Finding space for an apple tree, whether at home or at the allotment, can be a very rewarding use of space. Apples are ideally suited to the British climate as they flower relatively late in the spring, helping to protect their delicate blossom from frost. They also do not like extremely hot summers, and like moist conditions, ideally suited to temperate climates.
The reputed health benefits of eating apples are numerous. The fruit is naturally high in antioxidants, stimulates saliva that helps keep teeth clean, high in vitamin C, and contains chemicals that help lower cholesterol. To get the full health benefits you need to eat the skin.
- November – March
- Planting depth: Cover root ball
- Planting spacing: Depends on root stock
- August to November
- Store in layers in boxes, in a cool (not cold) environment
Apple trees need to be cross pollinated from other apple trees in order to bear fruit – with the magic pollination work being done by bees. For bees to transfer the pollen between trees, the trees need to be in blossom at the same time. Some varieties of apple tree are better pollinators than others, and some apple trees require pollination from two different types of apple trees to bear fruit.
Before planting an apple tree, create a big hole and mix into the earth a good amount of compost. Well rotted manure is not advisable for apple trees as they can burn the tree’s roots.
A stake can be an invaluable support for a young tree. The picture shows a 2.2m stake driven about 75cm into the ground at an angle of 45 degrees against the direction of the prevailing wind. The dense canopy of an apple tree, and the weight of the apples, often means that apple trees develop a lean brought about by the wind.
Apple trees are best planted when dormant during the winter months, or early spring at the latest. The soft ground of winter is ideal for digging a hole and for driving in a support stake. It will also allow the root of the tree to become established before the tree blossoms and develops its leaf mass.
Apple trees need to be pruned in winter to cut out dead and diseased wood. Pruning is an opportunity to help train the tree to grow into a healthy shape, removing overlapping branches, and branches growing downwards or horizontally. An upright habit should be encouraged, as these branches will be better able to support the weight of apples without sagging towards the ground.
When shaping your tree it is worth keeping in mind the importance of older wood, as apples are produced on branches more than two years old.
A young tree needs regular watering in the first summer or two. A good soaking once a week, or fortnightly, is the best approach, as this will encourage the roots to search deep for water. Try to keep a 1m perimeter weed free around the base of the tree, and apply a mulch at the beginning of spring. Both will help prevent the young tree from drying out.
If you aspire to big apples you may want to thin out young apples in mid summer. A good time to do this is in July or August after the tree has naturally dropped some fruit.
An apple harvest will take place from the autumn, with the exact timing dependent upon the variety of the apple tree. It is possible to tell whether an apple is ready for picking by giving it a gentle twist – if it comes off it is ripe. Those on the sunny side of the tree will ripen first.
Apples should be stored with the stalks on. A good way of storing them is to line them in rows in a cardboard box. The apples can be wrapped individually in paper, or separated by paper between the rows. It is advisable to only store the best of the harvest. Apples should be kept in a cool, but not cold location, and will remain good for many months.
Apples trees can be divided into two main types:
- Eating apples (sweet)
- Cooking apples (bitter – stand up better to cooking)
From this simple starting point, there is a wide variety of choice and variation in growing habits. The two most important considerations are the flowering time of the tree and its ultimate growing size.
The root stock of the apple tree determines its full grown size. Each variety of apple tree can come in a variety of root stock sizes. It is best to choose a root stock to suit your growing space. From an allotment perspective, too big a tree will block light and take water from other nearby plants. Below is a brief overview of the different apple root stocks available:
- M27 – dwarfing 1.5m tall
- M9 – 2.5m
- M26 – 3m
- MM106- 4m
- MM111 – 4.5m +
It is strongly advisable to check with your apple stockist both the pollination group of the apple tree and its root stock before purchasing. If you are planting an apple tree at an allotment, pollination is likely to be less of a problem as there should be many apple trees nearby. Planting at home may need more consideration, especially for homes in remote locations.