Eight things you need to know about growing apples

Harvest apples in September

The humble apple tree is one of the highlights of autumn in the garden. Twisting a ripe fruit away from a branch on a misty morning, surrounded by the faded glory of the summer flowers in your garden still gamely hanging on, is a beautiful moment. Apples are perhaps the most complex of garden fruits, with a mouthwatering array of flavours and textures that can be enjoyed if you grow your own.

While the workaday varieties ‘Gala’ and ‘Braeburn’ are the supermarket staples, the garden can be home to some more intriguing fruits, such as the orange-flushed, soft flesh of dual purpose (cooker and eater) ‘Blenheim Orange’ or the surely unsurpassed (in my humble opinion!) nutty, fragrant, rough-skinned eating apple ‘Egremont Russet’. Of course not every garden has room for a monster ‘Bramley’s Seedling’ tree that requires ladders and buckets to gather in the harvest but even a balcony can house a tree or two if you train the trees and choose ones that are grown on dwarfing rootstocks.

More apple advice:


Planting a bare root apple tree

Bare-root trees should be soaked in water before planting
Bare-root trees should be soaked in water before planting

By far the best way of planting is to plant fresh, bare-root trees. These are young trees that have been grown in a field, lifted up when the plant is dormant and kept in cold storage before being sent to gardeners. Some nurseries even leave them in the ground and dig them up ‘to order’ so they are super-fresh. Growing bare-root trees and planting in winter gives them months to settle into the soil before the weather warms up. There is also no danger of the plant being ‘pot-bound’, when the roots of potted trees wind around the pot and may struggle to branch out again after planting.

  • Choose a warm, sunny sheltered spot for growing your apple tree to give it the best chance of producing tasty fruits that ripen fully.
  • To plant a bare-root tree, plant it as soon as it arrives in the post, as long as soil isn’t waterlogged. You can keep it outside in the packaging for a couple of days or dig a shallow hole in a sheltered corner and just cover the roots with soil if you’ve got a long wait until you can plant. Soak the roots in a bucket of water for half an hour before planting.
  • Dig a hole just a little deeper than the depth of the roots. Long horizontal roots can be trimmed a little so they don’t have to be squashed into the hole.
  • Add mycorrhizal fungi to the planting hole, and plant so that the point where the roots start to flare out is just below the soil surface.
  • Back fill with soil then water again. Add a stake in the direction of the prevailing wind if planting the tree on an exposed site.

250 apple varieties on one tree!

A ‘family’ tree is an apple tree that has had more than one variety of apple grafted onto different parts of it. Paul Barnett, an apple grower in West Sussex grafted an incredible 250 types of apple onto one tree! It took him 20 years, and the old tree had to propped up with planks of wood to support all the branches. Varieties include heritage types ‘Withington Fillbasket’ and ‘Eady’s Magnum’.

Where do apples come from?

Espalier apple tree in blossom
Espalier apple tree in blossom

While apples seem perfectly suited to the British climate (save for the odd late frost that sometimes puts a spoiler on the crop) apples as we know them are thought to originally have come from much further afield, in Kazakhstan. The former capital city Almata may mean ‘father of apples’ or ‘full of apples’ and Malus sieversii, identified as the forebear of the domestic apple, grows wild in the mountains surrounding the city.

Growing apples in small spaces

In small gardens apple trees can be trained and pruned as fans, cordons and espaliers
In small gardens apple trees can be trained and pruned as fans, cordons and espaliers

If the thought of having an apple tree in the garden conjures up thoughts of gnarled, sprawling trees that need ladders when it’s picking time, then fear not! Planting a young tree at a 45° angle against a sunny wall or fence and growing it along wires can give you a heavy cropping tree that takes up less space than a chair or a container! Make sure you choose a tree with a dwarfing rootstock to train as a cordon. Best to check before you buy!

  • Space horizontal wires at 60cm intervals, 10cm away from the wall or fence, with the lowest wire 30cm from the ground.
  • Plant the tree at an angle of 45 degrees. Insert a bamboo cane along the main stem of the tree and secure the tree to it in a few places, using rubber ties or soft string
  • Immediately after planting, trim back sideshoots so they are just three or four buds long

Does an apple a day keep the doctor away?

It’s a saying that can’t be proven but eating apples definitely has many health benefits. Apples are rich in pectin, a plant fibre that may lower cholesterol. They are also a good source of quercetin, an antioxidant that may reduce the risk of heart disease. Apples are also a source of Vitamin C, potassium and protein.

How to make an apple tree fruitful

Grow a pair of trees that flower at the same time to encourage cross-pollination
Grow a pair of trees that flower at the same time to encourage cross-pollination

Most apples need a pollination partner in order to fruit well. They say teamwork makes the dreamwork! Crab apples growing close to your tree will help with pollination but to be sure of fruit you need to grow another apple that flowers at the same time. Each apple is in a pollination group, numbered from 1-7 and is best grown with another apple in the same group or the group above or below it. There are some self-fertile apples that will fruit on their own, such as ‘Falstaff’, ‘Scrumptious’ and ‘Sunset’.

More apples for less

Pick fruits as they ripen to avoid them falling and being damaged
Pick fruits as they ripen to avoid them falling and being damaged

Apple trees, especially pre-trained ones can cost a lot of money but to grow them on a budget, start them young. Fruit nurseries will sell trees called ‘maidens’ which are just one year old and will either have some lower branches (these trees are known as feathered maidens) or just a single main stem. These trees can be trained to fit whatever space you have or left to grow as an upright tree.

Specialist fruit nurseries will advise on the best rootstock, according to what you want to do with the tree. Very young trees planted in winter will need a lot less water than buying mature, potted trees planted during the growing season.

Cutting back

Pruning in winter controls the overall shape, size and health of your tree
Pruning in winter controls the overall shape, size and health of your tree

Pruning can be a daunting task for many gardeners. But giving apple trees a chop back in winter is simple.

Established apples that are growing upright, untrained as a ‘normal tree’ are best pruned in winter to keep them in shape, prevent them from getting too big and helping them to produce more fruit. The aim is to end up with an open-centred tree.

  1. Start by removing any crossing or rubbing branches, cutting them back to where they join a thicker branch. Make sure you make a clean cut and don’t leave a little stump.
  2. Remove any broken stems or those showing signs of disease. Cut back to just above a bud. Check that the top of the stem where you have cut doesn’t look brown or diseased. Keep cutting back until the cut looks ‘clean’.
  3. Reduce the height of the leading shoot and side branches, cutting them back by a third.
  4. Identify new sideshoots (they will be thin) and shorten them by half, cutting just above an outward-facing bud.
  5. Look out for short fruit spurs (very small shoots with rounded flower buds) and prune out any shoots that have grown from them, cutting them back to where they grew from.
  6. On very old trees, lots of these spurs can develop together and if left, it results in lots of fruits that don’t all have room to grow to full size. Remove some so there is a ‘full fruit-sized’ space between each one and also remove spurs on the undersides of branches where the fruits won’t be exposed to sun.

Did you know?

  • The apple tree that Sir Isaac Newton was sitting under when he is said to have first developed his theory of gravity is still alive today. The ‘Flower of Kent’ tree is at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, now in the care of the National Trust. Saplings propagated from the famous tree have been sold at auction in September this year.
  • The world’s heaviest recorded apple weighed in at just over 1.8kilos, roughly the same weight as a brick! The apple was a cross between the varieties ‘Crispin’ and Fuji’ and was grown by Chisato Iwasaki on his apple farm in Hirosaki City, Japan in 2005.
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