Clean, crisp, crunchy apples fresh from the tree – it doesn’t get much sweeter than that. If you live a cool to temperate climate, then apples are the perfect fruit trees for backyard growing, with clusters of delicate pink or white blossoms in spring and a bounty of fruit in summer. They take a bit of work to prune and care for, but the results are certainly worth it, and the fruit have an excellent storing quality which means you can be enjoying your home harvest for months.
By
Phil Dudman

6 Sep 2011 - 3:16 PM  UPDATED 6 Jul 2017 - 2:03 PM

At a glance

Ease of culture: Moderate
Best climate: Cool, temperate and subtropical
When to plant: Winter
First harvest: After 2-3 years
pH: 6-7.5
Size: 1.5-8m
Chilling: 100-800 hrs. (depending on variety)
Prune: Winter

 

Climate

• Apples like cold winters, which makes cool to cold areas the best for growing top quality apples.
• Many apple varieties will cope with extremely cold conditions, including snow.
• Different varieties of apples require a certain number of 'chill hours’ (i.e. hours below 7ºC) to produce flowers and fruit.
• 'Low chill' varieties allow gardeners to grow apples in the subtropics.

 

Position

• Apples grow best in full of sun, but will tolerate part shade.
• A gentle slope facing north or northeast is ideal.
• Do not plant where spring frosts occur, which will damage flowers. Choose a protected spot uphill – don’t plant in frosty gullies.
• They also need good air circulation to minimise disease.
• Trees need protection from strong winds to avoid damage to flowers and fruit.

 

Soil

• Apples are adaptable to a wide range of soils, but do best in deep, fertile, well-drained soils.
• Heavy soils can be improved by incorporating gypsum and organic matter and mounding the soil before planting.
• They will grow in a wide pH range, but the preferred pH is 6 – 7.5.

 

Planting

• The best time to plant apples is in winter when they are dormant and leafless.
• This is when nurseries stock the widest selection of bare rooted trees.
• Potted and bagged trees are available at other times of year and can be planted then, as long as the roots are not disturbed.

 

Feeding and watering

• Regular light feeding in the first few years will encourage strong healthy root and canopy development.
• When trees start cropping, fertilise in early spring, summer and autumn.
• Use a well-balanced organic fertiliser applying a good handful per square metre in the area from the trunk to one metre beyond the drip line (the line directly beneath the outer canopy).
• Apply gypsum once a year to provide additional calcium.
• Keep them well watered, particularly through the summer months when fruit are forming. When there’s no rain, give trees a good soak at least once a fortnight and keep trees well mulched.

 

Early training

• Apples need formative pruning early in their development to establish a good framework for fruit production.
• Aim to create a vase shaped frame with an open centre and evenly spaced branches. This allows light into the centre of the tree, as well as good airflow and easy maintenance.
• In the initial stages, each winter, cut the main leaders back by half to outward facing buds. This will encourage branching.
• During summer, pinch out any inward facing growth.
• Retain 5-10 main branches that are evenly spaced around the tree. Avoid overcrowding.
• Apples can also be trained as an espalier flat against a wall or free-standing frame.

 

Pruning established trees

• Apples are produced from fruiting buds that appear on wood two or more years old.
• Most fruiting buds appear on gnarly, stubby protrusions known as 'spurs’. These are long-lived and produce fruit for many years, so don’t be tempted to remove them.
• Fruiting buds are plump and contain about five flowers.
• New, vigorous upward growth needs to be removed each year; otherwise they will turn into branches and make the tree overcrowded.
• Fruiting branches will produce lots of fruit for about 10 years, after which some of the older fruiting wood should be removed and gradually replaced with new fruiting growth.

 

Fruit thinning

• Apples produce lots of flowers and fruit.
• It’s not necessary to thin these, but removing one or two overcrowded fruit in each developing cluster when they are the size of marbles will result in larger fruit and more regular ripening.

 

Harvesting

• Apples begin bearing after 3-4 years, reaching peak production after 6. The trees remain productive for 40 years or more, sometimes up to 100 years.
• The main harvest period is between March and July.
• Ripening is not uniform, so it’s not possible to harvest the entire crop at one time.
• Pick fruit when any red pigment is very bright and green is pale.
• Ripe fruit show little resistance to picking. Lift and twist the fruit, leaving the short stem attached.
• Test the fruit – it should be juicy with a well-developed flavour.

 

Choosing a tree

• There are literally thousands of apple varieties.
• Choose a variety that suits your area and palate. Your local nursery should have a list of good performers for your climate.
• Most apples are self-sterile. You will need two compatible varieties for cross-pollination to achieve good crops. Their flowering periods must overlap. They will pollinate each other - both trees will bear fruit. If you are short on space, buy a multi-grafted tree with two compatible varieties or plant two compatible trees in the one hole.
• 'Jonathon' is a widely compatible pollinator of cool climate varieties.