How to grow Apples
Apples Growing Guide
Plant a tree this autumn to enjoy a lifetime of Britain’s most popular orchard fruit, says expert Anthony Bennett.
How to grow Apples
Sweet, crisp and juicy – it’s hard to beat the satisfaction you get from biting into a good old apple. In time past, you needed an orchard to grow this tasty stalwart, but the development of size-restricting rootstocks and clever training techniques mean that anyone can grow them and enjoy a hefty bushel of apples. You can even try growing apple trees in pots high up on a balcony!
Most dwarfing rootstocks will keep trees to a tidy 1.5m or less, while the most vigorous will enable them to reach their full potential, with an ultimate height of up to 25m, and a considerable yield of fruit each yearly growing season once they are established. It’s not worth growing apples from seed when there are so many excellent rootstocks to choose from. In fact, growing apple trees from seed will take 6-10 years, until they are mature enough to fruit.
Apples have a rich heritage stretching back literally thousands of years. Even the hundreds of varieties commonly available in this country are merely a taste of the true number. Many were borne of a particular region, but the trees thrive in most parts of Britain. Most apples for domestic gardens can be grouped into either dessert or cooking types, while some are suitable for both uses.
In most cases, you will need more than one apple tree to ensure pollination takes place, as the majority of varieties are not self-fertile. Individual varieties are placed in a ‘flowering group’ which determines their suitability as a pollination partner. Luckily, many nurseries stock plants with more than one variety grafted onto them for use on smaller plots.
These handy ‘family trees’ have two benefits: they guarantee reliable cross-pollination and an extended cropping period. With varieties fruiting as early as August, and stored apples lasting as late as April, there will be more than enough for your apple-a-day. If you’re wondering how long an apple tree takes to grow, bear in mind that the pruning requirements and growth rates of individual varieties are different, even when grafted onto the same tree.
Apple Tree Pollination Groups
Most apple trees need a pollinating partner to promote fruit set, although a handful such as ‘James Grieve’ are capable of self-pollination. In many urban areas, you should be able to rely on trees in neighbouring gardens to ensure successful pollination, as bees can travel a good distance.
Trees that will pollinate one another need to flower at the same time, so that pollen from one apple variety can reach the flower of another. Different varieties bloom at different times, and it doesn’t necessarily follow that a late-cropping apple will flower later in the year – these factors are independent of each other.
Each variety belongs to a specific pollination group – generally A, B or C – depending on its flowering period. Those apple trees in group A are the earliest to bloom, while group C is the latest. It is essential when choosing varieties that they are picked from the same pollination group so that flowering coincides.
The majority of fruit trees only need one suitable pollinator to produce a crop – these are called diploids, and they have two sets of chromosomes in each cell. A small number of apple varieties, such as ‘Bramley’s Seedling’, are triploids. They have three sets of genes and are poor pollinators. To ensure a harvest, you will need two suitable diploids to pollinate both the triploid, and one another.
Apple Tree Rootstocks
Apple trees are rarely grown on their own roots – they’re grafted onto the lower section of another plant to control the vigour and hence the final height of a tree. Of all the factors that will affect the ultimate size of your tree, it is its rootstock that has the main influence.
The rootstock is simply the lower part of the tree, incorporating the bottom part of the trunk and the roots. Onto the rootstock is grafted the scion, which is the variety of apple tree you will be choosing.
The main apple rootstocks used in Britain and elsewhere were developed last century and have the prefix ‘M’ or ‘MM’. M27 is the most dwarfing type, restricting trees to 1-1.5m, or 3-5 feet tall. Next is the M9 rootstock, achieving a height of about 1.6-2m, then the semi-dwarfing M26 at 2.5m.
If you want to try growing apple trees in pots, opt for highly dwarfing rootstocks. These can be grown on the smallest of plots and in containers. More vigorous rootstocks are only suitable for larger gardens where there is plenty of room.
How to Grow an Apple Tree
Apples will grow in most conditions, but bear in mind that trees will be fruiting for a considerable number of years. Give them the best possible start by picking a reasonably sunny and sheltered spot that is clear of any frost pockets (late frosts may damage the blooms of early-flowering varieties).
Avoid direct exposure to salt-laden winds if you live on the coast. The soil should be free-draining and definitely not waterlogged or too shallow. Aside from these simple demands, apples will grow in most soils, as long as they’re not excessively alkaline or acidic.
Prepare the soil well in advance, and at least a month before planting, by digging it over and adding plenty of well-rotted manure or garden compost to the planting site. The ground should then have enough time to settle down before the apple tree is moved to its final growing position.
Aim to prepare an area of soil that’s at least a metre in diameter and 60cm deep, as this will give your apple tree plenty of well-prepared root space. If you want to plant freestanding apples in a lawn, then prepare the ground as described, but add an extra boost of nutrition by working in a few handfuls of bone meal at the same time.
Planting an Apple Tree
Apple trees will either be supplied bare-rooted in their dormant state, or as container-grown specimens. Container trees may be planted at any time of the year, but bare-rooted types, while considerably cheaper, must be planted while the tree remains in its winter state, usually from October through to March.
Late autumn provides the optimal time to get them in the ground. Order your fruit early – September is the perfect month to do so, as you’ll be getting first dibs on the fullest selection of apple varieties. Opt for a two- or three-year-old apple tree, as these will already be partly trained.
Planting in the open ground involves digging a hole into the prepared soil that is large enough to accommodate the roots, then simply positioning your apple tree, back-filling with soil, and firming it in to make sure that the earth is in complete contact with all the roots, and that there are no air pockets which might cause the apple tree to rock in the wind.
There are a number of other considerations, too. Firstly, do not add any extra fertiliser at this stage, as you will only encourage soft growth at the expense of apple fruit production.
Secondly, make sure that the union between the apple rootstock and scion – which can be identified from the distinct bulge in the stem – sits about 10cm clear of the ground. Taking care to match the new soil level with the level the apple tree was buried in when inside its nursery pot, or to the soil mark on its stem, will be a foolproof way of doing this.
Most apple trees, and all varieties on a dwarfing rootstock (such as M27, M9, M26), will need support. Before planting your apple tree, drive a 5cm-diameter stake into the bottom of your planting hole so that it sits at least 30cm beneath its base. Place it at a 45-degree angle so that it faces the oncoming prevailing wind, and site it about 7cm from the stem of the apple tree.
After back-filling your planting hole and firming the earth in, loosely connect a tree tie 10cm from the top of the stake to the stem of your apple tree. Tighten it up after a few weeks once the tree has settled in. As the apple tree grows and its stem thickens, you will need to periodically loosen the tie to stop it from cutting into the bark.
Ways of Growing Apple Trees
There are a number of ways to grow your apple trees, such as: growing apples on a trellis; using wall-trained espaliers with parallel horizontal branches; single-stem cordons against wire supports; fans trained to fill a wall or fence; free-standing as a simple dwarf pyramid shape or as a more rounded bush tree.
This section explains how to prune free-standing apple trees to create a space-saving dwarf pyramid. If you can only plant in containers, or are looking for an even simpler alternative, then try the compact columnar shape of minarette apple trees, which can be planted in the ground as close as 60cm apart. These have a vertical stem with multiple short, fruit-bearing spurs, and will require minimal pruning. They are also available with more than one variety grafted onto the plant’s rootstock.
Pruning Free-standing Apple Trees
Dwarf pyramid apple trees will require pruning immediately after planting to encourage a good, even ‘Christmas-tree’ shape. Ask your fruit supplier for a ‘feathered maiden’ apple tree, as this lends itself well to the formation of a pyramid.
The central leader (the main stem of the apple tree) will need to be cut back to leave 25cm of growth. Make the cut just above a bud that is pointing in an upward direction. The other branches should then be pruned to 20cm in length – make the cut just above buds that are facing outwards and upwards.
The next apple pruning takes place in late summer when the bottom third of each new shoot has turned woody and the leaves have taken on a dark green colour, indicating maturity. The summer apple pruning process uses the ‘modified Lorette system’, which sees pruning only of shoots that are longer than 20cm.
Begin by cutting back side shoots emerging from new apple tree growth to just three leaves above the cluster of leaves closest to the stem (these are known as the ‘basal cluster’). Side shoots emerging from older wood that has not been produced in the current year should be cut back to one leaf above the basal cluster.
New shoots emerging after this summer apple pruning should be cut back to one bud in September. As well as completing this modified Lorette system of pruning, in this first summer’s apple pruning you should reduce the length of the main branches, other than the central leader, to six leaves above each branch’s basal cluster.
Subsequent winter apple pruning sees the central leader cut back to leave 25cm of last season’s growth to maintain its size, followed in the summer by the modified Lorette system of pruning.
Growing Apples month-by-month
Continue to check on your apple store. Bareroot trees can be planted in frost-free weather so long as the ground isn't excessively wet. Remember to stake them securely.
A quiet month for the apple grower but the last real chance to finish pruning your trees and planting new introductions.
Top-dress trees with general purpose fertiliser then add a 3-5cm layer of organic mulch material such as compost or well-rotted manure.
Keep an eye on trees as they blossom. In severe cold spells place horticultural fleece over container-grown and smaller trees at night to protect the flowers.
Fruitlets should be set by now and will begin swelling. Keep young and container-grown trees well watered.
Thin fruits this month so that trees are not overburdened. Remove the 'king fruit' and then thin as appropriate to achieve a balance of good-sized fruits.
Keep watering trees in dry weather. Towards the end of the month begin summer pruning if the season's new growth is sufficiently mature.
Finish summer pruning this month and begin to harvest the earliest apples. These will not store well, so eat immediately.
Order in new apple trees as the selection available will be the biggest this month. Harvest apples from established trees and enjoy them fresh.
Many later-maturing varieties of apple will be ready this month. Pick them as and when they ripen, and wrap blemish-free fruits in newspaper for winter storage.
The best month for planting new apple trees. Make sure the ground has been well prepared at least a month beforehand.
Winter-prune apple trees to encourage a good, open shape that will lead to a healthy plant. Check on stored apples regularly and remove any showing signs of rotting.
Caring for your Apples plants + problems
Apple trees will need watering in dry spells, particularly when they are young trees trying to establish, and as their fruits begin to swell. Older and larger trees will be better able to cope with drought, but apples in containers will always require a steady supply of water.
It’s worth applying a mulch of manure or compost in early spring to help retain moisture and suppress weeds. This will also rot down to add valuable nutrients to the soil. Before applying the mulch, sprinkle some general-purpose fertiliser over the ground to cover an area slightly larger than the diameter of the apple tree’s crown, which will roughly mirror the spread of the tree’s roots.
Left to their own devices, apples will form lots of fruits one year, and fewer the next in a natural cycle of plenty then famine. Leave all fruits to grow on, and you also run the risk of lots of small apples forming. Young fruitlets naturally fall away in early summer during the ‘June drop’, but extra thinning can help.
Begin by removing the central ‘king apple’ at the centre of each cluster of fruits, as this rarely forms a pleasing shape. Then thin the remaining fruits to leave 10-12cm between apples of dessert varieties, and 15-25cm between larger cooking varieties. Smaller apple trees such as minarettes and dwarf pyramids won’t need much thinning, so only remove fruits if it looks like you’ll otherwise have an excessively heavy crop.
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How to harvest Apples
There’s a simple, fail-safe technique for testing when your apples are ready for picking: cup an apple in the palm of your hand and gently lift it upwards while twisting at the same time. If the apple comes away readily from the spur, then it is ready to pick. Never pull an apple vigorously from a tree, as this could cause damage. If you do harm any, eat them within a few days, as they won’t keep successfully.
The earliest varieties of apple should be eaten fresh rather than kept over long periods of time. Late varieties that are specifically described as suitable for storage must be prepared before they are packed away. Wrap each apple in old newspaper and store the fruits in open trays. The newspaper will keep them dry and prevent the apples from touching and spreading disease.
Always handle your apples with extreme care so as not to bruise them. Your apple store should be cool but frost-free, with minimal temperature fluctuations and devoid of strong-smelling paints or other industrial liquids that could taint the apples’ flavour. Garages, cellars or an unheated spare room make ideal storage spots.
Check over stored apples weekly to inspect them for any signs of rotting or brown patches and remove these immediately as problems can spread rapidly between fruit kept in storage. Some of the best keeping varieties can be stored right through to April.
Varieties of Apples
Apples varieties to try
One of the most flavoursome of the early-fruiting apples, ‘Discovery’ is a beautiful red apple, with a firm yet juicy texture. Pollination group B.
'Cox's Orange Pippin'
This apple can be a little susceptible to disease, but is worth growing for its beautiful orange colouration and fine flavour. Pick in early autumn. Pollination group B.
A reliable and flexible variety that can be eaten fresh off the tree or used as a cooking apple from early autumn. Pollination group B.
Picked in early autumn, ‘Worcester Pearmain’ is a steady cropper that forms red apples with a strawberry aroma. Pollination group B.
It may look a little unusual with its rough skin and rust colour, but it has a beguiling combination of honey and nut flavours. A delicious dessert apple. Pollination group A.
If you want an apple that will store until spring, pick this one. The fruits have a green-yellow colour with red flushing and a good flavour. Pollination group B.
With its sweet, complex flavour and strong disease resistance, it’s no wonder this early autumn apple is so popular. Pollination group B.
The original and best cooking apple. It will need two pollination partners to fruit. Fruits can store until early spring. Pollination group B.
'Reverend W Wilks'
Large fruits form on a compact tree. The cooking apples reduce down to a pleasing purée. It displays good disease resistance. Pollination group A.
One of the earliest cooking varieties, ready from the beginning of August. It has a pale green colour and a sharp flavour. This apple copes well in cooler conditions. Pollination group B.