An important one is that you can have the opportunity to taste an apple that is not commonly available in supermarkets picked fresh from the tree and grown without the application of harmful chemicals. Also, most gardeners would agree that apple blossom is always a welcome sight in the garden, the variety ‘Arthur Turner’ was given an Award of Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society purely on account of its floral display. Provided that you are prepared to share your bountiful harvest with other creatures, apple trees will attract wildlife into your garden such as badgers, blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares to name but a few. An additional environmental bonus is that growing your own apples will certainly help to reduce ‘food miles’.
At the start of the twentieth century, it was estimated that there were over two thousand varieties of apple in Britain. As a result of breeding and chance discoveries in Britain and abroad, several hundred new varieties can be added to that list. Unfortunately supermarkets tend to stock a limited range of varieties selected for their appearance, size and storage qualities rather than flavour. We all know the disappointment of selecting a bag of delicious looking apples from the supermarket only to become disappointed with our selection after the first bite.
A little bit of research into identifying which variety or varieties will suit your needs will pay dividends. Some specialist nurseries provide excellent information on their websites. You will need to consider whether you want a cooking or an eating apple, there are also some very good dual purpose varieties such as ‘James Grieve’, ‘Blenheim Orange’ and ‘Charles Ross’. All of these varieties are commonly available from specialist nurseries.
Although hailed as the king of apples, ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ is quite difficult to grow and is rather susceptible to common diseases of apple such as scab and mildew. If you love the taste of a Cox, I suggest trying some of its near relatives such as ‘Jupiter’, ‘Ribston Pippin’ and ‘Sunset’. These varieties are much easier to grow.
Bramley’s Seedling is still an excellent cooking apple, it is reliable and heavy cropping but it does have one disadvantage- it is very vigorous and can make a large, unmanageable tree. Bramley 20 is a new introduction that has all the advantages of a Bramley but makes twenty percent less growth making it an outstanding choice for most gardeners.
If there is a local apple fair, why not go along to see and possibly taste a wide selection of apples? You will also get the chance to talk to the growers who will know what does best on your area.
You may have heard that apple trees need pollinators in order to set fruit. A pollinator is an apple tree of a different variety in flower at the same time as the other tree. Most apple varieties are adapted to reject their own pollen but will exchange their pollen with that of a different variety for their mutual benefit. In other words, both trees will pollinate each other.
As always in horticulture, there are a few exceptions. A few apple varieties are reliably ‘self-fertile’ as they do not need a pollinator, a good example being the aptly named eating variety ‘Scrumptious’. Some varieties have sterile pollen and these are the ‘triploid’ varieties which have three sets of chromosomes rather than the usual two. Although relatively few in number, triploid varieties include some very important ones such as ‘Jupiter’, ‘’Blenheim Orange’ , ‘Ribston Pippin’ and ‘Bramley’s Seedling’. A triploid variety can be pollinated by any variety with fertile pollen but it cannot return the favour and so a third tree is needed to pollinate the pollinator, resulting in a horticultural ménage a trios!
If you have only space for one apple tree, there are several options available. The first is to select a self fertile variety such as ‘Scrumptious’. The second is to buy a flowering crab apple on a dwarfing rootstock such as M27. Dwarf flowering crab apples make great pollinators for fruiting varieties and can be grown in mixed borders or as lawn specimens. The third option is to rely on apple trees in neighbouring gardens to pollinate your tree. This may sound like a risky strategy but most housing developments have a sufficient density of apple trees for it to work. If there is a tree nearby bearing fruit, the chances are that there is another tree that has pollinated it.
The next consideration is choice of rootstock. Apple trees have to be grafted onto rootstocks as they do not root easily from cuttings and varieties cannot be grown from seed. Most rootstocks restrict the vigour of the tree helping to keep it to a manageable size and promoting early cropping. The ultimate size of a tree is not just determined by the rootstock, the natural vigour of the variety has a part to play. For example, vigorous varieties such as ‘Blenheim Orange’, Bramley’s Seedling’ and ‘Laxtons’ Superb’ are best grown on a very dwarfing rootstock such as M9 or M27.
Moderately vigorous varieties such as ‘Sunset’ may be better on the semi vigorous rootstock MM106. The very vigorous rootstock M25 is generally unsuitable for most gardens and is used for traditional orchards. Trees on very dwarfing rootstocks generally need permanent staking and do not fare well on poor soils.
Most apple trees for garden use are sold as ‘bush’ trees that have a short stem. The advantage of this form is that the crown of the tree is closer to the ground making pruning and picking that much easier especially if you do not like using ladders. Half standard trees have a longer stem making a taller tree but are much easier to mow underneath. Fan trained trees can be grown against sunny walls and ‘espalier’ trees are grown along horizontal wires. Both fan trained and espalier trees need careful pruning to keep them in shape and are best suited to the expert gardener.
If buying from a specialist nursery, I recommend buying bare rooted trees in the winter. These have a couple of advantages, the first being price. It costs less to grow a tree in soil that a pot and the price for bare rooted trees reflects this. Additionally carriage costs for bare rooted trees are usually lower as they are much cheaper to transport than potted trees. The second advantage of buying bare rooted trees is that it gives you an opportunity to inspect the root system of the tree. Top quality stock from a reputable nursery will have a well balanced fibrous root system.
If your garden is visited by rabbits, an inexpensive rabbit guard is essential to protect your tree from almost instant destruction by these troublesome pests. The thin bark of an apple tree is a valued delicacy for rabbits and an unprotected tree can be killed overnight.
Staking is essential for newly planted trees and as mentioned previously, trees on very dwarfing rootstocks need permanent support. Invest in decent tree ties with a ‘spacer’ to separate the tree and stake to prevent chafing of the delicate bark. Remember that trees ties need adjustment as the girth of the tree expands to prevent ‘girdling’. A stake should be positioned on the windward side of the tree so that in strong winds, the tree is blown away from the stake to minimise chafing of the bark.
Plant bare rooted trees as soon as possible after delivery or collection from the nursery. If the soil is frozen or waterlogged, delay planting until conditions have improved. Never expose the delicate roots to frosty conditions, store the trees in a shed or garage or cover the roots with soil if they are kept outside and remember to protect the bark if rabbits are about. Plant bare rooted trees with the ‘soil mark’ on the tree just below the soil level and lightly consolidate the soil to ensure that roots and soil are in close contact. For potted trees, the top of the rootball should be just below soil level. Use a general purpose fertiliser to encourage good root and shoot growth to ensure strong establishment.
Make sure that the tree receives adequate water in the first year after planting, it is much better to give a good watering once a week rather than a daily sprinkling. It really is a worthwhile investment of time and effort to ensure your tree gets the best possible start.
The care of your apple trees including pruning and pest and disease control will be discussed in a future article.