Apple Tree Growth Stages

A crisp, juicy apple is the perfect introduction to fall. If you’re already getting your apples from the farmer’s market or a local orchard, you know the difference ‘fresh-picked’ can make. But that’s nothing compared to growing apples in your own backyard!

Apples are all-around pretty easy to grow. The key to success is patience (sometimes several years of it!). Understanding the ins and outs of the apple tree life cycle could help maintain your sanity while you’re waiting for that first harvest to arrive.

In this article, I’ll dive into the main apple tree growth stages and explain some of the key differences between apples grown from seed versus those sold by plant nurseries.

Conditions for Growing Apples

Apple trees are one of the best options for cool-climate orchards. Many varieties can easily survive in USDA Zone 3 (with temperatures as low as –30°F to –40°F in the wintertime). There are even some cultivars bred to grow in Zone 2 (with temperatures as low as –50°F!).

On the other hand, apple trees often suffer in warmer zones. This isn’t just because apples dislike the heat but because they actually need a certain number of ‘chill hours’ to form flower buds and set fruit. When selecting apples for USDA Zone 6 or warmer, pay close attention to the number of chill hours each variety requires for successful fruiting.

Apple trees need at least 6 hours of direct sun per day and like rich, well-draining soil with a slightly acidic pH. Space full-sized trees at least 25 feet apart to prevent competition. Dwarf varieties can be planted as close as 8 to 10 feet apart without issues.

Strong winds can take a toll on apple trees, especially when they are still actively maturing. Apple trees should be planted in sheltered areas whenever possible. If you must plant your apples in a location with direct wind, consider planting them closer together amongst sturdier trees that will help break the wind.

Prune in early spring before the year’s growth starts. Annual pruning can improve the tree’s overall shape and address any structural issues that emerge during the first years of growth. Carefully thinning the canopy can also improve the ripening of fruit on the innermost branches.

Growing Apples From Seed

This article focuses on the natural life cycle of an apple tree — from seed germination to fruit maturation. But hardly any apples (in commercial orchards or home landscapes) are actually grown from seed. Why is that?

Apples are carefully bred to produce the highest-quality fruit possible. When apples reproduce via pollination and seed distribution, however, those fine-tuned genetics get a bit mucked up by Mother Nature. 

Sometimes, this process produces new varieties with even more delicious fruit than the parents. More often than not, though, the result is a child tree with low-quality, practically inedible fruit.

So how do plant nurseries produce countless apple trees with the same form and fruit characteristics? They use a technique called grafting.

Grafting is a form of vegetative propagation that takes a stem cutting from one tree (the ‘parent’ tree that the nursery wants to duplicate) and attaches it to a rootstock (the trunk of another tree). Apple trees used as rootstock are typically selected based on things like improved cold tolerance and disease resistance.

Growing Apples From Seed

For the home gardener, the only significant difference is that grafted apple trees never go through the seed germination stage. They start out as seedlings or saplings. The rest of the life cycle remains the same.

Apple Tree Growth Rate

Although some varieties of apple are considered fruit trees that can grow in shade, most prefer partial shade and can therefore grow quite fast! Young apple trees can grow up to 18 inches in height each year. Lateral (horizontal) growth can be up to 12 inches per year. 

Common factors affecting growth rate include the environment, cultivar, and overall health. According to the University of Minnesota, whether or not a tree is of fruit-bearing age also plays a major role. A fruit-bearing tree will only grow about 12 inches per year as it directs energy to flowering and producing fruit.

Growth Stages of Apple Trees

The average apple tree has a lot of growing to do before it’s ready to flower and produce any fruit. It can take about 5 to 6 years for a standard tree to mature and set fruit for the first time. Dwarf varieties tend to be faster-growing and can fruit within just 2 to 3 years.

When planting an apple tree from a nursery sapling, it can be tempting to get the largest tree possible in the hopes of faster growth. However, I’ve seen anecdotal evidence that smaller saplings are better (and may produce sooner) because they’re better able to adapt to transplanting. Just some food for thought!

Now, let’s look at the different growth stages an apple tree goes through and the visual markers that tell us everything is progressing as it should:

1. Seed Germination

Many an apple seed has germinated as part of a child’s science experiment. While these seeds are rarely allowed to grow into mature trees, it’s important to know what goes into the germination process and initial sprouting.

Apple seeds are dormant until they go through a process called stratification. This dormancy helps the seeds preserve valuable energy while they wait for the perfect time to germinate.

In nature, stratification occurs when the seeds are exposed to the cool, damp conditions of winter and early spring. You can replicate these conditions by wrapping apple seeds in a damp paper towel and placing the whole thing in a refrigerator. In either setting, germination can take anywhere from 30 to 90 days.

Your first visible hint that germination has occurred will be the emergence of a primary root called the radicle. Next, the tree’s very first leaves will emerge from the seed and — if the seed is planted in soil — begin growing toward the surface.

2. Seedlings and Saplings

The first several years of an apple tree’s life are spent in the seedling and sapling phases. Seedlings are very young trees with trunks less than 1 inch in diameter. Saplings are adolescent trees with trunks between 1 and 5 inches in diameter.

While seedlings initially have soft, green stems, the outer layer of tissue will gradually turn woody as the trees mature. Just keep in mind that this tissue is much more delicate than the bark of an adult apple tree.

3. Root and Limb Development

An apple tree’s second, third, and fourth years are primarily devoted to healthy root and limb development. 

While you won’t be able to see the roots growing under the soil’s surface, they’re a vital part of the tree’s life cycle. Without an expansive root system, the apple tree is even more vulnerable to stressors like extreme weather and drought.

Limb development is a bit more obvious. Existing limbs will grow taller and wider and produce countless offshoots. You may even see some early flowering during this stage, though proper fruiting is unlikely.

4. Flowering and Pollination

Apple tree blossoms are extremely attractive and sweetly scented. In fact, many varieties of apple trees are grown purely for their ornamental value.

Most apples bloom in the spring approximately 3 to 4 weeks after new vegetative growth appears. The peak flowering period lasts about 10 days. Honeybees and other pollinators love apple flowers, so pollination can begin almost as soon as the flowers open.

Flowering and Pollination

It’s very important to note that apple trees are not self-fertile. A tree needs pollen from a separate tree in order to produce fruit. This second tree doesn’t need to be of the same variety — according to Purdue University, many orchards use crab apple trees to supply pollen for their edible apples.

5. Fruit Set

Fruit set occurs about 10 days after the flowers begin to fade. The number of days from bloom to harvest varies from one type of apple tree to another. Most varieties require an average of 160 days to mature and ripen.

As the fruit matures, you may notice that some apples are malformed or unusually small. This is usually the result of inadequate pollination. Each apple blossom contains 10 ovules and each must be pollinated to form the ideal apple. According to Michigan State University, flowers containing at least 6 or 7 pollinated ovules are generally acceptable.

When to Harvest Apples

From Golden Delicious to MacIntosh, no two apple cultivars are alike. So determining ripeness based on appearance alone isn’t super reliable. Instead, you should use a combination of factors to help decide the right time to pick your apples.

I recommend keeping track of the types of apples in your home orchard. Knowing which trees are classified as early-season (summer) versus mid- or late-season (fall) varieties can be a huge help come harvest time. 

A ripe apple will drop off the branch with a gentle twist. Apples that must be pulled, yanked, or ‘snapped’ from the branch aren’t ready to pick quite yet.

Once you know the average time of fruit maturation for your trees, you can start watching for changes in the fruit’s appearance. Visual cues that may indicate ripeness include:

  • Skin color — Ripe apples vary wildly in color but this can still be a worthwhile indicator if you know what type of apples you’re growing.
  • Ground colour — The skin around the stem-end indent is often a different colour than the rest of the fruit. A yellow (versus green) ground colour signals ripeness.

Another great way to monitor progress is by gently pressing into the skin with your fingers. Ripe apples have a very slight give to them. Ultra-firm or mushy apples are under- or overripe, respectively.

If all else fails, pick one of the apples and take a bite. Unripe apples haven’t had the chance to convert their starches to sugars and will have subpar flavor. Ripe apples are crisp and sweet.

By the way, apples are a climacteric fruit — they continue ripening even after being picked. The key thing to keep in mind is that this won’t affect the overall flavor of the fruit, just the texture. You want your apples to be nice and sweet at the time of harvest!

For more growing tips and advice, here’s a link to Prickly Pear Cactus Growth Stages that you may enjoy reading.

FAQ Apple Tree Plant Stages

How quickly do apple trees grow?

Young, healthy apple trees can grow up to 18 inches per year! Despite this rapid growth rate, it still takes 5 years or more for a young tree to bear fruit for the first time. For the fastest fruit, start with a large nursery sapling.

What month are apples ready to harvest?

While apples are most often associated with the autumn months, the harvesting season can actually last from July to November depending on the local climate and the type of apples being grown.

Citations

fc0f28385ebd56da36c2bbe134f43736?s=150&d=mp&r=g
 | Website

Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.