How to grow an apple tree

Posted in All Gardening Advice, Vegetables and Fruit, November, on

I know how to grow vegetables and enough about growing flowers, but I have to admit I know next to nothing about how to grow an apple tree.

To grow an apple tree you need to have  the patience to get involved with it. The things that work best for me, at least until now, have been put-it-in, get-it-out flowers and veg.

My frame of mind has always been "what shall I have next?" rather than "what would be marvellous for the next 30 years?" This is how you need to think if you want to find out how to grow an apple tree.

For a master class in the longer view, I went to see Glenn Facer, in charge of tree fruit in the kitchen garden at Chatsworth.

Glenn maintains, prunes and harvests figs, pears and damsons (they have eight 'Merryweather' damsons in the orchard, favourites of the Duke and Duchess), but apples are his true love.

Grow what you like

Before buying a tree, Glenn recommends you are clear as to what sort of taste and texture you like in an apple. There's no point growing fruit if you leave it on the branch.

And - if you have room for more than one apple tree - think of growing a dessert and a cooker, so you cover lots of different ways of eating this delicious fruit.

Make sure that they are self-fertile apple trees or, if it's a pair, flower at a similar time so they can cross-pollinate.

Then consider a variety to eat straight from the tree, and another that stores well for eating through the winter - and bear in mind their month of cropping. If you can grow a few different apple trees, it's good to spread your harvest over months, rather than weeks.

In the small apple orchard at the bottom of the kitchen garden, there are 15 different apple varieties. Glenn's favourites include 'Egremont Russet', 'Lord Derby' and 'Blenheim Orange'. These are all mid to late croppers and good storers, with different roles, textures and flavours.

Apple 'Blenheim Orange' comes first, ready from mid to late September. It's a dual-purpose variety that, if eaten straight from the tree, is a good cooker. If stored, it gradually sweetens and within a month makes wonderful eating. It's lovely to look at, big and generous with a dappled skin. A heavy cropper, it can, however, be biennial in its production if you don't thin the fruit.

Apple 'Egremont Russet' is a small fruiter, with the typical bronzy russet skin. It is sweet, crisp, with a nutty taste and a heavy cropper. This was my favourite eaten on the day. Then there is the old local variety, Apple  'Lord Derby' with wonderful conical fruit. It's a good, stonking, cooking apple, a heavy cropper that cooks to a froth.

Natural architecture

Up in the main part of the kitchen garden, Glenn shows me more ornamentally trained apple trees. There are several scattered through the salad and veg beds to give architecture and structure among the annuals.

One of the Chatsworth favourites is Apple 'Katy' (or 'Katja', a cross between Apple 'James Grieve' and 'Worcester Pearmain'), trained in a hoop over the main path, with 'Cox's Orange Pippin' and 'Granny Smith' given the same treatment.

This is a clever trio: Apple 'Katy', crisp, sweet and juicy (similar to 'Discovery' but earlier to fruit), cropping in August and September - one of the earliest and crunchiest apples, best eaten as soon as it's ripe straight from the tree. It has pink flesh and makes beautiful pink apple juice, but it doesn't store.

On the next hoop is the famous Apple 'Cox's Orange Pippin', which crops a little later for September and October, with its renowned crunchy texture and sweet, intense flavour. I grow the similar Apple 'Fiesta' (or 'Red Pippin') that is said to have better disease resistance than the classic Cox, but Glenn's fruit and trees are all immaculate without the use of chemicals.

Finally, on the main path, comes the classic, shiny green Apple 'Granny Smith', one of the last to be ready from the end of October and fine to store. You either love or hate this very crunchy form.

These are Glenn's six favourites, which deliver on all categories and are easy and reliable. With my fruit confidence on the up, I'm ready to plant some trees.

Buying

Glenn recommends M26 rootstock for planting in a back garden or an orchard, and M9 and M26 rootstock for growing in a pot. M26 is a strong grower and will make a small tree or a good cordon.

When buying apples, always buy two-year-old whips and train them yourself. These cost less than half the price of a containerised trained tree at a garden centre, and they're easy to do yourself.

Planting

Plant bare-root apple trees anytime from now until the end of February, or containerised plants any time in the year. If planting in the ground, dig a hole twice the size of the root ball and break up the base, adding plenty of organic matter (leaf mould or manure) into the planting hole.

Make sure to plant to the same level as it was previously in the ground (if bare root) or to the same soil level if in a pot. As with roses, this ensures the union of the grafted wood is above soil level.

If planting in a pot, use a 35-40 litre size filled with John Innes No 3, mixed in with about one-third tree or shrub compost and some Osmocote (or another slow-release fertiliser), with plenty of crocks in the bottom.

Glenn's tips for apple-growing

Staking

As you plant, stake trees with a stout cane on the other side from the prevailing wind. This avoids damage to the roots by poking in the stake later.

Watering

Make sure your trees are well watered in their first year. If in pots, water twice a day in hot weather and put the pot on bricks so the water drains away.

Feeding

Mulch deeply with farmyard manure around the tree roots in autumn and spring. In a pot, give a liquid feed (tomato feed is ideal) in late spring to early summer and again every week for about six weeks through summer. Reduce to once a month until the tree sheds leaves.

Thinning

You must thin your apples. Most varieties give you a cluster of fruit around each spur. Remove the king apple - the biggest, central fruit after the June drop, when the tree naturally thins itself. This gives you better, bigger, healthier apples.

Pruning

Prune back lateral branches to four buds at the end of July or beginning of August. Hard prune in winter (pictured above) and take out any diseased branches.

If in pots - repotting

Every year, scrape off the top couple of inches of compost and replace with fresh. Repot every three years, cutting off thick roots as you go.