Growing Apple Trees in Wisconsin

Apples are one of the most popular tree fruits for the home grower. Who doesn’t want to bite into a nice crispy apple picked at the peak of perfection? Based on fruit tree sales here at Johnson’s Nursery, we sell more apple trees every year than any other type of fruit.

Often I hear some of the questions that home fruit growers have about growing their apples. It is difficult for the average person to have success in this endeavor without proper knowledge. As much as people like apples, so do many insects, fungi, and animals too. Successfully growing apple trees will require some work. Below I’ve answered some of the most common questions I get about growing apple trees in S.E. Wisconsin.

Apples are one of the most popular tree fruits for the home grower. Who doesn’t want to bite into a nice crispy apple picked at the peak of perfection…

Growing Apple Trees FAQ

Instead of naming what will work, I will go through what does not work well. Due to the length of our growing season, some popular apple varieties do not do well here. Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Braeburn, and most Fuji strains are some examples. They all require a much longer growing season than we normally have. While these varieties will survive here, the apples produced may not always ripen fully or be of good quality compared to those grown in an area that has a longer frost-free growing season. Best to avoid them. Otherwise, most apple varieties will do well in our growing area.

That is a great question. Apple varieties are asexually propagated onto a rootstock. The rootstock is the biggest factor in determining ultimate tree size. Just about all apple trees these days are propagated on a dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock as nobody wants to deal with apple trees on standard rootstocks that will grow 25’-30’ tall. I do hate the terms Dwarf and Semi-dwarf however as they fail to tell you some very important information. Many apple rootstocks are considered dwarf or semi-dwarf. Each type will vary in how tall they grow and what soil type they will perform best in. Some will be free-standing yet others need to be staked for the life of the tree.

Here at Johnson’s Nursery, we sell semi-dwarf apple trees on M-7 rootstock. This rootstock does well in most soil types and is free-standing (except when grown in sandy soils). Apples on M-7 will normally grow to about 15’ tall and should be planted 15’ apart. While other rootstocks work too, we find this rootstock to be well suited for the home grower.

Apples are best grown in full sun and on sites that have good soil drainage. While they can tolerate part shade, the fruit produced in shade will not have good skin color, nor will excellent flavor, and both the fruit/foliage be more prone to fungal issues since shaded areas are slower to dry out after rainfall. Apples grown in too much shade are best reserved for cooking and not fresh use as they are fine for sauce, pies, cobblers, etc. Because of this, orchardists always advocate heavy annual pruning during the dormant season to allow as much sunlight into the tree canopy as possible so all the fruit has great skin color and flavor.

That somewhat depends on variety, very much depends on the rootstock and if planted from bare-root, container or balled and burlapped. Usually, the more dwarfing the rootstock is, the earlier the apple tree will come into bearing. For example, bare-root apple trees planted on a dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock will normally begin bearing fruit in their 3rd year and usually reach decent fruit production in their 5th year from planting out. Most of our semi-dwarf apple trees are in #5 or #10 containers. These normally will start bearing a few apples in the second year of planting. Contrast this to apples on standard rootstocks that sometimes did not start bearing fruit until about 8 years of age!

All apple varieties need to be cross-pollinated with another apple variety or a crabapple to produce fruit. For example, planting 2 Cortland apple trees will not work as they are the same variety. You need to plant 2 trees but each must be a different variety for cross-pollination to work. An exception is triploid varieties (pollen sterile) as you would then need to plant 3 different varieties but thankfully not many apple varieties are triploid (Gravenstein, Jonagold, etc.).

No, it will not. The fruit (flesh) will always be the same variety as the mother tree. The seeds inside the apple will be a hybrid of the mother and the crabapple. Since we do not normally eat the seeds, using a nearby crabapple for pollination works just fine. This is very good news for those who have small yards yet have ornamental crabs nearby as sometimes space is too limited for panting 2 different apple varieties. Yes, crabapples usually work as a pollinator assuming the bloom times of both trees overlap in duration.

That depends. Trees that are full grown and bearing fruit well normally do not need to be fertilized. Fertilizing will promote vegetative growth. Young apple trees that have poor leaf color or have less than 12” of annual growth should be fertilized. The goal is to get the tree big and bear fruit as quickly as possible. The ideal growth rate should be about 18”-30” annually. The best time to fertilize is in May or early June. Do not fertilize too late in the season as you may experience a lot of tip dieback over the winter if the branches do not harden off early enough. If you only have a few small apple trees, then fertilizing with a gallon or 2 of a good liquid fertilizer per tree is sufficient. If you have a lot of fruit trees then using a granular fertilizer like 10-10-10 will be more economical. With granular I normally spread the fertilizer out around the dripline of the tree canopy at about the rate one would apply salt to a nice t-bone steak before eating. Often people forget that a granular fertilizer is a salt and that if some is good, more must be better. Not true as applying too much can burn the tree.

Usually but that depends on the season as not all years are bad for all apple insects/diseases. Each year seems to vary as to what is a big issue or not. For 2017 we had a very wet spring so apple scab is severe for those who did not spray a fungicide to prevent the issue. The key to insect/disease control is to spray at the right time to prevent insect damage or fungal problems. The main emphasis is on prevention. It is too late to spray if your apples are already loaded with coddling moths or apple maggots (both these insects tunnel into the fruit). Some feel they do not want to spray until they see damage, but by then it can be too late.

Prevention can be done by following a simple apple spray chart and spraying at the appropriate dates or phenologic-induced timeline. For those who wish to reduce the number of sprays suggested, they can also use insect traps, follow degree growing days, and monitor hours of wetness/temperature to apply pesticides only when science dictates that a potential problem could develop (a bit more challenging for the home growing situation). How many times you spray your apple crop depends on you.

Read Best Pesticides For The Home Orchardist

Then grow them in bags. The Japanese have grown apples in bags for years and they do work. Cloth bags and paper bags designed just for growing apple trees are available online. While they work, many find that using plastic Ziploc sandwich bags works just as well and is cheaper. The key is to spray in May and then bag the fruit as soon as it is the size of a dime in early-mid June. No more spraying the rest of the season! This works great if you only have a few apple trees or if your trees are still very young but bearing their first crop of a few fruits (not enough yet to warrant the time/labor to spray them all season).

Apples are one of the most popular tree fruits for the home grower. Who doesn’t want to bite into a nice crispy apple picked at the peak of perfection…

Yes, growing apple trees can be very rewarding. Some grow apples for reasons of nostalgia as they want to plant some heirloom variety that they enjoyed eating many years ago that is seldom available anymore on the market. Some grow them just for the fun and challenge of getting a successful fruit crop. Others want to plant some regional variety that perhaps was common where they grew up but is not to be found in the area where they currently reside. Whatever your reason is, plant some apple trees this year and start reaping the bounty and satisfaction of producing your crop of luscious fruit.