I subscribe to the general consensus that gardening is a work in progress. Thanks to years of trial and error, I’ve learned that some gardening ventures are successful, and others…not so much. But I’ve never shied away from a challenge, and there’s no greater satisfaction than taking a new plant or tackling a new technique and seeing it through to a triumphant end. That said, this year I’ve spent some time researching how to grow fruit trees – because I’m now determined to start a mini-orchard in my back yard.

Girl picking an apple

Nothing is more fun – or satisfying – than picking your own apples right off the tree!

Apple trees in bloom

Apple trees aren't just for the apples. Spring brings blooms galore – an asset to any garden or home landscape.

Why apples? A home orchard is a great way to have delicious, nutritious fresh fruit whenever you’d like, and apples can be used in so many ways. Other advantages include knowing where your fruit’s coming from and being able to grow some types of apples that may not be available at the grocery store or local orchard. Aside from being productive, apple trees can also enhance the appearance of the home landscape as a feature or border plant. They can even be espaliered or trellised, if you’re so inclined.

Of course, there are a few things you need to know before you harvest that first apple crop. Growing high-quality apples requires learning how to select the right variety for you and your region; how to choose a planting site with appropriate soil, light, etc.; proper planting and pruning techniques; how and when to fertilize; and pest-management options. Here are some of the basics you need to understand before you dig that first hole:

The majority of homeowners should grow either dwarf or semidwarf trees instead of standard or full-size ones. Dwarf and semidwarf trees are easier to manage, fit into residential landscapes better and produce fruit earlier than your standard-size trees. Dwarf apple trees grow about 10 feet tall, semidwarf apple trees will reach about 15 feet, and standard-size trees will be 20 feet tall or more.

When considering which trees to purchase, be sure to check the plant label. A good plant tag will tell you the hardiness of the tree (meaning the lowest temperature the tree can sustain). It’ll also give you very specific information and instructions regarding the soil, planting, light and pruning requirements for that particular tree. The variety of the apple (Rome or Golden Delicious, for example) should be on the tag, too. This is important info because different types of apples have different purposes: Some varieties are better as eating apples, some are best for pies or apple butter, and others are great for applesauce. So before you take your tree home, know how you’d like to use your apple crop. (And as always, if you have any questions about whether the tree is really right for you, ask the nursery specialist at your local garden center or your local Cooperative Extension specialists.)

Apple trees need full sun for proper growth and fruit production. The early morning sun is particularly important because it dries dew off the leaves, thereby reducing the incidence of common bacterial or fungal diseases. The best sites for apple trees are those with good air circulation and protection from late spring frosts and freezes.

Fortunately, apple trees grow well in a wide range of soil types. While they prefer those with a sandy loam texture, most soils are tolerated. However, good soil drainage is critical for the health of the tree and apple production. The ideal soil pH for apple trees is almost neutral (6.5). Planting your tree in a wide mulched bed – or at least one as wide as the tree’s drip line – helps it develop a strong root structure that doesn’t compete with other plants for moisture and nutrients.

Who needs the grocer’s produce section when you can pick yummy apples right off healthy, productive trees growing in your own back yard? With proper selection and care, your trees can flourish into beautiful landscape accents – as well as become the apple of your pie.