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Growing Apples in the Midwest
by Chris Eirschele - October 2013

The big juicy apples we have in the crispers of our refrigerators are grown on deciduous trees. Gardeners who want to grow the domesticated orchard apple (Malus domestica) or (Malus pumila) will find many varieties that thrive in hardiness Zones 5 and 6 in the Midwest.

A successful harvest of apples from the backyard garden requires a minimum of two trees of different cultivars be planted. The apple trees produce fragrant spring blooms and in late summer through fall a bushel basket of apples.

The apple is an iconic image at Missouri’s Powell Gardens in its Heartland Harvest Garden.1

A red brick path marks the Apple Orchard at Powell Gardens where many varieties are growing that are appropriate for Zones 5 and 6.2

Fitting Apples into a Kitchen Garden

Since the development of dwarf apple trees and cultivars with narrower canopies, gardeners with small planting spaces can site an apple tree for a kitchen garden as easily as those with sweeping landscapes. A garden needs well-drained soil, a full-sun location and a pruning regime to successfully grow apple trees no matter the size of the planting bed.

A small space gardener may make wise use of vertical space by creating an espalier with dwarf cultivars, which grow up to 15 feet tall and training the tree flat against a wall or trellis by attaching the branches with ties. Small apple trees of the pole variety, such as Northpole and Golden Sentinel, not wider than 8 feet tall and wide, will fit in containers.

Orchard Apple Trees at Home in the Midwest

Apple trees are susceptible to temperature extremes, high humidity and insects and diseases in the home garden. In the Midwest, apple trees are bothered by apple scab, cedar apple rust, fire blight and powdery mildew.

Gardeners will find the best orchard apple trees by choosing a reliable cultivar for their hardiness Zone and region among the best disease-resistant choices. Orchard apple trees are made up of parts that determine how well one over another variety will successfully produce a harvest year after year.

On the tree, a scion determines the type of apple and the fruiting habit; meanwhile, it is the rootstock that determines the ultimate size of the tree and fruit-bearing abilities. All these characteristics impact the tree’s susceptibility to insects and disease and its ability to withstand winter weather.

The highly disease-resistant Malus x domestica ‘Liberty’ produces a smaller version of a ‘McIntosh’ apple.3

While apple lovers salivate over red ‘Jonathan’ and pinkish-yellow ‘Gala’ at the local grocery, these cultivars are more susceptible to fire blight in the backyard kitchen garden. The ‘Jonafree’ apple is a better disease-resistant variety and the ‘GoldRush’ apple, a descendent of the ‘Golden Delicious’, is a modern disease-resistant apple that has proven to itself against apple scab and powdery mildew.    

Powell Gardens, in Kingsville, Missouri, grows 50 disease-resistant apple trees that will thrive in the Midwest region with hardiness Zones 5 and 6. Here is a short list seen this summer:

  • Malus x domestica ‘Liberty’ apple produces a tart fruit and is resistant to four disease troubles.
  • Malus x domestica ‘Idared’ has a ‘Jonathan’ flavor, is an early bloomer, but susceptible to fire blight when the tree is young.
  • Malus ‘Teeple Red Empire’ is a sport of ‘Empire’ but produces fruit that is much redder.

    Stark UltraRed Gala is the trade name for Malus pumila ‘Obrogala’.3

    Markers are used at botanical gardens to accurately identify plants. This is Malus x domestica ‘Golden Supreme’.3

Plant Care for an Apple Tree

A reliable plant care strategy for maintaining a healthy apple tree is to keep a pruning regimen. Routine pruning will ensure a healthier tree, which will result in greater harvests over many more years. After pruning, an apple tree should have open spaces between the branches. This allows sunlight in and air to circulate throughout. Pruning starts at planting time, after the soil test has been done and proper staking and protection has been added around the base of the tree.

Fruit trees offer enduring structure to a backyard kitchen garden. The hard work to grow an apple tree will be rewarded with fresh juicy fruit to bite into and the fragrance of warm apple pies filling the home.


1. Photo by Chuck Eirschele
2. Photo by Chris Eirschele
3. Photo by Carol Reynolds


Chris Eirschele wrote the e-book, Garden Truths From My Family’s Stories, travel pieces for and publishes the blog, Her articles have appeared in Ohio Gardener, Greenhouse Grower and Milwaukee Magazine among other publications.


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