Find a Sunny Site: Before you plant your tree, look over where you want to plant it. How much sun does the site have? Does it have full sun? Part-day sun? Mostly shade? Your tree requires at least a half day of sun or the leaves can’t produce enough energy to make fruit buds. The tree might grow, but it will take longer to bear fruit.
Know Your Soil Type: What kind of soil do you have? Clay? Sand? Loam? Apple trees prefer loam soils with good organic matter but can do fine in clay. Sandy soils can dry out faster and are not the best place for fruit trees unless some loam is present. If possible, pre-dig the place you want to plant your tree and mix in organic matter. If you are planting in sod, try to remove it from the area you want to plant. Grass can deprive the apple tree roots of moisture and soil nutrients as well as provide habitat for field mice and voles.
Store Smartly: When you receive your tree, keep it in a cool place until ready to plant. If possible, place the tree in a pail of water to allow the roots to re-hydrate for a few hours or overnight before planting.
Plant Properly: Dig a hole at least twice the width and depth of the root system. Look for the graft union on your tree as well as the slight change in color on the bark just above the roots. That color change indicates the original planting depth so try to anticipate the soil level when you backfill the hole and try not plant the tree much different from this line. Remember that the dirt in a deeply dug hole can settle in and cause your tree to be planted too deeply. It doesn’t hurt the tree but if planted too deep, the graft union could send out roots of its own and your tree will grow larger that you want. It is sometimes a good idea to leave a cone of soil in the bottom of your hole and spread the roots out over the cone so they point in all directions. Hold the tree or have someone hold it for you and backfill the hole with soil. Gently firm the soil around the roots to provide good contact. Backfill the hole only halfway, and generously water in your tree with a bucket of water. Don’t use a garden hose as it can wash out the roots. Let it soak in and add more water until it won’t take any more. Let this alone for a few minutes and then finish backfilling the hole, leaving a raised berm around the tree to hold water in for later on.
Fertilize Right: A small amount of fertilizer can help your tree to grow but avoid fresh manures unless already composted. If you wish to fertilize, a fertilizer with a low nitrogen level is preferable. Excessive nitrogen fertilizers like lawn fertilizer can cause excessive growth which makes your tree susceptible to bacterial infections such as fire-blight. Here at Seed Savers Exchange, we use a composted turkey manure fertilizer that is rated at 4-6-4 (N-P-K). A light handful mixed in the soil after planting gives your tree a great start.
Prevent Pests: Above all, consider taking steps to protect your tree from the moment you plant it to discourage mice, voles, rabbits, and deep predation. These critters just love eating fruit trees and overnight can be enough time for them to make waste of all your hard work. A simple wrap around the trunk with some window screen is an easy way to keep mice and voles away. A hoop made of poultry netting (also known as chicken wire) will keep away rabbits and deer. Remember that if deer can reach over the wire hoop, they will eat the top of your tree.
More About Apple Trees
Shop: Explore our collection of historic apple trees, available from our catalog, and find trees to grow in your yard.
Learn: Join us at our headquarters, Heritage Farm (near Decorah, Iowa) for a workshop on apple grafting and apple tree care. Attendees will take home three grafted apple trees to plant. Sessions are held March 24, 25, April 7 and 8.