When Should You Plant Apple Trees This Season?
Are you thinking of adding some apple trees to your garden this season, but aren't quite sure when you should actually plant them? Depending on your location, there's a few best practices to follow. In this article, gardening expert Merideth Corhs walks through the best times of year to plant Apple trees in your garden.
There is an old saying that “the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today.”
I love this sentiment. It goes to the notion that home gardeners are part of something special when we plant things in the ground. And is there anything more lasting than an apple tree? When you put those roots in the ground, you can be confident that you’ll be able to enjoy the – literal – fruits of your labor for years to come.
If you love apples as much as we do, growing apples in your yard is the best way to get close to the source. And with so many dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties available, you can focus on the varieties that produce the most delicious fruit imaginable.
But before you go out and buy a tree, let’s talk about when you should plant them. Planting your apple tree at the right time will give it the best chance to thrive and produce fruit quickly.
The Short Answer
In most parts of the country, spring is the best time to plant apple trees. The exact month will depend on where you live, but March and April are ideal for most growers. If you live in a warmer climate (USDA zones seven and warmer), it’s also possible to start planting in the fall. November can be a great time to plant if you live in an area where temperatures are not likely to dip below freezing. But, when in doubt, plant in the spring.
The Long Answer
So, now that you know the perfect time to plant is climate dependent, let’s look into the finer details of apple tree planting. If you plant in the wrong time of year, you may end up with poor yields or a dying tree. Let’s look at timing, seasons, and what you can expect.
Why is Timing So Important?
If you’ve gardened for even a single season, you know that certain vegetables, herbs, and flowers grow best during certain months. Some are warm-season crops, and others are cool-season. Apple trees are slightly different, but young trees and seeds still need certain conditions to thrive and grow.
If you plant an in the summer or in the middle of winter, it will not thrive. You can do everything else right when it comes to location and soil conditions, but you’ll have to replace the tree if your timing is off. Not only is it awful to lose a tree, but you’ll also wind up spending more money to replace it.
Apple Tree ‘Seasons’
Knowing a little bit about the life cycle of an apple tree can help you understand the best time to plant. There are different seasons for booms, fruiting, and harvesting.
Starting every spring around April, we delight in striking, fragrant blooms from this popular tree. The delicate white blossoms only last for about a week, but they’re something to look forward to each year.
Depending on the flowering group your tree is in, expect it to bloom sometime between spring and late summer.
The earliest apples are ready for harvest in late summer. But we harvest the vast majority of all apple tree varieties in the fall. This time is often a time of celebration in areas with large orchards. Ripe fruit is picked off of heavy-laden branches and set aside for consumption.
Harvest season is often a time to enjoy apple festivals filled with fresh apple pies, cider, and donuts. It’s a beautiful way to celebrate this natural part of the tree’s life-cycle.
Any farmer will tell you that the post-harvest period is a time for rest and renewal. The same is true for the tree. Apple trees go dormant for a period that usually lasts from December through March, depending on the variety. During this time, they are leafless and don’t produce new buds or fruit.
If you’ve ever heard of chill hours, this is where they come into play. All varieties require a certain number of winter chill hours to produce fruit in the next year. Flower buds may be delayed or not open if a tree doesn’t experience enough chill hours.
This reason is why it’s essential to note USDA zones and chill hour requirements before choosing a tree. If you are planting apple trees in southern Tennessee, you don’t want to plant a tree that needs 1,500 chill hours.
Chill hours start accumulating when the temperatures remain between 32 and 45 degrees. Anything below 32 degrees doesn’t count in the accumulation. Any hours that exceed 60 degrees need to be subtracted from the accumulated total.
When You Should Start Planting
So based on this lifecycle, when is the best time to start planting?
Springtime is the ideal answer. Your tree is just starting to wake up from its dormancy period. As the tree gets ready to bloom and grow leaves, it will naturally be ready to spread out roots, take up nutrients, and settle into its new home.
If you live in an area with very mild winters – the southern states or the Pacific northwest – you can get away with planting in the fall. This only works if your area doesn’t experience below-freezing winters. If you’re at all in doubt, spring planting is always the best option. Spring planted trees tend to yield fruits quicker than those planted in fall.
You may wonder if you must wait until after your last frost date to plant your tree. It’s a great question because most other garden veggies or flowers have that requirement.
The answer to this question is no. Frost dates are irrelevant to fruit trees, and you may miss your planting window if you wait until then in many parts of the country. You should plant your apple trees – especially if they’re bare-root – as early in the spring as you can work the soil. If the ground is still frozen solid, then you need to wait. But as soon as things start to thaw, it’s time to plant.
When to Purchase Transplants
If you’re buying your trees online, you’ll need to plan your order ahead of time. Fruit trees are grown on an annual cycle and are harvested in late fall. Even if you aren’t planting your tree until the following spring, many retailers suggest you purchase your trees in the summer.
This gives you the best chance of choosing the exact variety and size you want. Winter ordering will be fine in most cases, but the most popular varieties may already be sold out.
It’ll be too late if you try to order your tree in the spring. Instead, you’ll have to look at whatever your local nursery happens to have in stock.
Tree Planting Basics
Before you’re ready to put your tree in the ground, you’ll need to choose the right location and prepare the soil. The following will apply:
- All varieties need full sun to produce a high yield.
- Your tree needs well-draining soil; poorly drained soil can lead to issues with root rot.
- The ideal soil pH for planting is between 6.0 and 6.5.
Once you’ve chosen a good location, its time to plant your tree by following the steps listed below.
- Before planting, remove all weeds and grass in the immediate area.
- Prepare to dig two holes for your trees.
- Spacing will depend on what kind of tree you purchased.
- Full-sized trees need planted 15-18 feet apart, while dwarf varieties can be 4-8 feet.
- Dig a hole just slightly deeper than the root ball, and about twice as wide.
- If you’re planting bare root trees, dig a hole about 2 feet deep.
- Carefully remove the tree from its container and place the root ball in the hole.
- If your tree is bare-root, spread the roots on the loose soil.
- Gently fill in the soil, pressing down as you cover the roots.
- Do not add fertilizer at this time since it can burn young roots.
- If your tree is grafted, make sure the graft is at least 4 inches above the soil line.
- Stake your tree to prevent it from tipping over in strong winds.
When to Plant Seeds
If you’re feeling adventurous, consider the fact that you don’t have to buy a tree from a nursery. With a little knowledge and patience, you can grow a beautiful tree from a seed!
Apple seeds are easy to grow at home, and the resulting tree seedling can be stronger and more vigorous than grafted trees you can buy at the nursery. Growing a tree from seed is a labor of love that can take years, but you’ll be nurturing something that will be enjoyed for generations.
If you want to grow an apple tree from seed, there is a process you’ll need to follow.
Apple seeds need cold stratification to break dormancy. Cold stratification is simply the process of subjecting seeds to both cold and moist conditions to let them know it’s time to germinate. Many trees, shrubs, and perennials require these conditions to sprout.
Keep your seeds in a moist paper towel in your refrigerator for at least six weeks. Place the seeds and paper towel inside a plastic bag leaving it open a bit to allow air to circulate. Check the moistness of the paper towel often to ensure it doesn’t dry out.
At the end of six weeks, some of the seeds may have started to open and sprout already. That’s great news! Plant them in a small pot just like any other seed and allow them to germinate. Thin out the seeds like you would with anything else until you’re left with a single, healthy tree seedling.
From here, you can choose to continue growing your apple seedling in pots until it reaches a certain size, or plant it directly in the ground.
If you want to plant it in the ground, wait until you’re solidly past your last frost date and nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees.
Growing apple trees at home can be incredibly rewarding. There isn’t anything much better than being able to go into the backyard and pick an apple directly from your tree. And if you have children, they’ll delight in watching the tree grow and mature as they do.
Planting can truly be a family endeavor that can be enjoyed for many generations. Now that you know the proper time to start planting this season, all that’s left is to decide on the type of apple you’d like to grow!