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Apples for the Home Orchard

This article was originally published on November 15, 2010 and expired on March 1, 2011. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.

Developing a home apple orchard requires planning, said a University of Illinois Extension specialist.

"For most homeowners looking to become a home orchardist, your yard is likely the limiting factor when considering how many apple trees you can manage," said Richard Hentschel. "Even dwarf or double dwarf apple trees will require sufficient space to grow and produce fruit and the home orchardist will need enough room around each tree to properly train, prune and manage insects and diseases.

"Just about every fruit tree catalog will provide recommended planting distances between trees and between rows if you are lucky enough to have more than just a couple of apple trees."

Full sunlight is critical to the success of any fruiting plant. Apple trees use the sunlight along with nutrients and water from your soil to produce those delicious apples.

"Where you site your apple trees is also important for both water and air drainage," he said. "Be sure that water will not stand and puddle around your apple trees for any longer than just a few hours after a rain event and standing water in the winter time can cause trunk damage near the soil line.

"We don't often think about air drainage, yet it is critical to prevent cold frosty air from settling in around your apple trees just as they are about to bloom. Flower buds are much more sensitive to cold temperatures than the foliage buds. Good locations include at the top or on the side of a slope, but not at the bottom of the slope or in a valley. In urban settings there is little a homeowner can do past locating your apple trees to receive the best sunlight possible and amend the soil to drain at planting time."

Since the home orchard is going to be seen every day out the kitchen or sliding glass patio door, how the apple trees are pruned is different than a commercial orchard. Home orchards are pruned to have a more normal tree like appearance, a balance between aesthetics and fruit production.

The most common method is called "Central Leader" where fruiting scaffolds radiate off of trunk in a systematic manner allowing easier pruning, spraying and harvesting of the apples.

"How you get the scaffolds in the right places requires that the training of the apple tree begin the day you plant the tree," Hentschel explained. "A common mistake is waiting for the tree to get established for two or three years before you start the training and that will have branches growing where you really do not want them and too big to really remove and you end up with a dwarf apple tree that is far larger than you expected and want. "

As you read your fruit tree catalogs as you plan your home orchard there is always a section about pollination requirements. Apples typically, but not always, require cross pollination to bear apples. Two trees of the same variety will not cross pollinate each other; you will need two different varieties that bloom at the same time, so your home apple orchard will have at least two varieties to start with.

In an urban setting, ornamental flowering crabapples can be the pollinator. If your apple tree in the backyard is blooming the same time as your ornamental flowering crabapple in the front yard, then you will most likely have the cross pollination needed to produce your apple crop. Pollination occurs when bees and other pollinating insects visit the blooms of the apple tree, carrying pollen from other apple or crabapple tree.

"When you decide you want that home orchard, you will be committing time and resources," he said. "That starts the day you plant your apple trees until you no longer want to be involved.

"Your apple trees will need to be trained for three to five years before they bear fruit in any quantity and during that time you will be protecting them from a variety of sources."

Weather is one, mulching the soil to prevent sudden changes in soil temperatures sometime after the soil has become cold, wildlife like rabbits, deer and field mice that can eat the bark of the tree or eat the tree itself as deer will do. As a young non bearing apple tree, protection against insects and disease will be important.

Leaf-feeding insects along with foliar diseases both lessen the trees ability to grow and develop into a mature fruiting tree as early as possible and set up a situation that will be harder to control once the tree is bearing apples.

"Pruning will start in late winter through early spring to train the scaffolds, sprays for insects and disease will start prior to bloom and go throughout the season, with increasing amounts of spray per tree, summer pruning and training may need to be done and then you get to harvest, eat and share those wonderful apples with family, neighbors and friends," he said.

Source: Richard Hentschel, Extension Educator, Horticulture, hentsche@illinois.edu

Pull date: March 1, 2011

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