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How to Grow Apple Trees at Home: Apple Tree Planting Guide

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Aug 17, 2020 • 4 min read

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Ron Finley Teaches Gardening

Fruit trees and patience go hand in hand. Virtually no fruit crop produces the same year you plant it, but the upshot is that once it begins fruiting, it can continue to do so for years.

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Ron Finley Teaches GardeningRon Finley Teaches Gardening

Community activist and self-taught gardener Ron Finley shows you how to garden in any space, nurture your plants, and grow your own food.

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How Much Space Do You Need to Plant Apple Trees?

Planting apple trees doesn’t have to mean a full apple orchard: Even smaller spaces can accommodate a row of dwarf apple trees. Most fruit trees are available in “dwarf” form; typically reaching about six feet in size, these may also be grown in large planters. “Semi-dwarf” fruit trees grow to 10 to 15 feet tall, while full-size fruit trees (often referred to as “standards”) reach 20 feet or more.

How to Plant Apple Trees

Apples thrive best in hardiness zones 3–8, with certain varieties faring better in specific zones than others. Central and Northern regions should plant in early spring, when the soil begins to warm; regions with milder winters may also see success planting in early fall.

  1. Pick the site. Apple trees need full sun, a good amount of space, loamy soil, and a neutral soil pH. A soil test can be obtained for a small fee through your local USDA cooperative extension office. In addition to identifying the proportions of clay, sand, silt, and organic matter in your soil, you’ll learn if your pH level is off and whether you have any nutrient deficiencies. You’ll also receive instructions to correct any imbalances.
  2. Prepare the site. A week before planting, clear any debris or weeds. Correct soil imbalances as needed, but do not over-fertilize, as this can be too intense for new roots.
  3. Acquire root stock. Though apple trees can be started indoors from seed, seedlings take 6–10 years to grow to a producing size. Root stocks or young trees can both be purchased at a garden center or nursery.
  4. Plant. Dig a planting hole twice the width of the root system and about 2 feet deep, making sure the soil is nice and loose around the edges. Fan the roots out over the bottom of the hole, eliminating air pockets by gently tamping down around each root as you backfill with soil. If planting a root stock, be sure the graft union—a swollen-looking raised bump—is a minimum of 2 inches above the topsoil. If planting a tree from a container, and the root ball has dried out, soak it in a bucket of water for 24 hours prior to planting.
Ron Finley Teaches Gardening
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How Far Apart Should Apple Trees Be Planted?

Distance is crucial for healthy apple trees. Space full-size trees 15–18 feet apart, and dwarfing rootstock 4–8 feet apart so they can spread out as they mature.

6 Tips for Growing Apple Trees

Even though apple trees are not necessarily high maintenance, they still benefit from active care.

  1. Water. Water regularly, but don’t soak. Apples like a moist, well-drained soil, but overwatering can lead to root rot.
  2. Provide support. In order to support heavier fruit production later, young trees need help establishing a sturdy frame of branches. Use trellises or posts, trained into a central leader system—a pruning technique that establishes one main trunk with supporting branches sprouting from either side.
  3. Practice companion planting. Apple trees require cross-pollination (with the exception of many self-pollinating varieties like Honeycrisp, Gala, and Cortland) between different cultivars that bloom on the same schedule. Ensure your garden attracts plenty of pollinators by planting attractive, aromatic plants nearby. Learn more about companion planting in our complete guide here.
  4. Mulch. Mulching can help with moisture retention and soil temperature, but be sure to remove it in fall after the harvest to prevent mice from nesting in it over the winter and destroying the bark.
  5. Prune. There’s no need to over-prune during the growing season, but do remove any dead or broken branches as you see them. Regular yearly pruning provides good air circulation, which can curb diseases and allows the leaves to dry out quicker after a rain.
  6. Control pests. Though there are disease and pest-resistant varieties, apple trees are vulnerable to a number of threats: fire blight, apple maggots, codling moths, and fungal diseases like apple scab. Companion planting can help repel insects like aphids and mites, and apple maggots can be eradicated with a hanging sticky trap or two, but some trees may require an annual pesticide spraying to keep most bacterial diseases at bay.

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How to Harvest Apples

Depending on the variety, apples can be harvested in the late summer through the fall. Pick when apples have reached the deepest shade of their cultivar color. They should separate from the stem with little resistance; simply twist and pull up!

Put overripe or softer apples to use in the kitchen: Turn them into applesauce, compotes, apple butter, and more.

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Grow your own food with Ron Finley, the self-described "Gangster Gardener." Get the MasterClass All-Access Pass and learn how to cultivate fresh herbs and vegetables, keep your house plants alive, and use compost to make your community - and the world - a better place.

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