How to Care for Apple Trees & Other Varieties
Apple Trees: Care for Your Trees by Feeding Them
By Elizabeth Crow Miller – If you’re wondering how to care for apple trees then you should first consider that trees should be fed just like your vegetable-producing and ornamental plants, and fall/early winter is the time to do this. It doesn’t matter what kind of trees you have—nut, fruit-bearing, evergreen or deciduous ornamentals—get out your soil amendments. These can include cottonseed meal fertilizer, granite dust, kelp meal, fish meal, bone meal fertilizer, compost, or rock phosphate, or even learn how to make organic fertilizer. Or buy a balanced blended organic fertilizer like 4-6-4, 3-8-3, or 7-7-7, and start feeding your trees.
Now, some people bring up the argument that most trees appear to do very well in the forest, although they obviously are not fed by anyone. Trees growing in your landscape are growing in an artificial environment, and it’s up to you to make them feel at home by creating the conditions which they have been used to for thousands of years. There’s no turf or grass on the forest floor; it’s rich in decayed leaves and organic litter. But you’ve probably got a healthy, vigorous lawn over your tree’s root system to rob them of the water and soil nutrients they need. And, like a good organic gardener, you probably haul away their leaves to the compost pile, or you spread them around your smaller plants.
That’s what your trees are up against, loss of the growing conditions they require in order to flourish in a healthy state, plus competition from plants that normally do not grow in the forest. But, admittedly, trees and turf look good together on your home grounds, so it’s up to you to keep them both happy and well, by giving them what they need.
It’s mainly a matter of placing the organic fertilizers where the roots can reach and absorb them. Since a tree’s root system can’t reach out for nutrients quickly and efficiently like a vegetable or flowering plant, you’ve got to help the tree. This is crucial to how to care for apple trees.
Nutrients are absorbed by smallest roots. The feeding roots usually occupy the outer band of a circular area whose circumference lies just beyond the spread of the outermost branches. The width of this band is equal to about 2/3 of the radius of the circle. With most trees, few feeding roots lie within the center 1/3 of the circle. A rule-of-thumb method for determining the region in which most of the roots occur is to follow the radial spread of the roots in feet, equal to the diameter of the tree (one-foot above the soil) in inches.
For example, a tree whose diameter one foot above the ground is nine inches will have most of its roots within a nine-foot radius and its feeding roots in the outer six-foot-wide band.
My method of feeding a tree calls for making holes in the sod and then placing the organic fertilizer in the holes 18 inches down, close to the tree’s feeder roots.
I believe that broadcasting fertilizer to trees, except the shallow-rooted evergreens, is a waste of time, money and not how to care for apple trees. It’s a fine way to grow grass, weeds, and unwanted tree seedlings. By thickening the turf, surface fertilizing also tends to lessen the tree roots water and air supply. The usual professional method of tree feeding is to thrust food down to where the roots run, or even lower to attract roots downward and improve their grip on the ground.
I punch 18-inch holes into the soil under the drip line, spacing them at two-foot intervals, and working with a three-foot pipe or crow bar. When the tree is large, a series of holes is tapped and filled with such organic nutrients such as rock phosphate, or fish and kelp meal, and then plugged with compost. This method may sound strenuous, but it will bring the kind of results you want.
By now, it should be pretty obvious that you owe it to your trees to feed them the right way. I think the deep-root-feeding program is the best. It’s up to you to create growing conditions around your trees that are similar to those prevailing in the forest.
Besides fall/early winter root feeding, you should be foliar spraying at three-week intervals with micro-nutrients (fish/seaweed mix) throughout the growing season.
Mulching with straw, pine needles or leaves is also a recommended fall practice, particularly with evergreens. Such mulches prevent wide fluctuation in soil temperature and help the soil hold moisture. The mulch can be left on all winter, and then worked into the soil in the spring.
Originally published in 2004 and regularly vetted for accuracy.