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Apples

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last updated Aug 19, 2013
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Apple 'Cox' trained as a cordon. Image: Tim Sandall/RHS

Apples are easy to grow, productive and there are varieties and growth forms for every garden. You can even grow them in containers. They should be valued as a long term investment as they take a few years to crop, but once they start, they will do so for many years.

Cultivation notes Back to top

Apples thrive in a well-drained loam, at least 60cm (2ft) deep. Add well rotted organic matter before planting and mulch and water well through the growing season until the tree is growing well.

Shallow soils over chalk are unsuitable for growing all but a very few apples. Dessert apples need good drainage, but culinary apples are more tolerant.

Apples prefer a sheltered, frost-free position in full sun. You can still grow apples in frost prone areas, just choose later-flowering varieties or provide temporary protection in spring when apples are in blossom. Provide artificial or living windbreaks on exposed sites.

Apples tolerate shade providing they receive half a day’s sunshine in the growing season. Culinary varieties need less sunshine than dessert varieties.

Planting

Plant when dormant from late autumn until early spring for bare-root stock; containerised plants can be planted at any time of year, though the dormant period is preferred.

For detailed information, see our advice on planting trees.

Pollination

Apples do not fruit well on their own, needing a pollination partner for optimum production.

A few apples are self-fertile but the majority require pollen from a different cultivar that flowers at the same time. Even those thought to be self-fertile fruit better in the presence of a pollinator. Apples are grouped into pollination groups according to when they flower. See the links below for a list of these pollination groups.

Where possible choose two different cultivars in the same or adjacent pollination groups and plant within about 20m (60ft) of each other. Certain cultivars known as 'triploids' (such as 'Bramley's Seedling') need a third cultivar nearby, as their pollen is ineffective at pollinating other trees. There are some incompatibility groups. Fruit in these groups are unable to set a crop either with their own pollen or with the pollen of any other cultivar within the same group.

However, in many gardens, it is just not possible to plant two apples of different cultivars for pollination. Many gardens do not have the space. This doesn’t mean you can’t grow an apple tree. Apples rely on insects for pollination, and there are so many apple trees growing in other gardens and public areas, there is a chance your apple could be pollinated anyway. Check if there are apple or crab apple trees growing in neighbouring gardens or public land.

Alternatively, consider growing a ‘family tree’ which has two or three cultivars grafted onto the same tree. These solve the problem of cross-pollination, but can be harder to prune, as the different cultivars often grow at different rates.

Hanging cut flowering shoots from another different, compatible apple in another garden, in jars of water in the boughs at flowering time is another way of introducing pollen.

Download

Apple pollination groups (Adobe Acrobat pdf 58KB)

Pruning and training Back to top

Apples should be pruned every year to get the best crop. Timing and method of pruning depends on the type of growth form and rootstock.

There are several growth forms including:

Bush trees

  • Standards: The tallest trees, with a clear trunk of about 2m (6½ft); they take the longest to come into fruit and can be hard to pick
  • Half-standards: Tall trees with a clear trunk of about 1.35m (4½ft); easier to pick than a standard
  • Dwarf bush: Smaller than a half-standard, these have a clear trunk of about 75cm (30in); the final height depends on the rootstock used (see below)

Restricted forms

  • Espaliers: Formal wall-trained trees with horizontal arms coming off a central main stem
  • Cordons:  Wall or wire-trained trees grown as a single upright or oblique stem, or as multiple upright stems growing from a single leg at the base; they are easier to prune and train than an espalier, crop early and allow several trees to be grown in a small space
  • Pyramid: These are small, neat cone-shaped trees, about 2-2.4m (6½-8ft) tall, with branches starting about 60cm (2ft) from the ground; they come into fruit earlier than a half-standard and are easy to pick
  • Spindlebush: These are small trees about 2-2.4m (6½-8ft) tall, roughly cone shaped, with branches starting about 60cm (2ft) from the ground; they come into fruit earlier than a half-standard and are easy to pick
  • Stepovers: These are horizontal cordons on a short leg; they can only be grown in fertile soils, and need staking their whole lives; they make nice edging to kitchen garden plots

Apples are grown on rootstocks which influence the ultimate size of the tree, the age at which it produces fruit and its yield.

  • M27 is extremely dwarfing and good for dwarf pyramids, spindlebush or stepovers, in pots or small gardens
  • M9 is used for similar purposes as M27
  • M26 and MM106 are good rootstocks for small to medium sized gardens
  • MM111 and M25 are for standard trees only and are rather too vigorous for most sites

For detailed information on pruning, see the Links below.

Links

Apples and pears: pruning new trees
Apples and pears: winter pruning
Apples and pears: summer pruning
Apples and pears: renovating old trees

Propagation Back to top

Commercially, apple trees are propagated by grafting or budding. New trees may be grown from seed, but they will not come true to parental type.

Choosing an apple cultivar Back to top

There is a huge choice of apple cultivars that are for dessert (eating), culinary (cooking) use, dual-purpose or cider making.

For more information, see our advice on choosing apple cultivars and AGM fruit.

Problems Back to top

Apple trees can suffer from a variety of common problems and pests, including apple scab, canker, bitter pit, brown rot, powdery mildew, apple sawfly and codling moth. They may also be troubled by apple sooty blotch and fly speck. Most problems can be avoided by careful management and cultivar selection.

Quick facts

Common name Apple
Latin name Malus domestica
Group Top fruit, tree
Fruiting time Late summer to early autumn
Planting time Late autumn to early spring
Height and spread Variable, depends on training system used
Aspect Sun or shade depending on the variety
Hardiness Fully hardy
Difficulty Easy
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