Grit Blogs > Panthers Hollow

Apple Tree Care

Jennifer QuinnOne of the projects on my to-do list was to give some care to the three neglected apple trees on my new “homestead.” Last year I was so busy with other things I didn’t have time to think about them, and I guess I just assumed they’d produce apples without any help on my part. Wrong. As it turned out, they had only a handful of blossoms between the three of them, and didn’t produce any fruit that I noticed. I did see a number of large webs in them later, and someone suggested that maybe webworms were the problem, because they eat the blossoms. By that time I thought it was too late to do anything about that, but this year two of the trees are already blooming quite nicely.

During the winter I had looked up apples in my Rodale Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, and discovered that you’re supposed to thin the apples to one in each cluster; otherwise they may not produce at all the next year. I’m sure nobody did that the year I bought the place, so that could be a big part of the problem.

I also noticed that one of the trees was seriously in need of pruning – it was full of dead wood and was all a tangled mess. That tree is also leaning at a 45-degree angle and growing into one of the other trees, which I thought was bad for the health of both trees. I considered just having it cut down, but I noticed there were a lot of promising buds on it, so I opted for thinning it instead, cutting it away from the other tree as much as possible. I had quite a pile of thinnings when I was finished, which I might use in one of my hugelkultur beds at some point.

Last week I cleared some of the weeds and grass under two of the trees and hoed the soil a bit, since I thought it might need some improvement. Some of it was just red clay, so I added a little Premium Planting Mix and worked that in a bit without digging in too deeply. Then I took all my almost-finished compost (my compost never gets finished for some reason!) and put that around the trees, topping it with the just-cut weeds for another layer of mulch.

Apple trees with compost 

Apple trees mulched

I didn’t do anything with the third tree – which is smaller and not producing many blossoms – only because behind it is a pile of leftover roofing material and whatnot that I’m not able to remove right now, and I can’t maneuver around the tree.

In the late summer I thought I’d try cover cropping the trees with something – maybe buckwheat and crimson clover, which I’ve used before. I’ve also read that mustard makes a good cover crop for apple trees, though I’m not sure what kind. Some of the weeds around the trees looked like some kind of mustard, which made me wonder if I should remove them. Maybe I should encourage them instead? I have no idea what mustard does for the trees.

I’ve always been a little puzzled as to why weeds are bad for crops, while cover crops are good – even when they’re grown simultaneously. I suppose it has to do with the relative size of the weeds, the rate of growth, and what nutrients they might supply or take from the soil. But why would weeds under a fruit tree be any threat to the tree? Doesn’t the tree have a competitive advantage in terms of access to water and nutrients? I cut the weeds mainly so they could decay and add nutrients to the soil. I have so much trouble with standing water on my land I hesitate even to remove dock anymore. I figure at least it’s taking up some of the water!