You planted your first apple tree and can’t wait for your first harvest of fresh apples.
Apple trees will start growing apples 2-10 years after being planted, depending on the rootstock. Dwarf apple trees will start growing apples 2-3 years after being planted, while apple trees grown from seed will take 6-10 years to start growing apples.
What is a rootstock?
The majority of apple trees consist of two parts, the scion and the rootstock. The scion is the part of the tree above ground that produces fruit, while the rootstock is the lower portion of the trunk and the roots below ground.
The scion and the rootstock are joined together (grafted) usually a few inches above the ground. The “graft union” is easy to spot in a young tree – it is the kink a few inches above the ground where the scion was grafted on to the rootstock.
The variety selected for the scion imparts the fruit characteristics such as the size, colour, and taste – like McIntosh or Honeycrisp. The variety selected for the rootstock determines the tree size, how quickly it will produce apples (precocity), some disease resistance and even cold hardiness.
Whether the scion variety is grafted onto standard or dwarfing rootstock, the fruit size and quality will be the same. On a dwarfing rootstock, the scion will flower earlier in the life of the apple tree and thus produce apples sooner. An apple cultivar grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock may flower and produce apples 5 or more years earlier in the life of the tree than if the same scion was grafted onto a seedling rootstock.
This is why the rootstock is important in figuring out when your apple tree will start producing apples.
Why do we need a rootstock?
Apple trees need to be cross-pollinated with another apple tree in order to bear fruit. Because of this, apples do not reproduce true to type, meaning that the tree from a seed will produce apples that are different than the parent. It will impart different traits from the parent tree and from the tree that pollinated the particular apple blossom that grew the apple – a hybrid of the two parent apple trees. Which is why most apple trees are grafted to produce the same variety (cultivar) of apples.
In order to grow apples that are true to type, apple trees are grafted to a rootstock. The scion is a cutting – a “clone” – of the mother tree and will produce the same variety of apples.
While you might sprout seeds taken from fruit grown on a dwarf fruit tree, that seedling is likely to grow into a full-size tree.
There are 3 main categories of rootstocks available for apple trees. Dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard rootstocks.
Standard Apple Trees
Standard or “seedling” apple trees are normally grafted onto a rootstock grown from an apple seed, typically a “Delicious” variety and are considered full-sized apple trees that can grow 30 feet tall, and just as wide.
Apple trees on seedling rootstocks generally have good survival, are free-standing, relatively cold hardy, and do not have serious disease problems and are considered to be 100% full size.
Standard apple trees will produce apples in 4-6 years after being planted.
The rootstock may also be P.18, MM.111, or Antonovka 313. Confusing names to distinguish the different varieties of rootstocks available, their resistance to diseases, their cold-hardiness, vigour, and how quickly they will produce apples. Rootstocks with “M” in the name originated in England at the Malling Research Station. The numerical values are not in order of tree size.
Each rootstock has its own characteristics. For example, an MM.111 rootstock will produce apple trees up to 85% the size of a standard seedling apple tree. It is resistant to wooly apple aphid and is quite tolerant to fire blight and crown and root rot diseases. Unlike P.18 rootstock, which is susceptible to wooly apple aphid, and moderately susceptible to fire blight.
Semi-Dwarf Apple Trees
Semi-dwarf apple trees are normally grafted onto rootstock varieties M.26, M.7a, M.9, MM.106 and M.2.
Semi-dwarf apple trees will grow from 50-80% of the size of a standard seedling apple tree, and begin producing fruit 3-4 years after being planted in your garden.
The M.26 rootstock is one of the most common semi-dwarf rootstocks for apple trees. It was developed in 1929 from a cross between M.16 and M.9 at the East Malling Research Station in England. M.26 is one of the more vigorous rootstocks and is very productive, however it is susceptible to crown rot and fire blight.
Dwarf Apple Trees
Dwarf apple trees are generally grafted onto M.9 or “Mark” rootstocks, which reduce the tree’s mature size to 6 to 12 feet tall, about 30-50% of the standard seedling apple tree’s size.
Dwarf apple trees will begin producing apples 2-3 years after being planted in your garden.
More than 30% of all dwarf apple trees in North America are grafted onto an M.9 rootstock. Although M.9 performs well under many conditions and is considered the standard for dwarf rootstocks, it is not without problems. It has poor anchorage due to brittle roots and are prone to being uprooted in severe storms. They also produce heavy crops relative to the size of the tree, which it cannot support. The weight of a full crop would damage limbs or topple the tree, so it is best to support dwarf apple trees with posts.
The most common way to support a dwarf apple tree is to use a metal T-post. Drive a 6-8 foot metal t-post into the ground 2 feet deep about 6-12 inches away from the trunk. Place the t-post on the side of the tree with the most prevailing winds, and secure the trunk of the apple tree to the t-post with twine.
M.9 is very susceptible to fire blight and woolly apple aphid and fairly resistant to crown and root rots. It produces moderate amounts of root suckers and many burrknots.
An M.27 rootstock produces the smallest trees, at only 15-30% the size of standard seedling apple trees. They are best used for container growing, where space is limited.
Apple Trees Grown From Seed
As mentioned, apple trees grown from seed will be a hybrid of the two parent trees. The apples it produces may not be tasty, or even edible if it was crossed with a crab-apple.
Growing an apple tree from seed is not as easy as throwing a seed in soil and watering it carefully. The seeds need to be stratified, which means they need exposure to cold weather in order to germinate.
Collect your apple seeds from an apple and lay them on a paper towel to dry. Once they are completely dry, lay the apple seeds in between two layers of clean, damp, paper towels and place the paper towels in an airtight sealable plastic bag or glass container and place them in the refrigerator.
The cold temperature in the refrigerator simulates winter weather for the apple seeds. Keep the apple seeds in the fridge for 75-80 days. Check them periodically to make sure the paper towels stay damp.
The seeds will not sprout while in the fridge, so after 80 days, remove the seeds and place them about 1/2″ deep in the center of a pot of fresh potting soil.
Water the pot immediately to keep the seeds moist, and put the pot on a window sill inside your home. After a few weeks you should see an apple tree sprout forming.
Apple trees grown from seed will usually grow apples from 6-10 years after the seedling sprouts.
Fun Fact – The Honeycrisp apple took 30 years to develop. The cross that produced it was made in 1960, and it wasn’t introduced to the public until 1992. Even then, its popularity didn’t take off until 2007.
How can I get my apple tree to grow apples faster? – You can prune your apple tree a certain way in order to push it to produce apples in fewer years. However, the best method I’ve come across is to train the branches more horizontally, rather than vertically by spreading, tying, and trellising the branches to stakes, posts, or fencing. Apples tend to grow on more horizontal branches, rather than vertical, straight up branches.
How many pounds of apple can a tree produce? A mature dwarf apple tree can produce 3-6 bushels of apples each year, while a full sized standard apple tree can produce upwards of 20 bushels of apples each year. A bushel of apples weight 42 lbs.