Apple Tree FAQs
If you cannot find an answer below to a question you may have then please email us at email@example.com and we will do our very best to help.
What to do when you receive your bare root apple trees
The first few years of a tree’s life have a big influence on its health and hardiness. It is important to unpack trees within a day of arriving and either plant or ‘heel them in’, until ready to plant. On receiving bare-rooted trees, unpack and inspect the trees. Ensure their roots are not allowed to dry out and that they are stored in a cool environment – eg: in an open shed. Roots need both oxygen and water, that is why they need to be kept damp but not saturated at all times. If the site is not prepared then heel the trees into free-draining cultivated soil or compost outdoors, until the planting holes are ready. Ensure you heel in deep enough to avoid frost damage to delicate roots. Do not allow roots to dry out. Roots may be kept moist in the damp environment of their packaging or wrapped in damp newspaper, while waiting to be heeled in or planted.
NB: It is not advisable to plant apple trees where older fruit trees or roses are or were growing – lookup ‘apple replant disease’ for more info.
Fruit trees do not grow well in waterlogged soil. The ground should be free-draining for the majority of the year. If the ground is temporarily saturated due to recent heavy rainfall, then wait a few days until that water has drained away. Plant the fruit tree in a raised mound if better drainage is needed. The mound should be 4 to 8 inches high at its centre sloping gently to surrounding ground level for a radius of at least 1 metre. Soil pH should be between 6 and 7 for healthy apple tree growth.
Fruit trees feed almost exclusively in the top soil. They do not have deep tap roots. Therefore they compete for nutrients with grass and other vigorous herbaceous plants. In the first few years of a trees life its root system is unable to compete with grass or vigorous weeds, therefore it is essential to keep a radius of at least 2 feet completely weed free around the young tree. Dwarf trees must have weed-free conditions in their root-zone for all their lives. Standard trees may be able to compete with grass and weeds when in their mature stage (when they have reached their full height and come into good fruit bearing). But best fruit growing
requires weed control and annual soil improvement through mulching and small nutritional additions.
Apple trees are tolerant of moderate wind. For very exposed sites a shelter belt of trees or a hedge should be planted. Shelter should protect from turbulent wind but not shadow and not create root competition. Don’t plant the tree close to other large trees or hedges; They will overshadow the apple tree and rob it of light & soil nutrients.
Dwarf trees must be staked all their lives. Larger rootstocks may be able to grow without staking eventually. But staking is advisable in the first few years. Inspect and check how the young tree is coping with strong winds. Position the stake on the side of the prevailing wind. Use a narrow round stake. It is best to put the stake in before planting the tree. Plant with the stem 3 to 6 inches from the stake. Large rootstock should be staked low down, to support them during establishment only. To prevent root damage but to allow their stem thicken up and become independent of support. Dwarf trees should be tied to a stake several times to a height of 6 to 8 feet. Use a tree tie or other strong but moderately flexible material. Tie firmly. The tree tie should be inspected twice yearly and loosened as the tree grows thicker.
Too much nitrogenous nutrition is as bad as too little. If a tree grows too fast (too much green growth) it may be susceptible to disease, canker in particular. The optimal growth is slow and steady. It is more important to keep the root zone weed free than to fertilize. If soil is poor, you may add well-rotted farm yard manure (crumbly composted state). Add no more than two fork-fulls – mix well with the top soil from the planting hole to create a fertilized, loose, crumbly soil. Annual minimal soil improvement through mulching and weeding is better than a once-off feed. Other additions that may improve the balance of minor nutrients to the soil: one or two fistfuls of seaweed dust, or fish/bone meal.
Plant the tree by digging a hole wider and deeper than the pot or root system. This helps to loosen the soil for future easy root establishment. Reminder: Tree labels may fade/break after some time – Don’t forget to make a copy of all label details & make a map of your tree plantation: variety, rootstock etc.. If the topsoil is shallow, break up the clay or rock beneath the planting hole for better root penetration. Always plant in dry weather. Be aware that a hole with loose soil is likely to drain water from surrounding water-logged or compacted ground, thus creating wet conditions in the trees root-zone. In this case it is best not to plant in early winter while the tree is dormant and not actively drawing up soil moisture – better to plant in spring time, when the tree is just beginning to commence transpiration.
Make a mound above the ground, as the loose soil will sink with time and you must avoid creating a ‘bowl’ effect which could fill with water. Plant the tree to the same soil level as it was nursed – just above the root level. There is usually a colour difference at this point of transition from soil level to over ground level. Keep the graft union above soil level to prevent the variety from developing its own roots. If planting a potted tree sprinkle a 1cm layer of soil over the pot compost level to prevent it drying out (1cm layer is sufficient). Spread out the roots in all directions. Fill the hole and firm in the soil to stabilize the tree and tie it securely to the stake. Water the tree well to enable the roots to make good contact with the soil. Be sure to regularly check that the tree is not suffering from a temporary drought in spring if there is a few weeks of dry conditions after the leaves emerge – water if necessary.
Cattle, horses and deer should never be allowed to graze an orchard. In the case of deer, fence the entire orchard (height: 2.5-3 metres). Sheep should only be allowed to graze an orchard when the trees are established and their lower branches are high enough to be out of reach. Guard the lower trunk from bark stripping as described below. Use a tree guard or chicken wire to protect the lower trunk from strip barking by hares or rabbits. Necessary for the first few years of the trees life. Once the tree is well established (after several years) there may no longer be a need for this protection. Be careful that the tree guard does not cause damp conditions around the base of the trunk. Weed regularly to keep clean and dry. It is vital to keep the root collar weed free all its life (stem of tree at ground level). This helps to keep the collar as dry as possible and less vulnerable to fungal rot.
Reminder: Tree labels may fade/break after some time – Don’t forget to make a copy of all label details & make a map of your tree plantation: variety, rootstock etc..
M27 – Very Dwarfing: Grow to 1.7m (6 feet). Requires good staking. Root-zone to be kept weed-free. Plant 2 metres apart or in a large pot.
M9 – Dwarfing: Grow to 2.2m (8 feet). Requires good staking. Root-zone to be kept weed-free. Plant 2.5 metres apart or in a large pot.
M26 – Semi-Dwarfing: Grow to 3m (10 feet) and fruit in 3-4 years. Plant 3m apart.
MM106 – Semi-Vigorous: Grow to 4.5m (15 feet) and fruit in 5 yrs approx. Plant 5 m apart.
MM111 – Very Vigorous: Grow to 5m plus. Tolerate poorer soils. Plant at least 6 m apart. Fruit in 6 to 8 yrs.
M25 – Very Vigorous: Grow to 6m (20 feet) plus. Good for poorer soils. Plant at least 6 m apart. Fruit in 5 to 6 yrs.
Creating an Orchard
Below are some of the most popular considerations many people should be aware before creating an orchard.
The perfect site for an orchard:
- South facing slope, receiving light from early morning to late evening.
- Rich, loamy soil.
- Slightly acidic or neutral – approx pH 6.5.
- Sheltered from strong winds and sea salt spray.
- Good air ventilation, not a frost pocket.
Stand where you are considering planting – observe where the sunlight falls, the wind blows and the air moves. Observe frost pockets during frosty times especially late spring (April/May) and again make observations when gales blow.
Soil should be free draining. Fruit trees do not like water logged conditions in their root zone for extended periods of time.
Damp conditions result in poor oxygen levels in the soil and ideal conditions for fungal disease to attack the stressed trees. Good soil structure ensures moist but aerated conditions for best root development. This is essential for healthy, productive, long living trees.
Site preparation and future maintenance should ensure pH is kept at approximately pH 6.5
To test for drainage dig a hole 50cm square and 50cm deep. Fill with fresh water. If the water has not totally drained away within 90 minutes, then the site has unsuitable drainage.
Knowledge of the water table and risk of flooding is essential. Ensure there is no hard impermeable pan below the topsoil which may be water retentive. Siteworks to correct drainage issues must be completed and observed to be successful before orchard establishment.
All fruit need the sun to ripen fruit and to ripen fruit buds for next year’s fruit. Pruning may be necessary in future years to remove excess foliage and increase light dispersal throughout the canopy.
Winter cold should not be a problem to a healthy apple tree. In fact it is necessary for good dormancy. However frost during blossom time may destroy the blossoms and/or discourage insect pollination activity. Therefore avoid planting in a frost pocket. Fruit ripen and develop best flavour in sunny locations.
Wind & Air Ventilation
Poor ventilation will encourage the growth of moulds and fungi. Orchards in low lying areas may be susceptible to moss growth on main stems.
Too much wind at pollination time will discourage insect movement. Poor pollination will result in poor yield. Apple trees are tolerant of moderate wind. For very exposed sites a shelter belt of trees or a hedge should be planted.
Shelter should protect from turbulent wind but not shadow and not create root competition. Don’t plant the tree close to other large trees or hedges as they will overshadow the apple tree and rob it of light and soil nutrients.
Apple trees are insect pollinated. Bees are often named as the chief pollinators but many other moths and flies also carry out the same job equally well.
Most apple trees are diploid – meaning they require one other variety for successful pollination. Some however are triploid, therefore requiring three varieties. This means two or three distinct varieties – trees of the same variety cannot pollinate each other.
Different varieties blossom at different times. For successful pollination pollinating trees must be of the same flowering group i.e. they flower approximately at the same time, thus allowing insects to transport pollen from the flower of one variety to the flower of another.
Most apple varieties are classified into one of three flowering or pollination groups: early, mid and late season. Flowering times vary from region to region and even according to local site conditions, that is why dates are not given, instead compare varieties according to their ‘flowering group’.
The pollinating partner (pollenizer) bears no influence on size, shape or taste of fruit. Therefore a crab apple in a nearby hedge is a perfectly suitable pollenizer, provided its flowering time coincides with that of the orchard tree.
Bees and other pollinators are reported to travel upwards of one mile, therefore apple trees planted in towns or villages may have suitable pollenizer varieties in the vicinity, and can fruit quite well when planted on their own. However best fruit set is assured by having at least three varieties (of the same pollinating group) planted in close proximity.
For further information on orchard pollinators download the How-To-Guide Traditional Orchards and Fruit Trees for Pollinators on the Farm here.
Choice of Variety
The ideal site is good enough to grow good quality tasty apples of almost any variety. There are some varieties that will not successfully ripen in Ireland due to insufficient sunlight hours, the most notable of which is Granny Smith, which ripens successfully in Australia, but not in Ireland.
Apples originating from the UK, North France, Northern USA and other climates with similar sunlight hours have been successfully grown in Ireland for many years (some varieties for several centuries). When considering a variety it is best to do some research. Find out from local fruit growers and gardeners which varieties have done well in your local area.
We advise choosing a nursery which does its own propagation locally and has the mother trees available to observe their health and fruiting.
A less than ideal site will be less favourable for some varieties. Choose varieties known to do well in such conditions. Genetics are the key to success in such situations. ISSA have such information available.
Spur-producing varieties build up small twiggy fruit spurs off the main branch system and this is where the fruit is produced each year. All of the major commercial varieties are what is known as “compact spur” as they produce the biggest return for the grower. Because of the commercial take-over of apple growing many old tip-bearing varieties have been lost.
Tip-bearers produce their fruit predominantly on the ends of last year’s growth. Pruning should be minimal as any wood removal will result in removal of fruit buds. Big old trees of this type have a beautiful ends of the branches.
Taste is an individual thing. People differ greatly in their opinions. Best to choose fruit based on your own assessment as you may be disappointed by catalogue descriptions. Apples are a very diverse species; perceptions based on the narrow range available in regular shops may be completely misleading. Green apples don’t always taste like granny smith! Red apples don’t always taste like royal gala! Heritage and gardeners fruit must be tasted to be appreciated.
Taste is influenced by soil type, climate, and local growing conditions. Taste varies from year to year, depending on factors such as summer sunlight in particular.
ISSA and other good Fruit Centres hold apple tasting events during fruiting season. Fruit enthusiasts visit orchards several times during the harvest to appreciate tastes of different varieties as they ripen. But at least one tasting visit is advisable to inform your choice.
Long Term Maintenance & Harvest
Choose rootstock and layout based on future work.
Harvesting from large trees must be done by ladder, or else by waiting for windfall. Bear in mind that windfall usually results in bruised fruit which will not store so long. If you have a preference for harvesting from ground level, then dwarf or semi-dwarf trees must be chosen.
Livestock such as horses and cattle are not suitable for orchards as they would damage, foliage and tree structure. Sheep and geese have been a traditional choice for grass maintenance – be aware that a suitable rootstock should be chosen: choose such that the lowest branches will be out of reach.
Access for lawn mowing is only practical under larger trees.
Fruit trees feed almost exclusively in the top soil. They do not have deep tap roots. Therefore they compete for nutrients with grass and other vigorous herbaceous plants. In the first few years of a trees life its root system is unable to compete with grass or vigorous weeds, therefore it is essential to keep a radius of at least 1 metre completely weed free around the young tree.
Dwarf trees must have weed-free conditions in their root-zone for all their lives. Standard trees may be able to compete with grass and weeds when in their mature stage (when they have reached their full height and come into good fruit bearing). But best fruit growing requires weed control and annual soil improvement through mulching and small nutritional additions.
Roots of mown grass compete more strongly for nutrients than grass left to grow to meadow. Therefore mowing or grazing grass is not the same as ‘grass and weed free’ – grass and vigorous weeds must be completely eliminated. We recommend regular mulching as the most preferable option.
The goal of mulching is to restrict weed and grass competition and create good soil structure for the fruit trees feeding roots. It also protects bare soil from depletion by drought and wind exposure.
Mulching can be achieved with many materials including cardboard, straw, leaf mould or commercially available ‘fabrics’. Here are some tips:
- Mulches that bio-degrade eventually breakdown to improve the soil. Degradation results in re-doing each year but gives the opportunity to feed the soil with other additions such or well-rotted farmyard manure.
- Mulches which do not biodegrade such as ‘Mypex’ may last for several years, but eventually weeds such as cutch grass and creeping buttercup take root into the weave and become a lot of work to remove. In future years, additional feeding is difficult through such a ‘permanent’ layer.
- Mulches should be permeable to rain water and air – if not then the trees roots will suffer from oxygen and moisture shortage; soil structure will deteriorate over time. Therefore polythene plastic is not an advisable long-term solution; it may be used for a short period of several months to kill existing grass and weeds, on a once-off basis.
- Hay is not advisable as it contains grass seed which will result in grass competition next year. Avoid any mulch which contains undesirable seed.
- Mulching and maintenance weeding is an annual task. It is most efficient to do some quick weeding 3 to 4 times in the year to catch weeds when they are small. It is a good excuse to visit the orchard to assess its health and whether work needs to be done.
Growing apples from seeds creates new varieties, as the pollen from at least one other variety is needed to pollinate most varieties. The resultant seedling is a new and unknown variety – it may differ substantially from its parents. But if you fancy nurturing something new then go for it!
Most apple trees won’t grow readily from cuttings. ‘Rootstocks’ have been developed which are types of apple grown for their roots onto which the variety is grafted. Rootstocks have been developed to restrict the height of the trees (important for commercial growers), precocity (makes the variety produce more fruit), fruit size, colour intensity and certain soil types. All heights are approximate after 10 years, but expect some variation due to the grafted variety.
- Flowering group – ensure overlap of variety flowering times.
- Fruiting time – spread harvest over full season.
- Storability – to further extend your harvest.
- Use – cooker, eater, juicer, cider.
- Fruiting habit – spur or tip bearing.
- Rootstock – influences size, spacing, maintenance, harvest, etc etc.