How to Grow Apples: The Complete Guide

Botanical Name
Malus domestica
Plant Type
Sun Exposure
Soil pH
Bloom Time
Flower Color
Hardiness Zone

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Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Apples

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Dreaming of biting into a crisp, homegrown apple straight from your backyard? Growing your own apple trees is an incredibly rewarding experience, offering fresh fruit, beautiful blossoms, and a connection to the natural world. This comprehensive guide will give you the knowledge and confidence to embark on your apple-growing journey, including caring for apple trees, apple tree problems, and everything about planting and growing juicy apples in the home garden! 

About Apples

Apple trees aren’t just for people with acres upon acres of land. Even in a small space, you can plant a hedge of dwarf apple trees or an apple espalier and yield a successful crop. Spring planting is recommended in central and northern areas. Fall planting can also be successful, but only in areas where autumn and winter weather is generally more mild and moist.

Where Do Apples Grow?

However, climate considerations are very important for growing apples. As a general rule, if an apple tree is called “hardy,” it grows best in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 5. If termed “long-season,” apple quality will be best in Zones 5 to 8. Check your zone here.

Tree tags don’t always tell you where the variety grows best, but many catalogs do. Also, check with your local Cooperative Extension Service for a recommendation specific to your area. Each variety has a number of chill hours needed to set fruit (i.e., the amount of time temperatures are between 32 and 45 degrees F). The farther north you go, the more chill hours an apple variety needs to avoid late spring freeze problems. Check tree tags for chill hour information or ask the seller.

Can You Grow Apple Trees From Seed?

A common question is whether it’s possible to simply plant the seed of a variety that you like rather than buy a young tree. While it’s certainly possible to grow an apple tree from a seed, the apple tree you get probably won’t be the kind you hoped for!

Apple seeds are genetically different from their parent tree, which means that things like tree size, hardiness, and fruit quality will differ (and will usually be poorer). So, if you plant a Honeycrisp seed, you won’t end up with Honeycrisp apples. Plus, it can take 8-10 years for an apple seedling to grow big enough to produce apples, so you may end up waiting a while!

Nevertheless, growing an apple seedling can still be a fun experiment.

Here’s how to plant apple seeds:

Apple seeds need to be exposed to cool, moist conditions before they are ready to germinate and grow. Sow them outdoors 1/2 inch deep in the fall, and the natural seasonal cycle will take care of the seed’s chilling needs for you. Alternatively, place the seeds in moistened sand in a plastic container and keep the container in the fridge for 3 to 4 months. Then, sow them outdoors 1/2 inch deep once the threat of frost has passed. Once the seedling emerges, be sure to keep it well-watered and protected from pests.

Apples Need Pest Control

Also, it’s important to recognize that there are many diseases and fruit pests that attack apples, so it’s rare for this fruit to be grown without any type of pesticides. Growing apples organically is much more difficult in the East Coast than the West due to incidence of fungal diseases and types of pests that aren’t even present in the West. It will take much research and persistence to grow apples if you wish to avoid any type of spraying program.

Apple Trees Need Friends

Most apples need pollen from another apple tree to produce fruit. This is called cross-pollination. This second tree must be a different cultivar but also one that will flower at the same time. The presence of bees will be very important; poor pollination can reduce the number of fruit and cause misshapen fruit; some orchards rent or maintain bee hives for good pollination. Overusing broad-spectrum insecticides can reduce the number of bees. 

apple blossoms on a tree


When to Plant Apple Trees

  • Bare-root apple trees should be planted in the early spring as soon as the soil can be worked.
  • Container-grown apple trees can be planted throughout the growing season as long as they are given enough water.

Selecting a Site to Plant Apple Trees

  • As with most fruit, apple trees produce best when grown in full sun, which means six or more hours of direct summer sunlight daily. 
  • Apple trees need well-drained soil, but should be able to retain some moisture. Light- to medium-textured soils are best. Fruit trees struggle in heavy clay soil; poorly drained soil leads to root rot disease.
  • Plant fruit in a location with good air circulation so leaves dry quickly after a rainfall or irrigation (or the tree risks fungal leaf diseases).
  • Make sure the tree will not be planted in a “frost pocket” where cold air settles in low-lying areas. Choose a higher site with a slip if possible so that cold air will flow away from the trees.
  • Do not plant trees near wooded areas or other trees. 
  • The ideal soil pH is 6.0 to 6.5, but a pH range of 5.5 to 7.0 is acceptable. Take a soil test prior to planting your apple trees. Your local Cooperative Extension Service can instruct you.

Planting the Tree

  • Before planting, remove all weeds and the grass in a 4-foot diameter circle. 
  • After you purchase the tree, protect it from injury, drying out, freezing, or overheating. If the roots have dried out, soak them in water about 24 hours before planting.
  • Tree spacing is influenced by the rootstock, soil fertility, and pruning. Seedlings or full-size trees should be planted about 15 to 18 feet apart in a row. A dwarfing rootstock might be 4 to 8 feet apart in a row. Of course, apple trees require cross-pollination; a different cultivar that blooms at the same time must be planted within 2,000 feet (preferably nearer).
  • Dig a hole approximately twice the diameter of the root system and 2 feet deep. Place some of the loose soil back into the hole and loosen the soil on the walls of the planting hole so the roots can easily penetrate the soil. Spread the tree roots on the loose soil, making sure they are not twisted or crowded in the hole. Continue to replace the soil around the roots. As you begin to cover the roots, firm the soil to be sure it surrounds the roots and to remove air pockets.
  • Do not add fertilizer at planting time, as the roots can be “burned”. Fill the remainder of the hole with the loose soil, and press the soil down well.
  • Most apple trees are grafted. The graft union should be at least 4 inches above the soil line so that roots do not emerge from the scion. The graft union (where the scion is attached to the rootstock) can be recognized by the swelling at the junction. 
  • Dwarf apple trees are notoriously prone to uprooting under the weight of a heavy crop, so you should provide a support system for your hedge. You can grow your trees against a fence, or you can provide free-standing support in the form of a trellis.

See our video to learn how to plant a bare-rooted fruit tree.


  • Water young trees regularly, especially those on semi-dwarfing or dwarfing rootstocks, to ensure that the root system becomes well established.
  • Refresh mulch periodically, but pull it away from the trunk so that it doesn’t rot. This also helps to prevent rodents from nesting in it over the winter and chewing on the tree’s bark.
  • Apple trees require initial training to nurture a strong frame of branches so the trees can carry heavy apple crops. Dwarf plants must be supported with posts or trellis and trained to a central leader system. Standard (and sem-dwarf) trees should also be trained to a modified leader.
  • Pest control measures will be an important part of care. Correct timing is critical to avoid harming the bees and affecting pollination. When used, pesticides are applied at a specific stage of flower and fruit development, not according to the calendar. It’s important to research your variety and climate to know which pests are most likely to be a problem, which will allow you to apply the right controls at the right time.
  • If you wish to avoid pesticides, it is possible, though apple trees are one of the most pest-susceptible fruits. For example, you can place paper bags around each apple of your tree, though this takes some time and labor. There are also organic pesticides.

Pruning Apple Trees

Pruning slows a young tree’s overall growth and can delay fruiting, so don’t be in a hurry to prune, other than removing misplaced, broken, or dead branches. There are several techniques to direct growth without heavy pruning. For example:

  • Rub off misplaced buds before they grow into misplaced branches.
  • Bend a stem down almost horizontally for a few weeks to slow growth and promote branches and fruiting. Tie-down with strings to stakes in the ground or to lower branches.

Prune yearly to maintain size and form once your apple tree has filled in and is bearing fruit. Pruning reduces disease by letting in more light and air. Large trees may need more pruning (and a ladder!). 

  • Prune your mature tree when it is dormant. Completely cut away overly vigorous, upright stems (most commonly high up in the tree).
  • Remove weak twigs (which often hang from the undersides of limbs.
  • Shorten stems that become too droopy, especially those low in the tree.
  • After about ten years, fruiting spurs (stubby branches that elongate only about a half-inch per year) become overcrowded and decrepit. Cut away some of them and shorten others.
  • When a whole limb of fruiting spurs declines with age, cut it back to make room for a younger replacement.

Thinning Apples

  • Apples are often grown without any thinning other than what nature provides in the annual spring drop.
  • However, to avoid potential disease and insect problems, it’s helpful to thin after the natural fruit drop (about 4 to 6 weeks after bloom) to one fruit per cluster, or about 6 to 8 inches between fruit.
  • This seems hard, but this practice evens out production, prevents a heavy crop from breaking limbs, and ensures better-tasting, larger fruit crop.
  • Soon after fruit-set, remove the smallest fruits or damaged ones, leaving about four inches between those that remain.


Harvest patiently. After all this pruning and caring, be sure to harvest your apples at their peak of perfection.

  • Pluck your apples when their background color is no longer green.
  • The stem should part readily from the branch when the fruit is cupped in the palm of your hand and given a slight twist around, then up (do not yank on the apple).
  • Different apple varieties mature at different times, so the harvest season can stretch from August to October.
  • If the apple is overripe and soft, use it for cooking!

Storing Apples

  • Only store mid- or late-season apples. Early-season varieties don’t keep and are best eaten soon after picking. Mid-season varieties should keep for a few weeks, while late-season varieties will stay in good condition for up to five months in a root cellar. Apples destined for storage must be perfect, with no bruises or blemishes that could provide entry points for rot.
  • Store apples by wrapping up individual fruits in newspaper or tissue paper. Place the wrapped apples onto trays that allow air to circulate. You can also store them unwrapped, but the fruits should not touch. Different varieties store for different lengths of time, so keep them separate and eat those that won’t store as long first.
  • The ideal store is somewhere cool, dark, and well-ventilated. Most garages and sheds are ideal, while attics and basements should be avoided due to either excessive heat, lack of ventilation, or low humidity. Check stored apples regularly and remove any that are going soft, brown, or rotting.

Check out this video to learn more about how to harvest and store apples. 

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Wit and Wisdom


Apples are prone to insects and diseases—including apple maggots, plum curculios, green fruit worms, and codling moths. Many gardeners who swear off pesticides find they need to find, at minimum, an acceptable annual spray treatment for a decent crop.

One idea to avoid pesticides is to select disease-resistant varieties such as ‘Prima’, ‘Priscilla’, ‘Liberty’, and ‘Freedom’. They do not require spraying for apple scab, cedar-apple rust, and other common diseases, while most other varieties require periodic spraying every spring and summer after planting. Check with your extension service to find approved pest prevention programs for your area.

You can also try an anti-insect oil found at garden stores. Spray it in the spring when your apple trees are in the tight cluster stage: after the leaves have unfolded from the fruiting cluster but before the buds begin to show pink.

Other pests, such as scales, mites, and aphids, should be controlled by natural parasite and predator populations if you haven’t used a lot of sprays. 

The apple maggot can be trapped simply enough by hanging one or two round, softball-size balls—painted red and coated with sticky “Tangle-Trap”—from a branch in June through the summer. Reapply the sticky goo a time or two, as necessary.

Keep deer at bay with repellents, fencing, or deer-resistant plants; deter mice and rabbits with wire-mesh cylinders around the base of the tree.

To keep insects away from apple trees, make a solution of 1 cup of vinegar, 1 cup of sugar, and 1 quart of water. Pour this mixture into a wide-mouthed plastic jug. Hang the jug, uncovered, in your apple tree.

Fend off diseases by raking apple leaves, burying them beneath mulch, or grinding them with a lawnmower at season’s end

Cooking Notes

  • You can freeze apples by stewing washed chunks with a dash of water until they soften. Once ready, sieve and pour the stewed apples into containers, leaving a small space at the top as they will expand slightly when frozen, and pop into the freezer.
  • You can also cut your fruits into thin slices then dry them out in a dehydrator to make a deliciously chewy and healthy snack.
  • Planning to bake or cook your apples into an apple pie or meal? See our chart on the best baking and cooking apples in North America.

“Baked apples have an excellent effect upon the whole physical system, feeding the brain as well as adding to the flesh, and keeping the blood pure; also preventing constipation and correcting a tendency to acidity, which produces rheumatism and neuralgia.” –The 1898 Old Farmer’s Almanac

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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