Growing Apple Trees for Deer Food Plots

the_wildlife_group_deer_eating_applesPart of the pleasure in planting apple trees on your property derives from luring big boys like the one in the adjacent photo into your fruit tree orchard. Another benefit is getting to grab a couple of tasty apples on the way to your stand. Combining different selections of apples in your orchards will insure that you have the best of both worlds.

Why would you combine early, mid & late season varieties in the same orchards? Early, mid and late drop apples all bloom at different times. By mixing these differ- ent selections together this insures you of having apples that overlap in bloom time, which is very important for the set of fruit. Combining different selections also increases the productiveness of the orchard by having fruit drop from early July thru December. This approach is a must for wildlife enthusiasts who are planting to increase the productiveness of their natural habitat.

Also keep in mind that Crabapples are a great source for fruit production and they do an excellent job pollinating apples.One other note on pollination is to remember that the transfer of pollen is aided by bees. I recommend planting clover in and around all orchards because of the attractiveness of the flowers to bees. Clover has many benefits other than attracting bees but that’s for another article.

Plant & Care Information

Choose a nice sunny area with full, all day sun. Morning sun is most important. This allows the foliage to dry off quickly and reduces the inci- dence of disease.

Apples require an optimum pH of 6.0- 6.5 with rich well drained soil. Apples and most crabapples cannot handle wet feet.

Remember to space your trees at 25 – 30 ft. This allows for plenty of all around sun and good air circulation.

The best time to plant in the South is fall and winter. In the North, early spring. Upon receiving your bare root trees it’s very important to keep the roots moist. Before planting, soak the roots in water for at least 30 minutes to rehydrate. If the roots look extremely dry, soak for up to one day before planting.



Click to enlarge (Rootstock photo courtesy of extension.

Begin by digging a hole twice the diameter of the root system and about one foot deep. Insert the root system into the hole and spread the roots, mak- ing sure that the grafted union is about 2–3” above ground level. The grafted union is where the scion meets the root- stock. (See attached diagram).

Apply water as you fill the hole with soil to remove all air pockets. Do not allow the grafted union to sink next to or below ground level.

Install trunk protection to help protect the trees from field mice and rab- bits girdling the bark around the base of the tree. This will also deter deer from rubbing the trunks. It may be necessary in high deer density areas to fence each tree.

Mulch a 3-4 ft. circle around each tree 2-3 inches deep to help retain moisture and suppress weeds (weed competition is one of the most limiting factors for all newly planted trees).

For container plants, remove from pot and break up root ball with your hands or a shovel. This allows the root system to spread out into the freshly dug hole. Then simply follow the steps 1thru 4.


Pruning begins the day you plant. (When purchasing bare root plants they should be pruned at the nursery before shipping). Neglect to prune results in poor growth and delayed fruiting. The best time to prune is late winter (end of Feb.). Early summer thinning is some- times required to thin inside branches or water sprouts.


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1st year– Pruning a young tree controls its shape by developing a strong, well balanced framework of scaffolding branches. Remove unwanted branches early to avoid the necessity of large cuts in later years. Remove inside crossing limbs that will block sunlight and air circulation. Heading the central leader brings the top and the roots back into balance and causes buds just below the cut to grow and form a new group of scaffolding branches. Remember to always make your cuts directly above an outward facing bud.

2nd year– Again, top the main leader to encourage another group of scaffold- ing branches. Remove all inside and crossing limbs. The use of limb spreaders is encouraged to get the desired spread of limbs (45 degree angle with main trunk). This will insure sufficient sunlight reaches the interior portion of the tree. Remember to always keep the central leader as the highest point on the tree and keep the ends of the scaffolding and primary limbs below the central leader.

Correct pruning and thinning is very important in shaping your young trees for vigorous production in later years. Yes, later years! It is very important to allow the tree to grow and mature before allowing it to fruit. Most fruit trees are capable of producing at very early ages, especially trees that have been grafted to semi dwarf rootstocks such as MM106. Although this is preferred by you it is not the best thing for the tree. Allow the tree to put on at least two years of solid growth before fully fruiting. This may involve as stated above some minor summer pruning and removing young fruit so that the tree will use all of its energy on new limb and root development.


GET YOUR SOIL TESTED! Optimum pH for Apples and Crabapples 6.0-6.5. If your soil is very deficient I believe the best choice would be to bring your pH up to 7.0 before planting. This will allow for a longer period of optimum soils. After three or four years you would then need to top dress the area again with the recommended amount of lime.


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From my own experience I have found that excess fertilization on Fruit and Nut trees causes extreme vegetative growth, reduced fruit set, reduced qual- ity of fruit and increased instances of disease such as fire blight, crown rot and powdery mildew. On the other hand, I’ve also found that a deficiency of nitrogen also causes poor growth habits and low fruit production.

Balance is the key. So what I recommend is an 8-12-12 or similar fertilizer in a slow release formula (nine month slow release preferred). Apply one even cup of fertilizer in February the first year of planting. If you see any yellowing of the leaves or poor performance, add one additional cup in May. Follow the same application the second year. In the following years, add one pound of fertilizer per inch of trunk diameter. Do not exceed three pounds even on older trees. If you are having problems with early fruit drop then omit or cut fertilizer rates to half the recommended rate.

On a final note, remember that all apples require a period of dormancy to bloom and set fruit. This period is referred to as “Chill Hours”. “Chill Hours” are the amount of time fruit trees need below 45 degrees to properly flower and set fruit. I personally know of several varieties that do well in our southern climates. Some of my favorites are Arkansas Black, Yates, Gibson Gold, Anna and Horse Apple. I would also recommend mixing Crabapples in your orchards for a greater variety and excellent pollination.

Any other questions, feel free to call or email us today!

About Allen Deese

Hey I’m Allen Deese, Sales & Nursery Manager here at The Wildlife Group. As an avid hunter and outdoorsman like you my goal is to make you successful in your wildlife management goals. Any further questions? Call me today 1-800-221-9703 or email me at