Growing apples is so rewarding because the trees are delightful to have in the yard, with their delicate, fragrant spring blossoms, and you can use the fruits in tons of different ways. Whether you crave the citrusy zing of cider or juice, or you can’t live without smooth, creamy applesauce, there’s an endless number of ways to eat them. You can also use the fruit to make vinegar, which isn’t only useful around the house, but healthy for you as well.
Apples have been grown domestically for the past 8,000 years. They originated in Eastern Europe where they quickly spread, and were common in Ancient Roman and Greek civilizations before making the leap to North America.
Now they dominate the world, and new types have been developed to grow in most climates, which is good, because choosing the right variety is an important step in growing apples. Some apples are better for storing, others best fresh, and some are ideal for making cider. Some varieties need cool weather, and some can tolerate a bit of heat. Thanks to their popularity, there’s the perfect one out there for anyone.
In this article, we’re going to look at how to plant and care for your apple trees, with a focus on organic growing.
Can I Grow Apples Organically?
First, let me assure you that YES! It’s possible to grow apples organically. The fruit has a reputation for being hard to grow – period. And many agriculturists will tell you its impossible to grow apples without using chemicals and conforming to a ridged spray schedule.
Don’t listen to them. You can grow healthy, quality apples using good management strategies and some helpful aids from mother nature.
There are hundreds of apple varieties to choose from. Check out our eight favorite varieties if you are looking for apples that are all-around superstars.
If you want to grow apple trees for cider, try:
- Gold Rush
- Stayman’s Winesap
- Crimson Crisp
- Roxbury Russet
For applesauce and canning, try:
- Golden Delicious
If you’re interested in baking and cooking, pick:
- Granny Smith
- Newton Pippin
- Rome Beauty
The best apples for warm climates include:
- Roxbury Russet
- Mollies Delicious
- Dixie Red Delight
The best apples for colder areas (zone 3 and 4) are:
- Candy crisp
- Cortland Apple
- Cox’s Orange Pippin
- September Wonder Fuji
Plan for Pollination
Apple trees require cross-pollination with another tree. When choosing your plants, pick two of the same type, or two that flower at the same time. You can check an apple pollination chart if you need help.
How to Plant Apples
When to Plant
Plant trees when temperatures are cool. Avoid planting during a hard frost, but otherwise, you can put them in the ground during mid-fall or early winter. You can also plant in spring as soon as the ground can be worked.
Getting it in the Ground
Soak the tree’s roots for a few hours before planting. Dig a hole at least twice as wide as the diameter of your plant’s roots and at least 2 feet deep. The bigger the hole, the happier your tree will be.
Apples require full sun, at least 8 hours per day.
Growing apples successfully requires fertile soil. Do a soil test before planting to be sure that your trees will have what they need. Apples need a pH range between 6.0-7.0.
Amend your soil with peat moss, compost, and bonemeal before putting your tree in the ground to give it a healthy foundation.
Apples need an average of 15 feet between trees, depending on the variety. Dwarf trees are best off with 10 feet between trees, and a standard size tree needs closer to 20 feet.
Without pollinators you won’t get any apples, so plan to put your trees near an area where bees and butterflies visit.
How to Care for Apples
Nutrient management practices are the steps you will follow to provide your apples with rich, healthy soil to grow in. This is different from fertilizing. Fertilizing is a short, concentrated dose of nutrients. Nutrient management is a long term solution.
In the first three years of an apple growth, it is important to encourage good root growth. This will help the tree get established and develop a network of healthy roots that will feed the tree and help it be productive.
Feeding Young Trees
Place a ring of 2-inch thick compost around your trees every year. Keep the compost 6-inches away from the trunk. You don’t have to worry about digging it in. Let the soil microbes do the job for you.
If your soil is low in phosphorus and/or calcium sprinkle a pound of bone meal around each tree along with the compost.
On top of the compost, you can place a thick (4-inch) layer of mulch such as straw or wood chips. This will help keep weeds from growing around your trees. Keep the mulch 6-inches away from the trunk.
Cover crops let you add nitrogen and other nutrients to your orchard. They also look attractive and help you keep down on the mowing.
Clover is probably the most popular cover crop for orchards. Clover adds nitrogen to the soil, helps with erosion and is high-quality food for livestock.
Apples need 2-inches of water per week when they are young. Keep the soil lightly moist as trees get older, but avoid letting it get waterlogged.
Livestock in the Orchard
Some livestock species are helpful in the orchard, and some are not. Livestock can be part of your long term nutrient management solution.
Geese and ducks are helpful in the garden. Both are grazing birds but will also readily eat grubs and other pests. Chickens are also good pest controllers for the orchard. They will scratch at the soil, which will aerate and mix in the minerals on the surface.
Sheep can do mowing work and add fertilizers. Sheep are grazers and are not interested in nibbling on your trees. They will eat the grass, weeds and cover crop and keep everything nicely trimmed. Rotating your sheep in and out of the orchard as needed will keep the sheep from overgrazing or getting sick from the rich grasses.
Goats cannot be trusted in an orchard due to their mischievous nature and the fact that they are browsers. They will climb on your apple trees for a nice snack of twigs, buds, and fruit.
I’ve heard that well-behaved horses can be allowed in orchards. This makes me laugh out loud. My rescue horse Rocket does have access to the orchard area, and he has used a tree or two as a rubbing post.
For the most part, Rocket does not pull the fruit off the trees although I do put some temporary fencing up in fall to make sure of that. One benefit is his manure. I rake it so that it’s along the drip line of the tree.
Pruning Your Apple Trees
Pruning your apple trees can be a bit intimidating. After all, what if you damage your tree or set back its growth? Remember that it’s better to prune a little than not at all. Pruning lets in more light and air which will help your tree be more productive.
Rest assured as long as you follow some basic principles all will be well.
Pruning is best done in late winter while your tree is still dormant. The exception to this is older trees which need a heavier pruning to get them back on track. These trees do better with a summer pruning.
Good pruning equipment is essential. You pruners and pruning saw should be sharp and easy to hold. Take care of your tools, so they’re ready when you are.
- Hand pruners are best to remove small branches and twigs.
- Loppers have longer handles and give you more strength for pruning larger branches.
- A Saw is necessary when pruning larger limbs of three or more inches in diameter.
- Pole Pruners is a saw that is attached to a long pole so that you can reach branches above your head.
What to Prune:
- Dead or diseased branches.
- Waterspouts, which are those lower branches growing off the trunk.
- Branches that grow inward towards the trunk or are cutting in front of others
How to Prune
Make your cut above the branch collar. The branch collar is the wrinkled bark where the tree and branch intersect.
After the third year of growth, you want to start shaping your tree. Apples grow best in a central leader style. This means they will have a main trunk with branches that come up at a 45-degree angle.
If you feel overwhelmed, watch a YouTube video or two to help you visualize the pruning process. Peaceful Valley has a great video for pruning young trees. The Organic Gardener has a great video on pruning an older tree that has been neglected.
Once your tree becomes productive, it may be necessary to thin the fruit. Crowding can result in smaller apples or disease. Thinning also helps prevent the branch from breaking because of the weight of the apples.
Thin the fruit, so that they’re 6-inches apart on the branches.
Apple Problems and Solutions
The best way to prevent diseases and pests is to keep a neat and tidy orchard. Utilize pruning to remove diseased limbs so that they do not contaminate the rest of the tree. Pick up and dispose (or feed to livestock) any fruit that either has a disease or is harboring pests.
Apple scab is one of the most serious apple problems in North America. It is caused by a fungus Venturia inaequalis and affects the leaves and fruit. Severe cases can totally defoliate a tree. It produces scabs and malformed fruit that’s still edible but often small.
Rake up the fallen leaves and burn them. Pruning also helps maintain air circulation which helps control fungal diseases.
I spray with kelp in late spring when my apples are developing fruits. Kelp is high in minerals and helps the trees to fight off disease and aids in fruit development. I also like Michael Phillips’ Holistic Spray Recipe.
In extensive cases, you may need to spray with potassium bicarbonate fungicides.
The larvae of the codling moth are 1-inch worms that burrow into growing apples. The adult codling moth lays her egg on the top of the apple. When the larvae hatch they burrow into the fruit. You may not realize you have a problem until your experience apple drop.
After dropping, the worm crawls out of the apple, goes to the tree and finds a hiding place. There it spins a cocoon so that it can start the process all over again.
Keep an eye out in spring for the emergence of the adult moths. You can fill a half gallon milk jug with the following lure formula and hang it in your apple trees. Cut a hole in the side for the moths to enter.
- One cup apple cider vinegar
- One-third cup dark molasses
- One-eighth teaspoon ammonia
- Two cups water
Birds like chickens and woodpeckers love the larvae, as do Trichogramma wasps. You can also use organic sprays such as Monterey Insect Spray to control codling moth.
Aphids are a potential problem for young trees. Encourage predators like lady beetles and lacewings in your orchard. Spray trees with a blast of water to knock the insects loose and rake up debris.
If your young tree has a massive infestation, spray it with an organic spray containing peppermint and rosemary oil.
The apple maggot eats the fruit on your growing apple tree. You’ll notice dimpling on your fruit, and you’ll see the damage when you cut an apple open.
To control, clean up around your trees and don’t let fruit rot on the ground. Place sticky traps in your tree and use a spray containing kaolin clay.
Apple Bud Moth
The larvae of the apple bud moth feed on the underside of apple leaves and roll leaves to form a shelter. They also nibble on fruits and create canal-like channels on the surface.
You can control this in a similar way to the codling moth.
Apple Tree Borer
This insect bores into the trunk and branches of growing apple trees. You’ll see sawdust debris on your tree and tunnels that may appear sunken and darker than the surrounding area.
Healthy trees are usually able to withstand the borer, so keep your orchard in good condition. If you have an infestation, you can dig out the larvae and whitewash the trunk to discourage new infestations.
The invasive gypsy moth eats the leaves, flowers, and fruits on growing apple trees. Birds like to eat the caterpillars, as do mice and squirrels, so encourage them to visit your garden. Wasps and flies will also attack the eggs of the gypsy moth.
Prevent them from taking hold in your orchard by scraping and boiling any egg masses you find. You’ll often find eggs in wood piles, wheel wells in cars, and stone walls.
This pretty beetle attacks apples in the summer, feeding on leaves and fruits. You can spray young trees with neem oil and handpick the beetles off.
Beneficial nematodes can help you prevent next year’s infestation, and you can use traps as long as you have a place far away from your trees to place the trap.
Leafhoppers pierce leaves and suck out the nutrients. You’ll see white or yellow stippling on your tree leaves. This harms the tree because it reduces photosynthesis. Usually, healthy trees won’t show extensive damage, but young trees can be susceptible.
The Anagrus mymarid wasp is an effective biological control.
Mites pierce apple leaves and cause bronzing and eventual death. Predators like Neoseiulus fallacis (Phytoseiidae), Agistemus fleschneri (Stigmaeidae) and Zetzellia mali (Stigmaeidae) can be effective against mites.
If you have an extreme infestation, you can apply an organic miticide.
As the name implies, this fungus causes apples to turn black and rot. Keep fallen fruit and other debris away from your orchard and remove any infected branches during the winter. You’ll see red cankers on branches. Once you’ve removed the branch, destroy it rather than putting it in your compost to avoid spreading it.
Crown and Collar Rot
If you see discolored leaves, dying twigs and buds that are slow to break, or you see brown, slimy girdling on your tree trunk, you might have crown and collar rot.
You can buy resistant varieties and avoid planting in poorly drained areas. If you see girding on your tree, remove the soil from the base of the tree to expose the area. This can often stop the disease from progressing.
Sooty Blotch and Flyspeck
Sooty blotch and flyspeck are fungi usually found in areas with high humidity and temps between 65-80°F. These two diseases often go hand in hand. You can still eat apples covered in sooty blotch by scraping and washing off the fungus. Keep trees well pruned and fruits thinned out to help avoid it from taking hold in your orchard.
Fire blight is a bacteria that attacks blossoms and branches of growing apple trees. If fire blight is common in your area, pick resistant varieties, and use a low-nitrogen fertilizer on your grees and only fertilize if your soil is deficient. Keep weeds, fallen fruit, and other debris away from your orchard. Prune off infected branches.
Companions for Apples
Since apples rely on pollinators, it’s smart to plant your trees near plants that attract them.
The best companions for apples are:
Harvesting and Storing Apples
Apple trees take a few years before they will produce fruit. Generally, you can expect to start snacking in 2 to 5 years. The fruit is ready when it’s no longer green and hard, but the ripe color will vary depending on the variety – and some varieties assume their mature color before they’re ripe.
The timing will depend on the variety as well. Some apples ripen in late summer and others in late fall, or anything in between. The most sure-fire way to know if your tree is ready is to wait until the approximate maturity date according to type and then pick and cut into a fruit.
Let’s talk about what your apples will look like. Organically raised apples are not going to look like the perfect fruit in the grocery store. That fruit is full of chemical pesticides and covered in a wax coating so that it appeals to shoppers. It’s less healthy than homegrown fruit.
Pluck apples from the tree leaving the stem intact. Leave frozen apples on the tree until they have thawed before harvesting. Use apples that have frozen faster than you would use apples that haven’t frozen because they don’t last as long.
Store them in a cool, dry area that is lower than 45°F. You can store most apples for up to 6 months at this temp. Toss out or separate any damaged apples because they will cause other apples to ripen faster.
Now for the fun part: using those apples. If you can’t use them up in recipes, drinks and around the house, keep in mind that apples store well in a root cellar.