A Beginner’s Guide to Apple Trees.

Have a new apple tree but no idea how to take care of it?  Here are the 3 things you need to know.

3 tier apple espalier on white porch.

Two years ago some very important things happened to me. I gave up coffee – this lasted for one day at which point I deemed it stupid and useless while cuddling a bag of coffee beans.  I gave up on hoping Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet would get back together – this freed up a lot of time to hope Madonna and Sean Penn would soon reconcile.

A Beginner’s Guide to Apple Trees

And finally … I planted two apple trees.  So far so good with those.  When I planted the trees I had no idea what to do next. All I knew was I had wanted espalier apple trees so I put them in the ground, grabbed a coffee, and started my research.

It used to be that getting an espalier apple tree was something you either had to make yourself or go to a specialty nursery for. Now apple espaliers, and other fruit trees like pears, are available at most nurseries and even some big box stores that have garden centres.

If you have *just* bought an espalier tree and are standing there blinking at it wondering what you’re supposed to do with it now, read my step-by-step post on how to plant and support an apple espalier.

 

The 3 Things You Need to Know About Growing Apples

 

1. You need to cut off around 80% of your apples.

I  know. It’s horrifying.  But thinning your apples is the best way to get good apples.

Cluster of 5 very small apples on apple branch.

Apple trees set flower clusters in the early spring and then these flowers (if they’re pollinated) turn to fruit.  Most clusters consist of 2-6 apples.   You need to whittle that down to one.  You heard me.  You NEED to swallow that lump in your throat and cut off all but one of those apples from the cluster.

Why do you need to do this?

The reason apples need to be thinned is because growing fruit takes a lot of energy and the more fruit on the tree the more energy it takes for the tree to grow those. No matter how healthy it is, that tree just doesn’t have enough energy to produce 6, healthy, huge apples.  So if you don’t thin them you end up with 6 measly, tiny apples that are more prone to disease and pests.

 

Cutting off all but one apple in cluster.

By thinning down to one apple per cluster you’re giving that apple the best chance at survival and the best chance at growing to a nice size.

Thinning your apples also helps even out your trees fruiting cycle.  Apple trees tend to produce HUGE amounts of apples one year and not so many the next.  By thinning the fruit you balance the trees energy  out a bit and are more likely to get an even production of fruit every year.

 

Scarred apple beside smaller clean apple on apple tree branch.

How do you pick which ones to cut away?

The centre apple is *usually* the King’s Apple.  The biggest, strongest apple.  Not always, but usually, that is the one you leave.

What if it isn’t the biggest strongest apple?  Then snip it away and leave the bigger one.

What if the biggest one is blemished?  Then snip it away and leave the smaller, but scar free apple.

What if two apples are the exact same size and both perfect?  Then pick the one with the thicker stem.

What if they have the same sized stem?  Then pick the one that gets less shade from leaves and the most exposure to sun and air.

Apples that have been thinned out in wood, pint fruit basket.

Seriously. At least 80% of your apples will be gone.  And it’ll be hard, but know that in the long run it’s for the best.  Just like a Sean Penn and Madonna breakup.  It’s sad at first but eventually one apple will go on to date the Princess Bride and the other will develop an English accent.

 

2. Always Use Protection.

Commercial apples are sprayed something like 8 times a season to keep pests and disease away.  Either pesticides or Kaolin clay are used to protect the apples. In the case of organic growers, it’s Kaolin clay that’s sprayed on the trees but it isn’t available just anywhere and you have to spray your apples 3 coats of clay once a week for 4 weeks to combat pests.  That seems like a bit of a “thing” when you only have a couple of very small apple trees in your yard.

Cutting small slit in the mouth of a ziploc baggie.

The solution is covering all your thinned apples with protection.  Bag ’em.

Just place a regular ziploc sandwich bag over each apple. 

For the best fit you can cut a slit in the opening of the bag to leave room for the stem to stick out.

View over a picket fence of Karen Bertelsen kneeling in front of apple espalier on a white porch.

Last year I had about 8 apples to deal with. This year my 2 espaliers have over 70 apples.

 

Just slip the baggie over the apple and zip it up.

King apple bagged with baggie.

You can also use brown paper bags apparently but that would involve stapling the bags together over the apples, plus I’m not sure how well paper bags would hold up outside all summer long.  The other advantage to using plastic bags (yes, I know … plastic) is that you can see through them so you know what’s going on under there.

 

Close up of apple in baggie with slit at the opening.

These bags stay on all season long.  I had good luck using this method last year but be warned that apples will continue to drop even after bagging.  So I’ve started with around 80 apples, but in the next few weeks the apple might continue to thin itself and I could still lose many of them.

If I go down to 60 apples, that’s still half a bushel of apples from two tiny trees.

3 tiered apple espalier covered in apples in baggies.

I understand my two beautiful espaliers now look like condom dispensing machines.  That however is the price you have to pay for healthy, disease free apples at the end of the year.  No glove, no love.

 

View of apple espalier with baggies, on porch from the side.

3. Summer Solstice Snipping.

To keep these espalier apple trees small you need to prune them at a very specific time of year and it’s contrary to what used to be typically advised.  Older advice is to prune in the winter when the tree is dormant.  But newer research, especially for keeping trees small, shows you should prune during the summer solstice.  Do this whether they’re an espalier or not.

If you want your fruit tree to stay small, prune it during the summer solstice, NOT in the winter.

Here’s my full step-by-step on how and what to prune off of your tree.  

Trimming espalier whip.

If you want to learn all you can about small fruit trees I recommend getting the book Grow a Little Fruit Tree, which a reader recommended to me when I first got my trees.

If you want to see Lisa and Lenny back together I recommend focusing on something more attainable.  Like not giving up coffee.

→Follow me on Instagram where I often make a fool of myself←

 

34 Comments

  1. Karin says:

    We have about 10 big overgrown apple trees on our property and I’d be thrilled to get 20 usable apples. Do you suggest following the same advice for the lower branches;)?

  2. Lorrie Jamieson says:

    Karen, would the same instructions work for a crab apple tree that I’m trying to give a fighting chance?

  3. Mark says:

    Do your neighbours think you work for Public Health in the tree family planning division?

    Seriously though, very hilarious column today!

  4. Lorrie Jamieson says:

    Karen, would this work as well for a struggling crab apple? It’s year two, and I’m desperate to get something off of it, but it needs some help.

    PS: I just read that your favourite all time book is Lonesome Dove — Me Too! Each time I read it (three times so far) by the end, I’m reading slower and slower because I just don’t want it to end.

    • Karen says:

      Great book! I’m not entirely sure about the crab apple tree Lorrie, but I do know this is a technique for fruit trees in general. The problem is, if your apple tree is already big there’s no bringing it back to a smaller size. And that’s mainly what this technique is for. Keeping a tree small, as opposed to getting more fruit. The baggies, if that’s what you’re referring to should work with any fruit like this, yes. 🙂 ~ karen!

  5. Kimberly says:

    Our house came with two apple trees.
    The first year they both produced hundreds of apples. Just amazing lovely most delicious apples ever.

    The next year only one produced hundreds of delicious apples.

    The other: 3

    This year the one who was sluggish last year has the beginnings of hundreds of delicious apples.

    The other one: 3

    My thought is: I didn’t get these apples last year (the better more delicious earlier ripe tree). How can I cut any off? They were alllll delicious! They all got big and green red! I was deprived last year. The tree can handle it. Next year it will sleep!

    So I don’t know…. I love them apples. And the other tree got the dreaded coddling moth last year. I am hoping this years tree will be fine because they are earlier ripening and I’ve read that makes a big difference. Though I may bag all the ones in the back. That’s smart. Thank you for that!!!! (I am too vain to bag the front ones…don’t judge).

    I promise you I will cut off 80% of the baby apple tree I just planted. It hasn’t proven itself to be anything yet. So best to play it safe.

    What do you think? Because right now it seems like I get one kind of apples one year and the other kind next year by not pruning. Maybe you’re right though. I don’t want to only get the good apples every second year (both varieties are good, one is just the best apple I’ve ever eaten in my life)

    No. You’re right. I’m going to do it. All of it. Sorry now you know way too much about my apples. But you’ve helped. Thank you. !!!

  6. Speck says:

    I use organza gift bags (you can buy ‘em in bulk and reuse them year after year) to keep my apples covered. Just pull the draw-strings to hold them on – or use a knot/bow if wind can be an issue. For picking just take the whole bag with apple inside.

    • Karen says:

      Those would be much nicer than my baggies, lol. I reuse the baggies, but still – condom dispenser. ~ karen!

      • Jane m Jacobsen says:

        Just for fun I just searched for organza gift bags on Amazon. They come in several sizes and colors. Your tree certainly wouldn’t like a condom dispenser with silver and purple bags over the fruit. Brothel ad, perhaps, but not a condom dispenser. Have fun decorating your garden.
        Jane

    • Katie Schneider says:

      I’m on my third year of using footies (those pantyhose socks shoe stores use?) soaked in kaolin and it seems to work. My apples look like they’re ready to hold up a bank, but it’s more discrete than some of the other methods and seems to hold up to codling moths, squirrels, and that most nefarious of fruit pests: passers-by!

  7. Gayle M says:

    Wow, we just finished bagging our apples! I’ll have to tell hubby what he thought was just crazy has officially been endorsed by none other than “Karen”. (“Karen who?” he asks every time I say that. When will he learn?)

  8. Tina says:

    An arborist friend gave me good info once. I had gotten tent caterpillars in my trees. I didn’t want them to stay and eat everything. I wanted to kill them dead. I tried to cut the bit of the limb out and caterpillars scattered! That wasn’t the right way. He suggested stopping at the Dollar Store and buy several cans of cheap hair spray. Then just absolutely soak each of the tents in hair spray. If you soak them good enough, the caterpillars won’t be able to crawl out. The tent will seal tight so you can cut out that bit of branch and then, because cheap hairspray is flammable you can cook all those little leaf munching worms!

  9. Paula says:

    I did the zip lock bag thing last year but they got really humid inside the bag. This year I ordered little net gift bags of off Amazon, they called them “100 pcs Sheer Candy Gift Drawstring Mesh Bags Wedding Party Favors 4 Colors – White” Lol They were $10.99.

    • Darla says:

      I love this idea. I was afraid of the humidity inside the plastic bag too. When it’s 80% humidity outside for days anything would mold.

    • Karen says:

      Yes! Someone else mentioned organza bags and I’m going to try it. 🙂 I didn’t have a problem with humidity just the ugly. ~ karen!

  10. maggieb says:

    What a great post! And comments! I didn’t know about de-appling, which makes so much sense, the not-winter pruning, which would explain why I have two whomping willow on steroids apple trees that exponentially grew last year and now I’m scared to go in the orchard coz they’ve got even bigger with all the sun and rain this year. It’s a Jumanji game out there folks! For reals! And the bagging – which will have to wait until next year. I need to get my brave girl pants on as well as my wellie boots for any crawlies in the knee high grass. I can’t whimper in the corner for the whole summer, can I? Rats, the rain has finally stopped and none is forecast for the next 4 days. Ugggh and a deep sigh. Need to dig out my Summer of Doing Stuff folder – mega thanks to you, Karen, for that inspiration!

  11. Ann says:

    I use baggies to get good apples as well. I don’t even snip the bag where you do. Just zip the baggie up to the stem on both sides as close as it will let me.

    But I do clip off both bottom corners at a diagonal. That way once the apple gets heavier and starts to hang down more, the baggie will go with it and those corners will allow moisture to drain. I am always surprized no mildew ever develops in there.

    Funny story but true. I bagged a few peaches on year, since peaches are the buggiest crop on the planet. I was watching for them to ripen every single day and got to eat 2. The very last one needed another day. I went out the next day to pick and it was gone. Seems deer found a way to steal the peach and get it out of it’s baggie, since the baggie was sitting under the tree with a rip in the side.

    • Karen says:

      I had that with an apple last year, lol. By the end of the season I someone only ended up with 2 of my original 8. Came out to pick them and one was gone with a bagging laying on the ground. ~ karen!

  12. Debbie D says:

    Ah, is this a sneak preview of the new front yard? Can’t wait!

  13. Lisa says:

    Very timely column this morning because as I sit here sipping my coffee and absorbing all of your knowledge, I have an apple tree that I bought yesterday that will be planted this morning. I have the grand illusion of turning it into an espaliered apple tree. Thank you.

  14. Dale R Lacina says:

    I have a 40 year old Bartlett pear tree. It is self pruning. Not truly self pruning, I have hired my neighbors squirrels to come and thin the pears from my tree. NOT really. The little rats with bushy tails will take a pear in its little front paws and take a bite. Then they bite the stem. Due to the shape of the pear, it falls to the ground. If they ate the whole thing I would not be mad, but one bite and gone. Two days in a row last year there were 12 nice sized green pears on the ground. No, they did not pick the ugly pears. I called the Ball canning company for either a green pear pickling recipe or a canned squirrel meat recipe. After her fit of laughter, she gave me a pickled pear recipe. They were a hit at the family Christmas meal.

  15. Darla says:

    I have two trees that are producing apples for the first time this year. Thanks for reminding me to thin the apples. Even though it’s going to be really hard because we have waited so long for them.

  16. Anj says:

    I tried to convince the kids that you were growing a sandwich bag tree and you had a bumper crop. They didn’t bite. Elise thought they were nuts in the bags.

    • Karen says:

      Hahahah! If her boyfriend had met me before he totally would have thought I was growing sandwich bags. It seems pretty plausible for me. ~ karen!

  17. Hannah says:

    Or you could live in zone 2b and try so hard to protect your trees every year but then they almost always die down to the root stock and even in the years when they try to make apples they get brutally hailed on and stripped to the stem.

    Or that. That could happen.

    Lets just say I have an awful lot of very nice ornamental crab apple bushes.

  18. Jody says:

    I love that Ashley English/Small Measure pointed her blog followeres to your post about growing apples.

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