Apples (Malus spp.) are a widely popular fruit tree across North America. They grow in regions where winters are cold enough to induce spring flowering. With hundreds of varieties of apples, the "best" apple tree to grow is determined by growing conditions: where you live, your regional climate, the soil in your garden, and the threat of plant diseases or pests. Discover the best variety for your area by contacting a reputable nursery or Cooperative Extension office.
Standard vs. Dwarf Trees
Apple trees that grow to approximately 20 feet tall with a spread of 20 to 25 feet are called "standard." Plant breeders graft roots and shoots together to manipulate growing habits and other characteristics.
A "dwarf" tree grows 5 to 8 feet tall and wide, and is a good choice for small-sized gardens or container culture. Sometimes apple varieties grow 10 to 20 feet in height and spread and are dubbed "semi-dwarf."
"Spur-type" apple trees are compact in habit and begin producing fruits at a young age, making them a good alternative to dwarf apples.
Apple plants that are grafted, having a fused wound between standard shoots and dwarfing rootstocks, usually bear fruits at a younger age, but also tend to have shallow root systems and do not perform well in very cold winter regions or where winds and heavy rains are common.
In most cases, apple production is increased when several trees are grown in proximity. Pollinating bees visit the different trees and spread pollen among their flowers, resulting in a higher number of fertilized flowers that form fruits. Many varieties are self-fruitful, or partially so, meaning these plants can yield a good crop of fruits without nearby trees, as the insects pollinate flowers within the same tree. Genetic manipulation has created sterile apple varieties that do not produce pollen; one such cultivar is Gravenstein.
All species of wild apple are native to cold winter regions. Without an adequate bout with winter cold, or chilling, apple plants will not flower in spring. Exposure to cold that initiates the formation of flower buds in spring is called vernalization.
Wild species and old "heritage" varieties often have the greatest chilling requirements, needing more than three months in winter with temperatures below 40 degrees F. Newer hybrid varieties provide great variation in their winter chilling requirements, so that apple trees can grow and produce harvests even in mild winter areas like the Gulf Coast.
Regions with extremely cold winters, however, like interior Alaska and Canada, may find many popular apple varieties do not survive the winter. Here the grafted rootstock must be taken from wild apple or crab apple species with a natural tolerance to bitterly cold temperatures.
If your chilly winter (or lack thereof) does not match the vernalization needs of a particular apple variety, it will not grow in your region.
Pest and Disease Resistance
Apple trees can be plagued by a number of diseases and pests that affect the tree's health, from ability to flower or fruit to the quality of fruit. Climate, soil and other regional conditions play a role in the number and kinds of potential problems. Codling moth, leaf roller, aphid and apple maggot are some pests of concern. Fireblight and apple scab are two diseases that harm trees and fruits.
The general susceptibility of apple plants to pests plays a central role in plant breeding and development. Newer apple varieties have been selected not only for their fruits, but also for ease of culture and resistance to common pests and diseases. For this reason, regional apple varieties exist: an apple that is superb in Oregon may not perform equally well in Ohio.