Apples in your garden

Gone are the days when you needed a large garden to grow apples – many modern types are so compact they can be planted in small spaces and still yield a delicious crop.

Traditionally, apple trees are-grown as standards, hair-standards or hush, according to the height at which branching occurs; or as dwarf pyramids, with a central trunk, like a Christmas tree. They can also be grown as cordons, espaliers or fans against a wall or fence.

If you have the space, a bush is a sensible choice: it produces 36-45kg (80-100lb) of fruit, and the low branches make picking easy. If space is limited, a dwarf pyramid or wall-trained tree will yield a crop of several pounds each. Newer on the market are compact, columnar varieties; horizontal, ‘step-over’ varieties; and ‘mini-tree’ varieties – all ideal for small gardens, and for container growing.

Types of apple

Popularly, apples are divided into cookers and caters (dessert apples), but some varieties used mainly for cooking can also be en-joyed raw for their sharp taste. Similarly, dessert apples can be used for cooking.

Apples don’t usually grow well on their own roots and so the named variety, or ‘scion’, is grafted on to a chosen rootstock such as the semi-vigorous MM 106 or very dwarfing M27, to control the plants’ size and vigour, and en-courage early cropping.

Site and soil

Apple trees need sun and shelter from cold winds so that blossom develops without frost damage and insects linger to pollinate the flowers. In areas with late frosts, choose a late-flowering variety, to protect the blooms from damage. Apple trees thrive in most soils, except for waterlogged or highly alkaline ones; coastal areas are unsuitable because of salty winds. In early or mid autumn, fork well-rotted manure or compost into the soil at the rate of a buck-etful per sq m/yd. Apply 90g per sq m (3oz per sq yd) of a general fertilizer before planting.

Buying an apple tree

Most apple trees are not self-polli-nating, so buy at least two different varieties that blossom at the same time for cross-pollination to occur. If several nearby gardens have apple or crab-apple trees, however, they may suffice. A few-varieties, known as triploids, are poor pollinators, and need two other varieties of its group nearby, to act as pollination partners.


You can buy popular varieties of containerized apple trees all year round from most garden centres. Specialist fruit-tree nurseries have a wider selection of varieties and trained forms; and they despatch mailorder, bare-rooted trees during the dormant season. It is best to buy trees guaranteed free from all known virus infections.


Try to plant during frost-free weather between late autumn and early spring. If a bare-rooted tree arrives before you can plant it, keep it in a cool but sheltered spot, such as a garden shed; or heel it in, in a sheltered spot in the garden. Before planting, soak its roots thoroughly in a bucket of water.

Dig a hole big enough to take the roots of a bare-rooted tree when they are well spread out; or generously wider and deeper than the rootball of a container-grown tree. Fork over the bottom of the planting pit.

If planting a bush tree, drive in a supporting stake and plant the tree about 7.5cm (3in) away from it. Make sure that the graft union between the rootstock and the named variety, or scion, is at least 10cm (4in) above soil level, to pre-vent the rootstock suckering.

If you are planting trees against a wall, position them 23-30cm (9-l2in) away from the wall base. For container planting, choose a pot or tub at least 30cm (12in) across; place 2.5cm (lin) of drainage material in the base and use nutrient-rich, loam-based potting compost.


In the first growing season, water well during dry spells. For the first two or three springs, mulch with manure or well-rotted garden compost to keep weeds down and help the soil retain moisture.

Each mid winter, apply 30g per sq m (loz per sq yd) of sulphate of potash. Every third year, add 60g (2oz) of superphosphate to that dressing.

Thinning the crop

You usually only need to thin fruits on bush or larger trees, to ensure that the fruits grow to full size . At the end of early summer, if there are still too many apples left on the tree, thin again so only one apple remains on each fruit-bearing spur. On dessert varieties of bush tree, the young fruits should be spaced 10-15cm (4-6in) apart and cooking apples, 15-23cm (6-9in) apart.

Some apple trees crop naturally every year, while others, called biennials, crop heavily one year and produce little or no crops the next. Thinning the blossom on these trees in the cropping year encourages good crops the next year.

Harvesting and storing

Apples are ripe when they come off with a gentle twist. Pick early croppers from mid summer ro early autumn and eat within a few weeks. Pick mid season and late varieties in early to mid autumn before they are ripe, and let them ripen in store. Late croppers can be stored for three months or more if picked in mid autumn.

Choose sound, unbruised apples for storing and either wrap them individually in greaseproof paper and stack them in fibre trays or slatted boxes, or place them in clear polvthene bags in a cool (3°C/37°F), dark, humid place. Pierce the bags with a few small holes for ventilation and store a maximum of 2.4kg (5lb) of fruit per bag. Check regularly and remove any showing signs of rotting.

What can go wrong

The most common pests to attack apples are aphids, codling moths, apple sawflies, caterpillars of the winter moth, capsids, red spider mites and woolly aphids.

The main diseases and disorders which affect apples are apple canker, brown rot, magnesium deficiency, powderv mildew and scab.

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