Choose apple trees for size and pollination

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January is not too early to start to plan for a new home orchard or to consider replacements for aging fruit trees in an existing home orchard. There are several different kinds of fruit trees to consider, apple, cherry, peach, pear, and plum.

Since we are in the northern portion of Illinois, apple is likely the main fruit tree grown in back yards because it is the hardiest. For the home orchard, apples are a good starting point. Once you have got a good handle on apples, expanding out to other fruit trees will be easier.

When you shop the fruit tree catalogs or visit with your favorite retail garden center to find out what cultivars or varieties they will be carrying this spring, homeowners should consider dwarf apples as yard space can be limited. Dwarf apple trees are naturally smaller than their full-sized siblings, are much easier to train, prune, and maintain.

Apple trees are dwarf because they are naturally so or because fruit tree growers graft or bud them to a dwarfing rootstock, limiting the overall size of the tree. If they are naturally dwarf, then the apples listed will be a “spur-type” tree. There are many examples of spurs available to us – Empire, Red and Yellow Delicious, Macintosh, Rome, Winesap, and Early Blaze are a few.

It should be noted that the catalogs will list a mature size, considerably smaller than the full-sized version, yet the ultimate size of your dwarf tree is really up to you. If you start to train your trees too late or do not prune correctly, that dwarf apple tree will be much larger than you wanted or expected, yet still much smaller than a full-sized tree.

Another very important key to selecting your apple trees will be pollination. Fruit tree catalogs will suggest which apple varieties will be the best pollinators for the varieties you wish to grow. It is critical that you have two different varieties blooming at the same time for a strong fruit set. Apples are for the most part considered to be “self unfruitful,” meaning that pollen from other flowers on the same tree or from another tree of the same variety will not pollinate itself.

A possible exception to this rule is if you have an ornamental flowering crabapple in bloom at the same time, then pollen from the flowering crabapple will pollinate the apple tree. So if you live in an established subdivision and you or a neighbor has a flowering crab apple in the front or side yard or an apple tree of a different variety that blooms at the same time, you do not have to plant a second apple tree for pollination purposes, which will free up space in your backyard.

Further compounding the pollination story is that there are trees containing sterile pollen. You will get apples from that tree, yet the pollen sterile tree cannot serve as a pollinator for other apple trees. Read the tree description and pollination needs carefully before ordering. Ask plenty of questions at the garden center before making a purchase.

Want to know more about home orchard planning and maintenance? Check out this five-part blog series

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.