Apples are probably the easiest and most popular tree fruit to grow, offering delicious harvests for decades. Eating a crisp juicy apple straight from your own tree is a treat to be savoured. There are many varieties, each with their own unique flavour, and trees come in a range of sizes, for even the smallest garden. So whether you’re lucky enough to already have an apple tree, or would like to plant one, here is everything you need to know to enjoy delicious home-grown apples for years to come.
There are thousands of apple varieties to choose from, to suit every taste
Planting a new apple tree is very straightforward, and there are choices to suit all sizes of garden. You can grow a free-standing tree in a lawn or other open, sunny site, or, if space is limited, choose a more compact trained tree, such as a cordon, against a sunny wall, or even a dwarf tree in a container.
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Flowering time is also important, as you need another tree of a different variety nearby, which blossoms at the same time, to ensure successful pollination and a good crop. Alternatively choose a self-fertile variety that will set fruit on its own.
More than 60 apple varieties have an RHS Award of Garden Merit, which shows they performed well in RHS trials, so are reliable choices. See our list of AGM apples.
What and where to buy
Apple trees are a long-term investment, so always buy from a reputable fruit nursery or garden centre. They are sold as young trees ready for planting in two forms: bare-root or in a pot. Bare-root trees are only available from late autumn to early spring, while dormant, for immediate planting, and are generally cheaper than trees in pots. Containerised trees are available all year round and can be planted at any time, but winter is preferable.
If you want to grow a trained tree, decide if you want to train it yourself from scratch starting with a young tree or buy a (more expensive) partly trained tree.
Cooking — early season
Choose a planting site with fertile soil that drains freely and doesn’t become waterlogged. Apple trees like full sun and a warm sheltered site that isn’t prone to late frosts, which can damage the flowers. They’re usually either grown in an open site, such as in a lawn, or trained against a wall or fence. Trees grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock can also be grown in a large pot – see Planting in a container, below.
The best time to plant is while the tree is dormant, from autumn to spring. Plants in containers can be planted at other times, but may not settle in as readily. Avoid planting in hot, dry weather.
Prepare your tree for planting by giving it a good watering if it’s in a container or by standing it in a bucket of water for half an hour if it’s a bare-root tree.
If planting into a lawn, remove a circle of grass at least 1m (3ft) in diameter, so the tree’s roots don’t have to compete with the grass for rainwater and nutrients while they get established. Make sure your tree has plenty of space around it for its ultimate spread of branches – check the plant label for details.
Planting against a wall or fence
Apples grow well trained as cordons, espaliers or fans against walls and fences. The soil at the base of walls is often poor and dry, so dig lots of well-rotted manure or garden compost into the whole area before planting. Position the tree about 30cm (1ft) away from the base of the wall or fence. You will also need to attach horizontal wires to the wall, to support the branches.
Planting in a container
For growing in a container, choose a tree on a dwarfing M9 or M26 rootstock. The container should be at least 45cm (18in) in diameter, and positioned in a warm, sunny, sheltered spot.
Established apple trees need little maintenance, apart from watering during long dry spells and feeding annually to improve fruiting.
- Newly planted apple trees should be watered regularly for at least the first growing season. Various watering aids are available for new trees, such as irrigation tubes, which direct water down to the roots, and watering bags (such as Treegator), which provide a constant supply of moisture
- Established trees in the ground should rarely need watering, except in long dry spells when the fruit is starting to swell
- Trees in containers need generous watering throughout the growing season
Spread a thick layer of mulch, such as home-made garden compost or well-rotted manure, around the base of apple trees every spring, to help hold moisture in the soil and suppress weeds.
In early spring, feed apple trees with a high potassium general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4 or blood, fish and bone. Scatter one handful per square metre/yard around trees growing in bare soil, and one and a half around those growing in grass. Cookers are hungrier – scatter one and a half handfuls per square metre/yard around trees in bare soil, and two around those in grass.
Feed trees in containers in April. Also, repot them every few years in spring, into a slightly larger container, once their roots fill the current pot. Use peat-free, loam-based compost.
Apples trees often produce more fruitlets than they can cope with, so in early summer they tend to naturally shed the excess, known as the June drop. However, it may still be beneficial to remove even more of the young apples in early July, to improve the size and quality of the remaining fruit and prevent biennial bearing.
Pruning and Training
Winter pruning helps to keep apple trees fruiting well, while controling their size
Apple trees can be trained into various shapes – both to restrict their size and create an attractive feature. These more compact forms are ideal for small spaces and make picking the fruit very easy. Trained trees must be grown on dwarfing rootstocks and usually need the support of a wall or fence. The most popular shapes are:
- Cordon – a single stem, usually at a 45 degree angle, with very short side branches that carry the fruit
- Espalier – a central trunk, with several tiers of horizontal branches on each side
- Fan – a short trunk, with a fan of branches radiating out at the top
- Step-over – the smallest form of trained tree, only 45–60cm (18–24in) tall, like the first tier of an espalier. It has a short trunk and a single pair of horizontal branches on each side, ideal as edging for a veg bed
- Arch or tunnel – tall vertical cordons (see above) can be grown on either side of a path and trained over at the top to meet in the middle. They make a highly ornamental feature, especially when in blossom.
Step-overs have just one tier of horizontal branches
Cordons are a compact yet productive way to grow apples
Give the apple a slight twist and it should come away easily if it’s ripe
To pick an apple, cup it in your hand, lift gently and give a slight twist. It should come off easily with the stalk intact.
Harvesting fruit from a tall tree can be tricky – you could use a step ladder, but do take extreme care when working at height. Various long-handled or telescopic fruit pickers are also available, but they can be difficult to manoeuvre. Alternatively, you can wait until the out-of-reach apples fall, but they will need to be eaten promptly as they will be damaged.
Early apples, which ripen in late summer, usually need to be eaten within a few days of picking. Later-maturing varieties are usually more suitable for storing, keeping for several months in the right conditions. Only store perfect, undamaged and unblemished apples. Place in a cool, frost-free, dark place, and check them regularly for signs of deterioration.
Cooking apples can also be frozen after they’ve been cooked. Dessert apples can be frozen too, but the texture will be softer once thawed, although they’re still good for using for smoothies, baking or mixing into fruit salads.
Apples are one of the hardiest and easiest fruit trees to grow, but even so, certain diseases, insects, birds and weather conditions can damage the trees, blossom or fruit. So check apple trees regularly and take prompt action if necessary.
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