Apple Tree Growth Stages: How Fast Do Apple Trees Grow?
Are you growing apple trees in your garden this season? Apple trees have several growth stages before producing fruit you'll love each season. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen shares the different growth stages of Apple Trees and how fast you can expect them to grow.
It’s exciting to plant a fruit tree. You’re probably already looking forward to the first juicy, crispy bites of your very own homegrown apple. But how long do you have to wait, and what stages can you expect your tree to pass through? Apple trees require patience and a bit of work, but you can expect to be deliciously rewarded for your time and efforts.
All apple trees require a sunny location and rich, well-drained soil. Apple trees do take some dedicated effort to grow successfully, however. They require regular care and maintenance throughout their lives.
In this article, we will walk through some basics of apple tree cultivation and what to expect during each growth stage. Let’s dig in!
The Short Answer
Depending on the variety of apple tree you choose to grow, a mature tree will produce fruit around 5-6 years after being established. Dwarf varieties can produce fruit in as soon as 2-3 years after planting. Some standard sized trees will take up to 8 years to fully mature. So, it really depends on the variety you plant, and your growing climate.
The Long Answer
Apple trees (Malus pumila or Malus domestica) are some of the most diverse fruit trees available. There are thousands of apple tree varieties and cultivars with different fruit sizes, tastes, colors, growth habits, and climate tolerance ranges.
The varieties of fruits you find at your local grocery store are just a small percent of the recognized apple cultivars available.
If you have the desire to grow your own apples, you will no doubt be curious about the process from selecting a tree to harvesting fruit.
Preparing to Grow an Apple Tree
Growing apple trees takes a lot of effort. Even before you have your apple tree in hand, it is important to prepare a few things. Start by finding out a little more about the region you are in.
Then, learn all about the several different apple tree varieties so you can select the two that’ll work best in your garden, as well as serve their intended purpose (fresh fruit, pies, cider, etc.). Only then will you be ready to make your apple tree purchase!
Know Your Numbers
There are a few numbers to become acquainted with before you begin your apple-growing adventure. First, the hardiness zone in which you live is very important in understanding the growing conditions your trees will experience. The number of chill hours is also important for the health and prosperity of your apple trees.
USDA Climate Zones
Before you bring home an apple tree, you’ll need to know your hardiness zone. USDA Hardiness Zones define a range of climate zones based on the average annual minimum temperature.
Plant growers rely on knowing their zone so they can choose the best plants to grow. Once you have identified your zone, select a couple of apple varieties that are well-suited for your local climate.
Apples can be grown anywhere from zone 3 through zone 9, but not all trees grow equally well in different regions. It is important to note that if you live in zones 3 or 4, you will need to choose an apple variety that is cold-hardy.
If you live in zones 8 or 9, you will need to look for apple varieties that are more heat tolerant.
Another important number to understand is chill hours. Fruit trees typically require a certain number of chill hours to develop fruit successfully. A chill hour is typically defined as one hour under 45°F.
Fruit trees need chill hours to encourage the trees to break winter dormancy and for flowers to open properly in the spring. Without the right number of chill hours, flowers open unevenly or not at all, or flowers open too early or too late in the season. If the tree does not receive the expected number of chill hours, it will have problems with fruiting.
Apple trees require anywhere from 700 to 1,500 chill hours to set fruit. This number depends on the apple variety. Generally speaking, if you are growing an apple tree within its recommended range, your climate will naturally provide the correct number of chill hours.
But there may be years when your tree breaks dormancy too soon or too late, and the fruiting cycle will be disrupted.
It can be a little complicated to find your local area’s average number of chill hours, but talking with your local agricultural extension agent can be helpful or using an online chill hours calculator. Some nurseries and fruit tree growers can also help guide you toward plants that are best suited for your particular region.
Choose a Growing Site
Before you buy a tree, you will need to assess your growing site. Do you have enough room to grow apple trees? Do you have the right conditions? Take a look at the following list and see if you can provide these basic apple-growing conditions:
- Sun – Full sun, at least 8 hours of direct sunlight each day
- Soil – Moist and well-drained, rich in organic matter
- Soil pH – Ideally between 6.0 and 6.5, but anywhere between 5.5 and 7.0 is okay
- Air circulation – Good air circulation reduces risk of fungal growth
- Weed free – keep weeds from growing around the base of your trees
Choose Your Trees
Once you determine that you have the right space for a couple of trees and you have good apple-growing conditions, you can start the fun part!
There are too many apple varieties to list here. There are also countless ways to judge an apple and many are entirely subjective. But the following list will give you some ideas.
Fastest Maturing Apples
- Arkansas Black
- Golden Delicious
- Red Delicious
- Dwarf varieties tend to produce fruits sooner than standard varieties
Cold Tolerant Varieties
Heat Tolerant Varieties
- Ginger Gold
- Granny Smith
- Sweet Sixteen
- Apple Babe Dwarf
- Arkansas Black Dwarf
- Cameron Select Dwarf
- Columnar Apple Trees
- Goldrush Dwarf
Depending on how you want to use your apples, you can also look for varieties that make good pies (Rome), are delicious for eating fresh (Honeycrisp), make excellent cider (Jonathan), best for making sauce (Crispin), or have pink flower blossoms (Whitney Crabapple).
You can decide for yourself which qualities are most important, but it does give you plenty of options to think about when choosing which apple varieties to grow.
You don’t need to grow an entire orchard of trees to get decent apples, but most apple trees need to be cross-pollinated in order to set fruit. So if you want to grow apples, you will need at least two trees.
It does not matter which two varities you choose, so just choose at least two different varieties for pollination purposes. One of them can even be a crabapple.
There are several ways to purchase an apple tree to plant in your garden. You can start as early in their growth stage as starting from seed, which is the cheapest but typically the most work with results that aren’t guaranteed.
The quickest and usually the most successful way to grow apple trees is by purchasing a nursery start, bare root tree, or potted tree. These are a little older and the brunt of the work has been done for you by professionals.
Starting From Seed
What happens if you plant an apple seed? If you go to the grocery store and buy any variety of apple, you will notice it contains seeds. You can plant a few of these seeds and they will probably sprout.
The problem with this method, however, is that you won’t know what type of apple you are growing because the seeds in the apples you buy will be genetically different that the fruits they came from.
If you truly want an apple tree to grow your own fruits, start with nursery stock. Nurseries sell plants that have been propagated by grafting. Grafted plants will have a hardy rootstock base grafted to a specific variety of branching stems.
This allows the nursery to sell plants of known genetic origin so you will know exactly what type of apple you are growing, how large the tree will be, and what its specific growing requirements are.
Before you buy a tree, the first two years of its life will probably be at a nursery where trees are grown, grafted, and cared for until they are ready to be sold. These first two years are all about getting a healthy tree started.
Tips for Selecting and Buying the Right Tree
- Buy a healthy plant.
- Buy a plant well-suited for your area.
- Buy a plant that’s the right size for your available space.
- Buy a tree when you are ready to plant it.
- Most apple trees need cross-pollination, so buy two trees.
If you buy from a reputable online nursery, you will probably be sent a bare-root tree. These trees are generally 1 to 2 years old at the time of purchase. Since you are ordering online, you won’t be able to see the actual plants before they arrive. Just be sure to choose the best trees for your location and your personal needs.
A quality online nursery will send you healthy trees during an ideal planting time so you can get them right into the ground. Plant your new bare root trees promptly.
If you are buying from a local garden center, chances are you will buy a tree growing in a pot. Pot size is generally a good indication of how old the tree is.
A tree purchased in a 1-gallon pot is probably 2 to 3 years old. A tree is a 3-gallon pot is typically 3 to 4 years old. And if you purchase a 5-gallon potted apple tree, it may be between 4 and 5 years old.
Apple Tree Growth Stages
You’ve got a new tree! Now what? Let’s say you bring home a 1 to 2-year-old tree. Your first step is to prepare a planting site and plant your tree. These first couple of years are critical to your tree’s success because it is getting established in its new location. Give your trees the best start you can so they can focus their energy on solid, healthy, growth, not merely survival.
Growing Tips for a Great Start
- Prepare the site in advance.
- Choose a site with rich, moist, well-drained soil.
- Choose a healthy, vigorous, sapling.
- Transplant in early spring.
- Water well when transplanting.
- Plant in full sun.
Immediately After Planting
It’s early spring, and you’ve just planted a couple of apple trees. There are a few things you can do to help your trees get established and stay healthy. For the first year after planting, check on your trees frequently, but keep an especially close watch on soil moisture and pests.
This first year after you plant your tree will determine if it gets off to a great start or a rocky start. The roots will start to grow and spread outwards.
Your tree will develop a larger, anchoring tap root to secure it firmly in place, ideally in an upright position. Branches will lengthen and fill out, and the trunk will start to get wider.
Tips for Immediately After Planting
- Keep trees watered.
- Stake trees upright if needed, but this isn’t always necessary.
- Fence around your trees to prevent deer from nibbling, as needed.
- Keep an eye out for early signs of fungal disease.
- Add mulch to help keep roots moist.
1 to 2 Years After Planting
In the first 1 to 2 years after planting, your tree will do a lot of growing! If you started out with a very young 1 or 2-year-old tree, these first few years in your yard will be years 2 to 4 for your planted tree. In the early years, your tree will focus on root production and limb growth.
The tree will grow more roots which will spread. You won’t see this of course, because it’s all happening underground. You can help your tree get established by keeping it free of weeds, and fertilizing it each spring. Pest and disease maintenance is also critical during these early stages.
As the roots develop, the top part of the tree will also start to grow vigorously. New branches will form, spread, and broaden. Leaves will fill in the branches and, depending on your apple varieties, you may even see a few flowers. Dwarf varieties and slightly older trees may develop their first fruits.
3+ Years After Planting
When your tree is between 4 and 6 years old, the roots and branches will continue to grow and develop. The top of the tree will start to fill in and look nicely bushy. Some varieties, particularly dwarf varieties, will already be flowering and fruiting in these years.
When your tree has reached 5 or 6 years of age, it will continue to grow until it reaches full size, if it hasn’t already. Even after your tree reaches full size, it will continue to grow new leaves and branches each year.
Keep up an annual pruning routine. Pruning and other typical annual maintenance will remain the same each year of your tree’s life.
Annual Care and Maintenance
Each year, you should do some routine tree maintenance. Routine maintenance includes keeping your tree irrigated, pruning excess growth and dead branches, and managing pests and diseases. Taking care of your fruit trees throughout the entire year can help ensure an overall healthier tree and a more productive harvest.
Basic Maintenance Annual Calendar
|Early Spring||Prune and thin branches, as needed|
|Spring||Apply mulch and compost around the tree|
|Late Spring through Fall||Watch for signs of pests and diseases, treat as needed|
|Spring through Fall||Water trees regularly|
|Early Summer||Thin fruits|
|Late Summer through Fall||Harvest fruits|
|Fall||Rake fallen leaves|
|Winter||Protect trees from deer, if necessary|
Annual pruning will help keep your tree looking nice, but it has tangible benefits as well. Pruning helps fruiting by allowing more light.
Pruning helps reduce pests and diseases by improving air circulation. It also helps keep your tree healthy and vigorous by removing weaker branches and focusing the tree’s energy on the strongest and healthiest branches.
One of the most challenging things about growing apple trees is the need to control pests and diseases. Bugs love apples, so it can be very difficult to successfully grow a crop of apples without applying some type of pesticide.
Fungal diseases are also very prevalent in apples but can be minimized by buying disease-resistant varieties. While it is possible to grow apples organically, it takes a lot of research and diligence to maintain your trees in optimal health without any chemical applications.
Pollinators are not pests. You will need to be very careful about applying pesticides so as not to harm pollinators. Pollinators are essential for the success of your crop. Without cross-pollination, you won’t get any apples.
Mulching and Weeding
Mulch around your trees each year to help maintain soil moisture and reduce weeds. Keep the area around your trees free from weeds and tall grasses that compete with the tree for water, nutrients, and light.
Weeds also reduce airflow around your trees and provide places for pests to hide, increasing changes for fungal diseases and insect pests.
Apple trees need nutrients to grow and produce healthy fruits. But be careful not to over-fertilize. It’s possible to simply use good quality organic mulch or compost rather than apply chemical fertilizers.
Add nutrient-rich compost mulch around the base of your tree early each spring. This will provide adequate nutrients to your tree that won’t damage the surrounding environment and you won’t need to worry about over-fertilization.
Keep your trees irrigated in the summertime. Soil should maintain uniform moisture rather than fluctuate dramatically between wet and dry. Soil should be well-draining so the trees are never sitting in wet soil.
Standard-size apple trees can grow as fast as 2 to 3 feet per year until they reach full size or about 18 to 20 feet tall, with the largest varieties reaching up to 30 feet tall. Dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties will most likely reach their full size within 5 years. There are a few ways to encourage faster growth, however,
Most dwarf trees grow 8 to 10 feet tall, and semi-dwarf trees grow 12 to 15 feet tall. Columnar apples also grow 8 to 10 feet tall, but typically no more than 2 feet across.
While you are watching your tree grow, you will be wondering, How long does it take for an apple tree to produce fruit? The answer depends on your growing conditions, which variety you plant, and the age of the tree at planting.
Dwarf trees and columnar apples may start fruiting as early as their 2nd year. A standard-sized tree may take between 5 and 10 years to start fruiting. A home gardener will most likely want a smaller tree, so you can expect to begin enjoying fruits within a few years after planting.
Thinning Apple Fruits
Apples, and many other fruit trees, will try to grow more fruits than they can successfully carry. Weaker fruits are naturally dropped, but you can help the tree by manually thinning excess fruits.
Simply remove the smallest fruits and those that appear weak or damaged. Leave several inches between the healthiest fruits. This will encourage the best fruit production.
This is the time you’ve been waiting for most. Apple harvest can be anywhere between August and October, depending on the apple variety.
When your apples are ripe, grip the fruit in your hand and give an upward twist. The fruit stem should separate easily from the branch. Don’t just grab and pull, or you will damage the branches.
If you have enough space, a sunny location with well-drained soil, and a bit of patience and persistence, you can successfully grow your own apples.
Apple trees require regular care and maintenance to grow good fruits, but your efforts can be very well rewarded. Start with high-quality nursery stock, take good care of your trees, and enjoy your own fresh and tasty home-grown apples!