Apples - My top 5 apple varieties to grow yourself at home for great flavour and beauty.
I'll start this post, with a comment that I have given to people buying fruit trees many times over the years;
'Don't buy the tree that produces the fruit you already buy from your local shop or supermarket. The fruit they sell will be bigger, comparable in taste (though likely a little less tasty) and in far greater abundance than a plant you own will produce. Instead, buy less common, but equally or even more tasty and beautiful varieties for your garden.'
I understand why people choose to grow a Braeburn, Golden Delicious or Cox's Orange Pippin, but there seems like little point to me unless you are planting an orchard full of different varieties. Instead look to the many thousands of Apple varieties available to find the best for you. I appreciate that contemplating research from thousands of options is daunting but, as always, there are shortcuts.
Selecting for Use
To start narrowing down the possible selections, first choose the type of Apple that you wish to grow, Dessert (or Eater), which can be picked and eaten straight off the tree, or a Cooker, which you will stew or bake or cook in caramel before topping with puff pastry to make a delicious Tarte Tatin; sublime! There are other types of apple, but unless you are making cider, or crab apple jelly, they won't be of much use and I'm not going to discuss either here currently, except to say that Crab Apple trees can be hugely ornamental and a great wildlife attractor, but possibly more importantly, are generally very good pollinators of other apples.
Once you have chosen the purpose of the apple, you can consider its size. I'm not going to go into much detail here, but (click here) to link to an excellent guide to rootstock sizes for apples (and other fruit from Frank Matthews): the selection of which determines the ultimate size of the tree. Please note that each variety can be grown using a number of different rootstocks, each of which would give a different end result in terms of height and spread. By selecting a rootstock which suits your space you will make life easier on yourself in the future. If you can't reach the fruit, they are of little use to you. M27, M9 and MM106 are the 3 most common apple rootstocks in ascending height order.
As well as the rootstock you will likely encounter the 'form' of the trees being offered. Most plants that you are looking to grow as normal, freestanding trees in your garden will be bought as Maidens. A Maiden is a one year old tree, usually grown and lifted from a field and supplied while dormant (in the winter). Typically, maiden trees have a single leader stem, with little or no side-branching. More on Maiden trees (click here) for Keepers Nursery guide.
Many fruit trees can also be purchased as trained trees with Bush, 1/2 Standard, Standard, Espalier, Cordon, Stepover and Fan being commonly seen forms in the UK. Less common, but still available are U-shaped and even Double U-shaped, which are extensively trained shaped forms, popular in Europe which, like Fans and Espalier are designed to be grown against a wall, fence or flat surface.
Cordons are columnar forms, normally grown at an angle (typically 45˚ to the ground) to allow the most number of trees possible in a small space.
Stepovers are less commonly seen nowadays and are trained to come up with a straight stem, then fork at 90˚ to the stem normally at 40-60cm off the ground making an informal fence-like barrier, but small enough that one can step over it.
Fans are more common with stone fruit than apples or pears, which tend to be grown as Espaliers where a single stem has side-branches trained horizontally at 30-45cm intervals and mirrored on both sides of the tree to create a symmetrical, flat tree against a wall. Espalier are sold by the number of tiers of side branches trained, typically as 2-tier or 3-tier, though ultimately you can grow as many as you can fit on the height of the surface you are growing them on.
Bush is a less commonly planted nowadays in my experience, but perfectly good form to use if you have the space, where trees are grown with short trunks and branch radially in a goblet-shape to form a mass of plant at a human scale. You can't walk underneath Bush formed plants, so you need to be sure you have space to walk around them.
1/2 Standards have a clear stem and then a crown of foliage. The stem is cleared higher than in a bush, but generally not high enough for you to walk under unless small or stooping.
Standard have had side-branching cleared to around 1.8m (6') meaning that you can (or at least most of us can) walk underneath without a head injury.
I'll do a more visually sympathetic piece on this in the future. In the meantime, if you want to know more on Forms (click here) to visit the Keepers website description. You can also visit Frank Matthews (click here) to see their guide to some forms.
Pollinators and Pollination
Now you should consider pollination as a defining factor in which tree or trees you opt for. If you are buying just one apple for an otherwise apple-free garden, pause for thought and opt for a self-fertile variety. If neighbours have apple trees in their gardens, you may well get away with a form which requires a pollinating partner, but it is a risk and you may well find that pollination is lower than you'd hope (resulting in very few apples). The Bees and other beneficial insects have to visit a lot of flowers from one garden to the next to make pollination happen, so it is often best to grow a couple of trees if you have the space. Unless you are planting several varieties of apple, avoid Triploid varieties like Bramley's Seedling. These need two other and different fertile trees to pollinate them as a minimum. If underconfident, or inexperienced, I'd always aim to keep it as simple as possible. Self-fertile or partially self-fertile varieties make life much easier.