Around this time each year, I start getting calls from family, friends and the general public asking about sick or under-performing apple trees. Most of these calls revolve around the same three questions:
- My tree has some type of insect on it;
- My tree’s leaves are turning color and falling off; or,
- My tree has less fruit this year.
Once in a while, I will get a call about trunk and bark issues, too.
I have spent several years working with apple trees in my personal and professional life. This experience with apple trees has given me an unreserved opinion on the subject of the average homeowner planting their own apple tree. Let’s bite into these three prominent questions and see if I can change your mind when it comes to growing apples.
West Virginia has a wonderful climate for rearing apple trees. With that climate comes a whole host of leaf-chewing, apple-eating, root-munching, sap-sucking insects that love eating your tree from the ground up — not to mention the blue jays and those crazy, ever-persistent squirrels stealing or eating your immature fruit. To have a healthy tree with nice apples each year, it is a good idea to learn about apple tree pests.
Research to understand which pests target apple trees, when they start to emerge and how to control them. In most cases, this will be a continual chore all season, from March to October. It will require you to make many spray applications and buy the equipment to do so.
Also, you will need to engineer a control for keeping the birds and squirrels at bay. In commercial orchards, they use special air blast sprayers to deliver insecticides and fungicides evenly on the trees surface. To keep birds away, most orchards use propane-powered canons that produce a very loud sound to scare them off. Some growers use falconry to deter other birds and small game. None of these options is reasonable for a homeowner.
Next, educate yourself about apple tree diseases and how to spot them early enough to save your fruit — and sometimes, the entire tree. Most leaf drop and trunk problems are caused by diseases and fungi. The solution is, once again, spray, spray, spray!
You might have noticed by now, proper apple tree care requires a tremendous amount of spraying. Even if you are trying to grow the apples organically, you still will be spraying organic mixes that need to be applied via sprayer. By the way, don’t forget to have a good ladder on hand, to reach the tops of the trees. The limb tips are a favorite place for insects.
Even a dwarf apple tree will top out around 8 feet tall. In the spring, an apple tree may have hundreds of little apples hanging on the branches. However, most of those need to be pruned off the tree to grow large apples.
In orchards, they use a hormone spray to force the tree to abort around 60 percent of its apples. The hormone spray is available for purchase in most local feed stores. In many cases, when a tree is full of apples one year and none the next, the tree is exhausted from the high yield of fruit from the previous year. Thinning the apples each spring will help the tree stay vigorous every growing season.
Apple trees must be pruned each winter to keep them healthy and productive. Check with local extension agents and gardening organizations to find out about upcoming pruning workshops. If you have never pruned a fruit tree, I highly recommend taking an in-person class. Growing big, healthy apples is difficult, even for the most experienced orchard man.
Personally, I’m out of the apple growing business at my house. For me, going to the local farmer’s market and paying $35 for a bushel of apples is much easier than caring for a fruit tree. If you don’t mind all the work and time that it takes to keep an apple tree productive and healthy, then go ahead and plant yourself a tree — and look forward to enjoying the fruits of all that labor!