Between a whole chocolate cake and a slice of warm cinnamon-y apple pie topped with ice cream, I’ll take the latter any given day. That is how much I love apples, and I’m pretty sure everybody else loves them, too. If you need a quick trip down memory lane, sweet apple slices and a glass of apple juice are just the ticket.
But how do you grow any apple tree species in your garden, exactly? And, more importantly, is it easy to grow one?
Benefits of growing an apple tree in your garden
No autumn table setting can ever be complete without everyone’s favourite healthy snack. You can do so many things with apples, and apple trees are equally versatile! It’s no wonder why orchard and garden owners love them.
The apple tree in Australia belongs to the Malus domestica species. These are some of the things you can do with your fruit tree:
- Mature trees form a dense canopy you can use as shade in your garden
- Espalier apple trees crawl on walls and trellises and are lovely as ornamental plants
- Ballerina apple trees or columnar apple trees are ideal for courtyards, pots, and narrow spaces
- Dwarf apple trees are compact, fruit-bearing trees perfect for tiny gardens
- You can make an apple tree into a bonsai through careful pruning
Basic information about apple trees
The Malus domestica species sets the bar high for other trees when it comes to functionality and looks. A regular-sized apple tree can reach between 5-10m in height, depending on its variety and pruning. Dwarf varieties are 3m tall on average. Even if it’s not flowering or fruiting season, the apple tree is definitely a stunner.
You can recognise these fruit trees by their prominent trunk and dense canopy. Dark-green oval-shaped leaves make up the foliage. If you’ll examine closely, each leaf has a pointed tip and serrated edges. The grey-green colour on the underside of the leaf comes from microscopic hairs that make the leaves ‘furry’ to the touch.
Because of their deciduous nature, apple trees from both the Malus domestica and Malus species are subject to the changing seasons. Regular apple and crab apple trees are beautiful throughout, but they shine their brightest as autumn trees. Expect to see fragrant pink and white flowers on your tree during spring, and delicious apples in the fall.
Harvesting apples is done from February through June in Australia. Proper refrigeration and storage practices ensure that apples (and apple pies!) can be enjoyed throughout the year.
Choosing the apple variety for your garden
So you have finally decided to plant an apple tree in your garden. The question is, which one? With 7,500 cultivars available in the world, each tree sounds better than the next.
The key here is to do your research. Take time to get to know the variety you’re eyeing, and dig deeper into your apple tree’s new home – your garden.
To know which apple is right for you, consider the climate in your region, the acidity level of your soil, and the fruit yield you’re expecting. Gardening experts recommend checking if the apple of your dreams needs the company of another variety. Apple trees are a friendly sort. Most of them produce fruit better when they have a chance to cross-pollinate from another cultivar nearby.
There are 2 prominent species of apple trees in Australia. One is Malus domestica, otherwise known as your cooking apple. Then there’s another smaller Malus species, commonly known as crab apple trees or wild apples.
To narrow down your choices, here’s a list of the most popular cooking and eating apple varieties in Australia:
- Royal Gala
- Golden Delicious
- Red Delicious
- Pink Lady
- Sundowner / Joya
Ways to grow an apple tree in your garden
- Growing from seed
- Planting a young tree
Once you have decided on which method to use, you’ll need these elements to be able to grow a healthy tree: well-drained soil, full sun, cold climate, sufficient water, and regular mulching.
Don’t pass off soil as unimportant just yet. Underrated as it is, it can make or break a good harvest.
Apple trees in particular are picky with their soil. While they can adapt to other soil types, apples still prefer well-drained loam. For potted varieties, a quality potting mix is recommended. Soil that is slightly acidic to neutral is ideal. A soil type that has a very high or low pH can be toxic for your trees and lead to poor fruit production. You can request for your local gardeners or soil experts to conduct an assessment if you’re unsure about your soil’s pH level.
Apple trees thrive under full sun. A daily 6-hour exposure to direct sunlight is essential for proper fruit development.
Even if apples love sunshine, they may not grow and bear as much fruit if planted in coastal areas. Apples trees in Perth need shelter and extra care to protect them from extreme heat and strong winds.
Apple trees can survive in low temperatures better than most fruit trees. They have a threshold of up to 4 hours in -20C weather.
Not all Malus domestica varieties need a temperate climate to thrive, however. The tropical apple tree variety has been cultivated to grow and produce fruit in subtropical areas.
Water the area surrounding the trunk. Don’t get too eager and water the trunk itself, as this can trigger fungi and bacteria to grow on the wood.
To know how frequently and how much you should water, check the soil type in your garden. Clay soil has a tendency to retain moisture, which means you’ll have to water less frequently. It’s the opposite if your soil is sandy and fast-draining. You may have to water more frequently for this soil type. Prevent waterlogging by only giving enough water that your tree can ‘drink’.
Young apple trees, as with potted ones, need more frequent watering than mature trees. Older trees are hardier and more capable of soaking in moisture from the soil. Unless the weather is extremely hot, there’s no need to worry about your old apple tree dehydrating. A watering in between rainy periods is enough to aid in fruit formation during spring and summer.
Apple trees may need a watchful eye while growing, but they aren’t so needy once they’re established. Apply a slow-release fertiliser in autumn after the leaves have fallen off.
Mulching is an effective method you can use to regulate soil temperature and retain soil moisture. Form a donut-shaped layer of mulch around the trunk of your fruit tree. Mulch at least 15cm away from the trunk to prevent fungi and bacteria from forming on the wood. Change the mulch regularly, especially when you start to see signs of rotting, decay, or mould.
Growing apple trees from seed
Apple seed germination can be tricky and unpredictable, but if you’re up for the challenge, there’s a chance the outcome may be better than expected.
Start by removing any flesh that’s clinging to the apple seeds. Put the seeds on moistened paper towels, then place in a jar with a cover. Let the jar rest in the fridge for 2 weeks until sprouts appear. Transfer the germinated seeds into pots and let them grow until they’re ready to be planted in the ground.
Grafting apple trees
Grafting is done to propagate a different cultivar onto your fruit tree. You can use a cutting from a regular-sized apple tree or from any of the dwarf tree varieties.
To start your grafting project, make a graft cut on the rootstock. The rootstock is the original tree you want your other apple variety to grow on. Make sure that you make the cut 5cm or more above the soil level to prevent roots from forming on the cutting.
Attach the branch or bud of the other variety onto the rootstock. Make sure that the new appendage is properly secured. You wouldn’t want your cutting to fall off! When the attached branch has established onto the tree, your tree will start bearing fruits from the new variety.
Planting apple trees
When to plant apple trees
The best time to plant apple trees is during winter. During this season, your fruit tree is bare-rooted and dormant, which means there is no active growth happening in your plant.
Step 1. Prepare your planting site
When choosing a location for your apple tree, pick a spot where there’s full sun and sufficient space for your tree to grow. Prepare a planting site with a depth of 60cm and a diameter that’s twice that of your plant’s root system. Remove weeds and grass, as these will compete for nutrients that are meant for your apple tree.
Step 2. Check the roots
Before transferring your young tree to its new home, check that the roots are not dehydrated. If they are, revive them by soaking in water 24 hours before planting. Untangle any twisted or tightly clumped roots if necessary.
Step 3. Place your tree in the hole
Carefully lower your apple tree into the planting hole, then cover with loose soil. Spread the roots evenly while doing so. When the hole is completely covered, press the soil firmly to remove any air pockets.
Step 4: Space according to variety
Allot spaces in between apple tree plantings. Regular-sized varieties need a distance of 4.5-5.5m apart, while dwarf varieties need as little as 1.2-2.4m. Plant a different cultivar within a distance of 609m or less from your plant for cross pollination to happen.
Pruning apple trees
Benefits of pruning
These are the benefits of pruning apple trees:
- Prevents fungal diseases by letting air circulate in the tree
- Exposes the inner parts of the tree to sunlight, which leads to a healthier tree and better fruit production
- Trains the tree according to your desired shape and size
- Concentrates nutrients on the healthier parts of your tree by removing old or dead branches
- Cleans up a messy-looking canopy
When to prune apple trees in Australia
Pruning apple trees in Australia is best done during winter when your plant is dormant. Your tree won’t feel the effects of the pruning because there’s no growth activity happening during this time. Your apple tree can concentrate its energy on healing the wound instead of developing fruit or sprouting new blossoms. Little or no bacterial growth on the cut is another advantage of pruning during this season because of the cold weather.
How to prune apple trees
Start pruning as early as your tree’s first year. When your tree is well-established, thin out 20-30% of last year’s growth.
Remove any dead, sick, or old branches. Shape your tree by pruning off branches that are sticking out of the canopy. Allow air and sunlight into your tree by opening up the canopy. You can do this by cutting branches that are too close to each other.
Common apple tree problems and treatment
Apple trees are a magnet for disease and pests. Here’s a way to identify these problems and how to treat them:
If you notice pale yellow and olive-green spots forming on the upper-side of your tree’s leaves, your tree may have apple scabs. Caused by Venturia inaequalis, this fungal disease attacks the leaves and fruits of apple trees. Spray a protective fungicide to prevent scabs from forming on your tree’s foliage.
Fruit tree pests
Insects and fruit-eating stray mammals love apples as much as we humans do. This can lead to a pest infestation in your garden if left uncontrolled.
Spray an insecticide on your trees before insects like codling moths and apple maggots start tunneling into the fruits. You can use an organic insecticide containing natural pyrethrin if you’re not too keen on using chemical-based sprays.
For less severe cases, protect your harvest organically by using homemade repellents. When the pests are one too many to handle, you should ask help from pest control services to take care of the problem.
How big do custard apple trees grow?
Custard apple trees (Annona reticulata) can grow between 4.5-10m tall, with a trunk size between 25-35cm thick. Unlike usual apple tree varieties with their graceful canopy and picture-worthy fruits, custard apple trees have a disorganised crown and crisscrossing branches that grow in different directions. This is one hot mess of a plant.
How long does it take for apple trees to bear fruit?
Regular-sized apple trees can take up to 8 years to bear fruit, while dwarf trees take a shorter period of time. With a dwarf apple variety, you’ll start to see it bear fruit in its 2nd or 3rd year of growth.
Apple tree maintenance
Depending on where you are in Australia, owning an apple tree can either be an easy or challenging experience. Tricky as it is, there’s an art and science to growing apple trees, and you’ll need all the help you can get.
Worry not as there are gardening specialists you can call in case you’re having trouble with your fruit trees. With the right team handling your gardening and pruning, you’re one step away from baking that apple pie made with apples grown in your own backyard.