Beginner’s Guide to Planting Apple Trees

Apple trees are a great addition to any garden or orchard. They are relatively easy to grow and will provide you with delicious fruit for years to come. In this post, we’ll cover how to plant apple trees for the highest rate of success, while sharing our own planting experience. This quick and easy guide breaks down everything you need to know about planting apple trees, so you can stop researching and start planting!

This post is Part 2 of our 3-part beginner series that walks you through apple tree selection, planting, and care.
If you haven’t already, check out Part 1: Beginner’s Guide to Selecting Apple Trees 
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
Part 3: Beginner’s Guide to Caring for Apple Trees
Wondering how to care for your new trees? Read practical tips so you can ensure your trees remain healthy and productive.

It’s been one of my goals for a few years now to plant apples trees on our property. However, when I started to make that goal a reality, I was a little held back by all the details. There’s a lot that goes into the selection of tree varieties, a planting location, how to plant trees properly and care them once they are in the ground. After considerable research, we put in an order back in November for four apples trees, and after a long winter, we were excited when our trees finally arrived at the beginning of May.

We purchased our trees through a nursery that was able to ship them to us. They came boxed and packed in wet mulch, which allowed us to store them for an additional week until it was warm enough that danger of frost had passed. We were told that the trees could be stored for several weeks as long they were stored in temperatures around 40° F to prevent the trees from coming out of dormancy before planting.

6 Steps to Planting Apple Trees

Step 1: Dig a hole.

When transporting the tree from the nursery or to the planting site, you want to make sure the bare root stock is not exposed to the sun and wind. Cover the roots with wet straw until ready to plant to prevent damage.

Dig the hole approximately the size and width of the root ball, leaving enough space that none of the roots overlap or curl in the hole. If this happens, the roots will try to wrap around themselves as they grow.

Step 2: Prepare the hole.

If the soil has a lot of clay, rough up the edges. Clay can cause a smooth, solid surface that is difficult for the roots to penetrate. This will cause the roots to wrap around themselves in the hole. 

Step 3: Place the tree in the hole.

Ideally, have two people for this step. One person should hold the tree, while the other makes sure the tree is at the proper depth. The tree should be place so the graft union (typically looks like a distinct knob on the lower portion of the tree), is 1-2 inches above the soil level. You can lay a plank across the hole to act as a level and get the graft a more exact height.

After you have the graft union the correct height, make sure the roots will still be completely submerged under the ground. When in doubt, plant the tree slightly deeper because as long as the soil is loose, you can pull the tree out slightly to get it aligned to where it needs to be.

Step 4: Backfill the soil.

Backfill the soil that you dug out. Don’t put in anything additional, such as potting soil or compost, into the hole. If you don’t have enough soil, dig another hole a few away to fill in soil instead.

When you have the hole half-way filled, add a couple gallons of water and finish filling the hole. You can choose to put the sod layer back on, but I would recommend that you leave it off because the grass is going to suck some water and nutrients from the roots. We removed the sod about 3 feet around the tree.

Step 5: Mulch around the tree.

For best results, mulch around your tree to keep moisture in and to provide good nutrients, as mulch leaches nutrients into the soil during rains. Some options for mulch include straw, wood chips that won’t change the pH of the soil, or compost. We went with straw because it was readily available and inexpensive for us.

The mulch should be around the tree, but you do need to leave 2-3 inches from the base of the tree bare to prevent over-saturating the roots and causing root rot. We mulched about 3 feet around the tree, but ideally the tree would be mulched out to the drip-line, which is where the tips of the branches end.

Step 6: Prune extra branches.

If the tree has many branches developing, it needs to have 20% of the trees limbs pruned at the time of planting. This helps the tree develop a better root system by focusing energy below the soil.

When selecting branches to prune, choose branches that are damaged, growing downward or perpendicular to the tree, crossing or touching one another, or anything competing with the central leader branch.

Once your tree is pruned, it should have about 4-6 branches at least 30”, or chest height, off the ground. The tree should be generally shaped like a pyramid with wider stretched branches at the bottom and tapered at the top.

Newly planted Hazen apple tree

Follow these steps to get your apple tree off to a great start! Then check out our follow-up post, Beginner’s Guide to Caring for New Apple Trees to learn everything you need to know about caring for your new trees.

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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