Ask A Master Gardener – An Apple A Day

Fall is synonymous with pumpkins, squash, falling leaves, cooler weather, and apples. A trip to the orchard is a great family tradition and a good opportunity to sample the many varieties of apples available.  Gardeners can successfully grow apples in their backyard, but it is a venture that requires careful planning, adequate space, and an investment of both time and resources.

Choosing a cultivar is of paramount importance to establishing a viable apple crop. Apple cultivars cannot pollinate themselves or other trees of the same cultivar.  Therefore, it is necessary to have at least two trees of compatible cultivars in order to accomplish good fruit set and good production.  Crabapple trees are a suitable pollen source for apple cultivars as long as they are within 100 feet of the new tree and they flower at the same time.

Choosing trees that are considered resistant to apple scab, cedar apple rust, and fire blight will reduce the amount of fungicide applications needed. It may still be necessary to spray to control insects, however the use of fungicides will be greatly reduced or eliminated.  Non-resistant cultivars can be grown in a home environment.  Just be aware that the time commitment and expense may be greater and the management schedule more intense.

Some of the more disease resistant apples suitable for growing in Wisconsin include: Crimson Crisp, Enterprise, Goldrush, Liberty, Murray, Macfree, Nova, Easygro, Novamac, Redfire, Sansa, and William’s Pride. Each of these cultivars has a specific flavor, ripening time, storage length, use, etc.  The UW-Extension publication, Home Fruit Cultivars for Southern Wisconsin (A2582) has information about them and other cultivars.

Apple trees require at least 8 hours of sunlight during the growing season. Avoid both windy hill tops and the floor of valleys (where cold air might settle).  The side of a gentle slope is an ideal location.  Apple trees prefer a sandy loam soil with pH between 6 and 7.  However, they will grow in nearly any soil, except heavy clay.  Good soil drainage is imperative.  Make sure the planting site does not have standing water after rainfall.  Getting a soil test before planting and making appropriate amendments is always a good idea.

Dwarf or semi-dwarf apple trees will reach a height of 10 to 15 feet. They produce fruit in 2-3 years.  Standard trees grow to 20 to 30 feet and take up to 8 years to produce a crop.  When planting, space the trees as far apart as the anticipated vertical height.  This will allow for adequate air flow, reduced shading, and keep the healthier trees.

All trees will require annual pruning, regular fertilization, and spraying as necessary. Pruning and training apple trees is an important part of the maintenance schedule. The UW-Extension publication Growing Apples in Wisconsin (A3565) has extensive information along with diagrams about proper pruning methods.

Apple trees should be planted in the spring. Obtain the trees from a reliable source: mail order catalogs, local nurseries or garden centers.  Bare root whips can be planted earlier in the spring than container trees.  In either case, make sure the planting site is well prepared by removing all grass and weeds first.

According to UW-Extension, apple trees are the most widely planted fruit tree. Plant two and join the crowd.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener


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