Johnny Appleseed, aka Johnathan Chapman, was a horticultural hero responsible for planting thousands of apple trees throughout the Midwest in the early 1800s. Some of the descendents of these trees are still growing. Johnny traveled on foot over 100,000 square miles, and started orchards from seed wherever he found fertile, unused ground. If you’ve got the desire to plant your own piece of American history, read on.
Growing Apple Trees from Seed
Unfortunately, apple trees grown from seed don’t predictably produce good fruit. Apples don’t self-pollinate, so an apple is always the “child” of two different apple varieties. Crab apple trees are often used as pollinators in orchards, so any seed produced would be half crab apple and produce small sour fruit. Most of the apples from trees planted by Johnny Appleseed were used for cider or for feeding livestock. But if you’ve got your heart set on growing apple trees from seed, here’s how:
- Save four or five seeds from a high-quality apple.
- Place the seeds in a plastic bag and chill them in the refrigerator for six weeks.
- Plant the seeds in potting soil and place the pots in a warm, sunny location. Keep the soil evenly moist.
- When the young seedlings stand 6 inches high, transplant them into larger pots. When they stand 12 to 24 inches high, plant them outdoors in a sunny, protected spot.
- Begin pruning the tree when it stands 4 feet high and has 6-8 branches. Expect fruit in 6 -10 years.
Growing Apple Trees from Grafted Trees
Most modern gardeners grow apple trees from a young grafted tree. A scion, or young branch, is grafted onto a root stock. The fruit the tree bears is dependent on the type of scion used, while the root stock influences traits like height and hardiness. These trees bear fruit predictably — usually within 3 to 6 years. You also have more control over the size and health of the tree.
How to Choose a Tree
When buying apple trees, there are several factors to keep in mind. First, do you want a dwarf tree, semi-dwarf or standard size tree? Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees fit into modern landscapes and can even be grown in pots. They’re easy to prune and harvest and suitable for almost any gardener. They also bear fruit 2 to 4 years earlier than standard size trees. However, their roots are more fragile and may not survive very harsh, windy winters. If you live in a very cold climate, standard trees may be the better choice. Standard trees bear more fruit and work well in large yards or orchards.
Next, what type of apple do you want? If you prefer fresh eating apples, you might like Red Delicious, Gala or Honeycrisp. These varieties ripen in late summer, but don’t store as well as later types. Storing apples are usually crisp, somewhat tart and used for either fresh eating, canning or baking. Old favorites include Jonathan, Golden Delicious and Cortland.
Finally, choose an apple that grows well in your region and is disease resistant. Your county extension office or a reputable nursery can recommend the best varieties for your area.
Look for strong one-year-old plants called whips. These plants stand 3 to 4 feet high and should have a strong, well developed root system. You’ll notice a knob at the base of the tree where the scion was grafted to the root stock.
Planting Your Apple Tree
Plant your apple tree in a sunny location protected from wind. The soil should be moderately fertile, and well-draining. Do not apply fertilizer immediately after planting, but keep the soil evenly moist throughout the first summer. Rabbits and deer love the bark of young apple trees and can quickly kill your prized trees. Wrap them in hardware cloth that extends 2 inches below the soil surface, and 18 inches up the trunk for at least the first 2 to 3 years. Once the tree is older, the bark hardens and becomes less appealing to wildlife.
Prune apple trees annually in late winter to remove weak branches and open the tree up to light. Planting disease-resistant trees helps, but most growers find the need to use organic or synthetic pesticides and fungicides to get a good harvest.
Apply a shovelful of compost or manure around the base of the tree every spring and mulch it with wood chips to prevent weed growth. After the first year, you probably won’t need to give the tree additional water, especially if it’s growing in an irrigated lawn. However, during very hot, dry weather give the tree a drink. Water it once a month during the winter if conditions are dry.
For Further Reading About Growing Apples Successfully:
Growing Apples in the Home Garden – University of Minnesota Extension
Growing Apples in the Home Garden – North Carolina Cooperative Extension