How to Plant and Maintain Apple Trees for Deer

By Brodie SwisherFebruary 24, 2021

It is no secret that apple trees can be a gold mine for locating and hunting whitetails, however if not properly planted and maintained you will not see the desired production results out of your trees. I’ve had the pleasure of living next to a family owned and operated orchard all my life, and for the past eight years, I’ve worked for the orchard, learning loads of information regarding the agriculture style that is fruit growing and maintenance. 

When I think about the basics of planting and maintaining apple trees for wildlife, I would break it down into three main categories. First would be tree selection, as in
what type of tree you should plant. Next would be proper planting technique, including when, where, and how deep to plant your trees. 

Finally, the maintenance of your trees, pruning techniques, as well as treatments against diseases or pests. For those starting from scratch, the first step is the selection of the tree. 

Knowing how to plant and maintain apple trees on the property you hunt can be a great benefit to the local deer herd.

Tree Selection

If you’ve ever been to an orchard in the fall, you know that there seems to be an infinite variety of apples, and everybody has their personal favorite. 

When it comes to choosing what variety of apple tree you want to plant, you don’t need to be concerned about what the deer prefer, because they really don’t have a preference. It is a good idea, however, to look at varieties that are naturally resistant to diseases and pests. Some varieties include Liberty, Gold Rush and Pristine. What you do need to do is make sure you get a quality tree to plant. The tree is not going to be of any use if it can’t survive on its own. 

A nursery would be the best place to find a quality tree, however the price for a tree is likely to be higher and you may be required to place an order for more than one tree. Places like Home Depot, Lowes and Tractor Supply are also options. They sell single trees for a fair price, however I have found that they are of lesser quality and there is a higher risk of the trees not taking. 

If you have the ability to pick the trees yourself, look for older trees, ones with larger diameter trunks because there is a better chance that the roots of those trees will have an easier time taking once planted due to their maturity. Once you have your trees selected, you are ready to get them to the property and begin the planting process.

Tree selection is more involved than a quick stop at your local garden center or hardware store.

Planting

When you think of what it takes to plant an apple tree, your mind automatically goes to dig a hole and put it in the ground. That’s the blunt way of putting it, but I am going to give you some insight so that your tree has the best chance of survival after planting. 

There are three areas I focus on when planting new trees. When to plant them, where to plant them, and what am I going to need to plant them. When to plant your apple trees can be subjective to where you are located in the country, but a general practice is planting in the spring or fall, when the soil is easy to work with and there is ample moisture in the ground. 

If you have no choice but to plant them in the dead heat of summer, my advice is try and find a place that holds more moisture and or have some sort of irrigation available. Without readily available water, a freshly planted tree will die, no question. 

Location of planting is the next area of focus, and in my opinion the
most important of the planting process. When looking for a location to plant your tree, you want to find an area that is relatively flat, because this decreases the chance for water runoff and erosion, giving your trees a better chance to absorb the available moisture. 

Another key for planting location is the availability of moisture in the soil. Obviously you do not want to plant your tree where it is bone dry year round, and on the flip side you do not want to plant your trees where it is extremely saturated with water all year round. Both scenarios make it very hard for the trees to take root and survive, so you want something in between. 

An easy test for this is to go out on a day where it has not rained for a few days, take a shovelful of ground where you want to plant and observe it. If the soil is very dry and crumbles to dust in your hand, it is most likely too dry. On the other hand, if your shovelful is dripping water and smells like decaying plant life it is most likely far too wet. You want something that holds together and is cool to the touch, this will provide ample moisture for your trees to be able to establish a strong root system.

It's important to lay a quality foundation for the root system you're putting into the ground.

The final key in planting location is available sunlight. Apple trees need as much sunlight as possible, because it is one of the driving factors in fruit production. Areas deep in hardwoods or a thicket are not ideal places for these trees to be planted. Instead, look for places like old pastures, clearings in the woods and even CRP fields. 

Wherever there is ample sunlight and good soil, you have the ability for an apple tree to grow and produce fruit. 

Now that you’ve found your perfect location to plant your trees, how do you plant them? All you need is a shovel or a post hole digger. 

Dig a hole wide enough for the trunk of your tree and its roots to fit and deep enough to where the grafting site (the area of the tree where it was fused together, noticeable as a nob or ball shape on the trunk of the tree) of your tree is about a fist height above the ground, so roughly 3-5 inches. 

Here's a look at proper planting depth.

Once your tree is in the ground at the proper depth you can begin filling in the hole with soil, until there is a slight mound around the base of the tree. When you have reached this stage the next step is to press down the area around the base of the tree to get rid of any air pockets in the soil. When complete, the soil around the base of the tree should be level with the rest of the ground (take or add soil as needed). 

If you have multiple trees to plant, you may be wondering about spacing. You can plant the trees as far apart as you want, but with anything closer than about eight feet, you start running into issues where the root systems of the trees will be in constant competition with each other. While this can increase fruit production for all trees for a few years, it also puts constant stress on the trees. They have to fight for water and nutrients, which shortens their life span.

Have you properly spaced the trees on your property?

Maintenance

So, your trees are planted – time to kick back and reap the rewards from your time and money well spent, right? Not a chance! There is always work to be done to make sure your trees are producing at their highest capacity. If you ever walk through an abandoned apple orchard you may notice the trees are not producing a lot of fruit, if any at all. I guarantee one major factor for this is lack of maintenance. 

 We have many maintenance practices in the orchard, but for the average hunter or personal fruit grower there are two areas of maintenance I would focus on; pruning and spraying. When it comes to pruning, there is one very important form I’d recommend, and that is known as suckering.

Before pruning and maintenance.
After the pruning process.

Suckering is more commonly used on older trees. Those trees that are just planted will not need to be suckered for a few seasons. Suckers are branches that grow vertically off the tree and don’t produce any fruit buds at all. This is a problem because what they will produce are leaves, and the leaves will block out the sunlight from reaching the fruit buds. This makes it very challenging for the fruit to grow. 

It is important when removing suckers to cut them as flush as possible to the branch they are coming from to deter the growth of more in later years. Suckering is easiest to do in the winter because the sucker branches stand out more from the normal fruiting branches. 

The tools you’ll need are a good sharp pair of loppers with a file handy so you can sharpen as needed. For the younger trees there is not much in terms of pruning that will need to take place, other than making sure the tree has one main leader or trunk.

How you trim a tree is important.
After making the cuts.

If you do make these cuts, or any cut of a branch that comes from the main trunk of the tree, make sure the wound of the cut is facing toward the sky and that you don’t damage the trunk of the tree itself because this will leave the tree vulnerable to disease and rot, ultimately leading to the death of the tree. 

Young trees will also require training of the branches. It is important for young trees to have the proper shape to optimize fruit production. Training tree branches is fairly easy, but you have to make sure not to damage the branches in the process. 

To train branches you will want to tie a piece of light rope or twine to the branch about 8 to 10 inches out. Then run that rope toward the ground and tie it to a stake, pulling the branch downward to a more horizontal position. You want a taut line, but again be careful that there is not so much pressure where the branch will break. 

This process should be done in the spring and only last for about 6 to 8 months. In that time, those branches will stiffen up and keep growing in that direction. What this method is going to do is train the trees to grow more laterally than straight up making the chance for fruit production much better. 

Another important area of tree maintenance is the spraying of the trees. This is something that does not have to be done in order to grow fruit, but without it, the trees are likely to develop sickness or insect damage. There are several common sicknesses that can affect your trees such as cedar rust, apple scab and collar rot. 

Most orchard sprays sold at garden centers or places like Tractor Supply will be able to treat most of those issues. The application of the spray is dependent on what exactly is in it, so be sure to follow the directions closely. 

Also try to avoid sprays with fruit thinners in them because it can cause the loss of fruit and fruit buds. One bonus piece of advice I will give is about fertilizing trees. If you wish to apply fertilizer, the preferred measure is 10-6-4 and to add half a pound per the tree’s age. So a one year old tree would receive .5 pounds of fertilizer and 1 pound at 2 years old. 

These maintenance steps should be performed yearly as needed. Before you know it, you will have a thriving apple tree.

Conclusion

I want to put a quick note in here about protecting your apple trees from the deer at a young age. Deer can destroy a young apple tree in a matter of seconds, whether it’s from normal browsing pressure or even bucks making rubs on the young trees. There are many methods of keeping deer away without using a physical barrier; everything from hanging Irish Spring soap to
leaving a radio on all night around the  trees. 

The only true way to keep the deer off the trees until they are mature enough is a physical barrier. At the orchard we have a 12 foot perimeter deer fence that works well but a perimeter chicken wire cage around each tree should work fine. Make sure your barrier, whatever it is, is solid and won’t be taken down when the deer challenge it – because they will.

The work is hard and tedious at times, but the rewards of planting apple trees on the properties you hunt can last for years to come.

Brodie Swisher
Brodie Swisher is a world champion game caller, outdoor writer, seminar speaker and Editor for Bowhunting.com. Brodie and his family live in the Kentucky Lake area of west Tennessee.
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