Apple Trees are a Great Addition to your Backyard Garden
If you are considering growing a fruit tree in your back yard, then apples should be given at least some consideration. A favourite of many, apples are versatile in the kitchen and provide year round interest in the garden. You won’t be able to grow them in the tropics – you will need some cool winter days to keep them growing.
A full-grown apple tree makes a good, medium sized (6-8m tall) shade tree for summer, announces spring with a show of pretty blossoms, spends autumn in a nice turn of colour, then provides the gift of delicious fruit before becoming bare and structurally interesting during the winter months. Planted on the north side of the house, they will shade your windows from the hot summer sun and provide warming winter solar access in winter.
Whether fresh from the tree, dried, stewed, baked or candied, apples give the home cook plenty of scope for creating delicious delights that friends and families alike will keep coming back for more. The fruit’s soluble fibre strengthens your immune system and may reduce obesity-related illnesses.
When sourcing your apple tree remember that you may need two for pollination. Granny Smith is very helpful and will pollinate a wide range of varieties. Alternatively, look for a self-pollinating variety if you have limited space or simply only want one tree. If you have the room for it, it is a great idea to buy several varieties so you can stagger their fruiting over a longer season. Find a variety that will suit your climate – your local nursery person will be able to help you. I always recommend going to a specialist fruit tree nursery, rather than the local hardware store or general gardening outlet when sourcing food trees. The nursery people there will have a much more detailed knowledge of how a particular tree will perform in your specific climate, be able to identify the most appropriate rootstock and will be able to give you plenty of tips on getting the most from your investment.
If you have a small narrow space, apple trees are a great contender for espaliering – that is growing them on a narrow trellis, against a wall or fence in an almost 2-dimensional way. If room is really tight, you might consider a dwarf variety such as Ballerina or Pinkabelle.
Some self pollinating varieties to try:
• Golden Delicious
• Granny Smith
Self-fertile apple varieties will bear more fruit if cross-pollinated.
Whichever way you decide to grow them, there are some basic things which you will need to do to give the apple tree a good life and provide you with plenty of fruit in future years.
The best time to plant is in winter when the plant is dormant and bare-rooted. It will look like you are buying a stick in a bag, but the promise of fruit is tucked up in that dormant plant and planting at this stage will mean the plant suffers less stress and shock and will be in place ready to go when the days get longer and the weather begins to warm up. This is also a cost effective way of buying fruit trees, so if you are buying several, make sure you get them while they are still bare-rooted. If you leave it a little later and purchase your tree/s in spring you will be able to purchase a tree which is already in leaf. You will need to take care when moving it into its final spot that you don’t harm the roots or accidentally snap off any little branches.
Your tree will need full sun, that is, at least 6 hours of good sun exposure a day, even in the middle of winter. Additionally good drainage and room to grow will give the plant room to spread its branches. Avoid overcrowding fruit trees by checking how wide they’ll grow and then spacing the trees – from other plants and from surfaces such as walls and fences – to give them as much area as they need. Not only will the tree look better, it will be easier to maintain. Fruit generally grows on the horizontal branches so you will want to give it plenty of room to spread out. Espaliering can be a good choice for maximising horizontal branches and, therefore, fruit production.
noun: a fruit tree or ornamental shrub whose branches are trained to grow flat against a wall, supported on a lattice
verb: train (a tree or shrub) to grow flat against a wall.
Prepare the hole for the plant before taking it out of its bag. Dig the hole twice as wide as it is deep – the depth will be determined by how long the roots are. Dig it a little deeper than the roots are, but you won’t want to cover up the graft in the main stem as this will encourage the root stock to shoot.
Don’t add compost or any other feed to the hole as you plant – wait until you see the first signs of growth in spring then feed the tree as soon as it re-activates. Feed the tree again lightly as it blossoms and again after fruiting. The best time to prune your tree is after fruiting and before winter dormancy kicks in. Most apple trees will fruit well whether or not they are pruned. If the trees grow too tall and the fruit is high and hard to reach, and when there is unproductive wood they don't tend to crop reliably, so it is a good idea to prune. Similarly, if you are espaliering your tree, pruning should be used to train the horizontals and stop it from getting to high. The aim of pruning fruit trees in the home garden is to assist the tree to produce reliable quality crops, with good size fruit on a manageable size tree. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing all that lovely fruit way up on top of the tree and not being able to reach it – the birds will be grateful but your family may not!
When pruning apples look for a central leader branch, and prune to make sure there is only one main leader. Remove and clear any crossed or tangled branches within the tree shape. An open framework and not too many crossing or competing branches will mean the tree can fruit properly with lots of air circulation and access to sunshine.
The shoot on the end of each tip is called a terminal and this won't ever fruit, so reduce that to just five or six buds. There's also a branch that comes off the side of the shoot at an angle of between 30 and 60 degrees and that's called a lateral. Leave the laterals intact because these are the horizontals which will develop fruiting spurs for next season. And the little stubby bits of growth, which are fruiting spurs, will develop apples this season. Try to prune a quarter of an inch past a bud and at an angle. Remember to remove any old fruit left hanging on the tree so that it doesn’t just hang there and rot.
Feeding the tree an organic supplement and mulching around the tree with compost will help the tree to be productive and remain healthy. When applying mulch and compost keep it away from the main trunk so that you don’t run the risk of rotting the trunk away as the compost or mulch breaks down. This will feed the soil and help retain moisture. In dry climates you will need to irrigate the tree regularly. Fish emulsion or seaweed extract products are a great supplement for your apple tree too and will help keep it in good health.
Watch for pests such as coddling moth by inspecting the tree every 1 – 2 weeks. Remove and destroy any infested fruit and either burn it or feed it to your chooks if you have them. Don’t place them in the compost as they will just thrive in there. You could try cooking it in a sealed black plastic bag in the sun. Once the tree is well established in a few years’ time, you can free-range your chooks or ducks under the trees – they will clean up any fallen fruit and pick up any bugs as well, stopping them from surviving.
With a little care and attention, cool winter climate and some sunshine, you will have delicious, crisp apples at your place in a couple of years – they are definitely worth the wait and you will be delighted at just how delicious they are when picked straight from the tree and eaten. If you can wait a little longer you can use them in desserts, or dry them for easy to take snacks. If you can, plant an apple tree or two – I’m sure you won’t regret it.