It may be difficult for you to prise yourself from the warm folds of the sofa during the cold winter months, but if you have designs on planting an apple tree in your garden or allotment, now is the time to pull on your wellies, stride outside and make it happen. Here's how.
Choosing your apples
Your choice of apple tree will, of course, be dictated by what you intend to do with your bountiful harvests. Pies, ciders, or presents for teacher? Here are a few of our recommendations…
Crisp and vinous Spartan apples
There’s nothing finer than the taste of your own, home-grown apple, plucked fresh from the tree. One of our favourites is Spartan, a beautiful, reddy-purple apple that tastes crisp and vinous.
This tree is a generous cropper and hardy to boot—it’ll flourish in colder climes and will grow in frost pockets quite happily.
For a juicy, late season apple, try an Adams Pearmain. It’s an old, disease-resistant variety, and with careful storage, the fruits will last until Christmas and beyond.
Grenadiers, a slightly knobbly alternative to Bramley apples
There's a reason Bramley apple trees are so abundant—with its sweet/sharp flesh that cooks down to a silky pulp, you’ll have a hard time finding anything that matches the Bramley for cookability.
For an interesting—if slightly knobbly—alternative, try Grenadier, a reliable, easy grower that’s relatively disease resistant. The brilliantly named Peasgood Nosuch is another good choice.
It has soft, sharp tasting flesh, making it suitable for either cooking or eating straight from the tree.
Read more: 10 wonderful ways with Bramley apples
Crab apples add bite to insipid juice destined for cider making
Crab apples are often too sour and astringent for eating but are commonly used in orchards and allotments for their potent pollination powers.
Their fruits can also be utilised to add tannic depth and bite to insipid juice destined for cider making. Malus Golden Hornet is a great pollinator due to its long flowering season, and its apricot yellow fruit will make a mean crab apple jelly.
Read more: Everything you need to know about cider
An unexpected visitor in a harvest of Kingston Black apples. Image via Redbyrd Orchard
When it comes to cider making, the more types of apples that go into the blend, the better. If you just have room to plant one tree, try a Kingston Black. It’ll make a fine, single variety cider in its own right, but can be quite susceptible to diseases, and you’ll need to make sure you have comparable pollinators nearby.
If you’ve got space (and remember, you only need to plant four trees for it to be classed an orchard) we’d suggest planting a mixture of Yarlington Mill, Sweet Coppin, Black Dabinett and Fair Maid of Devon.
These all hail from the same pollinator group, will produce decent amounts of fruit, and the resulting juice will blend up to make prize-winning cider.
Choosing your tree
Image via Beetham Nurseries
When choosing your tree, there are various rootstock combinations to consider. Left to grow on its own roots, an apple tree can easily reach sizes of over 15ft. To retain some kind of control over the tree’s growth, most fruit trees will be supplied grafted onto the stump of an already established, similar tree. The grafted tree will then take on the characteristics of its surrogate parent stump, inheriting size, vigour and disease resistance.
When shopping for your tree, you'll see the various rootstock options listed as codes. Typically, M9 and M29 rootstocks will produce a semi-dwarfing tree that’ll stand 6-10ft high when fully mature, whilst an M25 rootstock will produce a huge, vigorous tree, suitable for only those with enormous gardens (and very long ladders).
"Left to grow on its own roots, an apple tree can easily reach sizes of over 15ft"
For a medium sized garden, an apple tree grafted onto an MM106 rootstock should do the trick. It’ll give you a good-sized, 10-13ft tree, which can be restricted to a smaller size with a spot of judicial pruning if required.
You’ll also need to keep an eye on which pollinator group your chosen tree resides in. There are decent self-pollinating trees out there (Howgate Wonder is a great shout if you are looking for a generous cropping, multi-purpose apple) but your tree will most probably need a pollinating pal of a different variety located nearby, in order for it to bear fruit.
Prepare your ground and dig for victory
A sunny, sheltered spot with moderately fertile, well-drained soil is the best spot for growing apple trees. Don’t be tempted to add compost to the planting site, as this will result in a weak, lazy root system. Encourage stronger roots by making them reach out to find nutrients in the soil.
Prepare your planting site by first stripping away any turf and grass before commencing digging. The ground can be iron hard at this time of year, so we’d suggest using a heavy-duty mattock. At the very least, make sure you have a sturdy spade that is up to the task.
Dig your hole at least three times the width of your root, ensuring the hole is as deep as the tree’s root system. Your tree will spread its roots laterally as well as vertically down so it’s worth forking the sides of the hole to loosen the soil a tad, to give those roots a helping hand. Water the roots of your tree thoroughly before positioning your tree in the hole.
Start to backfill the hole, tramping down the soil with your boot as you go. Once you’ve filled the hole, give the site a good soaking with two or three bucketfuls of water. Finally, mulch around the base to keep those pesky weeds at bay, then stand back and admire your work.
To stake or not to stake?
This kind of tree tie is not advisable as the string will cut into the bark when the tree rocks
Depending on the rootstock, it’s not always necessary to stake your tree. The wisdom being that a good old buffeting from the elements will rock the young tree back and forth, working the tree’s fibres like a bodybuilder would work a bicep, therefore encouraging a stronger root set and a thick, healthy trunk.
You may, however, wish to install a stake if you’re planting on a particularly exposed, windy site, or are planting a tree that requires a permanent stake, such as one that has been grafted onto a dwarf rootstock. In this situation, hammer your stake in before you place the tree in position, and secure the tree to the stake with a flexible tie to allow for a bit of movement in blustery conditions.
"Don't expect basketfuls of juicy apples the first autumn after planting"
Finally, don't expect to skip down and collect basketfuls of juicy apples the first autumn after planting. Apple trees will only start to bear significant fruit after three or four years, and if you do get the odd apple making an appearance in the first couple of seasons, it's best to pick them off whilst they are still small. This will encourage the tree to develop a full, healthy branch framework before fruiting begins in earnest.
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