A Guide to Growing Apples
Apple trees can be grown in the smallest of spaces and can be trained into different forms, such as fans or cordons, to suit any site. As well as producing delicious fruit, they also provide spectacular displays of blooms in the spring.
How to Grow
Plant apple trees in a warm, sunny location — although cooking varieties are more tolerant and can be trained on north-facing walls. All prefer free-draining, fertile soil but will tolerate all but very wet or dry conditions. Bare root trees can be planted in late fall to early spring; container-grown apples can be planted at any time as long as you incorporate plenty of compost or manure. Freestanding trees require staking; trained varieties, such as fans and cordons need a system of posts and wires or can be trained onto a fence or wall. Remove any fruit for the first two years to encourage the tree to establish fully and develop a branching structure.
Apple trees are sold grafted onto rootstocks to control their size and vigor. Choose one that best suits your garden and your own needs.
- M27: Most dwarfing, ideal for trees planted in containers. Trees grow to 5–6 feet.
- M9: Dwarfing, needs good soil, but suitable for large containers. Trees grow to 6 feet.
- M26: Semi-dwarfing, ideal for large containers, cordons, and fans. Trees grow to 8 feet.
- MM106: Semi-vigorous, ideal for fans. Trees grow to 12–17 feet.
- MM111: Vigorous, requires space. Trees grow to 17–21 feet.
- M25: Very vigorous, suitable for large gardens. Trees grow to 25 feet.
Apple flowers must be pollinated to bear fruit, and unless apple trees are growing nearby, you’ll need to plant at least two varieties from the same pollination group (trees are listed A to D: early to late), according to when they flower. Some are termed “self-pollinating” but will crop better if cross-pollinated. Some, like ‘Bramley’s Seedling’, are triploid. These need two pollinator varieties to bear fruit but cannot be used as pollinators themselves.
Varieties of Apples to Try
- Cooking varieties include: 'Blenheim Orange’ (pollination group B), ‘Bramley’s Seedling’ (triploid), ‘Golden Noble’ (C) and ‘Howgate Wonder’ (C)
- Dessert varieties include: ’Court Pendu Plat’ (D), ‘Discovery’ (B) ‘Egremont Russet’ (A), ‘Fiesta’ (B), ‘James Grieve’ (B), ‘Golden Delicious’ (C), ‘Lord Lambourne’ (A), ‘Pixie’ (C) and ‘Sunset’ (B)
Most apple trees are "spur-bearing," which means their fruit is produced on short, stubby spurs that form on stems at least two years old. Over time more spurs form, giving more fruit, until they eventually become overcrowded and need thinning out in winter.
Other varieties are referred to as "tip-bearing" and carry their fruit at the ends of stems produced the previous summer. When pruning these trees, the aim is to remove stems and branches that have fruited, and to encourage new shoots that will fruit in following years. Before pruning your trees, make sure you know what type they are first.
In midsummer, after the "June drop", when the tree drops excess fruitlets, those that remain should be thinned to allow them to grow to full size. When trees are left to over crop, the apples are smaller and may not ripen fully, and the overladen branches can snap. Thin fruit clusters to one or two fruitlets per 4–5 inches of stem on dessert apples, and single fruitlets every 6–8 inches on cooking apples. Remove undersized, diseased, or damaged fruitlets first.
Pruning and Training
All apples should be trained into shape when first planted. Established, freestanding trees need only basic pruning in winter. Trained trees are additionally pruned in summer. Follow these steps for properly pruning your apple trees.
- After planting, prune one- or two-year-old trees to 24–30 inches high, leaving three to four lateral stems. Cut these back by two-thirds.
- Prune spur-bearing trees to maintain an open center. Prune strong new sideshoots back to four to six buds; reduce weaker growth by half. Thin out crowded fruiting spurs and remove dead wood.
- Prune tip-bearing apples, cutting sideshoots over 12 inches long back to a bud. Tip-prune the main branches. Maintain an open center and prune dead or diseased stems.
- Established cordons need little winter pruning, other than thinning congested spurs. In mid- to late summer, cut new shoots from the main trunk back to three leaves and sideshoots from existing spurs to one leaf.
- Established fans should be pruned as if each arm were a cordon. In summer, cut new shoots from the main arms back to three leaves and prune all sideshoots to one leaf each. Remove any shoots that appear from the main trunk.
Watch Out for These Pests
Apple sawfly lay eggs that hatch into tiny maggots that burrow into the developing fruit. Some fruit will fall as a result, others are left with unsightly scars across the skin. Dispose of fallen fruit; any that continue to ripen are safe to eat. Codling moth caterpillars are another cause of maggoty apples. Control the larvae by spraying with an insecticide in June and again three weeks later.