Remove all twine and burlap from balled-and-burlapped trees. Spread the roots out in all directions.
  • Re-fill the hole with half native soil and half aged compost or commercial organic planting mix; firm in the soil so that there are no air pockets among the roots. Water in the soil and create a modest soil basin around the trunk to hold water at watering time.
  • Secure the tree to the stake with tree ties.
  • After planting, water each tree thoroughly and fertilize it with a high-phosphorus liquid starter fertilizer.

Container growing apples

  • Dwarf apple trees can be grown in containers.
  • Choose a large pot or tub at least 18 inches wide and deep that is well-drained.
  • Plant trees in a commercial organic potting mix.
  • Keep the soil evenly moist but not wet.
  • Feed apples growing in containers with an all-purpose fertilizer that is slightly higher in potassium.
  • Repot the tree after two years into a container that is 24 inches wide and deep.

Watering and feeding apples

  • Newly planted apple trees require moderate watering weekly. Set the water on low and allow it to seep into the soil; roots will follow deep watering and become well-established.
  • An established apple tree requires only infrequent watering but be sure to water all trees during prolonged dry periods.
  • Feed apples with a mulch of aged compost applied liberally around the base of the tree once or twice a year, in spring or in late fall after leaves have dropped.
  • Feed an apple tree a half-pound of balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer for each year the tree has been alive to a maximum of 10 pounds per tree per year.
  • Low levels of potassium, calcium, or boron can reduce growth and fruit quality. Test the soil for its nutrient content. Spread gypsum on the soil to raise the calcium level.
  • Yields can be improved with a foliar feeding of seaweed extract when buds begin to show color, again after petals fall, and once again when fruits are less than 1 inch in diameter.
  • A young apple tree will grow 12 to 24 inches in a year. A mature, fruit-bearing apple tree will grow 8 to 12 inches each year.

Care of young apple trees

  • Allow the roots of a young apple tree to become well-established before allowing the tree to fruit.
  • The first two years handpick off flowers and young fruit not allowing them to develop; this will give the tree increased energy to establish its roots.
  • The third year allows the tree to bear a small crop. Do not allow a limb to become so burdened with fruit that it will bend or break.
Apple with a central leader and evenly spaced lateral branches
Apple with a central leader and evenly spaced lateral branches

Training apple trees

  • Freestanding apple trees can be trained in three ways: (1) central leader, (2) modified central leader, and (3) open center. Apple trees tend to be naturally vase-shaped having no central leader or a weak central leader but several potential scaffold branches. Training an apple tree should begin soon after planting.
  • Central leader: A mature central-leader tree has a somewhat conical shape. The main stem is the central leader; from the central leader even spaced lateral branches are selected to grow as the tree’s scaffold branches. At planting a one- or two-year-old whip is cut off at about 30 inches above the ground; four even-spaced lateral branches are selected to become the scaffold branches; all others are removed. In the second year, even spaced sub-lateral branches are selected to grow on; other sub-laterals are removed. Each year the central leader is shortened by one-third of the previous summer’s growth until the conical shape of the tree is established.
  • Modified central leader: A modified central leader tree does not have a central main stem or trunk; the main stem is shortened in the second or third year and lateral-scaffold branches are encouraged to grow. Follow the training directions for a central leader form tree; once 4 or 5 strong scaffold branches have formed, cut back the central leader to just above the topmost scaffold branch. Sub-laterals will grow from the scaffold branches; prune these to keep the form of the tree and remove any vertical sub-laterals.
  • Open center, also called multi-leader: A mature open-center tree has a vase-like shape. At planting time, the top of the whip is cut off at about 30 inches above the ground. In the first year select four even-spaced lateral branches; these should be spaced along the trunk about 4 to 8 inches apart and should be growing in different directions from the central stem/trunk (these will become the main scaffold branches); cut off all other small branches. At the end of the second season, cut off the main trunk or leader just above the top lateral branches—above the branches you have selected to become the scaffold branches; you have just created an open center. At the same time, shorten the laterals by one-third to one-half to encourage sub-lateral branching; cut all other small branches back to four or five buds. In the next two years, prune back the laterals and sub-laterals by one-quarter to encourage strong growth. Allow even-spaced smaller side branches (sub-sub-laterals or side shoots) to grow even-spaced; prune the sub-laterals and their side shoots to two or three buds. In the following years as the tree begins to fruit, pruning can be lighter.

Pruning mature apple trees

  • An apple tree that has been trained (see above) will be near maturity in the fourth and fifth years. Then training pruning gives way to maintenance pruning.
  • Mature apple trees, like most trees, will benefit from pruning. Pruning will allow the tree to produce quality fruit.
  • Prune an apple tree so that plenty of sunlight and air can penetrate into the center of the tree. One guideline is to prune so that a bird can fly directly through the tree without touching its feathers on a branch. That means pruning out dense, crossed branches.

Maintenance pruning step-by-step

  1. Remove all diseased, dead, or broken branches.
  2. Remove all water sprouts. Water sprouts are fast-growing vertical branches that usually have no side branches.
  3. Remove all suckers. Suckers are fast-growing shoots that grow out of the soil from the roots below the soil surface.
  4. Remove a branch that creates a tight V-branch crotch, a crotchless than 45 degrees. These branches will not support the weight of a full crop of fruit.
  5. Remove crossing or rubbing branches. If two branches cross and rub against each other they can cause a wound that may allow insects or fungal disease to attack the tree. Remove the least desirable branch.
  6. Never prune away more than one-third of the total tree in a single growing season.
  7. Always prune to a growth bud or flush to a main branch or trunk. Remember that spur-bearing apple trees produce fruit on the same spurs several years in a row.
  8. Tip-bearing apples bear fruit on last year’s growth, so be careful not to remove too much recent growth that will bear fruit next season; lightly tip-prune the leaders of the main branches; cut back sub-laterals to a strong bud but not more than 12 inches; do not prune any sub-laterals shorter than 12 inches.
  9. Spur-bearing apples bear fruit on the same spurs for years and years. Be careful not to remove or damage fruiting spurs unless you mean to. Prune new side shoots to encourage the growth of new spurs; cut back shoots to buds facing the direction laterals and fruits should grow.
  10. Prune every year. Once a tree has been well pruned, it will need less annual pruning; only the removal of crossing branches and twiggy growth.
  11. Prune in late winter when the tree is dormant and before buds appear. A light maintenance pruning can be done in summer working around the fruit set.

Pruning a mature apple tree

Apple trees are best pruned in winter when they are dormant.

Young apple trees can grow narrow and erect or open and spreading. At maturity, the apple tree will be spreading.

Prune young narrow and erect apple trees by cutting branches just above buds which are pointed away from the center of the tree.

Prune open and spread apple trees by cutting above buds pointed toward the center of the tree.

Apple trees produce fruit on “spurs.” Spurs are formed on branches one-year-old or more. Spurs usually appear on the lower or inner portion of branches.

Spurs are short lateral growths that can vary in length from one to three inches. Spurs have a stubby, thick appearance. They produce blossoms and fruit year after year. For bountiful harvests, preserve spurs as much as possible.

Apple tree pruning step-by-step

1. To begin pruning a maturing apple tree, first cut out any dead or diseased branches. Make your cuts as close to the main branch as possible. Avoid leaving stubs that can be susceptible to disease and rot.

2. Next, cut away crossing branches that rub against one another. Also, cut away branches that swoop down close to the ground that may get in the way of cultivation and harvest.

Evenly remove past years’ growth working to allow sunlight access into the center of the tree from the top. In essence, you are shaping the tree to an open vase form. Be careful not to remove established fruit spurs or small laterals developing into fruiting spurs.

3. Cut new branch growth just on the outside of fruit spur buds. Young trees that add considerable new growth each year may require new growth to be pruned two-thirds of the way back.

Water sprouts–new green whips which grow vertically to branches–should be cut away regularly. Water sprouts are unlikely to develop into fruiting wood.

Suckers are rapid new growth from below the ground. Remove suckers as they appear. Dig down and cut suckers at their base close to the root or trunk.

If an older tree has lost branching, water sprouts can be allowed to fill in vacant spots. But it is best to head sprouts back to slow excessive growth.

4. Thin fruit from apple trees after the “June drop.” The “June drop” is a natural thinning process of all fruit trees. It is nature’s way of adjusting the crop to what the tree can bear. June drop commonly occurs sometime in the months of May, June, or July. It is best to hand thin fruit remaining after the June drop if you suspect the tree will be unable to support it.

As apple trees grow older, less pruning will be necessary if the tree has been well-trained in its first years of growth.

Spring thinning allows apples to grow to a mature size

Thinning apples

  • Thinning fruit will ensure the quality and size of the crop. Thinning will also reduce the tendency of some apple varieties to alternate-bear that is bear fruit every other year. When a tree bears a heavy crop one year, it will produce a much, much smaller crop the next year; this is called an alternate bearing.
  • A few weeks after the fruit sets, some fruit on the tree will naturally drop off. This is called “June drop”; it is nature’s way of thinning the crop. Apple trees produce more blossoms and fruit than is necessary for a full crop.
  • Additional thinning will benefit the tree. The rule of thinning fruit is to allow plenty of room for fruit to develop. Look for clusters of fruit and remove smaller apples in each cluster before the fruit reaches one inch in diameter. On larger trees, you can leave two fruits on each spur, and on dwarf trees leave one fruit on each spur. One thinning method is to remove all the fruit on every other spur. It is probably best to reduce fruit clusters leaving just a single fruit. Fruit that touches another fruit can be susceptible to disease or pest attack.

Thin the fruit to a distance of twice the diameter of the fruit at maturity. If you expect the mature apples to be 3 inches across, leave 6 inches between each apple after thinning. If you’re not sure how big the apples on your tree will be at their peak, thin to a distance of 6 to 8 inches apart on the branch.

Some apple thinners remove the fruit on every other spur; others leave a fruit on every third spur as they thin from the trunk outward on a branch. Always leave the largest fruit on the spur. Whichever method you choose, the goal is to leave plenty of room for each apple to mature.

Be careful as you thin to avoid damaging the spurs. A spur thinned this year will likely bear another apple next year. If you pull to hard when thinning, you could accidentally damage or detach the spur.

If your apples are small this year, be sure to thin more heavily next year. If the fruit set is light this year, thin less or not at all next year.

There is something about fruit thinning that you might resist. Those clusters of apples seem to say you’ve done something right; why thin a good thing?

But a large apple crop or set has more to do with the work of nature than anything you’ve done. Nature wants a lot of apples. An apple tree will produce many more blossoms and fruit than is necessary; a lot of apple seeds is how nature perpetuates the species.

But for the kitchen gardener, too many apples on a tree can mean smaller fruit, limbs loaded to the point of cracking or breaking, and sometimes a small crop next year.

So thinning is a good thing, especially in years when there’s a heavy fruit set. (An apple tree can summon only so much energy and nutrients to make it through the fruiting season.)

June drop

When to thin? Nature often starts the thinning process on its own a few weeks after the initial fruit set in spring. Called “June drop”, apple trees simply shed some of their smallest fruit. But nature can often use some help, especially in years when the apple set is heavy, and especially if you are growing apples for eating.

A week or so after the “June drop” is a good time to thin your apple trees. But even as apples approach half their preferred size in the middle of summer, you can still thin the crop.

Thinning–sometimes called fruit pruning–can ensure fat, delicious apples. Thinning can also ensure that apples don’t touch leaving little room for insects or diseases to take hold. And for some varieties that “alternate bear” or produce significant crops every other year, thinning will leave the tree with the energy to produce an equal-sized crop year after year.

How to harvest apples

  • Dwarf cultivars begin to bear fruit in one to three years.
  • Standard cultivars begin to fruit in five to ten years.
  • Apples come to harvest from midsummer through late fall; fruit ripens 100 to 200 days after fruit set depending on the variety.
  • The best way to know if apples are ready for harvest is to taste them; select one and try it. Also, consider skin color and fruit drop. Apples are usually ready for harvest when they reach full color; full color may vary according to the variety.
  • A mature apple will come away from the tree easily; lift the apple up and twist it in a rotating motion. It should not be necessary to cut an apple from the stem.
  • Late-ripening apples usually come to harvest more quickly than long-maturing early and mid-season varieties.

Storing apples

  • Storing and preserving. Apples will keep for 6 to 8 weeks in a cool place; a refrigerator just above 32°F is best. Late-maturing apples are better keepers than summer apples. Commercial growers often place apples in cold storage for 6 to 12 months.
  • Apples kept in storage should not be diseased or damaged or other fruit may be affected. Apples are often wrapped individually in paper to avoid spoilage.

Also of interest: Apples: Kitchen Basics

Propagating apples

  • Propagate apple trees by grafting scions (fruiting wood) onto rootstocks.

Apple pest and disease control

  • The best preventative approach to apple diseases is to choose varieties that are resistant to the diseases in your region.
  • Apart from disease-resistant cultivars, prune trees regularly to allow for ample sun and air penetration into the crown of the tree and prune out any diseased branches, leaves, or fruit.
  • Keep the garden or orchard clean of dead leaves and branches and plant debris.
  • Pests that sometimes attack apples include aphids, apple tree borers, apple fruitworms, apple leafminers, apple maggots, birds, Codling moths, European apple sawflies, European red mites, flathead borers, roundhead borers, leafrollers, oriental fruit moths, plant bugs, plum curculio, scale, spider mites, tarnished plant bugs, tortrix moths, wasps, white apple leafhoppers, winter moths.
  • Diseases that sometimes attack apples include apple canker, apple scab, bitter pit, black rot, blossom blight, brown rot, cedar apple rust, powdery mildew, fireblight, fly speck, sooty blotch.

Apple spraying schedule

  • Apples are commonly sprayed to combat diseases and pests.
  • Apply a dormant oil spray before buds open and when the temperature has been above 33°F for 48 hours. Dormant spray oils help kill overwintering pests and diseases.
  • Apply a multipurpose fruit tree spray when the buds begin to break. Multipurpose fruit tree sprays help control both pests and diseases during the growing season.
  • Do not spray when the tree is in bloom.
  • When nearly all the flower petals have fallen begin applying a multipurpose fruit tree spray every 10 to 14 days.
  • Discontinue all spraying two weeks before harvest.

Fall and winter apple care

  • Prune trees in winter; the best time is just before buds break in late winter or early spring.
  • Fruiting spurs can be thinned; remove crowded spurs and also remove unproductive spurs.
  • Place hardware cloth around tree trunks to protect them from rodents and rabbits.
  • Paint trunks with diluted latex to protect the bark from sunscald.
  • Hang deer deterrents from tree branches; bars of deodorant soap will repel deer.

Apple varieties to grow

There are more than 7,000 varieties of apples but not all of them come to harvest at the same time. In the course of a year, there are actually three apple harvests: an early-season harvest, a mid-season harvest, and a late-season harvest.

The harvest for early-season apple varieties begins in July and peaks in August and September. The harvest for mid-season apples begins in August and peaks in September and October, and the harvest for late-season apples begins in September and peaks in October and November–and sometimes runs right into December.

  • There are hundreds and hundreds of apple varieties to choose from. Consider first your region and the number of chilling hours. Next, consider the space you have to grow an apple tree. Then consider how you plan to use the fruit and when you want the fruit to come to harvest, early, mid-season, or late.
  • Choose two apples from the same pollination group to ensure the best fruit yield. See Pollination Groups above.
  • Very good pollinators: ‘Golden Delicious’ pollinates almost every other variety and is self-fruitful. ‘Winter Banana’ good pollinator, especially for ‘Red Delicious’.
  • Varieties that are not self-fruitful (they need a pollinizer): ‘Red Delicious’, the ‘Winesaps’, ‘Red Gravenstein’, ‘Rhode Island Greening’, and triploid crosses including ‘Mutsu’, ‘Spigold’.
  • Varieties for cold northern cold regions: ‘Duchess’, ‘Gravenstein’, ‘Haralson’, ‘McIntosh’, ‘Cortland’, ‘Macoun’, ‘Spartan’, ‘Empire’, ‘Wealthy’.
  • Varieties for all regions except southernmost areas and the coldest regions: ‘Baldwin’, ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘Grimes Golden’, ‘Jonathan’, ‘Jonagold’, ‘Liberty’, ‘Lodi’, ‘Mutsu’, ‘Northern Spy’, ‘Paulared’, ‘Prima’, ‘Red Delicious’, ‘Rhode Island Greening’, ‘Rome’, ‘Rome Beauty’, ‘Sir Prize’, ‘Winesap’, ‘Yellow Newton’, ‘Yellow Transparent’, ‘York’.
  • Varieties that will grow southern regions: ‘Granny Smith’.

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 apple varieties

Use these dessert 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 apple varieties

Use the culinary apple varieties 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 times 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 season 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, and Stayman.

Apple harvest time by variety

The apple is the most widely grown fruit. Apple trees grow everywhere except in the very hottest and very coldest regions of the world.

Apples vary from crisp to soft, from juicy to dry, from acid or insipid to bitter, bland, or aromatic.

Apples can range in color from green to gold to yellow to scarlet orange to pink to dark red to purple. All apples carry the remains of the apple blossom at the fruit’s end opposite the stalk.

The apple tree can be trained as a smart-looking espalier or grow twisted and distorted in an orchard. The leaves can be soft and downy or smooth but are never glossy or flashy like a pear. Apple blossoms can be pink- or red-tinged or simply snow-white.

Some of the apple blossoms you see in spring will become fruit ready for picking in late summer or early fall.

If you haven’t got the room for an apple tree, you can train an apple on wires against a fence or even grow an apple as a column in a container. To begin growing apples, start with the one that you really like to eat. After that, explore apple flavors and branch out. There are nearly 10,000 different kinds, or varieties, of apples grown in the world.

Apples come to market every season of the year. Add your favorites to this apple market calendar shortlist:

  • Fall. Delicious, McIntosh, Jonathan, Grimes Golden
  • Early Winter. Delicious, Jonathan, Cortland, Winesap, Rome Beauty, York Imperial, Golden Delicious, Stayman, Baldwin, Northern Spy
  • Late Winter and Spring. Winesap, Rome Beauty, Yellow Newtown, Delicious, Rhode Island Greening
  • Late Summer. Summer Pearmain, Anna, Gala, Gravenstein

Winter harvest apple varieties

There are more than 7,000 varieties of apples but not all of them come to harvest at the same time. In the course of a year, there are actually three apple harvests: an early-season harvest, a mid-season harvest, and a late-season harvest.

The harvest for early-season apple varieties begins in mid-summer and peaks in late summer. The harvest for mid-season apples begins in late summer and peaks in early autumn, and the harvest for late-season apples begins in early autumn and peaks in late autumn–and sometimes runs right into early winter.

Late-season apples are the best keepers. Keepers are apples that can be set aside at cool temperatures just above 32°F (0°C) and will stay fresh right through the winter and into spring. For that reason, late-season apples are sometimes called winter apples.

While some cookbooks like to divide apples into those that are eaten out of hand (the early- and mid-season apples) and those that are set aside and used for baking and cooking (late-season apples), it’s not really that simple.

Late-season apples–just like apples from the early and mid-season harvest times—have a variety of uses. An apple’s use depends upon the variety of apple.

  • Some are right for eating out of hand; they are usually firm, juicy, crisp, and sweet to sweet-tart tasting.
  • Some are best for pies; they are more dry than juicy and will have a slightly acidic flavor.
  • Some are great for baking or cooking whole; they will be sweet but firm and will not disintegrate in the oven easily.
  • Some are suited for jellies; they will be more acidic but juicy.
  • Some are best for sauce; they will be sweet to tart and will not discolor easily.

If you want a sweet-tasting winter apple for eating out of hand, choose the Pink Lady. If you want a winter salad apple that is crisp but not too sweet, choose the Sierra Beauty or the Newtown Pippin. If you’re making late-season applesauce, choose the Rhode Island Greening. If you are planning to bake a tart this winter day, choose the Winesap.

If you really want to appreciate fresh apples, get to know the varieties that grow in your region. There will be early-, mid-, and late-season apples growing close by, and there will be an apple in each season right for the use you have in mind.

Late-season or winter apples are great for cooking and are also the best keepers. Most will last through the winter until early spring if chilled at just above 32°F (0°C).

Choose apples with tight, smooth, unblemished skin with good color for the variety. Apples should be firm to hard. The scent should be full and fresh. Avoid fruit that is slightly soft, the flesh could be mealy and mushy. To test the degree of ripeness, give the apple a flick close to the stalk–a dull sound indicates ripeness, a hollow sound is a sign of over-ripeness.

Taste is always more important than looks when it comes to apples. Get to know the varieties that grow in your region. Taste several to discover which ones you favor.

Winter or late-season apple varieties

  • Arkansas Black: from Benton County, Arkansas; very dark color; crisp, juicy, slightly acid; good for eating out of hand, for desserts and applesauce; good storage keeper.
  • Ashmead’s Kernel: heirloom that is highly regarded in the UK; yellow with an orange-brown blush; great flavor fresh or juiced–intense nutlike flavor with a balance of sweet and tart; tart when tree-ripe, mellows with storage.
  • Baldwin: from Wilmington, Massachusetts since 1740; bright red and streaked with yellow; sweet-tart with sharp full flavor; juicy; crisp texture; great for munching, baking pies, cider, and applesauce; good to store for winter eating.
  • Black Twig: heirloom found only at farmers’ markets; dark red, almost purple; hard, juicy, fragrant; golden flesh and grassy, intense flavor; great for eating out of hand.
  • Braeburn: from New Zealand; medium size, mottled red and yellow skin and orange-red over yellow; crisp, sweet-tart flavor, aromatic, firm texture; stores well for up to12 months; eating out of hand, applesauce, pies, baking.
  • Brown Russet: heirloom before 1870; very late harvest; with patches of green and red; good fresh, stored, or use for sweet apple cider.
  • Cortland: from Geneva, New York since 1915; large, round, smooth, shiny red with flat ends; fine-grained very white juicy flesh, crisp, fragrant, sweet; flesh resists browning; fresh eating, perfect in salads, good for cooking and oven-baking, remains firm when baked, perfect for pies, desserts, applesauce. It does not store well.
  • Cox’s Orange Pippin’: from Bucks, England about 1830; found in farmers markets in the U.S.; skin is clear yellow with orange and red stripes; crisp juicy, excellent flavor; for eating out of hand, applesauce, or blended with other varieties for pies; good keeper.
  • Enterprise: medium size, red blush; firm, sweet; keeps well.
  • Esopus Spitzenburg: from Esopus in Ulster County, New York since 1790; medium to large, bright red with yellow dots; crisp, sweet tender pale golden flesh; rich complex flavor, tangy and spicy; choice for dessert, good all-around.
  • Fuji: cross between Ralls Janet and Red Delicious; esteemed in Japan and China; introduced into the U.S. from Japan in the 1980s; medium to large, green to yellow with under color blushed with red; flesh yellow-green with red strips; firm, crisp, juicy, fragrantly sweet, excellent honey-like flavor; stores well; use in applesauce blends, eat out of hand; too hard for pies but holds texture well when baked.
  • Golden Russet: unknown origin before 1870; hard to find outside of farmers’ markets; small or medium size and round; skin russeted reddish-brown and golden; the flesh is firm and yellow; flavor rich and aromatic; excellent eating out of hand, cooking and making fresh cider; keeps well in storage.
  • Gold Rush: medium size, yellow; dessert quality, excellent fresh or for baking; best after storage.
  • Idared: from Idaho since 1942; large, dark red with greenish-yellow spots; firm, juicy, fragrant, tangy-tart flavor, aromatic flesh; all-purpose, excellent baked, remain firm when cooked or baked; for applesauce; keeps well.
  • Melrose: from Ohio, the official apple of Ohio; cross between a Jonathan and a Delicious; medium to large, round; skin yellow with a bright red blush; white flesh, mildly tart, aromatic; good for storage, good dessert apple.
  • Mutsu (Crispin): developed in Japan as Mutsu; renamed Crispin in Europe and America; large, round, harder than Golden Delicious; pale yellow skin with a slight red blush; cream-colored flesh, crunchy, moderately sweet to tangy; eaten out of hand, excellent in pies and for dessert; long storage life.
  • Newtown Pippin’ (Yellow Pippin’, Yellow Newtown): developed in the Borough of Queens, New York before the American Revolution; large; skin is pale green and soft yellow with occasional red streak; crisp, faint citrus scent and complex sweet and tart taste; excellent for cooking, pies, and applesauce.
  • Northern Spy (Red Spy): from East Bloomfield, New York about 1800; skin bruises easily so seen usually in farmers’ markets; large, round shape with pale yellow-pink to red blushed skin; tender, fine-grained flesh; juicy, sprightly flavor, aromatic; excellent dessert, baking, and cooking apple; eating out of hand and applesauce.
  • Pink Lady: crisp fall nights bring bright pink color to the skin; sweetly tart taste with hints of kiwi and raspberry; for snacking and baking.
  • Rhode Island Greening: yellow-green grassy colored skin; distinctive sweet-tart spicy flesh, sometimes sour and hard; for eating out of hand, pies, applesauce; intensifies in flavor when cooked.
  • Rome: from Rome Township, Ohio; older than the Rome Beauty; large, round, yellow-to-green-skinned with mottled red overtones; crunchy texture and tangy flavor; best as a baked apple; mealy and flavorless when stored too long.
  • Rome Beauty (Red Rome): from Ohio; medium to extra large, round, smooth red, tough skin; firm greenish-white flesh; juicy, crisp, slightly tart, firm; outstanding for baking, keeps its shape with sweet flavor; use for whole baked apples; fair for eating out of hand; season from September to early November, holds until June.
  • Sierra Beauty: intense sweet and tart flavor, crisp and juicy.
  • Stayman (sometimes mistakenly called Winesap): a cross between Red Delicious and Winesap; grown mainly in the southeastern United States; rich red color with green undertones, russet dots; fine-grained, firm flesh, juicy with lively, complex flavor; all-purpose, excellent cooking apple.
  • Tydeman’s Late Orange: full flavor around Christmas; excellent for storage.
  • Winesap: small, bright red sin with areas that look almost purple; fine-grained, firm, juicy with lively, slightly fermented winey flavor; good eating out of hand, good for applesauce and pies, apple cider; stores into June.
  • York or York Imperial: from York County, Pennsylvania since the 1800s; off-center, lopsided shape; light red or pinkish skin dotted with yellow; yellowish flesh, crisp, moderately juicy, mildly sweet; good for drying, cooking, or baking; add to pies.

Botanical name. Malus pumila

Origin. Southwestern Asia

Garden Planning Books at Amazon:

More fruit-growing articles:

Learn how to plant, grow, prune, and harvest your favorite fruits. Click below for all you need to know.

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.

How To Grow Tips

How To Grow Tomatoes

How To Grow Peppers

How To Grow Broccoli

How To Grow Carrots

How To Grow Beans

How To Grow Corn

How To Grow Peas

How To Grow Lettuce

How To Grow Cucumbers

How To Grow Zucchini and Summer Squash

How To Grow Onions

How To Grow Potatoes

Mango bigstock Tropical Mango Tree With Big R 288199537 scaled

How to Plant and Grow Mango

Cherimoya bigstock Green Ripe Cherimoya Or Ice Cr 272630188 scaled

How to Plant, Grow, and Harvest Cherimoya