Just imagine – a slice of warm apple pie, sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with ice cream. We love apples in all forms here, from sliced to juiced. We also love a sprawling apple tree.
Want an apple tree planted in your garden?
Growing apple trees is very straightforward, although you won’t end up with a whole apple orchard. You can grow apples in three ways: from seed, grafting, or a young tree. Seeds will need to be germinated first, but you can plant young trees in your garden straight away.
Don’t sleep on having an apple tree in your garden! (Get it?) Here’s how to grow an apple tree – and care for it, too.
About Apple Trees
The apple tree is an old-fashioned classic – and boy can they get old. Some can live for a century (at least!), growing to between 5–10m in height. Dwarf apple trees can reach 3.0m tall on average.
Apple trees have dark green, oval leaves with a grey-green colour on the underside. The leaves have microscopic hairs that make them “fuzzy” to touch. This deciduous tree has flower buds that burst into fragrant pink-and-white during spring. Then delectable apples follow during harvest season.
In Australia, you can harvest apples from February to June. If you refrigerate them well, you can enjoy fruits (and pies, compotes, you name it) well into spring.
Benefits of Growing an Apple Tree
No autumn setting is complete without these shiny red fruits. Both apples and trees are very versatile, with plenty of uses.
Most apples are varieties of the Malus – the domesticated apple. Here are some uses for an apple tree beyond the fruits:
- Mature trees have a dense canopy for shade
- Espalier plants grow on walls and trellises as ornamentals
- Ballerina is ideal for courtyards or narrow spaces
- Dwarf trees are compact plants perfect for tiny gardens
- Trees can even become bonsai with careful pruning
Choosing an Apple Variety for Your Garden
The problem now is – which apple variety do you grow? There are 7,500 cultivars in the world, and that’s… Well, that’s a whole lot.
Start by doing research and consulting a local nursery for advice. Get to know the varieties that are available in your region and see which will suit their new home best – your garden.
Some things to consider include:
- Soil acidity
- Fruit quality and production
You may also need to consider space – the apple of your eye may need the company of another variety! Many apples produce fruit better when they can cross-pollinate with another cultivar nearby.
The most prominent species of apple in Australia is the Malus domestica, the cooking apple. There’s also the smaller Malus species, the crab apple or wild apple.
Some other popular apple varieties in Australia include:
- Royal Gala
- Golden Delicious
- Red Delicious
- Pink Lady
Apple Tree Growing Conditions
If you want to plant trees, you’ll need to know the best conditions for them. Here’s an Apple Growing 101 for all you need to know.
When to plant an apple tree?
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.
Soil for growing apples
You may think soil is the least important factor, but know that it can make or break a good harvest.
Apple trees can be picky with the ground they grow in. They’re mostly adaptable, but prefer well-drained soil – especially loam. Container-grown apple trees will need a good potting mix. The earth you use needs to be slightly acidic to neutral; a very high or low pH can lead to poor fruit production.
You can request for your local gardeners or soil experts to conduct a soil test if you’re unsure about your soil’s pH level.
Sunlight for an apple tree
Apples thrive under full sun. 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. Apple trees need shelter and extra care to protect them from extreme heat and strong winds.
Can apples grow in a cold climate?
Apples can survive in low temperatures better than most fruit trees. They have a threshold of up to 4 hours in -20ºC weather.
Not all varieties need a temperate climate to thrive, though. The tropical apple tree variety has been cultivated to grow and produce fruit in subtropical areas.
How much water do apple trees need?
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.
How frequently you water depends on your soil type. Clay soils retain moisture, so water less often. On the other hand, sandy soils need more frequent watering. Just watch out for waterlogging!
Young apple trees, as with potted ones, need more frequent watering than mature trees. Older trees have a hardier root system and are more drought tolerant. Unless the weather is extremely hot, there’s no need to worry about your old apple tree dehydrating.
Do apple trees need fertiliser?
Apples 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.
Should I mulch an apple tree?
Mulching is an effective method you can use to regulate soil temperature and retain soil moisture. Form a doughnut-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 rot, decay, or mould.
How long until an apple tree bears fruit?
Most 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.
How to Grow Apple Trees
There are three ways to grow an apple plant, namely:
- From seed
- By grafting
- With a young plant
Each method requires different levels of time and effort, but you’ll be rewarded with a harvest of edible fruit soon enough.
1. Planting apple trees from seed
Apple seed germination can be tricky and unpredictable. The seeds may need a year to grow to an appropriate size, and at least five years before developing fruit. You may be better off with a young plant, but if you’re up to the challenge, here’s how!
To grow an apple from seed:
- Remove any flesh from the seed
- Place the apple seeds on moistened paper towels
- Put these in a jar with a cover
- Let the jar rest in the fridge
- After about two weeks, sprouts will appear
- Transfer germinated seeds into pots
- Let them grow until they’re big enough to be planted
2. 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 been established on the tree, your tree will start bearing fruits from the new variety.
3. Growing apple trees from a young plant
Your local nursery may be able to supply you with a young plant that you can transfer directly into your garden! From there, it’s very straightforward to plant and care for one.
Step 1. Prepare your planting site
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 ball. 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 them 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 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
It’s very important to prune fruit trees regularly. Trimming your tree has many benefits, including:
- Preventing fungal disease
- Promoting good air circulation
- Exposing inner tree parts to sunlight
- Training the tree size and shape
- Concentrating nutrients on the healthy parts
- Cleaning up the canopy
- Removing dead branches
Prune apple trees in Australia during the winter, when your plant is dormant. The trees won’t feel the effects as much due to low growth activity, and can concentrate their energy on healing their wounds. The cold weather also deters bacterial growth.
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.
If you want the best pruning job, hire a professional pruning service to get your tree in its best shape!
Common Apple Pests and Diseases
These 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 scab. 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.
Cedar apple rust
It is common to apple and crab apple varieties, and while it won’t kill your tree, it will harm it. It requires the presence of a red cedar tree within a mile of growing apples.
In early spring, spores from the red cedar will float over to your apple or crab apple. These cause red spots on its leaves and deform the fruit. Young trees may be particularly susceptible.
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 tunnelling 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 for help from pest control services to take care of the problem.