How to Grow Organic Apples
Have you ever dreamed of walking out into your backyard and plucking a juicy, crisp red apple from the tree for a snack? Are you concerned about the number of pesticides on the fruit you purchase from the grocery store—or are you spending a fortune on organic produce, yet wondering if that organic produce is truly “organic” or just a label? One solution to answer these questions is to grow your own organic fruit. You can grow organic apples in many gardening zones in the United States. You can even grow organic apples on an apartment or condo balcony. The secret to how to grow organic apples is to choose varieties that have the best chance of thriving in your particular climate.
A Word About Organic Gardening
Before I share my tips and suggestions for growing organic apples in your backyard, we need to have a shared understanding of the term “organic gardening.” The term “organic” has been used and abused in recent years, a label applied to many products to enhance their marketability in a culture increasingly concerned with the healthful qualities of food and related products. There’s no standard definition for organic gardening, so it’s important to share my understanding of it with you, so that you understand the perspective from which I write (and garden).
I define organic gardening as a garden that uses a minimal amount or no pesticides, fungicides, or other chemical products.The focus is on building up the soil using natural ingredients, such as compost, manures and mulches; on planting varieties suited to the climate and location to minimize supplemental watering and fertilizing; and to seek, whenever possible, natural solutions to common garden problems, such as insect damage or plant diseases.
Gardens in Harmony with Nature
Gardens that are grown in harmony with nature tend to be organic gardens. My own garden is what I call “95% to 99%” organic. We do sometimes use commercial sprays, especially on the fruit trees, but we choose organic oils and sprays whenever possible. We use mulches, organic manures and compost, but I’m not adverse to sprinkling a little 10-10-10 in a flower pot or window box if the situation requires it. And for my roses, I choose neem-oil based sprays, a natural product made with oils from the Asian neem tree that repels all sorts of nasty critters and microorganisms.
So if you peek into my garden shed, you will find one or two products, barely used, that would make an organic gardener faint. You would, however, find the foods grown in my garden tasty, healthy, and lacking in most pesticides and chemicals if you had the time and money to test them.
Not Perfect Store Apples, but Perfect Apples
Now that you understand where I’m coming from, you’ll notice something on the photos accompanying this article. These are all pictures of apples and apple trees growing in my home orchard. Notice something? Imperfection. Spots on the apples. Rust on the tree leaves. No, you won’t find perfectly red, polished, gleaming apples in my orchard.
If you stepped into a time machine and traveled back 100–200 years ago into an orchard in North America or Europe, this is probably what you would see as well in the days before commercial spraying came into vogue. The reason that apples at the supermarket are so absolutely perfect looking is that the growers spray them within an inch of their little lives to make sure that no bugs, no rust, no fungi or other problems that touch the apples.
The Public Wants Perfection – Even in Fruit
It’s a necessity for a public who likes things perfect and who thinks a bug or two in an apple is going to kill them. (It’s not, by the way; my dad would shout, “extra protein!” when we found worms in the apples growing in my grandma’s garden, a phrase I love to use today for the odd find in my apples.) The shiny apples you see at the store have been polished, waxed and shined to perfection to make them palatable and appealing. And if that’s your thing, and you like your apples shiny and perfect, and don’t mind eating conventionally grown produce, then go ahead; buy your apples at the store and enjoy. You’re eating a healthy snack for sure.
But if you don’t mind a spot or two, a brown dimple on an apple, or the occasional friendly worm popping out in exchange for the peace of mind knowing where your fruit was grown…then plant an apple tree or two or three.
Planning a Home Apple Orchard
Learning how to grow organic apples begins with planning. The first thing to do when planning a home apple orchard is to make sure you have enough space for your trees. Apple trees need full sunlight, defined as bright, direct sunshine for six or more hours a day.
Check the place where you want to plant your apple trees. An ideal apple orchard has:
- Full sunlight. Early morning sunlight is particularly important. It will dry off the leaves, preventing many mold and mildew-related problems.
- Soil with a pH of about 6.5 to 7 (almost neutral.) Have your soil tested if you’re not sure of the pH.
- Well-drained soil. Apple trees need abundant water but don’t like standing in mud. Sandy loam is the best type of soil.
Choosing Apple Trees: Dwarf, Semi-Dwarf, and Standard
Apple trees (and many other fruit trees) are sold in three sizes:
These names have no bearing on the size of the fruit. They refer to the final height of the mature tree. For the casual or backyard orchardist, dwarf trees are the easiest to care for and maintain. Anything larger will be difficult for you to prune or pick apples from and can take over your entire yard.
• Dwarf trees grow about 10 feet tall.
• Semi-dwarf apple trees grow to be about 15 feet tall.
• Standard size trees grow 20 feet high or taller.
Which Varieties Should I Grow?
The exact varieties you can grow in your home apple orchard depend on your tastes, the uses of the apples, and the varieties that do well in your area.
- Here are some basic apple tree facts to take into consideration:
Heirloom varieties are older varieties grown for specific purposes. Many were grown for long-keeping, long-storing apples. These kinds of apples aren’t practical for most families today. They need long periods of storage at cool temperatures to become sweet. Many are standard size trees. Unless you have your heart set on an heirloom variety, you might want to start out with a modern hybrid.
- Some apple trees need pollinators, are trees of different varieties to pollinate them. New apple growers may want to buy trees at their local nursery. Such trees are usually tagged to indicate whether or not they need a pollinating tree, and if so, which varieties pollinate the trees. Pollinating trees must be planted near one another in order to create apples.
- Choose disease-resistant apple varieties. The best way to choose apple tree varieties for your area is to contact your local County Cooperative Extension Office. They should have a list of disease-resistant apple trees that will thrive in your local area or gardening zone.
Planting Apple Trees
Now that you’ve selected the apple trees you wish to plant, here are simple steps to planting an apple tree, or you can watch the video below to see how apple trees are planted.
1. Trees ordered from mail-order catalogs are generally shipped as “whips.” These are planted in the early spring.
2. Container-grown trees or balled and burlapped trees may be planted in the spring or fall.
3. Dig a hole twice as wide and as deep as the tree’s roots or container.
4. Add compost or other amendments.
5. Gently turn the pot on the side and tap the sides and bottom to release the tree.
6. Place the roots in the planting hole.
7. Make sure that the bud union, a knob on the trunk where the tree has been grafted, is 2–3 inches above the soil line. If it is below, the tree may start growing new shoots from the original standard-sized root stock (most apple trees are grafted onto hardy, standard size trees.)
8. Add water, about 2–3 gallons. Wait until it sinks into the ground a bit.
9. Backfill with soil.
10. Tamp the soil down with your hands.
11. Water well, keeping the tree watered with about 1–2 gallons per week until it is established.
12. Add mulch.
13. Pull weeds that grow near the trunk. Pull them by hand to avoid damaging the tree.
14. Add more mulch if needed.
You do not need to stake up an apple tree. It should bend and flex in the wind in order to develop a strong trunk. If deer are a problem in your area, a cage made from flexible wire mesh can be made in a wide circle around the trunk of the tree to prevent deer and other animals from damaging the trunk.
Care and Pruning
Pruning is essential to shape the tree and remove extra branches. Pruning is a lengthy topic, but there are several guidelines I can give you.
- Prune the tree so that if you were a child and wanted to climb it, the branches make a “ladder.” That’s the best advice I was ever given by an arborist and it helps me visualize the shape of the tree!
- Water sprouts, or tiny sprouts that stick up vertically from the tree limb, can be pruned off.
- Sterilize pruning tools between use on each tree by swishing them in a container of rubbing alcohol. This is especially important is fire blight, a disease that causes limb death, is present in the orchard, as it is easily spread through pruning.
- Organic oils and sprays can be used in the home orchard. Check with your local organic gardening store or see the resources for more about organic gardening sprays for the home orchard.
How Long Will It Take to Grow Apples?
Depending on the size and variety of the trees you’ve chosen, it can take anywhere from 1 to 10 years until the trees are ready to produce apples. But look on the bright side; once apple trees begin bearing fruit, they can live for decades.
A dwarf-sized tree will bear fruit sooner than a standard size tree. I planted whips of standard-size trees in my home orchard and was told that it would take 7 to 10 years before they bore fruit. I’m happy to say that two trees bore apples just 6 years after planting, the apples you see in these pictures. However, there are 8 trees, and only 2 showed signs of fruit this year: the Lodi and the Jonathan apples. The rest are growing well, but no fruit as of yet.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.