As you scan that stack of mail-order seed catalogs and websites for ideas for this year’s garden, don’t overlook the potential value an apple tree (or several) could add to your urban farm. Developing a home apple orchard requires planning, so start considering this option for your farm now.
Planting Apple Trees
“For most homeowners, the most limiting factor when looking to become a home orchardist is their yard. The size of the yard will determine how many apple trees you can manage,” says Richard Hentschel, a specialist at the University of Illinois Extension. “Even dwarf or double-dwarf apple trees require sufficient space to grow and produce fruit, and the home orchardist will need enough room around each tree to properly train, prune, and manage insects and diseases.”
When browsing fruit-tree catalogs, look for recommended planting distances between trees and between rows, as well as light requirements, to find out if your urban farm meets the needs of an apple tree. Full sunlight is critical to the success of any fruiting plant.
“Where you plant your apple trees is important for both water and air drainage,” Hentschel says. “Be sure that water will not stand and puddle around your apple trees for any longer than just a few hours after a rain event. Standing water in the winter can cause trunk damage near the soil line.”
Air drainage—something not often thought about by urban gardeners—is critical in preventing cold air from settling around your apple trees when they are in bloom.
“Flower buds are more sensitive to cold temperatures than the foliage buds,” Hentschel says. “In urban settings there is little a homeowner can do other than to plant apple trees in locations that receive the best sunlight possible and amend the soil to drain at planting time.”
Pruning Apple Trees
Apple trees are pruned differently at home than in a commercial orchard. In the home orchard, the trees are usually visible from the kitchen or back deck. These orchards are pruned to have a more normal tree-like appearance—a balance between aesthetics and fruit production.
The most common method of pruning is called central leader, in which fruiting scaffolds radiate from the trunk in a systematic manner, allowing for easier pruning, spraying and harvesting of the apples.
“To get the scaffolds in the right places, you must train the apple tree beginning on the day you plant it,” Hentschel explains. “A common mistake is waiting for the tree to become established for two or three years before you start the training. Waiting results in large branches growing where you really do not want them. You wind up with a dwarf apple tree that is larger than you expected or want.”
Pruning should start in late winter in order to train the scaffolds and continue into the spring and summer.
As you read your fruit-tree catalogs to plan your home orchard, note the section about pollination requirements. Apples typically require cross pollination to bear apples. Two trees of the same variety will not cross pollinate each other, so you will need at least two different varieties that bloom at the same time.
In an urban setting, ornamental flowering crabapples can be the pollinator. If your apple tree in the backyard is blooming at the same time as your ornamental flowering crabapple in the front yard, you will have the cross pollination needed to produce your apple crop. Pollination occurs when bees and other pollinating insects visit the blooms of the apple tree, carrying pollen from another apple or crabapple tree.
Protecting Apple Trees
“When you decide you want that home orchard, you will be committing time and resources,” Hentschel says. “Your apple trees will need to be trained for three to five years before they bear fruit in any quantity, and during that time you will need to protect them from a variety of sources.”
To protect trees from the weather, mulch the soil to prevent sudden changes in soil temperatures sometime after the soil has become cold. Wildlife, such as rabbits, deer and field mice, can eat the bark of the tree or eat the tree itself. And the young, nonbearing apple tree needs protection against insects and disease.
Leaf-feeding insects and foliar diseases both lessen the tree’s ability to develop into a mature fruiting tree as early as possible and set up a situation that will be harder to control after the tree is bearing apples.
“Pruning should start in late winter through early spring to train the scaffolds, and sprays for insects and disease should start prior to bloom and continue throughout the season. Summer pruning and training may need to be done, as well,” he says.
Begin your pest- and disease-control regimen prior to bloom, and continue throughout the growing season.