The short answer to the question of when to plant apple trees is early spring for bare root trees. The longer answer is that it depends on your climate/location and also whether the tree is bare root or containerised.
When to Plant Apple Trees
For bare root trees in hardiness zones 7 and below, plant when the tree is dormant and when the ground thaws, hence early spring. If you plant in the fall, you risk having a very harsh winter damage and kill the trees before their roots establish themselves in the soil. In the summer the low moisture and high heat may cause stress and damage. Therefore you can plant once the ground thaws and there is no rain or snow. Depending on your region, this can be anytime between February to May. If you are planting an apple tree in a container and not bare root, you are more flexible since you’ll be planting with the soil that the roots have established themselves in. However even with a container, be careful during the winters since the ground can’t be frozen and it shouldn’t be too wet.
However for planting in zones 8 and above which don’t have cold winters, you can plant bare root trees in the winter and fall since the tree is dormant and doesn’t risk damage from the harsh winters. Additionally, it is easier to plant containerised trees in the winter for these zones.
When to Plant Bare Root Apple Trees
The best time to plant bare root apple trees is in the early spring from February to early May since this will give enough time for their root systems to grow and for the plant to survive a harsh winter. While you can plant them in the fall, it is more risky since they won’t have had the time to establish their root systems. In the early or mid winter the high moisture can freeze and damage the root system so we don’t advise it. However if you live in a region with warm winters such as in hardiness zones 8 or above, you can plant in the winter when the ground is thawed and there is no snow or rain.
When to Plant Apple Trees in Containers
The advantage of planting apple trees in containers is that their root systems will already be established since you are planting them with their existing soil. Therefore you can plant them from spring to fall. While you can plant them in the summer months, you should be careful that the high heat and low moisture doesn’t cause any stress to the tree.
Can You Plant Apple Trees in the Fall?
While you can plant apple trees in containers in the fall, planting bare root apple trees is more risky since they won’t have had the time to establish their root systems before a potentially damaging winter. So yes you can, but know that there is more risk.
How to Plant Apple Trees
Here is a ten step guide on how to plant apple trees once they have arrived.
- Another helper to hold the tree vertically (will need two sets of hands)
- A bucket/bin to soak the tree roots in water
- A shovel or spade for digging
- For dwarf and semi-dwarf trees, a stake/post to place next to the tree
- Something to bang the post in (a hammer or rock will do)
- Tree ties to connect the stake to the tree
- Tree guards for protecting against animal damage
- 1-2 Gallons of Water
1. Prepare Tree
- When the apple trees arrive (perhaps they will be in a box if you have ordered online) pull out the trees and place them in a cool (not freezing) place out of the sun, e.g. your garage.
- If the apple trees have been in transport for more than 4 days, be sure to soak immediately in water for 6-24 hours and plant immediately after.
- If you need to wait for more that a week to plant, be sure to keep the roots wet by spraying with water. Keep the roots in the plastic wrap so that they stay moist and healthy. You can keep the trees in a cool shaded basement or garage. Then soak in water and plant afterwards.
2. Prepare Soil
You should prepare the planting area before planting the tree.
- Fruit trees grow best in well-draining, nutrient rich, loamy soil which is slightly acidic.
- Different fruit trees vary in their preferred acidity but most will still grow tolerate soils in the range of 5.0-7.5.
- Before planting, you can test the soil (you can use inexpensive DIY methods) for acidity, soil type, and drainage.
- Feel free to add organic matter such as compost to your soil to increase nutrients. However do not add fertilizer directly to the soil the tree’s roots will touch.
- Till the soil so that the nutrients become integrated into the soil and the soil becomes less compact so that the roots grow well.
- Dig a hole that is about 18” deep and 18” in diameter. Bring the soaking trees next to the planting site without the roots drying out.
- Put some soil in a cone shape in the hole so that when you place the tree down, the roots slope down and fan out. Trim the roots as needed so that they do not twist. This will enable the tree to spread its roots further.
- For grafted apple trees, the graft union where the rootstock meets the top of the tree should be about 2 inches above ground level. However, for seedlings which don’t have a union, just make sure that the roots are covered with soil.
- If you cover the union then the tree will grow to a standard size and not have the characteristics of the rootstock.
- In order for the apple tree to be supported and grow straight, we recommend placing a stake next to it. This is applicable only if you have a dwarf or semi-dwarf tree.
- Place a solid metal stake 8’-10’ tall next to the tree and pound it in. It should be secure and bear the weight of the tree. This step can also be done after you fill the tree in with soil.
- Holding the tree vertically, place the nutrient rich topsoil you dug out back near the roots. Once half the soil is placed around the tree, carefully press the soil down with your feet to destroy air pockets. Do NOT put fertilizer or compost into the hole where the roots are as this will damage the tree.
- Put the rest of the soil on top and press down repeatedly with your foot.
- If the apple tree is on a slope, create a 2’ rim of soil around the tree above ground level to keep the water around the tree.
- Immediately after planting, water the tree with about 1-2 gallons of water. If the soil goes down, add more soil.
- For the first year, water about one to two times a week with 1-2 gallons of water. After the tree is established, you can water yourself only when the tree becomes stressed and experiences drought.
8. Prune Apple Tree
- Initial pruning is an important step in the planting process. Pruning during planting will help train the tree from the beginning into the shape that is best for it to bear fruit.
- Apple trees are best grown in a pyramidal shape with a central leader.
- Remove the lower branches that are growing less than 2 feet above the ground.
- Then, prune back the central leader to 18 inches above the highest scaffold branch.
- Cut scaffold branches that aren’t 45-60 degrees.
- Finally, prune the scaffold branches so that they are 12″ long. Read more about how to prune an apple tree.
- Immediately after planting the tree, place a tree guard around the trunk. This protects the tree from rabbits and rodents who will eat the bark and kill your tree. The tree guards should let air flow in. Mouse guards which rap around the bark are the best protectors. However we don’t recommended using them in the summer since insects can create habitats between the mouse guard and the bark.
- Cover the top of the soil near the tree with mulch so that the moisture stays in the soil. Moreover weeds are less likely to grow. The mulch should not touch the bark of the tree.
10. Most Important Step: Have Fun!
- Now that you know how to plant apple trees, this last step is the most important. If it’s your first time planting, having fun and learning from your mistakes will help you and your trees enjoy the process.
- So invite your friends or family, and together plant some trees! Don’t do it alone. I promise you it will be something you all will remember together, just like I still remember planting those apple trees with my dad.