apple tree care
SOIL PREPARATION & PLANTING
Choose a location in well drained soil that receives full sun. Space trees relative to eventual mature size. Dig the planting hole as deep as the existing roots, and at least twice as wide. Loosen the soil on the sides of the hole with a shovel or spade fork, especially if your soil is heavy clay. Prune out damaged or rotted roots. Form a cone of loose soil in the center of the hole and spread the roots over it. Position the plant’s height so that the crown (where the roots meet the trunk) is at or slightly below the finished soil surface, and rotate the plant to where you feel it looks best. Be sure the graft union is at least 1 inch above the soil surface. Fill the planting hole and cover the roots with native soil (dug from the hole) that has been amended with about 25% E.B. Stone® Planting Compost or Gardener & Bloome® Soil Building Conditioner.
WATERING & FERTILIZATION
Water the plants thoroughly at planting (even if it’s raining out!), and continue to water thoroughly for the next few years. You will know when it’s time to water again once the soil surface dries out slightly. As the seasons progress, you can let the soil dry out a little more between each watering.
Fertilize in April every year, using an All-Purpose fertilizer or a Fruit Tree fertilizer. Follow the instructions on the package for quantities recommended relative to the tree’s size.
The Goal of Pruning
• Create and maintain a training method that increases fruit production and avoids future branch breakages.
• Control the tree’s size (if desired).
• Enhance fruit quality through opening up the canopy.
Fruit thinning is important and rewarding. Apple trees will often develop more fruit than the branches can physically support, so thinning will help relieve the possibility of breakage. Also, allowing too many fruit to develop results in great numbers of small and poor quality fruit, so thinning the young fruit gives the remaining fruit more nutrients and light, and consequently higher quality fruit.
Optimal fruit thinning is best done before the fruit is larger than about the size of a dime. Prune off all but 1 fruit in each cluster! This sounds like a lot, but (trust us!) it is worth it.
Apple trees are typically best trained and maintained using the central leader method. The idea is to create a tree that has a central leader (a single dominant trunk from the roots to the uppermost top) with very well spaced radiating main branches. These main branches are called scaffold branches. The over all shape of the tree should be openly pyramidal (Figure 1).
Start training the first year by selecting a strong central branch as the main leader. Prune off any other branches that have an angle of less than about 65º to the central leader. This will likely result in removing most, if not all, of the extraneous branches. Don‘t worry, more branches will grow during the next warm season. The next step is to begin selecting the scaffold branches. First determine what height you want the lowest branch on the tree to be at. If you select a branch 2’ above the ground to remain as a scaffold branch, it will always be 2’ off the ground. Tree trunks don’t grow longer. They grow from the branch tips up and out. If your tree is short now and you wish to have bottom branches that are taller than the branches available are now, you will need to wait until the tree grows and a branch develops at the height you wish.
Start from the bottom and select only 3 to 5 very well spaced radiating branches to keep as the bottom most scaffold branches. Avoid selecting branches that are directly across from each other, vertically, on the central leader (Figure 3).
Next, select another 3 to 5 well spaced branches about 2 feet above the top most scaffold branch previously selected. The idea is to have space of about 2 feet vertically between branches all the way from the base of the tree to the top branches. Prune off everything except your chosen central leader and your chosen scaffold branches.
If your tree is not yet big enough to be able to select branches, you will have to wait until following years. New buds will develop annually along the central leader. Initial fruit tree training usually takes 4 or 5 years.
If some of the branches chosen to be scaffold branches are very long, you can cut off the end of the branches to encourage more branching.
Continue selecting scaffold branches up the tree as it grows, and continue to remove all other branches. As you train the tree, you may wish to reassess and remove branches previously planned to serve as scaffolds, leaving new shoots to serve in their place. Remember, you are training the tree for an ultimate goal of 3-5 well spaced and open scaffold branches for every 2-3 feet of vertical trunk height.
During the training process, you may wish to employ extra methods to space the scaffold branches other than selecting naturally grown branches. Pieces of wood can be placed between branches to improve spacing (Figure 2). Gently altering branch shapes with ties such as rope or twine also is effective (Figure 2). Shaping with objects or ties should be done for as short a time period as possible and should be done carefully so as not to damage bark.
Annual maintenance pruning consists of thinning twiggy branches to allow light and air to penetrate further into the canopy. Also remove any dead, damaged, diseased or crossing branches. Remove any branches growing from the central leader that have not been selected to be scaffold or scaffold replacements. You may remove the ends of scaffold branches annually to keep the tree at a desired size. Scaffold branches do eventually get old and slow or stop producing.