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Master Gardeners

Master Gardeners: Planting an apple tree

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Last January I decided to pull out the thicket of wild blackberries that took up 25% of the backyard. I had been meaning to do it for years, but every time I would get around to it, the blackberries would be full of birds' nests, so I would call it a wildlife sanctuary and forget about it for another five years.

But this year would be different. So different, in fact, that I called a professional and paid him to do the cleanup. Suddenly I could see two Cecile Brunner roses that had been buried in vines. I had so much new space I decided to plant some apple trees.

I went to a nursery and bought three different apple trees. There were so many varieties! I was confused by the choices, but I read the labels on the bare-root trees. This was a good idea as it kept me from walking off with apple trees that weren't self-pollinating.

I bought a Black Arkansas, a Fuji and a Pink Lady. (The Black Arkansas needs to be pollinated by the Fuji.) I bought the trees on a Saturday and planted them the next day so they wouldn't dry out.

When you plant an apple tree, first clear a 4-foot-square area. You don't need to plant the tree deeply, but you do need to provide a wide area so the roots can spread out and form a strong base. Resist adding amendments like compost to the soil unless your soil is pure clay. It isn't necessary and can cause the roots to become waterlogged. The soil in my planting area was fairly soft and easy to dig thanks to years of rotted blackberry leaves.

I planted my trees in mounds and am glad I did because they sank a bit as the dirt settled. You don't want the tree to stand in a pool of water. You can dig a shallow ditch around the mound, which will aid in drainage during wet months. You may put compost and mulch on top of the soil, around the tree but not touching the trunk.

Planting wasn't difficult. The challenge this year is determining how much water to give these baby trees. In hot, windy weather, a young tree needs a quarter-inch of water a day, according to the California Master Gardener Handbook. That equates to 0.156 gallons per day. A mature semi-dwarf tree will require 15.6 gallons per day. This may sound like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to what a lawn needs.

Right now I am hand watering and checking the soil moisture with a trowel, but I plan to set up a water meter for these three trees. A soaker hose is better than a sprinkler. You’ll lose less water to evaporation.

The worst part of the planting was reducing the height of each tree to 2-1/2 feet. After paying for and planting a tree, it is traumatic to practically cut it in half. However, this first pruning encourages branch formation.

As the tree grows, prune it for shape and to encourage strong branches. As it matures and produces apples, thin the apples to four to six inches apart. You will have bigger and better-tasting fruit that way.

Pruning and thinning any fruit tree can be terrifying for the amateur gardener. If you need reinforcement, visit the UC Master Gardeners of Napa County website (address below) and click on Gardening Resources. Then click on Healthy Garden Tips. You’ll find several resources on pruning fruit trees, including "Pruning Deciduous Fruit Trees--Simplified" by John Hoffman, a founding UC Master Gardener of Napa County.

I am glad I planted those trees. Later in the spring, my plum tree, rotten to the core, fell over, and a huge weeping willow snapped in half. Then the utility company pruned the camphor tree in front to keep it from touching the power lines. It's going to be "early to rise" for the next few years. The tree’s branches no longer filter the morning blast of sunlight.

I didn't expect to get any apples this year. My bare-root trees looked like little sticks, and I thought it would take a while before they produced. I was so conscientious about checking the soil I didn't pay much attention to what was going on aboveground, although I noticed leaves coming out and some pretty blossoms.

Last week I took a good look. The Pink Lady has three apples on it, and the other two look like they are going to form fruit, too. I think the pollinator garden I began about three years ago has something to do with it. I have noticed many more bees this spring compared to past years.

Workshop: Join the UC Master Gardeners of Napa County for a hands-on workshop on “Summer Rose Care” on Saturday, June 11, from 10 a.m. to noon, at Fuller Park, 560 Jefferson St., Napa. We encourage attendees to bring gloves, wear garden attire and dress for outdoor conditions. Space is limited. Register at

Food Growing Forum: Join the UC Master Gardeners of Napa County for a Zoom forum on “Dealing with a Hotter Climate” on Sunday, June 12, from 3 p.m to 4 p.m

Register to receive the Zoom link at

Guided Tree Walk: Join the UC Master Gardeners of Napa County for a free tree walk in Fuller Park in Napa on Tuesday, June 14, from 10 a.m. to noon. Space is limited to 12 people and pre-registration is required. Each attendee must register separately. Trees to Know in Napa Valley will be available for $15; cash or check only.

Cindy Watter is a UC Master Gardener of Napa County. Got garden questions? Contact the Master Gardener help desk. Submit your questions through the diagnosis form, sending any photos to or leave a detailed message at 707- 253-4143. A Master Gardener will get back to you by phone or email. For more information visit


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