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.
OK, while there are still potentially hundreds of varieties to choose from, my next bit of advice is to buy from a specialist - Get their advice and perhaps even be swayed by a lovely image of some juicy ripened fruit. Still can't decide? Go to an Apple Day event held in October across the UK. For Scottish readers I recommend The Caley Apple Day (as pic above), but look out for events local to you if not. The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale, Kent is a particularly good event, if you can make it.
Where to buy
Keepers Nursery in Kent (they mail order across the UK) are my favourite fruit tree grower and supplier, knowing the family and loving their plants as I do. Karim at Keepers very kindly let me use fruit images in this post from their website, which I am very grateful for. I'm also a big fan of Frank P Matthews, who now do direct to consumer mail-order rather than sell exclusively through nurseries and garden centres. Finally, I recommend Blackmoor Nurseries who, Like Frank P Matthews used to focus on supplying their product through garden centres and nurseries, but now sells online as well. These three suppliers produce more than enough varieties for even the most avid orchard planter.
Here are my Top 5 varieties to grow in your garden;
'Scrumptious' - Eater
A modern introduction, which to my mind and taste is the best in the business. I love this Apple and it was the first one planted in my last two gardens! It is an improvement on one of its parents 'Discovery', which is a great variety, but this is just that bit better. The glossiest, bright red when ripe, sweet and well flavoured fresh from the tree. I don't know if it is a good keeper as they never last that long in my household. Self-fertile, so suitable to be the only apple in your garden and a good pollinator for any of the others on this list.
'King of the Pippins' - Dual Purpose (Eater and Cooker)
Called 'Reine des Reinettes' in France and occasionally in the UK, this is an excellent choice for an apple that can be eaten fresh from the tree or cooked with. A long established and still worthy variety dating from the 18th Century, if not earlier. If you like the sharp, crisp and juicy flavour notes of 'Cox' type apples, then this is a great choice. A handsome fruit and produced in abundance on a self-fertile plant, which will also act as a good pollinator to other apples in your and your neighbour's gardens. Makes a particularly good apple juice and can be used in cider making. A strong recommendation for a Tarte tatin as well if you are so inclined - I am!
'James Grieve' - Dual Purpose (Cooker and Eater)
A Scottish variety from the 1890s and consistently popular across the UK as one of the most reliable Dual Purpose Apples to this day. Large fruit, often twice the size of most other apples, produced in good volume making for a handsome tree to look at. If you have the space, I'd go for a larger rootsock like MM106 to enable strong enough branches to support good fruit volumes. Hardy throughout the UK and a pretty reliable doer. Known to be sharp at first with sweetness developing as fruit further ripens and always very juicy, if it is too sharp to eat from the tree, then it will cook well, while you wait for the sugars to develop in the remaining fruit on the tree. James Grieve is a parent for our next variety Greensleeves and has been used extensively in apple breeding in recent decades.
'Greensleeves' - Eater
A new kid on the block compared with others on this list. I'm less fond of green apples to eat - there, I've said it. I think they can look good on the tree, like this one does for certain, but I prefer red apples to eat. This is a variety I rate highly though as a really good grower and reliable cropper. Bred at the famous East Malling Research Station in Kent as a cross between the ever-popular James Grieve and supermarket favourite Golden Delicious and it marries the two parents well as a crisp, juicy, very free-fruiting and hardy plant in a good green colour. I haven't tried cooking with it and it is commonly sold as an eater, but may well cook with James Grieve as a parent. Regardless, it is a very easy tree, with no real weaknesses, producing fruit from quite a young age and even I will eat it happily enough.
'Bloody Ploughman' - Eater
A great Scottish variety for a number of reasons, not least the story of where the name originates. Legend has it that a seedling apple germinated and grew on the spot where a ploughman working on the Megginch Estate in Errol, Perthshire, in the 1870s-80s, was shot by the gamekeeper and died when caught stealing apples. From that, fruit was given to his widow and one of the seedlings of that fruit was selected and named 'Bloody Ploughman' in a macabre hommage, or possibly warning to others. Regardless of the unpleasantness of the story, it is one of the most easily identified apples grown in the UK, with knobbly bumps on the bottom of each fruit (that some refer to a its 'bum'). It is also one of the darkest red skinned varieties available and the flesh inside is stained irregularly with red as well. Very crisp textured and sweetly juicy in flavour. It is particularly good in tougher environments in the UK, handling cold and exposure better than most other varieties. Definitely better with a good pollinator nearby - the others in this list will do the job. My understanding is that it can be cooked with to great success, though I have never tried it myself.
Tips for Success
My best advice is to knock off developing fruit for the first couple of growing seasons to allow your trees to root and develop strength. Everyone wants to get fruit as early as possible, but waiting a couple of years will give you better plants than allowing them to fruit too early.
Plant trees having dipped the roots in mycorrhizal fungi first. This makes the world of difference in terms of plant establishment, root growth and overall health. Empathy Rootgrow is my recommended source for accessing mycorrhizal fungi. Link below.
Be sure to water your trees while establishing them and in years where it is particularly hot and dry, otherwise a lot of the fruit will either abort early and fall from the tree or the tree will struggle to ripen the volume of fruit and drop them before ripening.
One last piece of advice is that you will see, from time-to-time, Family Trees with three varieties of apple grafted onto one trunk. My experience is that these are never great. Too many issues with variable growth rate between the three varieties, making the tree unbalanced as it ages. I also find that one of the variety grafts usually fails after a year or two and the overall shape of the tree is harmed. It might seem like a great idea to get three different apples from one tree to save space, but it normally ends in sadness. If you only have space for one tree, make sure it is at least partially self-fertile and the bees and other pollinating insects will do the rest. Apple trees several gardens away will likely be visited by the same bees that visit yours so pollination should occur.
Rootgrow Mycorrhizal Fungi - magical stuff that exists in soil to form symbiotic relationships between roots and the fungus. Aids root establishment and development, reduces woody plant failures and strengthens trees and shrubs to make them less water dependant on you. Works on most woody plants, though ericaceous plants like Conifers, Rhododendrons, Heathers, Camellia etc will do better with a different fungal mix, which is also available.
To my mind the most useful book on apples available.
A good book on heritage apple varieties
The logical progression of planting apples trees...
Or perhaps to make juice or cider? This is something that I want to try.
The most useful snips for collecting fruit and light treatment of young stems. Great from Grape harvesting, bonsai training and any detail pruning as well.
A good pruning saw is essential for maintenance of healthy fruit trees. There are lots of quality manufacturers, but I like these the most. Shorter blade than most at 180mm long. 300mm are too long for domestic use. Branches pruned by a saw like this shouldn't be more than around 50-100mm (2"-4") in diameter. Top Tip - the blade is razor sharp, so be careful, it cuts on the pull stroke, not the push. Don't force it.
Too much like hard work? These brilliant WORX pruners will do the job quickly and without fuss.
For heavier branches or for breaking down to fire wood.
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