How to Plant an Apple Tree – In 5 Easy Steps

13 Minutes May 29, 2019

Planting an apple tree can provide enjoyment and an abundant harvest of fresh apples for years to come.

To plant an apple tree the right way, we first need to choose the right location based on sun and soil requirements, dig a square hole, plant the tree to the proper height, backfill the dirt while adding mycorrhizal fungi to the roots, add compost and mulch, and plenty of water.

Before we get started, here are some basic gardening tools you will need to plant your apple tree.

  • A spade shovel
  • A bucket of water
  • A tarp or a wheelbarrow
  • Mycorrhizal fungi
  • Organic compost or aged manure
  • Mulch or wood chips

Step 1: Choose The Right Location

Before purchasing your apple tree, take some time to scout out the best location to plant your apple tree in your yard.

Apple trees need full sun, and well draining soil. You will want to observe where the sun and shade hit throughout the day, whether there is full sun, or filtered sun, the proximity to other trees in the yard, how fertile your soil is, and whether there is a suitable cross pollination variety nearby.

Imagine your apple tree once it is full grown. Will it obstruct your views? Are there power lines overhead? Will it shade out your vegetable garden? Are there sewer lines or water pipes below?

These are all things to consider when choosing the proper location for your apple tree.

What is full sun?

Full sun is a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day during the growing season. Sunlight is vital to fruit production and fruit quality of apple trees, and also helps keep fungal issues from advancing. Read our guide on how sunlight affects fruit production in Apple trees, and learn how they absorb the sun’s energy to grow fruit.

How to tell if your soil is well draining?

Well-draining soil allows water to seep through it reasonably quickly. If the soil is too wet, plant roots fail to get the oxygen they need and will quickly rot and die. If the soil has too much air space and drains too quickly, plant roots dry out.

To test if your soil is well draining, dig a test hole that is 12 inches across and 12 inches deep. Fill the hole with a bucket of water. If the water drains within 10 minutes, you have well draining soil. If the water takes an hour or longer to drain, you have poor draining soil, and should choose another location for your apple tree.

Read our guide on the best soil types for apple trees to better understand your own soil, and the impact it will have on your apple tree.

How far apart to plant apple trees?

Apple tree spacing depends on several factors. Is the apple tree a standard size, a dwarf or semi-dwarf?

Planting apple trees too close will cause the canopies to overlap and fight for light, possibly shading each other out, which will cause low fruit set. Planting them too close can also restrict air circulation around the tree, which could cause fungal issues as the tree matures.

On the other hand, planting apple trees too far can cause pollination issues. Most apple cultivars require pollination from another nearby apple tree.

As a rule of thumb, standard full grown apple trees can grow to be 20 feet wide, so the recommended spacing should be 30 feet apart. Semi-dwarf apple trees will grow to 15 feet wide, so space them 20 feet apart, and dwarf trees grow to 8-10 feet wide and only need 10 feet of spacing. These are minimum spacing, try to keep your apple trees within 50 feet of each other for optimal cross pollination.

After you’ve selected the right location, you can now purchase your apple tree.

If you purchased a potted apple tree and cannot plant it right away, put it in a shady area outdoors, and water it thoroughly. Keep the roots from drying out until you are able to plant the tree.

If you purchased a bare-root apple tree and cannot plant it right away, you can store it in a cool, damp place like a garage or shed. Wrap the roots in moist newspaper and cover them with a plastic bag. If you can’t plant your tree within the next week, “heel in” the roots to the ground.

To heel in the roots, dig a shallow trench, then lay the apple tree on its side at about a 35 degree angle. Cover the roots with soil and soak with water. When you are ready to plant your bare-root apple tree, dig up the roots and prepare for planting.

Quick Tip: Do not expose bare roots to freezing temperatures while planting your apple tree.

Step 2: Dig The Hole

Once you have decided on the location of your apple tree, start digging a hole with a spade shovel. Scoop out the soil and lay it on a tarp next to the hole, or in a wheelbarrow. Remove any large rocks, grass or weed.

You will want to dig a hole that is twice as wide as the root ball, and about 18-24 inches deep. This will allow enough room for the roots to expand and grow strong before hitting the outer walls of the hole you dug.

When digging a hole, the shovel compresses the walls of the hole and create a tough barrier for roots to penetrate, especially if you have heavy clay soil. To give the roots the best chance of survival, dig a square hole.

Quick Tip: Dig a Square Hole

Roots follow the path of least resistance. In a circular hole, the roots will hit the wall of the hole and travel along them, spiralling in a circle, rather than penetrate their way through the wall. A circular hole mimics a larger pot.

A square hole will prevent the roots from becoming root bound within the hole you dug. It will force the roots to push outwards into undisturbed soil as they hit the corners, and will help break up the native soil in search for water and nutrients. This leads to a stronger root system, which is the foundation of a healthy apple tree.

If you have sandy soil, the shape of the hole is less important, as the roots can more easily penetrate the native sandy soil.

While digging the hole, soak the roots of a bare root apple tree in a bucket of water for 1-2 hours. This will prevent them from drying out in the sun, or freezing if the weather is colder.

For potted apple trees, thoroughly water your apple tree in the pot about 1 hour before you can plant it.

Step 3: Planting The Apple Tree

Potted apple trees

Gently pull the apple tree out of the pot, and place it in the center of the square hole you just dug to verify the height.

Quick Tip: Do NOT handle the apple tree by the trunk, always handle the tree by the root ball. The graft union is very sensitive, so handling the tree by the trunk can cause injury to the graft.

The height of the potted soil should be equal to the existing ground level, and the graft union should be 2-3 inches above the existing ground level. If the apple tree is planted too low, the graft union could be buried, and new shoots will come up from the rootball. If the apple tree is planted too high, water will runoff the base.

If the potted soil is too high or too low, take the apple tree out of the hole, and either backfill some soil, or dig a few more inches, and re-check the height.

Bare-Root Apple Trees

Place the bare-root tree in the center of the hole you just dug to check the spacing. Ensure there is enough space for the roots to be spread out facing downwards and outwards.

To find the planting height, use a long stick or a 2×4 across the hole to get a marker for “ground level”. Line up the apple tree graft union 2-3 inches above the ground level of the surrounding hole, while keeping the trunk as vertical as possible. Look for a dark soil line on the trunk, this is soil level where the bare root tree was previously planted.

Remove the tree from the hole and backfill some soil to make a mound in the center of the hole. Place the roots over the mound and spread them outwards and downwards in all directions. Avoid curling any roots, or any facing upwards.

Before backfilling the soil on top of the roots, sprinkle some mycorrhizal fungi directly on the apple tree roots. Mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial fungi that grow in association with plant roots. They take sugars (or exudates) from plants in exchange for moisture and nutrients gathered from the soil by the fungal strands. The fungal strands are many times thinner than the apple tree roots, which means they can venture deeper into the soil where there isn’t enough space for the roots to reach to mine harder to reach minerals and nutrients. The mycorrhizal fungi greatly increase the absorptive area of a plant, acting as extensions to the root system.

In order for the mycorrhizal fungi to inoculate the roots, they must be in direct contact with the roots. Rub the powder directly on the roots or inside the root ball. Do not dump the mycorrhizal fungi at the bottom of the hole, or mix it in with the existing soil, it will not do any good.

Step 4: Backfill The Hole

Using the native soil that you put aside when you dug the hole, start to backfill the hole. Work the soil carefully around the roots, and compact it in place as you go.

Do not mix amendments or fertilizers into the soil. Mixing amendments into the soil will prevent the roots from expanding outwards into the native soil in search for water and nutrients. They will become comfortable within the existing hole, with many added nutrients, and won’t be forced to grow outwards. Once the roots exhaust the nutrients within the hole, they will grow weaker, and more susceptible to diseases. The larger the root system, the healthier the tree will be.

Once the soil is backfilled into the hole and level to the existing ground, create a berm of soil about 2-3 inches tall around the rootball of the apple tree. This will help collect rainwater and help it soak in to the hole, rather than runoff and erode the soil.

Top dress the soil with compost and 4-6 inches of organic mulch or wood chips. The compost adds organic matter and will slowly feed the roots of the apple tree whenever it gets watered. The mulch will prevents weeds and grass from growing around the base of the apple tree which will compete for nutrients, and will prevent the soil from drying out in the hot sun.

Avoid mounding compost or mulch right up against the trunk. This could suffocate the graft union and kill the tree. Try to keep mulch no more than 1 inch deep directly around the trunk. Read our guide on how to mulch an apple tree to learn about the best types of mulch and the many benefits it has on young apple trees.

Step 5: Deep Watering

Immediately after planting, thoroughly water around the base of the tree. Add 1-2 gallons of water and let that soak into the soil. Repeat this step 2-3 more times as the water gets absorbed into the soil. This is a deep watering.

If the soil around the base of the apple tree starts to sink in, re-fill with more soil until it is ground level again.

How often should I water my apple tree?

It is best to water more infrequently, but thoroughly. In the first year or two, be sure to deep water the apple tree every 7-10 days as needed. If your area receives regular rain, you can water less frequently, or may not even need to hand water at all.

Check the moisture of the soil underneath the mulch at the base of the apple tree by sticking your finger 2-3 inches into the soil. If the soil is still moist, the rootball has sufficient water.

If you haven’t received any rain in 7-10 days, thoroughly soak the base of the tree. Put a garden hose at the base of the tree and turn it on for a slow trickle for 10-15 minutes. The water will slowly make its way down to the rootball.

Avoid surfacing watering – a light spray to moisten the surface soil. The water needs to soak into the soil and reach the roots.

Do I need to fertilize my apple tree?

Avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers. Use only organic compost or aged manures. These will replenish the nutrients in the soil and the organic matter helps retain moisture, and break down heavy clay soils.

Rake away the wood chips to expose the soil around the base of the tree. Sprinkle about 1-2 inches of compost or aged manure about once per year in the spring. Re-cover with the same mulch.

Adding organic matter like compost will improve the composition of the soil. The organic matter binds to sandy soil particles so they retain moisture and nutrients longer. They also break apart clay and silt particles, so that water can soak in and roots can spread.

How long will it take for my apple tree to grow apples? This depends on the type of rootstock and whether your apple tree scion is grafted to a full sized, semi-dwarf, or dwarf rootstock. Generally dwarf apple trees will produce apples within 2-3 years after planting, while full sized apple trees can take 4-6 years to produce apples. Read our guide to determine exactly when your apple tree will start to grow apples.

Should I pull the flower blossoms the first year? Yes, during the first year of growth, we want the apple tree to focus its energy on root development for a strong and healthy foundation, rather than fruit development. If you see the apple tree flowering in the spring, carefully pull off the blossoms, this will redirect the trees energy into growing larger and healthier roots. Read our post on what you can do with the flower blossoms once you’ve pulled them off the tree.

When will my apple tree bloom? Apple trees will bloom in early spring between mid-April and mid-May after having met the required chill hours during winter dormancy. Read our post on apple tree blooms to know exactly when your apple tree will bloom.

Are apple tree leaves edible? Yes, apple tree leaves are edible, and are high in polyphenols, which are organic chemicals high in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that help fight against aging signs. Read our post on apple tree leaves to learn more.

Do I need to prune my apple tree? Apple trees will benefit from regular pruning and will produce larger and better quality apples with proper pruning. Read our in-depth guide on how to prune an apple tree and the benefits of doing so.

And thats it, everything you need to know to plant a healthy apple tree, that will provide an abundant harvest of tasty apples for many years to come.