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Growing Apple Trees in Our Garden

Apples are the fruit of a tree of the genus Malus, which is a member of the Rose family (Rosaceae), and have been cultivated throughout recorded history. The wild ancestor of the apple was probably a tree still found in Kazakhstan, Malus sieversii (which has no common name).


All apple varieties can't pollinate themselves, which means that to maximise fruit production apple trees of compatible pollinators need to be planted for cross-pollination to occur. s with a suitable pollinizer variety. These need to have overlapping bloom dates, so that both varieties bloom at the same time. Since the pollen from apple blossoms is transferred primarily by bees it should go without saying that you shouldn't use pesticides when bees are about in the garden.


Apple trees are best planted in early winter when dormant.

They are relatively indifferent to soil conditions and will grow in a wide range of pH values and fertility levels. They do require some protection from the wind and should not be planted in low areas that are prone to late spring frosts. Don't plant them against walls or hedgerows where pockets of very cold air accumulate. They also don't like water-logged or potentially water-logged soil, so pick a well draining position.

Determine the nutrient status of your soil by taking a soil sample prior to planting and each year thereafter at the same time of year.

Plant in full sun where the trees will not be shaded from large trees or buildings. It's important to protect the trees from damage by browsing animals.

Keep the ground near the tree clear of grass to a radius of at least 1 metre, as grass competes with young trees for available water and nutrients and can significantly reduce tree growth and productivity. When planting the tree drop some compost into the hole, or scrape us some soil from under healthy apple trees to supply essential soil biota needed for continuing health.

Work compost into the soil to a depth of 400mm where the tree will root, not just the planting hole. Apple trees will tolerate a wide range of soils as long as water and nutrients are not limiting and soil pH is adequate (in the range of 6 to 7). The hole needs to be twice the size of the root ball and 600mm deep. Place some of the loose soil back into the hole to form a small mound and arrange the roots evenly over this mound. Back fill. Don't add fertiliser in the hole as the roots can easily 'burn'. The graft union must be at least 50mm above the soil line so that roots do not emerge from the scion.Press soil gently to remove air pockets and water.

Peter Cundall, from the ABC Gardening program, recommends generously applying a mixture of sheep manure and blood and bone in a 10 litre bucket in a circle around the outer root zone of the tree. This encourages the new roots to extend outwards to reach the fertiliser, which will break down and be absorbed by the soil. He says that the roots will seek out the fertiliser and help to establish far reaching roots for a strong stable tree.


Proper training and pruning helps to produce strong frames to support ample yields of high quality fruit. Regular pruning and training will also maximize light penetration to the developing flower buds and fruit. It also allows adequate airflow through the branches minimising mould and pest problems.

A central leader tree has one main, upright trunk, called the "leader". Branching begins about 500mm above the soil surface to allow work under the tree. The first year, 3 to 4 branches, collectively called a "scaffold whorl", are selected. The selected branches should be spaced uniformly around the trunk, not directly across from or above one another. Above the first scaffold whorl leave another 500mm to allow light to penetrate the tree. Train the tree upwards in this manner with alternating to the desired maximum tree height. The shape of a properly trained central leader tree is like that of a Christmas tree.

As the buds begin to swell, cut the unbranched central leader to 1 metre above the soil surface to encourage new lateral branching. When the new growth is about 100mm long, identify the most upright shoot - this will become the new central leader. Leave it and remove all new shoots growing within 100mm below the cut - this will encourage lateral growth further down the trunk. Branches that form 150-300mm the cut tip are easier to train as productive scaffold limbs. When young train the lateral branches out to a 50-60 degree angle from the trunk to provide a stronger framework for fruit production. You may need to prop the young branches with clothespegs, etc.

Improperly trained fruit trees have very upright branch angles, which result in excessive vigor and serious limb breakage under a heavy fruit load. Larger branches can be spread out using short wooden boards with a notch cut in each end for the branch to fit into. Hanging weights on the branch or tying it down with string wrapped loosely around the limb are other methods for spreading the branches. All upright growth from scaffold branches should be either pulled down to a horizontal position or removed when it is 75-100mm long.

Winter pruning invigorates the tree. Cut central leader approximately 600mm above the highest scaffold whorl. Remove any dead or diseased wood. As the tree resumes growth in spring continue to train the scaffold branches. Select a new upright shoot to continue the central leader, and remove all new shoots 100mm below it. Select branches to form another whorl of 4 to 5 scaffold branches. Prop all lateral branches out to a 50 to 60 degree angle.

Summer pruning will cause apple trees to grow less in that growing season. Remove all undesirable branches directly across from one another on the central leader when they are 100mm long. Select lateral branches that are spaced uniformly around the leader to prevent crowding as the limbs grow in diameter. Cut back lateral branches to length (to fill the space allowed for the tree) you desire during summer, not when the tree is dormant.

Thinning Fruit

Apple trees often set a heavier crop of fruit than the limbs can withstand. To ensure good fruit size, return bloom for the following year, and to prevent tree breakage, you will need to thin the fruit. Apple blooms in clusters of 5 to 6 blossoms. Thin the apples when they about the size of a 10c piece so that the remaining apples are spaced 100-150mm apart, leaving only one fruit per cluster. This will result in the harvest of higher-quality fruit, and also potentially reduce insect and disease problems, as well as increase the chances for a full crop the next season.


Optimum fertility exists if lateral, outward growth is between 300 - 450mm per year. A useful rule is to apply 0.5kg of organic fertiliser to each tree the first year, 1kg pounds the second year, and 1.5kg the third year up to a maximum of 3kg for a mature tree. Adjust fertliser rates according to annual shoot growth. Spread below the canopy of the tree in a ring at the leaf drip line - don't get fertiliser within 150mm of the trunk.

Weeding & Hygiene

Growing apples organically can be achieved quite readily with little loss of fruit through pest or disease damage.

Suppress weed growth with mulch. Don't cultivate under apple trees as this will damage the shallow roots. Pull back mulch in autumn leaving a 300mm wide radius of bare earth around the trunk of the tree. Cut out all dead or diseased wood, remove dried apples, and clear leaves and fallen debris away from trees. Disinfect pruning tools before using.

The build up of a biologically active soil using organic methods, so that the soil contains worms and other soil microorganisms, aids the decomposition of fallen, diseased leaves and reduce the risk of infection.

A main pest in southern parts of Australia is codling moth, and to a lesser extent the light brown apple moth. Tree hygiene is important to reduce the incidence of this pest. Scrape loose bark from the trees to reduce larvae cocoon spinning sites within the tree. Codling moths hatch during September to October, which is when apple trees are flowering. Use pheromone traps when the first flowers begin to open, or in winter wrap cardboard or hessian around the trunk or on the limbs of apple trees - remove these every 4-6 weeks and completely destroy. You can also hang jars half filled with a little red or fortified wine mixed with water in the trees. Mature moths are attracted to the wine and eventually drown.

The light brown apple moth larvae spins a web and causes leaves to curl. Control by hand squashing or by spraying with Dipel, a natural bacterial preparation.

The two fungal diseases that can attack leaves and fruits are apple scab and powdery mildew. Use organic sprays to control fungus at the first sign of green growth in the springs. Spray with white oil to suffocate scale insects and reduce infestation with mites and aphids once full bloom is over and continue to spray every 10 to 14 days through-out the summer.

Powdery mildew also affects apple trees: it shows as a powdery bloom on leaves or can leave webbed, russet patterns on apple skins. Control by pruning infected shoots and leaves and by applying lime sulphur to the tree. This organic preparation can be applied at bud burst when green buds show on the trees up until 10 per cent of the flowers are fully open. Lime sulphur applied at this time will also help control apple scab, a fungal disease that manifests itself as black spots and blotches on leaves and cracked, blackened areas on apple skins.


The best way to check if the fruit is ripe is to take an apple and bite into it! Store apples in a cold place with high humidity - it's possible to store them in plastic bags or bins. Keep the fruit away from vegetables as the ethylene from the ripening fruit may spoil the vegetables. Store only unbruised, undamaged apples and check regularly for bad apples that may spoil the whole batch.

Companion Plants

According to Organic News, apple trees can be helped by companion planting. They recommend bird-attracting plants as the birds will eat the grubs that attack the leaves and fruit of the apple tree. Borage and lavender will attract bees for pollination. Daisy species planted nearby attract wasp predators and give them a pollen supply during the winter months. Wormwood (planted in pots to contain vigorous growth) can be placed around the perimeter of the orchard (but not close to the trees) as their aroma distracts and repels pest insects. Nasturtium is a useful groundcovering plant under the tree as it also repels moths and other insects.

Other companion plants good for apple trees include: horseradish, wallflowers, chives, horsetail, foxgloves, garlic, onions

Plants to Avoid Growing Near Apple Trees: Potatoes



Fruit Color

Fruit Use

Relative Bloom Time

Potential Cross-Pollinizers


Yellow-orange to red


Early to Midseason

Golden Delicious

Golden Delicious

Yellow green to light yellow

Fresh, cooking

Midseason to Late

Red Delicious, Gala, Empire

Granny Smith x 3 Green Cooking ripens late March  
Johnathon Red, striped Fresh ripens March  
Pink Lady        
Summer Strawberry        

Golden Delicious



ripens early April

Golden Delicious, Gala


Green with red stripes



Rome, Braeburn

[part of the information below sourced from]

Pink Lady - Planted 2006, near house
Late season . The handsome, pink fruit is very distinctive, although, as usual, various red skin mutations have also been selected, which rather negates the name. It is very long sesaon, maturing several weeks after Granny Smith, so may only be well adapted to very long season climatic conditions. Has no resistance to fireblight.

Cox's Orange Pippin - Planted 2000, moved 2004, moved again summer 2007.
Mid season. A seedling of Ribston pippin . This medium sized deep yellow striped/streaked/splashed with red apple is regarded as the finest flavored 'English style' apple there is. A complex blend of sugar, acid and aromatics is contained in juicy, tender, yellow flesh. It is regarded as a difficult apple to grow due primarily to disease suceptibility in the UK but is usually not problematic elsewhere. It spurs freely and bears well, but bearing is much improved if a good pollinator is nearby. Best picked at the peak of maturity.

Fuji - Planted 2006, near house
Late season. A cross made in Japan between Rall's Genet and Delicious. A large, sweet, crisp, fine textured, complex flavored apple. Excellent eating.

Golden Delicious - Planted in orchard, 1990
Mullin's Golden Delicious. Mid/late season. A tree ripened golden delicious is juicy, sweet, honeyed, and excellent. The tree is highly productive, bearing on spurs, laterals and tips. The fruit are medium sized, clear yellow, sometimes lightly russeted. It flowers heavily and over an extended period, and is an excellent pollenizer for other apple varieties. The tree is vigorous. There is a 'spur' form of the tree, which is a little smaller, but just as productive.

Granny Smith - x 3, Planted in orchard, 1990
Late season. A chance seedling from the backyard of Marie Ann Smith, Australia. A very late maturing, late keeping large, green, slippery skinned, dual purpose cooking/eating apple. The flesh is hard, crisp, and juicy. The flavor is  tart, becoming very sweet if tree ripened. One of those apples you either like very much or not at all. The fruit will store for several months after maturity without needing refrigeration. The tree is very vigorous and crops heavily, but it is not much good for areas with short growing seasons. Granny Smith is an excellent pollen source for other varieties. Tip bearer.

Jonathan -Planted in orchard, 1990
Mid season. A medium sized apple with thin, bright red-blushed skin contrasting sharply with the crisp, juicy, yellowish white flesh. The flavor is archetypically 'appley' and aromatic.The trees are vigorous growing but at maturity fairly small, and disease susceptible.

Lady Williams - Planted in orchard, 1990
Late season. AU.

Summer Strawberry - Planted in orchard, 1990



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Copyright © Beverley Paine 2002-14. Article from this website may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this entire notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained from the author in order to reprint this article in a published work or to offer it for sale in any form. Please visit Bungala Ridge Permaculture Gardens for more original content by Beverley Paine.