You’ve given up on growing apples. While the vision of a tree heavy with fruit dances in your head, the reality is, you’ve got no place for one, nor do you have the time to deal with the harvest or even the patience to wait for it to mature.
Or do you?
Full-sized apple trees are, indeed, big, slow and prolific: They mature to 25 or 30 feet tall and spread almost as wide. And they can take 5 to 8 years to bear fruit.
But thanks to the cold-hardy, dwarfing rootstocks used in modern apple tree grafting, you can enjoy the same delicious, full-sized fruit from more compact trees. Their smaller size makes picking, pruning and pest management easier, and their relatively modest harvests are easily handled, too, even by urban gardeners. Best of all, they produce fruit in less time, often within 3 years.
Numerous homegrown favorites, such as Cox’s Orange Pippin, Jonathan and Liberty are available as semi-dwarf (12 to 15 feet tall at maturity) or dwarf trees (8 to 10 feet tall). Mini-dwarf or super dwarfs— made popular in recent years by increased consumer demand—are even smaller at maturity (5 to 7 feet tall) and come grafted with beloved grocery store varieties like Braeburn, Honeycrisp and Pink Lady.
Dwarf apple trees like this one, which has been trained to grow up a fence-like support, are easier to harvest than a mature full-size tree, which can reach up to 25 feet tall.
If you’re really tight on space, columnar apple trees are a good option, even for patio gardeners, because they have no horizontal branches. Often sold under trade names such as Colonnade, Sentinel or, new in 2013, Urban Apple, columnar varieties form their fruit along a single main trunk on tightly grouped, spur-like branches.
Because their width is no more than a couple of feet, columnar apples can be planted close together in the ground (5 feet apart is plenty) or in large pots or whiskey barrels. (In colder areas, you must provide winter protection for potted trees.)
Look for These Types
Different types of rootstocks used by various growers can affect hardiness. Check plant tags or descriptions before ordering or buying.
Cold-Hard: Honeycrisp (Zones 3 to 8) offers unbeatable flavor and crunch; Enterprise (Zones 3 to 6) and Spartan (Zones 3 to 7) offer disease resistance.
Columnar: NorthPole (Zones 4 to 9) looks and tastes similar to a McIntosh apple. Golden Sentinel (Zones 4 to 9) is comparable to Golden Delicious. Golden Treat columnar apple trees from the new Urban Apple series (Zones 4 to 9) produce sweet, yellow fruit within a year after planting.
Heat-resistant, low-chill: Anna (Zones 4 to 9), Dorsett Golden (Zones 6 to 9) and Fuji Red (Zones 4 to 8 or 9) are prized for their performance in warm winter areas.
Mini-dwarfs: Cox’s Orange Pippin (Zones 4 to 8), Honeycrisp (Zones 3 to 8), Jonagold (Zones 5 to 8) and Liberty (Zones 3 to 9) reach only 5 to 7 feet tall when grown on mini-dwarf rootstocks.
Self-pollinating: Golden Delicious (Zones 4 to 7), Grimes Golden (Zones 5 to 8), Jon-A-Red (Zones 5 to 8) and Red Rome (Zones 4 to 8) can be planted without a second variety for pollination.
Golden Treat, one type of columnar apple, produces fruit in tight clusters along a singular, slender trunk that grows to about 10 feet tall.
Do You Need a Pollinator?
To produce a bounty of fruit, most apple trees, including columnar types, need a second apple tree of a different variety planted nearby so it can be cross-pollinated by bees. Some varieties are better pollinators than others: Golden Delicious, which is compatible with most apple trees, is a popular pollinator choice.
Whatever pollinator you choose, it must bloom at roughly the same time to ensure pollination.
Some apple varieties are self-fertile (or self-pollinating), meaning they don’t need a planting companion. These trees may not be as bountiful as trees planted with a pollinator nearby, but they’ll help you save space. And if you or a nearby neighbor have a flowering crabapple, you’re in luck: Crabapples work well for cross-pollinating eating apples.
Another way to ensure adequate pollination is to plant a combo or multiple-graft tree—sometimes called a fruit salad tree. Two or three different varieties are grafted onto a single plant.
Dwarf and mini-dwarf apple trees can be grown in large pots, but they often require winter protection, especially in cold-winter zones.
Siting and Selecting
Apple trees of all types require full sun, at least 6 hours per day during the growing season. They prefer evenly moist, well-drained soils for best fruit production. Avoid wet sites, however, which are a common cause of poor apple harvests.
When choosing a tree, consider what’s appropriate for your climate. Most apple trees grow well in Zones 5 to 8. In Zones 3 to 4, choose trees listed as especially cold hardy. And in Zones 9 to 10, look for heat-tolerant, low-chill apples; they can take the heat but don’t require long dips in winter temperatures.
If you know disease is a problem in your area, seek out disease-resistant varieties, especially if you live in an area with wet summers. Finally, keep in mind that a single variety can be sold in a number of sizes. MacIntosh, for example, is available as a standard, semi-dwarf or dwarf.
Veronica Lorson Fowler is author of Gardening in Iowa (University of Iowa Press) and co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener, an e-newsletter at theiowagardener.com.
Photos: JOSH MCCULLOUGH, JERRY PAVIA, TRACY ANN WALSH, GARDEN DEBUT, MARK TURNER, SAXON HOLT