Beginner’s Guide to Caring for Apple Trees

Apple trees are a popular garden addition for their delicious fruit. Although caring for apple trees takes some knowledge, as well as a bit of practice, the end result can be a rewarding and healthy apple tree. This beginner’s guide offers basic care instructions for your apple tree so that you can ensure your trees remain healthy and productive for their full lifespan.

This post is Part 3 of our 3-part beginner series that walks you through apple tree selection, planting, and care. If you haven’t read Part 1 and 2 of the series, check them out below!
Part 1: Beginner’s Guide to Selecting Apple Trees 
Haven’t purchased your trees yet? Read about everything you need to know to select the right tree variety and planting location for your property.
Part 2: Beginner’s Guide to Planting Apple Trees
Haven’t planted your trees yet? Read about how to plant your trees and get them off to a good start.

Part 3: Beginner’s Guide to Caring for Apple Trees

Once your tree is planted properly in a good location, you may think your work is done. But not yet! Your apple tree will still need to be cared for for some time to ensure it produces quality fruit. Apple tree care involves consistent watering, pruning, protection from harsh elements, and action against unwanted pests.

Providing Water

Within the first 2-3 years of your tree’s life, you’ll want to make sure it is well watered. For new trees, provide 10 gallons of water each week per inch in diameter of the trunk. Apple trees generally need an inch of water every 7-10 days. After the tree has been established, its roots system will be developed enough that it only needs to be watered in drought conditions. Only water your apple tree May-October as watering after a frost can damage the roots.

For the best absorption, water should be applied evenly to the root system in the early morning or evening. Apply a few gallons at the tree at the base of the trunk and gradually add a few more gallons as you work outward towards the drip-line. Weeds should be removed in a 3 ft. radius around the tree to eliminate plants that may draw water away from the root system.

Pruning and Maintenance

Pruning is essential to the long-term health of your apple tree. Apple trees should be pruned annually, when the tree is dormant. Typically this means late winter after the coldest part of the winter has passed. (For zones 3 & 4, this means around March.) The goal of pruning is to allow light penetration and nutrients to reach the most vital part of the tree and offer air flow to prevent disease.

The recommended method of pruning for a home orchard is central-leader pruning, which creates a typical pyramidal shape of branches. The central leader refers to the main branch shooting vertically from the trunk. You’ll want to remove any dead, damaged, or diseased branches first. Then remove branches that are growing straight upward, downward, or are crossing over other branches. Do not remove more than 30% of the tree’s growth.

When you cut your branches, cut at the very base of the branch where it meets the trunk, but be careful that you do not cut into or damage the parent branch. Always use clean tools to prevent the spread of disease. Wash tools in hot, soapy water before use.

Winterizing Your Tree

If you live in a particularly cold climate, making sure your tree is ready for winter is crucial. Aside from choosing cold-hardy varieties, the following tips can help you protect your tree when temperatures drop below freezing.

  1. Make sure the tree is watered well during the summer. This will lead to deeper and healthier root growth.
  2. Prune your tree at the right time when the tree is dormant. If you prune in the fall, the tree will be encouraged to produce new growth, which will not withstand the cold.
  3. Wrap plastic tree guards or wire mesh around the trunk of the tree. This will keep it safe from animals that may strip bark from the tree.
  4. White plastic tree guards allow the tree to rewarm slowly in the sun and will prevent the bark from cracking as it thaws. Cracks in the bark can not only injure the tree but can cause an opening for potential infection.

Controlling Pests and Diseases

Unfortunately, a reality of gardening is dealing with pests. Commercially-grown apples are one of the highest pesticide-laden fruits, and for good reason. Apple trees are susceptible to insect infestations, and this can be a common problem. Think of that cute cartoon worm coming out of the apple. Yeah, not so cute when it’s coming out of your apple. The good news is most insects do not damage or destroy the tree. Just like us, they like the fruit and that’s what they will go for. However, they can ruin a an apple crop.

Some of the more common pests include aphids, apple maggots, codling moths, spider mites and Japanese beetles. Look for blemishes or holes in the leaves and fruit or signs of the insects themselves. Check with your local extension center to find out what insects are common in your area. They may also be able to advise you on non-synthetic treatment options.

If insects aren’t bad enough, you are also competing with a long line of other wildlife. Deer, rabbits, and mice will eat the bark and twigs off a tree in winter. Deer and moose may also ruin an apple tree by rubbing their antlers and foreheads on tree trunks. The best thing you can do to protect your trees from these types of animals is to provide a physical barrier with plastic or mesh tree guards, and/or use repellant to deter them.

Specific varieties are prone to certain bacterial or fungal infections. Research the most common diseases for your planted varieties and check often for disease. It’s much better to start treating sooner rather than later! Disease may affect the tree’s appearance, fruit, and lifespan.

The most problematic diseases in the upper midwest are apple scab and fire blight.

  • Apple scab is the presence of fungal spores on the underside of the tree’s leaves. It can transfer to the fruit of the tree causing unsightly blemishes and rendering parts of the apple inedible.
  • Fire blight is caused by a bacterial infection, which can be deadly to the tree. The disease causes discolored leaves or bark that looks like the tree has been burned. As soon as you notice the disease, it is important to prune any diseased branches immediately. Take extra care during removal to prevent the branches from contacting other branches or plants, and disinfect pruners in a bleach solution after each pruning cut so you don’t spread the disease.

The best way to deal with theses diseases is prevention by planting resistant varieties and taking extra care in maintaining the area around your fruit trees. Remove fallen leaves and mow grass to reduce harmful fungal spores.

Having a successful apple tree requires proper selection, planting, and care. Providing sufficient pruning, maintenance, and nutrients, as well as pest and disease control, can produce a healthy apple tree that will produce fruit for many years.

Leave me a comment with your questions; I’d love to share more about our apple tree experience and help you have success with starting your home orchard as well.

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