Our most widely adapted fruit tree, the apple thrives in home gardens and orchards from central Florida all the way north to Canada. The apple blossom is the state flower of Arkansas.
Depending on the selection, apples ripen anywhere from June to early November. To grow and bear fruit properly, most selections require between 900 and 1,200 hours of chilling (hours of temperatures at 45F or below) each winter. If you live in the Coastal South, be sure you select types with a low chill requirement, such as 'Anna' or 'Dorsett Golden'. Apples won't grow in the Tropical South.
Not all selections require cross-pollination with a different selection to produce fruit, but most doso unless you already have apples or crabapples growing nearby, you'll need at least two different selections to get fruit. Some selections (such as 'Mutsu', 'Stayman', 'Roxbury Russet', and 'Jonagold') have sterile pollen (called triploids) and cannot pollinate themselves or others. When planting any triploid type apple, always include at least two other selections that can cross-pollinate. Even self-pollinating apples bear heavier crops when cross-pollinated with another selection.
A standard apple tree on seedling rootstock can reach 30 feet tall or taller. With the introduction of dwarfing and semidwarfing rootstocks after World War II, gardeners gained the advantage in reducing tree size. The smaller trees (5 to 15 feet tall, depending upon the scion and rootstock combination) are much easier to manage and harvest.
When selecting apple types, always consider those that do well in your area but may not be found in local supermarkets. In general, fruit sold by grocers isn't as flavorful as that grown locally. Usually this is because most store-bought fruit isn't picked fully ripe and is stored for months and shipped hundreds or thousands of miles.
The ideal (if you have space) is to plant several trees to ripen sequentially, providing early, mid-, and late-season fruit. Outstanding dessert apples include 'Ginger Gold', 'Gala', 'Mutsu', Fuji', 'Cumberland Spur Red Delicious', and 'Pink Lady'. For a good baking apple, try 'Rome Beauty', 'Jonathan', 'Granny Smith', or 'Carter's Blue'.
Apple trees are longer lived and easier to grow than most fruit trees, but they still require regular care. Though they'll tolerate heavy clay and even rocky soil, they prefer deep, fertile, well-drained soil. They typically need regular applications of nitrogen; the amount and frequency depend on soil.
Apple selections vary in their adaptability to different locales. Information about the best selections, average hours of chilling in your area, and the care needed is generally available through your local County Extension Office.
To avoid frost damage in spring, plant on slopes rather than in low spots. Supplemental watering during summer dry spells produces juicier fruit. Apples often bear fruit in clusters of three or four; if you let all of them ripen, they'll all be small. Thinning the clusters to one or two in spring results in bigger, juicier fruit spaced 46 inches apart.
The main insect pests are apple maggot, codling moth, and plum curculio, all of which infest the fruit. Pheromone traps, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), or horticultural oil may be enough to thwart these pests in most areas, but proper timing of controls is critical.
Diseases cause more problems than insects do. Typical diseases include apple scab, which causes hard, corky spots on fruit; cedar-apple rust, which produces orange spots on leaves and fruit; brown rot that causes fruit to rot on the tree; and fireblight, which blackens and kills young twigs and leaves. Applying proper fungicides, as well as dormant oil in winter, can also aid in control.
Dwarf, semidwarf, and spur apples
- Dwarf apples (58 feet tall and wide) are good choices if you have limited space or want to grow several types of apples in the space a standard tree would take.
- Dwarfs bear at a younger age than standard apples, but they have shallow roots and need the support of a post, fence, wall, or sturdy trellis to withstand wind and heavy rain.
- They also need well-drained soil and extra care in feeding and watering.
- Genetic dwarf apples, such as 'Garden Delicious', are naturally small and stay that way; even grafting them onto a standard (non-dwarfing) rootstock would not produce a standard-size tree.
Semidwarf trees are larger than dwarfs but smaller than standard trees. They're the best choice for most people, producing a bigger crop than dwarfs in a relatively short period of time.
Spur apples are natural or genetically engineered semidwarfs about two-thirds the size of standard apple trees. Their fruiting spursshort branches that grow from wood 2 years old and olderform earlier than those of nonspur types (within 2 to 3 years of planting) and grow closer together on shorter branches, giving more apples per foot of branch. Among the better spur-type selections are: 'Cumberland Spur Red Delicious', 'Granny Smith Spur', 'Starkspur Golden Delicious', and 'Arkansas Black Spur'.
Garden centers and mail-order nurseries won't generally specify the name of the dwarfing or semidwarfing rootstock they use on the tree they sell you. There are many different rootstocks, however, and not all perform well in the South. Rootstocks such as MM106 and M26 have been cleaned of viruses and are generally sold under the names of EMLA106 and EMLA26, which are virus-free clones of the originals.
If trees growing in 3-gallon pots are planted, 2 to 3 years may be required to begin fruiting. If larger trees (15-gal or larger) are used, only 1 to 2 years are needed to begin harvesting.