Apple trees will tolerate a wide range of different soil textures, depth, acidity, and structure, as long as they are well draining and fertile.
The best soil for apple trees are well draining medium-clay to sandy loam, fertile soils with slightly acidic to neutral pH between 5.8 and 6.5.
Test Your Soil
Before planting your apple tree, it is a good idea to have your soil tested to determine the type of soil you have, the pH level, and if it is lacking any essential nutrients and minerals. If you are unsure what type of soil you have, send a soil sample to a local laboratory or nursery for testing. A lab or nursery will be able to make recommendations as to whether the soil needs pH adjustments or additional nutrients.
Apples prefer a slightly acidic to neutral soil pH between 5.8 and 6.5. If the soil pH is too acidic or alkaline, it will affect nutrient absorption which will result in poor tree and fruit development. To determine the pH of your soil without sending it to a lab to get analyzed, you can use a soil pH meter, or use paper pH strips.
Test Your Soil with a pH Meter
To test your soil with a pH meter, find a damp spot around the planting location of your future apple tree. Plunge the rod of the pH meter into the damp soil and wait about 60 seconds. The needle or digital display will jump to the approximate pH reading for your soil. If your soil is too dry, you will not get an accurate reading.
Test Your Soil with Paper pH Strips
Another method to test the soil pH is with paper test strips. Mix a small amount of soil with an equal amount of distilled water. Dip the pH test strips into the water and soil mixture and wait for the colour to change. Compare the colour to the colour chart that comes with the strips to determine the PH level.
Raise Or Lower Soil pH
If your soil at the planting site is too acidic or too alkaline, it will affect the growth and fruit production of your apple tree. Many plant nutrients are only available to plants between a pH between 6 and 7.5.
If your soil is too acidic it will result in poor bacteria growth, which means less fertile soil for your apple tree. You can amend acidic soil with pulverized limestone or gypsum before planting your apple tree to bring the pH of your soil closer to neutral.
If your soil is too alkaline, you can amend your soil with organic matter like compost or aged manure. As the microbiology of the soil builds, the pH will gradually lower. As an added benefit, you will notice better drainage and aeration as you build up the soil with organic matter over time.
For an instant way to reduce your soil pH, amend your soil with aluminum sulfate, which will produce acidity in the soil instantly.
Well Draining Soil
Apple trees are very adaptable, but one thing they absolutely require is well draining soil. The roots of the apple tree are the foundation of a healthy fruit tree and good soil drainage is key to their health. If your native soil is composed of heavy clay that retains water after rainy weather, your apple tree roots will rot, contract diseases, and die.
Similarly, if your site has fast-draining, sandy soil, then your apple tree may exhibit water-related stress similar to conditions of drought and may require more-frequent watering.
Although apple trees will grow well in a wide range of soil types, a deep soil ranging in texture from a medium clay to a sandy loam is preferred. There are three main types of soil, clay soils, sandy soils, and silt soils. Loam soils are a mix of the three types of soils.
Clay soils have over 25 percent clay and are rich in nutrients as they bind well to the clay minerals in the soil and they retain a high amount of water due to the tiny spaces between the numerous clay particles. Clay soils will drain slowly and puddles will often form on clay after heavy rains. They take longer to warm up in spring than sandy soils and will bake in the summer heat and often crack when bone dry. Clay soils are easily compacted.
To know if you have clay soil pick it up and squeeze it. If it sticks together when wet, and can be rolled between the palms of your hands without falling apart you have clay soil.
Clay soil clumps can be broken up by the addition of organic matter. This breaks down the clay into separate crumbs, making the water and nutrients held within the clay more easily available to plant roots. Breaking up the clay into crumbs also makes the soil warmer, more easily workable and less prone to compaction.
We do not recommend planting apple trees in pure-clay soils. If you can’t plant elsewhere, you can top dress the heavy clay soil of your planting site with plenty of organic matter like compost or aged manure. Over time this will improve the structure of the soil.
Sandy soils have a high proportion of sand with very little clay. These soils drain quickly after rain or watering and will not retain water for long-term use, but will warm up more quickly in spring than clay soils. On the downside, they dry out quickly and are low in plant nutrients, which are quickly washed out by rain.
To know if you have sandy soil pick up a moist handful. If you squeeze it into a ball and it does not hold its shape, you have sandy soil.
To increase the water and nutrient retention of sandy soils, mix some compost or aged manure in the apple tree planting hole. This will help retain water and nutrients in the vicinity of the emerging feeder roots to help establish the apple tree.
Silt soils sit right in between sandy soils and clay soils and are comprised mainly of intermediate sized particles, are fertile, fairly well drained and hold more moisture than sandy soils, but are easily compacted, just like clay soils.
To know if you have silt soils, pick it up. If it has a slightly soapy, slippery texture, and does not clump together easily you have silt soil.
With constant addition of compost or aged manure, you can create more stable clumps of silt soil.
Loam soils are the ‘holy grail’ for gardeners. The perfect balance of clay, sand, silt and organic matter.
Loam soils are loose and look rich and normally absorb water and store moisture well. They can be clay, sand, or silt based.
When squeezed in your fist, moist loam will form a ball, which crumbles when poked with a finger.
Improving Soil Structure
As we saw above, adding organic matter like compost and aged-manure will improve the composition of every soil type. Organic matter binds to sandy soil particles so they retain moisture and nutrients better. They help break apart clay and silt particles, so that water can drain better and roots can spread farther.
Just remember to avoid planting sites with extremely heavy soils and poor drainage. Apple trees are one of the most adaptable fruit trees, so no matter what type of soil you have, an apple tree should do just fine with proper preparation.
Will apple trees grow in the shade? Apple trees need 6-10 hours of direct sunlight per day during the growing season for optimal growth and fruit production. Read our guide on choosing the right location to plant an apple tree in your backyard.
How can I plant an apple tree the proper way? Now that you know all about the different soil types and pH requirements of apple trees, read our guide on planting an apple tree the right way in 5 easy steps.