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Apple Trees - Planting and Care Guide

Although fall is the best time to plant apple trees, bareroot trees are difficult to find during autumn. If you plan to plant bareroot trees, early spring when the soil is workable but temperatures are still cool is the best time. Container grown trees can be planted any time during the growing season if you provide them with sufficient water.

Apple Trees Planting and Care

Planting

When planting bareroot trees, hydrate the roots by soaking them in a pail of water for about an hour before planting. Using a sharp pruning shears, trim any broken or crossed roots and shorten all roots to about 18-inches long.
 
Dig a deep hole, two to three times the size of the root ball. Mix some of the soil with well-decomposed compost and add it to the hole. Gently spread the roots in the hole. Hold the tree in place, keeping the graft union 2 to 3-inches above ground. Otherwise, your dwarf or semi-dwarf will grow to standard size!
 
Starting with the top soil, refill the hole with the soil you have extracted, removing air pockets as you fill by tamping the soil with your feet.
Plant a container-grown tree at the same level it occupied in the pot.  You can hydrate your planting hole with water, depending on weather conditions. Add additional soil to maintain the soil at the same level as that surrounding the hole. To help control weeds and conserve moisture, extend the diameter of your planting with a two to three inch layer of mulch applied about a foot from the tree trunk.
 
Trees generally need to be spaced as far apart as they will reach in height at maturity. In other words, dwarf trees need to be 8 to 10-feet apart and semi-dwarf trees need to be spaced 10 to 15 feet.
Stake new trees during the first year to prevent strong winds from dislocating them and causing them to grow at an angle. Dwarf apple trees have a weaker root system and may need staking for the life of the tree. Secure stakes to your trees with soft tree tie or other wrap to keep the straps from damaging the trunk.
 
Young trees are a favorite food of many small animals like rabbits and field mice. Protect your newly planted apple trees with spiral tree guards placed around the trunk. As the tree matures, the spiral guard will expand with the tree.
 
The Important First Year for Your Fruit Tree
 
Fruit trees will always appear to be strong, healthy plants when first planted, but we must remember how important it is to make sure that its new environment is a healthy one.  During the first year after planting, the tree can easily die from not getting enough water or nutrients.  The tree is particularly susceptible to environmental stress until the root system is at least as large as the tree it supports.

The tree must be kept well watered during the first year or two, especially during dry, hot weather.  A good soaking once or twice a week is much better than surface watering daily.  It is also vital to keep the area around the tree completely free of weeds and grass as they will compete with the young tree.  The use of mulch mats is a very effective way to keep a nice and tidy area around the tree.

Finally, the urge to have the tree fruit is often very tempting, but the blossoms forming during the first year should be removed as they will put more stress on the tree as it establishes - and sacrificing the first year's fruit will result in a much healthier tree and better harvest in years to come.
 
Pruning Fruit Trees
 
Many gardeners prefer the central leadersystem for pruning trees. In this system, the trunk or central leader supports three to five scaffold branches (fruiting branches connected to the trunk). Your goal is to develop and maintain the scaffold branches at a minimum of 60 degrees from the trunk, so that the tree is somewhat cone-shaped. This type of pruning allows light and air to reach every part of the tree, aiding in disease prevention and helping fruit to ripen.
 
Begin pruning at planting time. Remove any suckers from the base of your tree, any branches that are lower than 30 inches from the ground and any branches that compete with the leader. Next, select four to five of the remaining branches as your scaffold branches. Choose those that angle closest to 60 degrees from the trunk. Scaffold branches should be spaced at least a vertical half-foot apart. Prune out the rest of the branches. Trim scaffold branches so that the topmost branches are the shortest and the lowest branches have the widest spread.The Important First Year For Your Tree
 
After the initial pruning, your tree needs annual touchups to:
1) Maintain the conical shape
2) Remove any dead, broken, or diseased branches
3) Remove any vertical “water spouts” (these branches are vigorous vertical branches, which compete with the central leader).
4) Remove any suckers from the roots or the lower trunk of the tree
5) Remove any downward growing branches
6) New growth in the middle or upper part of the tree

Undertake annual pruning in late winter before the tree begins to bud - usually when the tree is dormant, between leaf fall and bud burst (between November and early March)

Identifying Tip or Spur Bearing Trees

Before pruning apple trees it is essential to identify fruit buds.  There is an added complication with apples, as cultivars fall into three broad groups according to where the fruit bud is produced and the fruit carried; spur bearers, tip bearers and partial tip bearers.

Spur bearers  produce fruit buds on two year old wood and as spurs (short, branched shoots) on the older wood.  This habit gives spur bearers a tidy and compact appearance.  Spur bearers are the largest group and include cultivars such as James Grieve, Cox's Orange Pippin, Greensleeves, Braeburn, Egremont Russet, Howgate Wonder

  • Pruning Spur bearers is by shortening the previous year's growth on each main branch by about one third to a bud facing in the required direction to encourage the development of new branches and spurs.  Cut back any laterals (side shoots) growing from the main framework to five or six buds if there is not enough space to allow them to grow as secondary branches.  Remove any badly placed shoots.  On older trees remove anyt spur systems that have become overcrowded.

Tip bearers produce very few spurs.  They are relatively uncommon.  Fruit buds are found at the tips of long shoots produced the previous year.  The overall appearance of the tree is more untidy than spur bearers and the branches look sparse without spurs.  Cultivars may include Cornish Gilliflower and Irish Peach.

  • Pruning the previous year's growth on each main branch and the most vigorous latereals (sideshoots) to the first strong bud.  Leave unpruned laterals less than 30cm (1ft) long.  Cut back a proportion of older fruited wood to a young shoot or leaf bud to reduce congestion.

Partial tip beareres produce fruit on the tips of the previous year's shoots and also on some spur.  Cultivars include Bramley's Seedling, Discovery, Worcester Pearmain, John Downie, Lord Lambourne

NOTE:  Any form of pruning that involves shortening shoot tips will reduce the yield of tip bearing apples and to a lesser extent, partial tip bearers.  These should be sugject to less rigorous pruning than spur bearing cultivars and are best avoided when restriced forms such as cordons or espaliers are required.