When autumn rolls around, it never fails to evoke memories of the days when I used to take my daughters to pick apples at local orchards in southeastern Wisconsin.
To me, autumn and apples are partners on par with Halloween and pumpkins—you just can’t imagine one without the other. Crisp as a sunny October afternoon and painted in hues that mirror fall’s vibrant red and yellow foliage, apples are the quintessential autumnal fruit.
Because they keep so well, we enjoy apples year-round. And enjoy we do—we each consume more than 19 pounds of apples a year, according to the Agriculture Council of America. That popularity extends around the globe, as apple trees are the most widely grown deciduous fruit trees worldwide.
Try Growing Your Own
Apples have been a mainstay in American diets since the Pilgrims planted apples trees, more than 200 years ago. In fact, the saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is more than just a folksy adage. Apples are fat-, sodium- and cholesterol-free, contain only minimal calories and are a good source of potassium, folic acid and vitamin C.
Another great thing about apples: You can plant your own trees and become a pomologist, a cultivator of fruit trees. But before buying, perform a taste test and see which varieties you enjoy the most.
You have plenty to choose from, as more than 2,500 varieties are grown in the United States alone! However, keep in mind that apples trees don’t do as well in warmer climates, because they require a winter chill to produce fruit.
Apple trees fall into three groups: dwarf, semidwarf (12 to 16 feet tall) or standard (15 to 40 feet tall) varieties. Dwarf varieties are popular because they fit in any size landscape and bear fruit several years sooner than the standard varieties (usually 3 to 4 years for dwarf and 5 to 7 years for standard).
Can’t Plant Just One
Most apple trees are grafted onto a hardy rootstock, with a bud or shoot (known as a “scion”) of the desired apple variety grafted to a hardy, sometimes dwarfing, root system. When shopping, keep in mind that a younger tree will adapt readily to transplant, speeding up establishment.
Unless you already have an apple or crab apple tree in your yard, you’ll need to buy two different species of trees. Why? Most apple trees don’t self-pollinate. And those cultivars that do self-pollinate, such as Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Jonathan, will bear much more fruit if cross-pollinated.
Also keep in mind that some varieties aren’t compatible with others, while others—such as Jonagold, Winesap and Northern Spy— are sterile. They produce best when cross-pollinated, but their pollen won’t pollinate other apple trees. Consult your local nursery or county Extension office for more information.
Select varieties whose bloom times overlap and that are hardy in your planting zone. Furthermore, don’t use insecticides when the trees are blooming, as bees are essential to cross-pollination. Some apple varieties are more disease-resistant than others; for example, Pristinea is resistant to scab, fire blight, powdery mildew and cedar apple rust. Again, a local nursery or county Extension office can help you find trees best suited for you area.
Let’s Start Digging
Spring is the best time to plant apple trees. They do best in full sun and don’t like “wet feet,” so well-draining soil is a must. To maximize cross-pollination, don’t plant dwarf trees more than 20 feet apart, semidwarfs more than 50 feet apart or standard species more than 100 feet apart.
Dig a hole twice the width of and a foot deeper than the root-ball. Fill in the planting hole with existing soil. Using different, looser soil encourages the roots to stay in the planting hole and not extend beyond the surrounding soil.
When you plant the tree, be sure the “bud union,” where the scion meets the rootstock, is roughly 2 to 3 inches above ground level. Water and gently tamp the soil as you replace the dirt around the rootball; this will remove any air pockets.
Surround the tree with a cylinder of hardware cloth at least 4 feet high and several inches into the soil. This will keep rabbits and rodents out. Unless it is a bareroot or top-heavy tree, staking isn’t recommended. When staking, thread the wires through straps that wrap around the trunk so as not to damage the tree.
As your tree grows, prune branches to shape the tree. It’s also helpful to thin out smaller fruits when they finally appear. Fruits generally grow in clusters; thin them down to one fruit per cluster when they’re about as big as a grape, and keep the fruits 4 to 6 inches apart. This will help the apples grow larger and reduce the chances of limbs snapping under the fruits’ weight.
It may seem like a while before your tree produces fruit. But when it does, I guarantee this prolific tree will be the apple of your eye.