Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Plant Profiles: Apples

Isn't she lovely? The last Fiesta apple ripe for picking in the large pot on my patio today

Every October I've written about apples on Veg Plotting, so it's a pleasure to feature them as my Plant Profile this month.

At first, I was quite daunted about growing apples. There are loads of varieties to choose from, some very off putting root stock names to get to grips with and a whole host of things that can go wrong in the pests and disease line. And then there's the pruning...

But oh, there is such beauty to be found in an apple tree. There's deliciously frothy blossom in the spring and a rich variety in the fruit. If I could just pick one tree for my garden, it would have to be an apple.

And yes, you can have just one apple tree in your garden as some of them are self-fertile, though having more than one in the same or adjacent pollination group is even better for ensuring plenty of fruit. Amongst the self-fertile possibilities is the ever popular Cox's Orange Pippin, alongside the Scrumptious, Falstaff and Red Windsor varieties I grow.

October is the main picking month here at VP Gardens, though growing Discovery means I've actually been picking since late August. In my bowl this week there are Scrumptious, Sunset, Kidd's Orange Red, Princesse (the russet one) and Spartan. Note I didn't buy my special apple bowl, it was one of the worldly goods endowed by NAH when I married him.

I'm set to apply greasebands soon to protect my trees from winter moth. Apart from that and putting out codling moth traps in May plus some aphid squishing, I must admit I've been pretty relaxed about pest and disease care so far (*touches wood and crosses fingers*). I've chosen trees which are happy for my allotment and garden's soil/aspect so that goes a long way to keeping them healthy.

A trick I've adopted for my trained and potted trees is to bury a short piece of pipe alongside them. This allows me to water directly to the roots during very dry weather. I'm applying the principle that 'a pint at the roots is worth a gallon on the ground' i.e. the tree is encouraged to put down a good deep root structure which will help it through periods of drought. It's worked thus far and also means the task of watering during dry spells is kept to a minimum.

The trees are about to enter their winter dormancy so now is a good time to research and order the best apple tree(s) to grace your garden or allotment. So what are you waiting for?

Here's a great idea I saw in the Long Walk at Stockton Bury Gardens last month. How about growing a row
of dwarf rootstock apple trees as a hedge? Fits neatly in a small garden and is more productive than stepovers.
Further notes

It's strange to think that something we think of as quintessentially English as an apple actually originated from the remote mountains of Central Asia. Here the wild ancestor - Malus sieversii - of our apple, Malus domestica is still found today.

It seems that apples can be added to the list of things the Romans did for us.

To blossom well (and in turn fruit) most apple trees need a minimum chill requirement of 400-1,000 hours of temperatures just above freezing over the winter period in order to break winter dormancy.

This is why climate change is of some concern for our apple trees. There are some varieties which require a lot less (e.g. Anna, 100-200 hours), so it is likely the varieties we grow will change, not that apples will disappear entirely.

Rootstock numbering comes with an M (Malling) or MM (Malling/Merton) prefix which refers to the location where they were developed (East Malling Research or East Malling/John Innes Institute respectively). Thousands were developed initially, but there are just a few left in common use today.

Rootstock choice determines how tall the tree will grow and is important to get right for success in the garden.

For pots and container growing, M26 (dwarfing) is the rootstock to look out for. Check if the tree has been formative pruned before buying. I pruned my potted tree after planting and then found out I didn't need to and had cut away half of its potential.

Other useful rootstocks are MM106 (semi-dwarfing - the most popular rootstock used), which is good for a wide variety of purposes, and M9 (dwarfing) is a good choice for small gardens.
As well as being grown as the usual kind of tree, apples can be trained into all kinds of forms e.g. espalier, cordons, pyramids, goblets, over arches etc. I'm having a go at cordon and arch growing on the allotment. It's best to google any particular form you're interested in as I haven't found an overall introductory guide online.

And finally, there are three basic types of apple - dessert, cooking and cider. Dessert is the sweetest and cider the most astringent. There are also dual-purpose varieties e.g. the James Grieve I grow is suitable as a cooking apple when picked early, then a dessert apple later in the season.
You may also like:
Further references
Apples form a major component of the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale, Kent.

Finally there's my favourite book on apples, The New Book of Apples by apple guru Joan Morgan (and Alison Richards). This would feature in my Desert Island list of gardening books.

Plant Profiles is sponsored by Whitehall Garden Centre.

Note to readers:
Sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs; the words are my own There are no cookies or affiliate links associated with this post.


  1. There was an apple tree on our allotment when we took it on last year.. We found it amongst all the rubbish! It looked like it had been originally trained as an espalier, but it was leaning over and needed restaking. We put new stakes in and I pruned it lightly as I didn't really know what to do with it and didn't want to overdo the pruning. We have been rewarded this year with loads of apples which taste a bit like a cox's. I've got more confidence now to give it a better prune this autumn.

    1. Hi Margaret - you've given me courage as I need to restake my cordons on the allotment. I'm so pleased your tlc has given you an early reward.

  2. An interesting post. I'm considering which two apple varieties to buy for the allotment this year - maybe Sunset and Christmas Pippin. I've enjoyed reading your tips.

    1. Hi CJ - Christmas Pippin is a really interesting variety as it was found growing next to the M5. It's a very new introduction and everyone seems very excited about it. I won't be surprised if it's awarded an AGM by the RHS. It's compatible with your other choice as they are both in pollinations group 3. Sunset is another prolific apple on my plot - it's the larger apples you can see in my fruit bowl.

  3. Thanks for an interesting, and informative, post. Flighty xx

    1. Hi Flighty - glad you enjoyed :)

  4. Reading this again, I'm chuckling at how many sentences I've started with a conjunction. I recently read this interesting and thought provoking piece on grammar:
    Bogus Grammar Rules
    Can you spot the other one I've ignored in this comment? Looks OK to me, though I'm sure grammar pedants like my NAH would give me a good ticking off ;)

  5. Thanks, VP - that's a really useful post as we're planning to plant apple trees in our new garden and have never grown them before.

    Yes, I can spot the grammer error, though it took me a while to find it, despite being a grammar geek! I don't really agree with the article, as I think the rules of grammar are good and serve a useful purpose, and therefore should still be taught in schools, but I'm not such a pedant that I think it matters if people ignore them in blog posts.

    PS Thanks for your email - will reply shortly :-*

    1. Hi Juliet - I'm glad this is a timely post for you and I'm envious you'll be selecting some new apples for your garden.

      I agree that grammar must be taught in schools - we need to know the rules before breaking them and a good teacher could challenge their pupils to come up with situations where the rules work and examples where breaking them is OK (e.g. the classic to boldly go). I thought this article was interesting because it gave some examples of where rule breaking works and then I chuckled because I know I often split infinitives and I'm sure I'm going to spot lots more sentences which start with conjunctions from now on.

      Look out for tomorrow's blog post - it stars the picture you kindly sent me :)

  6. A most informative article VP. I can see why NAH stole your heart. I can still hear my English teacher saying "Never begin a sentence with and or but - they are joining words" :) You might be interested in a new book coming out in December on the subject of apples :

    The 'Willow' title in the same series which I have a copy of is excellent.

  7. Thanks Anna, I shall look out for that book - it'll have to be very good indeed to match Joan Morgan's book :)


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