116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It used to be that most every Iowa backyard had a big, spreading apple tree. It produced many bushels of apples that were lovingly turned into endless pies, crisps, canned applesauce and dried apples.
These days, it’s hard to find the time and the space to relive those old-fashioned pleasures. As a result, over the several decades, plant breeders have worked to shrink a wide variety of apples so that you get the same delicious, full-sized fruit but on a more compact tree with more reasonable harvests that today's smaller households can easily manage.
This winter, as we browse online or flip through catalogs to decide what we’ll plant this spring, is the perfect time to find a downsized apple tree just right for your landscape to plant come spring.
Apple trees come in a variety of sizes. Standard (full-sized) apple trees can top 25 feet and spread almost as wide. Not only are standard trees quite large, but they also can take five to eight years before they bear fruit.
More manageable for most gardeners are dwarf apple trees, which grow just 8 to 10 feet tall and wide. As a bonus, dwarf trees usually start to bear fruit in just three years. Hundreds of our favorite cultivars (such as Jonathan and Cox's Orange Pippin) are available in an array of sizes, including standards, semi-dwarf and dwarf sizes.
Relatively new on the scene are columnar apple trees. These small apple trees grow just 6 to 10 or so feet tall and just a couple of feet wide. They have no horizontal branches — hence their names.
In recent years, a limited number of retailers are now offering branching apple trees even smaller than dwarfs. Sometimes called mini-dwarf or super dwarfs, they usually grow no taller than 5 to 7 feet.
Care for dwarf and columnar trees is very much like that for their larger cousins. Pruning is usually simpler since they are smaller with fewer branches. They also produce more and better fruit if you spray in late winter or very early spring with dormant oil, an organic product. Another bonus: Spraying smaller trees is far easier than larger trees.
Smaller trees do best with staking. Their root systems are less extensive and the ratio of fruit to branch and root is far higher, causing them to tip or even pull out of the ground in wet or windy weather. Tie them to a stake at least a couple of feet high with garden tape, cloth strips, or strips of old pantyhose.
With trees this small, you can plant several in your landscape and still not be overwhelmed with either their care or their harvests. Yet you'll also enjoy a bounty of apples in the varieties you like with the added satisfaction of having grown them yourself.
• Choose the right tree for your climate. Most apple trees grow well in the Cedar Rapids area, which is U.S.D.A. Zone 5.
• Do you need a second "pollinator" tree? Most apple types need a second, similar apple tree planted within 50 to 100 feet so that they can both be pollinated by bees and produce ample fruit. However, there are dozens of apple tree varieties that do not need a pollinator.
Golden Delicious almost always can be planted as a pollinator tree. Also, sometimes a crabapple can serve as a pollinator. If in doubt, check the plant label, ask garden center staff, or do some Google searching.
• Read any plant descriptions carefully. A McIntosh apple tree, for example, might be sold as a standard, semi-dwarf, or dwarf, so make sure you are choosing just the right size for you.