There is no better pleasure (gardening-wise) than being able to harvest your own fruit. In years gone by apple growing at home was limited by the amount of growing space available, but research has led to the development of dwarf apple rootstock, so that most garens can now accommodate an apple tree.
Apples usually crop so prolifically that only one or two trees are needed. The best time to buy a plant is in late autumn, when they are sold 'bare rooted', but if you havn't managed to do that, don't be put off, as most garden centres will sell pot grown plants throughout the year, although, naturally these will need a good daily drenching if you are planting them out in the summer.
The first consideration when choosing an apple tree is which rootstock to buy. These fall very roughly into three categories, very dwarf, dwarf and vigorous, like so:
M27 and M9 are very dwarfing apple rootstock good for ballerina trees, or step-overs. However, they do not have a strong root ball and so will need staking or support for the whole of their lives. They also need very fertile soil, as the small rootstock can't go and find nutrients, but they will crop in year two.
M26 and MM106 are slightly less dwarf and with stronger roots. They only need staking until they are established, will crop in year two and can cope with less fertile soil. They are good for making cordons and espaliers.
M2 and M25 are vigourous and should only be planted if you have the space; they need to be planted around seven or eight paces apart. However, because they are vigorous they will grow away quickly and can then be underplanted, so utilizing the space twice, if you like. They have a broad root network and only need staking in their first year. These are best left untrained as small trees.
The next consideration is which variety to grow. It's not quite as simple as thinking 'Hmm, I always enjoy a Golden Delicious, so I'll have some of them'. Apple varieties fall into roughly three groups, early, mid season and late. This refers to the time when the apple is in blossom, so it's important to grow varieties which will be in flower at the same time, so that they can pollinate each other, as most are pollinated by the humble bumble bee.
Some varieties are just not good pollinators, whatever group they're in, whereas crab apples will pollinate just about any apple, so they are always good value, and you get to make crab apple jelly with the fruits.
Thee is a huge number of apple varieties, some are heirloom or endangered, so if you have the space it is worth experimenting with a few. These are some of the most common varieties in their seasonal groups:
Early: Discovery, George Cave and Katy.
Mid-season: James Grieve, Orleans Reinette, Egrement Russet, Pitmaston's Pineapple, Charles Ross, Jupiter, Fiesta, Kent and Bramley's Seedling (probably the most famous cooking apple).
Late: Ashmead's Kernel, D'Arcy Spice, Winston, Tydeman's Late Orange, Suntan, Howgate Wonder (cooking apple) and Merton Charm.
These are only roughly divided into groups, the boundaries of which overlap a little. It is worth noting that early varieties do not store, they are best eaten straight from the tree within one or two days. Later varieties may be stored in a cool, dark place (under the spare bed if you're not centrally heated). Apples were traditionally packed in hay and nettles, but shredded paper is a good alternative if you don't grow hay in your back garden!
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It is best to buy apples from a reputable nursery such as Dobies, or Victoriana Nursery, preferably during their dormant season, when they will arrive bare rooted. Soak them in water for an hour before planting out in fertile soil.
It is important that the graft (join) between the rootstock and variety is well above the soil, as if the variety roots into the soil the effect of the rootstock will be lost and you could end up with a forty foot monster where you were expecting a genteel espalier. If you intend to mulch your garden, which is always a good idea to conserve water and prevent weeds, then the extra soil depth needs to be taken into account when placing the grafted stock. Cordons need to be planted at a thirty degree angle.
Water well throughout the growing season and feed regularly. I use organic feed, such as pelletted chicken manure or seaweed.
Apples are pretty hardy, but can suffer from a few common diseases:
Canker: this appears on older apple trees as sunken, discoloured patches on the bark which spread quite quickly causing ugly wounds. You may even see white pustules in summer. They eventually encircle shoots which then die. If you suspect canker, use sharp secateurs, prune back hard to healthy wood and burn the prunings.
Codling moth: The female lays her eggs in late May or June, so take action prior to this. The eggs hatch out and the maggot burrows down the centre of the fruit, pushing frass (maggoty poop) out of the top. The best method of protection is to buy Codling moth traps from the garden supplier. These give off the female moth's pheromone, thus luring the male moths on to the sticky trap. No boys =no mating = no maggoty apples.
Apple scab: These are related to blisters and mainly appear on old trees, as apples are no grown to be scab resistent. If you notice scabby brown patches, prune out the affected wood and burn it.
Apple saw-fly maggots will also burrow into apples, often several in succession. These are best controlled by good hygiene, removing old rotten wood and apples as needed. Running poultry unerneath apples also helps, as they will eat any grubs, and fertilise the trees at the same time.
Given a little care and attention it should be possible to harvest a crop of apples within your first year of planting. If you have the space it is nice to grow a variety so you have some for eating and some for keeping, whilst the windfalls make great apple sauce.