Crunching into a juicy, home-grown apple is one of life’s simpler pleasures. And when the trees are covered in spring blossom or laden with colourful autumn fruits they’re a feast for the eyes, too.
Growing apples through the year
Winter is the best time to plant bare-rooted apple trees. These are cheaper than container-grown ones and are available in a wider range of varieties from fruit nurseries. Trees grow to different heights, depending on the rootstock.
When deciding where to plant your tree, choose a site in full sun, making sure that there will be room for the branches to develop. Don’t worry if you have a small garden – trees can also be trained and pruned as fans, cordons and espaliers to be grown against a suitable wall, fences or piece of trellis.
Prepare the soil before planting with plenty of well-rotted garden compost or farmyard manure. Dig a big hole, hammer in a tree stake and position the tree. Hold the tree while you fill in around it with soil.
Check that the ‘graft point’ – a bulge on the stem where the rootstock was grafted on – sits just above soil level. Firm down the soil around the roots to get rid of any air pockets and secure the stem to the stake. Keep the tree well watered through the year.
Tending the crop
If well maintained and fed, an apple tree will mature and crop for decades.
Once a year in late winter, apply a balanced fertiliser, such as pelleted chicken manure, around the base of the tree. Encourage good flowering and fruit formation by applying sulphate of potash fertiliser. Each spring, spread a mulch of garden compost under the tree to condition the soil, hold in moisture and suppress weeds.
Summer pruning helps transform leafy shoots into fruiting ones. Prune back shoots over 20cm long to three leaves. Cut back any side shoots from these to one leaf. Thin out congested fruits to one every 10cm, removing any damaged ones. Winter prune by removing congested, crossing or badly placed stems to create an open framework that lets light and air into the middle of the tree.
Some apples start ripening in August, but most are ready in September and October. Pick apples as they ripen to avoid fruits falling and being damaged. Cup them in your hand and lift. If the apple doesn’t pull away gently, leave it for another week.
Late-cropping apples tend to keep better than early ones. Store only undamaged fruits in clear poly bags (make a few pinholes) in the fridge or in a cool, frost-free place. They should keep for some months. Check regularly and discard any with signs of damage.
Preparation and uses
Enjoy dessert apples as nature intended, or slice and add to fruit salads or serve with wedges of cheese. Use cooking apples in pies, crumbles, baked or puréed as the basis of apple sauce. You can even buy or rent an apple press to make your own apple juice.
Wrap a grease band around the trunk in autumn to catch winter moths. The grease also stops ants in their tracks – ants cultivate colonies of aphids to harvest their sweet sticky honeydew. Hang pheromone traps in the trees in May to catch codling moth.
White fluff on shoots is woolly aphid. Scrub it off, or prune out badly affected areas.
Which apple rootstock?
Named apple varieties are grown on rootstocks that control their vigour and ultimate size. So, as well as choosing a tasty apple, also select a suitable rootstock for your space. They are: M27 very dwarfing; M9 and M26 dwarfing; MM106 semi-dwarf; and MM111 vigorous.
Apple varieties to try
For good crops, grow two or more apple trees near each other that flower at similar times so they cross-pollinate.
- ‘Arthur Turner’ – an early maturing cooker with yellow skin and a lovely sharp tang
‘Benenden Early’ – a large dessert, ready from August to September
‘Bramley’s Seedling’ – the classic cooker, green with a red blush. It stores well
- ‘Egremont Russet’ – popular for its distinct flavour. Late ripening, it will keep until Christmas
‘Ellison’s Orange’ – aromatic flavour, best eaten fresh in September/October
- ‘James Grieve’ – dessert/cooker, giving heavy crops of juicy, red-flushed fruit
‘Spartan’ – crisp, delicious and juicy, with red skin and pure white fresh