By Erin Marissa Russell
If you’re ready to grow an apricot tree, either from an apricot pit or from an established sapling, and you need to know the steps you should take to plant and care for the tree, this is the guide for you. There are few things in life tastier than a fresh apricot (or the treats you can bake with fresh apricots), unless it’s a homegrown apricot fresh from your own tree, bitten into while it’s still warm from the sun.
It’s easy to see why apricot trees top the wish lists of so many gardeners. Keep on reading to learn exactly the steps you should follow to plant your pit, seed, or sapling and watch it grow into a lush, productive adult apricot tree.
About Apricot Trees
Apricots are a Mediterranean stone fruit with fuzzy, velvet-like skin in a rosy peach shade with juicy, tender flesh inside. The trees produce fruit 120 days after blossoms appear. An apricot tree in bloom is a striking sight, with rosy pink buds against wood in a shade of brown so deep it’s almost black. The buds open into delicate white blossoms with golden centers.
Growing Conditions for Apricot Trees
Apricots thrive in cool weather, so in the United States, the trees perform their best up north but are suitable in the west as well. (Specifically, apricot trees are hardy in USDA growing zones five through eight.) They do best in locations with warm, sunny springs and summers where they can be provided plenty of hydration. Your apricot tree needs between 700 and 1,000 hours with temperatures dipping below 45 degrees Fahrenheit to put out fruit each year. (These are called “chill hours.”)
Because they bloom at the end of February through the beginning of March, they can fall prey to damage from late frosts. Choosing the hardiest variety available to you offers some protection against this climate hazard.
Your apricot trees will need full sun and a minimum of four to nine feet of well-draining soil to develop the strong roots required for a bountiful harvest. Choosing the place where you’ll plant your apricot tree may seem like a quick decision you’ll make before the real work begins, but in fact, the location has tons to do with how successful your tree will be in the long run.
Be sure to select a spot that has plenty of room for your tree to stretch out its roots and branches—and you’ll need to take into account the size and spread of an adult tree, not just the growth you can foresee for the next few seasons. Planting your new tree too close to others can cause competition for resources and nutrients, and we don’t mean the healthy kind of competition.
Concrete walkways, pipes under the surface of the ground, or power lines spanning the sky too near your planting spot can be just as troublesome as other trees encroaching, so don’t forget to take those into account. Also, just because you aren’t personally aware of any below-ground obstacles doesn’t mean they aren’t there. The last thing you want to do is disrupt vital utilities in your home or for one of your neighbors when you start to dig, so take a moment in the planning phase to call 811 and ensure the spot where you’ll be planting your apricot tree is safe and free of underground obstructions.
Not only will it save you time and trouble when you take this precaution, the quick call may even save you money—there can be fines associated with disrupting these underground utilities if you fail to call 811. For more details and your region’s contact instructions, you can visit the Common Ground Alliance damage prevention website and select the state where you live on the map.
To give your apricots the best possible shot at success, you’ll want to do everything you can to draw in pollinators like birds and bees or other flying insects. First, do your utmost to use organic insecticides and other treatments instead of relying on chemicals, as the harsher stuff can discourage pollinators from flying by your garden or be detrimental to their population, resulting in fewer fruits on your apricot tree.
You can also bribe pollinators to hang out near your trees by making sure that your garden features blooming plants year-round—native plants when possible. Refer to ecoregional planting guides from the nonprofit Pollinator Partnership to learn exactly which plants you should include in your garden to entice the pollinators that live in your area.
How to Plant Apricot Trees from Pits
When you plant your tree from a stone, the pit in the center of a ripe apricot, expect a three- to four-year wait before your seedling becomes a tree that can bear its own fruit. Kick things off by soaking the stone you’ll use in water for a full 24 hours. Once soaking is done, nestle the stone into moist peat, damp sand, or wet paper towels. Enclose the seed and damp material in a Ziploc bag, and refrigerate it for at least a month. Move on to the planting steps listed below for saplings once the month has elapsed.
How to Plant Apricot Trees from Saplings
Most saplings a gardener purchases will need two years of care before they’ve matured enough to start producing apricots. In the location you’ve selected, dig a deep hole and add lots of decomposed organic material mixed with high quality garden soil.
If your apricot sapling came equipped with its own peat pot, leave the pot around the tree when you plant it. You can cut slits into the container to give the sapling’s roots a head start at branching out, but take care not to slice into the roots when you add these slits. If your tree came enclosed in a bag, remove the bag before planting.
Care of Apricot Trees
Your apricot trees will need fertilizer in late winter, in the spring, and while they’re fruiting during the summer months to do their best. With the first irrigation in spring, water in one or two pounds of urea, then give young trees a quarter of the first treatment amount each month during the summer. Alternatively, you can opt for the convenience of fruit tree fertilizer stakes.
Then, before rains begin in the fall, prune the tree to remove branches that have died or are suffering from disease. Also prune to create some space in areas where the tree has grown too thick and compact so that sunlight can reach the leaves and fruit and air can circulate around the branches. Keep in mind that apricot fruits grow on the second year of growth. That means you’ll need to be careful when pruning (especially in your first year with your tree) to leave plenty of the previous year’s branches intact so that your tree has what it needs to bear fruit. Make sure to handle the year’s pruning before the new growing season begins the next spring.
During its first year of growth, your apricot tree will benefit from the support of staking to prevent wind damage.
Although a tree that’s drooping with thickly clustered fruit looks healthy and productive to the untrained eye, the truth is that fruit crammed too closely together is bound to rot quicker than it has to. That means that if you want to get the longest life out of your apricots (and prevent them from rotting practically as soon as they ripen), you’ll need to thin out some of the fruit on the tree so the remaining ones can benefit from air circulating around them, not to mention make the most of the tree’s resources.
At the beginning of the spring season, when the fruit on the branches is between three quarters of an inch to an inch around, twist off some of the apricots (don’t pull down or use too much force) so that the remaining pieces have two to four inches of space around each of them to ripen without being stifled by their neighbors. If your apricot tree is too tall for you to safely thin out the fruit, you can use a grabber or bamboo pole cushioned with thick tape to help you reach the pieces you’re removing. Simply tap the bottom of the fruits you’d like to remove with the pole and let them fall to the ground.
How to Propagate Apricot Trees
The most foolproof way to propagate new apricot trees from your existing specimens is to take a cutting. Propagation by cutting is best handled in the fall while leaves still cling to the tree or while it is dormant in winter. Take your cuttings as soon before you’ll plant as you possibly can, and keep the new cuttings moist so they stay healthy and strong until you can get them in the ground.
Use pruning clips to slice through a section of tree on the bias, creating a new cutting between six and nine inches long and as big around as a standard pencil. Select cuttings that include at least three or four leaf axils or buds. If the bottom half of the new cutting has leaves, strip to remove them, but allow leaves on the top half of the cutting to remain attached. You can refer to the color and texture of these leaves when you need to check the health of your newly propagated apricot cuttings.
If you won’t be planting immediately, wrap the bottom portion of the cuttings in moist paper towels, then enclose them in a resealable plastic bag. Store cuttings in partial shade or, if your cuttings are bare of foliage, you can opt for full sun instead. When it’s time to plant, moisten the open end of the cutting and dip it into rooting hormone powder. Then bury the branch several inches deep in a pot full of fresh, damp sand or peat. Consistently water the newly propagated apricot trees until they begin to put out new growth in the spring,
Garden Pests and Diseases of Apricot Trees
In the section that discussed growing conditions, we mentioned the possibility of apricot trees being damaged by early frosts. The climate isn’t the only hazard that can threaten your apricot trees, however. Your trees can also fall victim to diseases or pests. Here are a few of the most common maladies apricots struggle with and what you can do to prevent them harming your trees. As usual, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so be familiar with the challenges apricot trees are susceptible to so you can head them off before they rear their ugly heads.
- Bacterial canker: This organism takes advantage of stone fruit trees that are weakened due to stress, coming down hardest on cherry, peach, and apricot trees. Trees with bacterial canker show their symptoms in the spring as infected blossoms open and the twigs they’re growing on begin to die off. Flowers and leaves may appear late or fail to appear at all in affected areas. Some afflicted trees may show sap that oozes or appears in water-soaked spots along with a sour smell, increased water spouts, or dark purple leaf spots that turn necrotic. The best way to prevent bacterial canker from taking hold is to avoid the most common sources of stress in these trees, which include damage from freezing or sunscald, soil that’s too light and sandy or drains poorly, the ring nematode Mesocriconema xenoplax, improper pruning, and damage from collision with gardening equipment.
- Powdery mildew: The fungi behind powdery mildew are the cause of a common struggle for gardeners in warm, dry areas. Look for the disease’s hallmark gray or white areas that look like talcum powder—these are deposits of fungal spores. This quickly spreading fungus can survive over the winter on fallen branches or twigs before redistributing when they’re uncovered in spring. To counteract apricot trees’ weakness for powdery mildew, avoid applying nitrogen to your garden in late summer, clear away fallen plant debris and prune trees carefully, and apply a fungicide at the first sign of trouble. Our article on how to identify, prevent, and treat powdery mildew has more detailed information.
- Root rot, also called root fungus: Trees can suffer from phythphthora root rot as a result of the roots staying too wet for too long. Visually, leaves look like they do when stressed by drought (wilting and losing color), and they may die when warmer weather arrives. The tree’s bark might display darkening around the soil line or, underneath the surface, a reddish-brown hue. Root fungus may be spread via water, compromised gardening tools, or infected soil. To treat, add drainage, raise plants when possible, cease overwatering, and remove potential sources of infection.
- Aphids: Most gardeners have encountered aphids a time or two before. They’re tiny soft-bodied insects in a variety of colors that suck the sap from plants. The bugs themselves are visible on the undersides of the leaves of afflicted plants, and the leaves of plants infested by aphids demonstrate distorted shape or may fall off the plant. Our article on controlling aphids offers 20 different methods of fighting them off.
- Peach twig borers: Peach twig borers infest apricots, nectarines, peaches, and plums. Larva hatch from eggs, spend time wrapped in a cocoon, then emerge as adult moths that are gray with black and white scales. The first symptom of a peach twig borer problem is often observed in spring, when new growth begins to wilt from the damage they do. Larva can be sniffed out due to the small piles of sawdust and wood chips stacked above where they feed, or they may instead feed on the apricots themselves. The adults tunnel through the tree’s new growth, eating leaves and buds along the way. Keep an eye on new shoots in April and the beginning of May, watching carefully for signs of this pest so you can stamp them out before they get out of control. Open shoots that show signs of wilting to look for the borers hiding inside. Peach twig borers can be fought by treating with insecticide just before flowers bloom and again when petals fall, catching them with pheromone traps, or by deploying the tiny Pentalitomastix pyralis wasp that parasitizes them.
If birds are pillaging the apricots on your tree before you get to taste them, pest netting can be an effective countermeasure. If the netting doesn’t do the trick, you can turn to these 12 humane ways to keep birds at bay in your garden.
Whether you choose to purchase young apricot trees and nurture them to maturity or you opt for the mega-affordable (though slightly more time-intensive) route of starting your apricot trees from the pit of an apricot, the rewards of a beautiful tree in your garden and your own private supply of this juicy, rosy stone fruit are well worth the time you’ll put into caring for your apricot tree. That said, there’s no reason to lose precious time with trial and error—and armed with the information from this guide, you won’t need to worry about wasting your time reinventing the wheel.