Beginner’s Guide to Selecting Apples Trees

Interested in growing your own apple trees? Apple trees are great because they are relatively easy to grow and produce delicious fruit that can be enjoyed fresh or used in a variety of recipes. However, choosing the right apple tree varieties is essential to ensure a healthy and productive orchard. In this blog post, we’ll break down in simple terms what you need to know about selecting your trees and a planting location, while sharing our experience and the selections we made.

This post is Part 1 of our 3-part beginner series that walks you through apple tree selection, planting, and care.
Part 1: Beginner’s Guide to Selecting Apple Trees
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
Wondering how to care for your new trees? Read practical tips so you can ensure your trees remain healthy and productive.

Growing up, we had an apple tree on our farm. In the fall, there would be bags and boxes full of apples ready to be eaten, turned into apple sauce, and baked into delicious pies. Even today, there’s nothing better than the memories that a fresh, warm apple pie conjures in my mind.

It’s been one of my goals for a few years now to plant apple trees on our own property, for the abundance of apples to bake with and to create memories for our own children. When 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 and a planting location, not to mention how to care for trees once they are in the ground.

There are so many great resources out there when it comes to selecting and planting apple trees, but a lot are lengthy and can be confusing for the beginner. Let’s make this process easier and talk about the basics so you can be well on your way to your dream orchard as well!

Choosing a Variety

There are three major things to consider when selecting your tree variety that will influence the tree’s ability to grow and pollinate properly. We will go into depth and discuss each of these aspects.

  1. Cold hardiness zone
  2. Bloom season
  3. Variety parents

Cold Hardiness Zone

A hardiness zone is based on average minimum temperatures for a specific area. There are many zone maps available that can tell you exactly which zone you are in.  Most states contain multiple zones, and your zone often depends how far north you are. The rule of thumb is that you are able to plant trees rated for your zone and any zone lower than yours. So since we live in Zone 3, we were able to select trees that were rated for Zone 2 and 3, but not 4 or higher.

Bloom Season

In order for pollination of the trees to occur and for your trees to bear fruit, you will need two different trees with the same bloom season. Both trees need to have open flowers at the same time.
Bloom season also correlates with the hardiness zone, as colder states tend to have later frosts and therefore later bloom times.

Variety Parents

If you are not familiar with tree genetics (which, let’s face it, is probably most of us!), apple trees have two parents. Apples trees are not able to self-pollinate. Therefore, you will need at least two apple trees less than 100 feet apart. Each apple tree needs to cross-pollinate with another apple tree that does not share one of the same parents. Knowing the parentage of the variety you are interested in is important not only for compatibility with another tree but can also tell how resistant the tree may be to specific diseases.

There are also several secondary factors to consider, which are based more on personal preferences.

  1. Rootstock
  2. Harvest time
  3. Fruit characteristics
  4. Storage

Rootstock

Rootstock refers to the final size of tree you wish to have. There are three main types of rootstock: dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard. Dwarf tree are typically 8-10’ tall, live 15-20 years, and start producing apples in 2-3 years after planting. Semi-dwarf trees are 15’ feet tall, live 20-25 years, and start producing apples in 3-5 years after planting. Standard trees are 20-25’ feet tall, live 35+ years, and start producing apples in 4-7 years after planting. We chose all standard trees because the longevity of the trees seemed most worth it for the cost and effort.

Harvest Time

Harvest time refers to when the apples will be ready to pick. For the Midwest region, this  can be anywhere from early August to mid-September to late October, depending on the variety. The harvest time correlates with the bloom season of the tree, as an earlier blooming tree will also be an early harvester. Your cold hardiness zone is also a factor because if you are in a cold climate, there may be a chance of a hard frost during a late harvest time, which could ruin your apples before you’ve had a chance to pick them.

Fruit Characteristics

This is where your preferences come into play. Apples are an extremely diverse fruit as there are hundreds of varieties, each with their own distinctions. Characteristics include size, coloring, flavor (sweet vs. tart), and texture (juicy, crisp/firm). These characteristics also determine whether the apple is best for eating, baking, or if it is suitable for both. It’s best if you can sample a locally grown apple from the variety you think you would like. Just because you like Honeycrisp apples from the grocery store doesn’t necessarily mean the apples you grow will be the same based on the growing conditions in your area. 

The characteristics that were important to us were diverse use and size. We wanted apples that would be good to eat fresh but could also be used for baking. And, I wanted large apples with a lot of flesh to reduce time peeling and coring when making large batches of apple sauce.

Storage

Some apple varieties are suitable to be stored for long periods, up to 6 months in cool, dark place, while others will only last a few weeks in the same condition. Often apples will last longer than their storage predictions in terms of spoilage, but they will begin to lose their ideal texture. If food preservation is important to you, you may want to find a variety with a longer storage period. The nice thing is you don’t necessarily have to only pick one or the other. You may be able to plant one tree with long storage capabilities and another with less storage ability but better fresh eating qualities. Since you are committed to purchasing at least two trees, you can mix and match to meet your needs as long as the three major factors are met: cold hardiness, bloom season, and variety parents.

So, what trees did we choose?

We purchased four trees, two Zestar! and two Hazen variety. Let’s talk about how these trees met our major criteria and our personal preferences.

  1. Cold Hardiness – We are in Zone 3. Both Zestar! and Hazen are rated for Zone 3.
  2. Bloom Season – Both varieties are an early bloom season.
  3. Variety Parents – Hazen’s parents are Dutchess and Starking Delicious. Zestar!’s parents are State Fair and MN Selection so there is no overlap there.
  4. Rootstock – Both are standard-sized trees which we chose for the longer life span.
  5. Harvest Time – Hazen is harvested late August and Zestar! Is harvested early September.  It was  important to avoid October harvest dates, since our area is prone to early frosts.
  6. Fruit Characteristics – Zestar! is a large, crisp, juicy apple with a good balance of sweet and tartness. It’s good for eating, sauces, and pies.  Hazen is a large, firm, juicy apple that’s sweet with a little bit of tartness. It’s good for eating, desserts, and cooking. We wanted apples with a lot of flesh, good taste, and versatile usage, which I think these varieties will be able to provide.
  7. Storage – Zestar! is a moderate storage apple, meaning it can last for a about 3 months in good conditions before the texture begins to decline. Hazen has a shorter storage life of 4 weeks. Storage wasn’t a big factor for us when determining varieties, since I plan to preserve apple through the winter by making applesauce.

Whew, so now that you have your trees picked out. Your next step is to determine where to plant them. It’s a good idea to have your location in mind early on before you set out to purchase your trees. Let’s break down what you need to know to select an optimal planting location.

Choosing a Planting Location

Apple trees need the following things to thrive:

  1. Full sun – This means at least 8 hours of consistent sun exposure during the day.
  2. Sheltered – Trees need to be protected from strong winds, especially from the north.
  3. Good drainage – If the trees get waterlogged for too long, it can lead to root rot. Root rot is just as it sounds, a disease that causes deterioration of the root system, which can kill the plant.

Soil testing is also recommended to determine the pH of the soil. This provides the opportunity to find a spot with the right pH and nutrients for the tree or to make adjustments as needed before planting. We did not end up soil testing, most due to timing. A soil sample would have needed to be taken early last fall before the ground froze, and between harvest, a toddler, and other busy daily life, it just didn’t happen. But, I would still recommend it for best results! Many state university extension programs offer this service for a reasonable fee, so check in with your local extension office.

The spot we chose had good sun exposure and is south-facing. It has a nice shelter-belt to the north to protect from wind. The soil is well-balanced with a mix of sand, silt, and clay and has  good drainage.

Newly planted Hazen apple tree

Hopefully now you are well on your way to having your own apple trees! This guide is what I wished I would have had when I started the process of purchasing apple trees for our property. Ready to plant your trees? Check out our follow-up post, Beginner’s Guide to Planting Apple 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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