I own a small apple orchard of about 35 trees. I started my orchard over 27 years ago when I moved to my farm as a new bride. At the time my husband and I had just started to remake his old family homestead.The farm had been left idle for an entire generation and we had more repairs and bills than we had money for. At that time the local 4-H sold fruit trees as a club project for $7 apiece. Each year I could only afford to buy 5 or 6 at a time.
Back in those days I drove a school bus and I made $24 a day before taxes. So $35 was a lot of money for us. Every spring I scrimped on my groceries to pay for the apple trees and I often drove 50 miles on slick snow-covered back roads to pick them up.
As a new homesteader I believed then as I do now, that it is important to plant fruit trees first when settling in at a new place. I had taken a lesson from the early settlers of Pennsylvania who depended upon apples for fruit, cider and vinegar for food preservation. Fruit trees came before anything else.
Apple trees can last a lifetime. And depending upon the variety, they’ll take from between 2 – 10 years to mature and produce fruit. Fruit trees are a keystone in the foundation that home food production and self-reliance is built upon.
If you would like to add apple trees to your homestead and are perhaps a bit hesitant, I hope this article will encourage and assure you that a few apple trees or a small home orchard is a worthwhile investment and is much less trouble than most people imagine it to be.
When planning a home orchard picking the right location is critical to its success. Unlike a vegetable or flower garden, an orchard cannot be picked up and moved to another location once it is planted.
Apples and all fruit trees need at least 8 -10 hours of full sun every day. Fruit trees need plenty of space between them so the air can freely circulate. Never plant apple trees or any type of fruit tree in a low-lying wet area. You’ll also want to avoid areas where frost can run down a hillside or collect in pockets.
Types of Trees
It’s important that you pick the right size apple tree for your location. With modern apple trees there are basically three sizes: dwarf, semi-dwarf and standard. Dwarf apples trees are the smallest and standard apple trees are the largest. Most modern commercial apple orchards are planted in semi-dwarf trees. With modern apples it’s the type of root-stock that determines the size.
Modern apples are actually grafts that are made in two parts – the scion section and the root. The two parts are made to grow together to form the tree.
The scion is the top part of the tree. It’s the part that’s above the ground. It’s the part of the tree that branches and bears fruit. Scions are grafted onto different types of root-stock.
The variety of apple is determined by the scion variety and not the root-stock. The root-stock is what determines how big the tree will be. The scion and the root-stock are two completely different things.
The scion/root-stock union graft is a slight bump area about 1 ½” to 4” above the roots of a fruit tree. Many different types of apple varieties are available on dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard size trees.
Since it’s the root-stock that determines size you can have Honey Crisp, Macintosh, Red Delicious, Empire or most any other type of apple on a dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard size tree.
The variety of apple is not determined by the size of the tree.
When you get your first apples will depend upon the variety of apple and the size of the tree. Just remember that the bigger the tree the longer the wait. A standard size apple tree can take up to seven years to produce apples. A semi-dwarf tree usually produces its first fruit within 2 or 3 years. And a dwarf apple tree can produce fruit the first year after it’s planted. Dwarf trees are very poplar for that reason. Dwarf trees are perfect for small areas where space is a problem. They can do well on decks and patios when planted in very large pots with good drainage.
And just so you know some people say it takes at least 20 leaves on a tree to produce one apple. So according to that theory you’ll need at least 100 leaves on your apple tree to get 5 apples.
Pick the Right Variety
There’s a big difference in apple varieties and different apples are used for different purposes.
There are cooking apples, eating apples and apples for storage. Certain types of apples make better cider and vinegar. It just depends on what you want. Different varieties do different things. All apples don’t ripen at the same time. Some are considered early apples and the ripen in July. Other apples are late varieties and aren’t ready until the end of October. Different apple varieties have different cultivation requirements, disease resistance and spurring habits. Apple spurs are the small knobs on an apple branch that produce fruit.
Not all apples trees produce fruit every year. Sometimes they will skip a year.
When selecting an apple variety for your homestead keep in mind what types of fungus or diseases are prevalent in your area. A trip to a local apple orchard or grower can be helpful in determining this information. You could try calling your local state agricultural extension office for information. But that might be a big waste of time if it is staffed by the kind of idiots we have here in Pennsylvania.
Here’s an example of why local disease information is important:
Let’s say that apple scab is a problem in your area. Then you would do better to pick a scab resistant apple like “Liberty” or “Red Free”. If fire blight is a problem in your location “Prima” would be a good choice and you might want to forget about “Rome” apples. If bitter rot is a problem in your area, it’s important to know that certain varieties like “Empire” and “Granny Smith” are harder hit.
It’s only by knowing your location and your own particular piece of ground can you understand and make an informed decision about what particular variety of apple will do best for you.
When buying fruit trees I strongly caution you to avoid potted trees from big box stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot.
Don’t waste your money.
Only buy fruit trees from a reputable nursery.
Stark Brothers is a good company to do business with. But there also are many other reputable family owned nurseries to choose from.
If you do decide to buy an already potted fruit tree from a local nursery just make sure that it is guaranteed. Most reputable companies will guarantee their trees for at least one year.
I think the best trees for the home orchard are one-year old whips or 2 year-old bare root-stock. A small tree with a good root system will always transplant better than a larger tree. Only plant fruit trees in the spring or in the autumn when the trees have no leaves on them. Planting any type of deciduous tree while it’s in leaf is a risky business.
When planting any type of tree make sure that you plant the tree in a large enough hole. You don’t want to crowd or jam the roots into a too small hole. Try not to break the roots.
There’s an old expression about planting trees:
“You’ll do better to plant a dime size tree in a dollar hole, than to plant a dollar tree in a dime hole.”
How & When To Plant An Apple Tree
Take my advice and consult an almanac before you breakout the garden rake or shovel. That’s because the best time to plant an apple tree is in the moon’s 3rd quarter. All trees and perennial plants will form a deeper and sturdier root system when plated in the decrease of the moon. If at all possible plant trees in the sign of the Bull (Taurus) and avoid the fruitful or watery signs like Cancer, Pisces or Scorpio. Trees planted in fruitful signs tend to make a strong top growth at the expense of the roots. When planting young trees the formation of a strong root system is critical to its future.
Autumn is my personal preferred planting time for trees but spring planting can be just as successful. The advantage to a fall planting is that young trees have an extra 2 or 3 months to develop strong roots before the warm season arrives again. Fruit trees benefit from a longer season of cool rainy weather after planting. And just so you know most mail order nurseries are set up for a spring rush but do offer fruit trees for sale in the latter part of the year. However the selection is not as good.
When you get your apple tree(s) it is very important that they do not dry out before planting.
Keep them in a dark, cool location and very well wrapped until planting. Wait to plant until the soil is open and workable and try to pick a cool overcast day in the moon’s 3rd quarter as suggested. Don’t try to plant too early in the spring or when the ground is saturated and wet. This is especially true for heavy clay type soils.
To plant an apple tree correctly you’ll first need to dig a large enough hole. You want the hole to be at least 4” wider than the very widest part of the roots. If your tree is bare root it is a good idea to make a small saddle for the roots. A root saddle is a small hump of dirt in the middle of the hole for the center part of the root mass to rest upon. The way I do it, is I get inside the hole and form a little conical-shaped dirt mountain. I place the center of the roots on top of the dirt saddle and allow the roots to cascade down over the little dirt hump. If your tree is a potted tree, you will need to carefully remove it from its pot and if it is wrapped in burlap or potted in a fiber pot you’ll have to do nothing. Just set the pot in – burlap and all.
When you put your tree in the hole try to have the sturdiest part of the scion graft facing against the prevailing wind. When I first planted my orchard years ago I really didn’t know what I was doing. I planted some of my trees with the scion graft facing into the wind. So over time the trees began lean over because the wind was blowing against the weakest part of the graft.
Once the tree is placed in the hole and the scion union is facing the right direction, you’ll want to flood the hole with water. I always pour an entire 5-gallon bucket of water into the hole.
Pouring water into the planting hole serves two purposes. The first is that it helps to pull all of the roots down and helps to prevent air pockets that can sometimes occur when the soil is placed back into the hole. Secondly, the water will help prevent the tree from drying out in the event of an unseasonably warm spell and lessens the stress of transplanting.
Next fill the hole back in. It’s okay to place the grass or turf back into the hole. What I do is turn the turf upside down and stuff it back into the hole. I next slowly rake the dirt back into the hole. Allow some of the water to recede in the hole before gently but firmly tamping the dirt with your foot. You want to insure that there are no dead spaces or air pockets in the hole.
After Planting You’ll Need To Prune, Water & Spray
Here comes the hard part. After your tree is planted it needs to be pruned immediately keeping a 3 to 1 ratio.
That is, you want to keep the top leader or the branches one-third the length of the roots. A newly planted tree must have more roots than branches. You want to have 1/3 tree and 2/3 roots.
When planting a one-year old un-branched whip, cut the top of the tree off at 30”-36” above the ground. I know you won’t want to cut the tree. But just do it.
Remember any pruning done in late winter or early spring encourages branching. So by cutting the tree off above the ground in the spring or late winter you are encouraging the tree to begin to branch out and to form its scaffolding system that will grow to become a permanent part of the tree.
Any pruning done in the summer or early autumn discourages growth. This is good to know and important if water sprouts should become a problem. Water sprouts are the long branches that sometimes grow up from the base or trunk of a fruit tree.
After you have planted the apple tree you’ll need to keep it watered regularly during its first spring and summer. You will also need to spray if needed for summertime pests. I try to spray my trees once a week during the summer with soapy water. I most often use a 3-gallon spray tank mix with ¼ cup of dish detergent and spray only the trunk of the trees and never the leaves or apples.
The trunk of the tree is like bridge for bugs, so by protecting the tree trunk you are protecting the tree against bugs. Protect the trunk of an apple tree and you protect the entire tree.
Apple trees aren’t hard to grow. Just remember to choose full sun and the right type of tree for your location. Plant it properly, prune it and keep the bugs off it and you’ll have apples before you know it.