Apple Malus domestica

Just a couple of well looked after apple trees in your garden can reward you with a bumper autumn harvest of around 45kg of crunchy ripe fruits per tree. At around 8 apples per kg that’s a lot of fruit. Apples are not only delicious when eaten fresh from the tree, they also store well and are suited to being preserved or frozen - which means your potential harvest can go a long way. The average mature size for an apple tree is between 3 and 5 metres and just how tall your tree will grow is dependant upon what type of tree you select and where you grow it. There are lots of varieties of apple tree available and you can choose to suit various factors – things such as growing conditions, climate and the sort of fruit you like.  There is a wide range of fruit flavours and textures to consider when choosing your apple variety - some sweet and juicy, others tart and crisp – including ‘cooking apple’ varieties that are best for pies and preserving. The great thing about planting apples in you garden is that you can choose some of the more exciting varieties that simply can’t be bought in shops and supermarkets.

Apple trees are generally planted during the winter months. This is when ‘bare root’ trees (saplings with soil washed off their roots) are available at nurseries and the widest choice of variety is available.

Companions Garlic, comfrey, borage, dill, chives, nasturtium

Quantity 1- 4 trees per family

THE GROWING LIFECYCLE



Apples

  • Medium sized trees
  • Need fertile soil with good drainage
  • Sunny position
  • May need two trees for pollination
  • Potentially large harvest

Paul Thompson's Mum's Baked Apples

Apples are big in our household, the five of us go through about 70 per week. Mostly we eat them raw. This recipe is a great way of cooking them ...

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Varieties

There are over a hundred varieties of apple available in New Zealand. The best way to work out what suits you is to order catalogues from growers in late summer and match available varieties with your tastes, growing conditions and climate. Many apple trees are what’s called ‘self fertile’ meaning they can be grown on their own but some need another tree to help with pollination – this information is normally included on labels or in plant descriptions in catalogues. Take a look at some of the old-fashioned heirloom and heritage varieties that are returning in popularity, you’ll find some great apples not only rich in flavour but rich in history too.

Apples are divided into several categories and these may help you on your quest for what’s best:

Crab apple: old-fashioned varieties with small, bitter fruit that are most often made into jams, jellies and sauces. Often planted with other apple trees as a pollinator. ‘Floribunda’ is often planted for its delicate pink blossom and ‘Golden Hornet’ for its decorative profusion of red and yellow fruits.

Dessert apple: the common eating apple with sweet tasting juicy fruits – some of which are also good for cooking. Divides into three groups –
Early – fruits start to ripen in early summer. Good varieties – ‘Oratia Beauty’, ‘Winesap’, ‘Devonshire Quarendon’.
Mid – fruits ripen from late summer into autumn. Good varieties – ‘Freyburg’, ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘Egremont Russet’.
Late – fruits ripen from mid autumn and are produced through winter. Good varieties – ‘Granny Smith’, ‘Braeburn’

Cooking apple: large fruits with thick skins and a tart bitter taste. Usually cooked and preserved. Trees often grow into large, spreading shapes and fruit ripens mid-to late season. Good varieties – ‘Bramley’s Seedling’, ‘Mayflower’ and ‘Sturmer’.

Getting started

When

Apple trees are generally planted during the winter months. This is when ‘bare root’ trees (saplings with soil washed off their roots) are available at nurseries and the widest choice of variety is available.

Where

Give your apple trees as sunny a spot as possible and an open position with good airflow – put them where you’ll be able to enjoy easily walking around them. You’ll find that they will produce fruit if grown in partial shade but avoid putting them in the shadow of buildings and tall trees.

If you can, avoid planting them directly in the path of any prevailing strong winds. Blossom in early spring can be damaged by late frosts so try not to plant them in any hollows if you are in a frost-prone area.

Trees planted in lawns or grassy orchards will grow better if grass is removed from a circle around their stem – take a stride away from the stem and make this the radius of your circle, remove grass and add a finger-deep layer of mulch.

Soil

Most fruit trees like soil that drains well and does not get too water-logged. When roots sit in wet soil for too long they become deprived of oxygen that they need for healthy growth. Apple trees are perhaps slightly more tolerant of damper soils than many other fruit trees such as cherries, citrus and apricots and they grow in a wide variety of soils.

For best results they should grow in a slightly sandy garden soil that crumbles when handled rather than pouring between fingers (too sandy) or forms a single lump (too much clay). Sandy soil can be improved with the addition of rotted compost and sterilized topsoil and sticky soil also benefits from the addition of rotted organic material but also grit, coarse sand or fine scoria to improve drainage. If your soil is really unsuitable you might consider planting trees in large raised beds or mounds of suitable soil.

SOW & PLANT

PLANT

You can sometimes buy container grown apple trees from garden centres but the best way to buy and plant them is from bare root trees. These can be ordered from growers in late summer/autumn for mail order delivery in winter.

Container grown apple tree: Before planting dig a hole about 20% larger than the size of the container the plant comes in. Half-fill with well-rotted compost, rotted manure and some coarse sand or fine pumice to help with drainage. Mix together with garden soil at the bottom of the hole. Soak the container-grown tree before gently lifting it from its pot. Check the roots on the root ball and loosen any that appear to have grown around the inside of the pot – this should help them to get away and grow into the garden soil. Stand the root ball in the hole and adjust soil beneath it so that soil level is the same as ground level around it. Back fill with the soil/compost mix and firm with downward hand-pressure as you go. The container soil level should be the same as soil level in the garden with the union (scar at bottom of main stem just above roots) about a thumb’s length above soil. Drive three stakes in at even spacings around the outside of the root ball. Using a suitable tie – rope, cloth, plastic tree tie (but definitely no wire that will damage bark and stems) – secure the stem of the tree at about knee-height above ground. Water well.


Bare root apple tree: Soak your bare root tree in a bucket of water. Dig a hole - about a full arm length wide and deep - in your pre-prepared planting spot. Half-fill the hole with compost and mix with soil at the bottom - if you want to you can add a couple of spades-full of coarse sand or fine pumice to help with drainage. Make a shallow mound in the centre of your hole and sit the bare root tree on the mound with the upward-pointing stem in the middle and the roots radiating around it. The union (scar at bottom of main stem just above roots) should be about a thumb’s length above the soil when the hole is backfilled (you can judge where this will be by placing a bamboo cane across the hole from one side to the other and noticing where this comes against the stem of the tree). To back fill, gently work the mixture of soil and compost around the roots, firming the soil as you go until you have all but filled the hole to ground level. Fill the low depression that is left with water and allow soil to settle around the roots. Then finish filling the hole up to finished ground level. Drive three stakes in at even spacings around the outside of the spread roots. Using a suitable tie – rope, cloth, plastic tree tie (but definitely no wire that will damage bark and stems) – secure the stem of the tree at about knee-height above ground.

MAINTAIN

Water around the base of your young trees in dry periods, making sure that soil gets enough water for roots to be fully soaked. If you have a number of trees growing and live in a dry area it may be worth setting up a basic irrigation system to take care of this.  

Mulch around base of newly-planted trees, especially if you have sandy soil. Cover a circle as wide as the spread of the branches with a finger-deep layer of compost, rotted manure or old straw and replenish mulch when neccessary. Make sure the mulching layer doesn’t touch the stem of your tree as this can cause it to rot. This should be done for the first three years after planting, Thereafter you can plant borage, comfrey, dill and fennel beneath your trees to draw nutrients from deep in the soil and to attract beneficial pollinating and predatory insects.

Feed: Trees can be fed with a sprinkling of blood and bone meal around the outer edge of their drip line (widest edge of outer branches) in early spring – there are slow release fruit tree feeds available but they can damage soil microbiology. A more natural alternative is to use nitrogen-rich dried chicken manure pellets. Keeping the ground beneath your trees weed-free and well-mulched when its dry should help to reduce the amount of feeding that is required.

Pollination: Some apple varieties are self fertile but for best results plant with another variety that flowers at the same time. Crab apple trees are often planted nearby by as pollinators. Bees do most of the business so encourage them into your gardens with companion flowers like borage and lavender.

Thinning: If your tree has too many fruits it will produce a poor harvest. Many varieties drop surplus fruits in mid summer but sometimes it can help to remove immature apples when they are about the size of a cherry. Reduce each cluster of fruits until they each contain around 3 to 4 fruits.

 

HARVEST OR PICK

Apples ripen at different times from season to season, depending on weather. A sign that fruit are becoming ready is when you see the first few windfalls on the ground beneath them.  Skin colour becomes richer on fruit and in many cases the pips inside change colour from white to  pale brown. The tell-all sign though is that when you lift a fruit on the tree and twist slightly it should come away easily with a short stalk attached to it. Usually fruit in full sun at the top of a tree ripen first and then those on the sides followed by shaded fruit in the middle of the tree. Handle fruit carefully when harvesting to prevent bruising. Line your bucket or basket with soft material such as cloth or newspaper.


Storage: A frost-free, dark, cool place such as a cellar, garden shed or garage is suitable. Check through your fruit before storing and only select those that are un-blemished and have their stalks in tact. Place fruits by variety in trays and boxes or on slatted shelves. – ideally with no two fruit touching each other You can wrap individual apples in newspaper to help them stay juicy. Store away from onions and garlic as well as cans of petrol or diesel. Inspect fruit every week or so for signs of rotting and remove any that are affected. You can store fruit in clear polythene bags with the mouth simply folded beneath them and a few pencil-sized air holes poked into them. This keeps apples dust-free and stops them from drying out. Check regularly for any signs of rotting.

PRUNING

There is a range of pruning techniques – some of them quite specialized and complicated – for pruning apple trees. The basic principles are as follows:

Always prune during winter when the tree is dormant.


In general, when removing stems follow them down to the point where they are growing off a main stem. Cut the stem you are removing just above the point where it joins the next stem so that this leaves a small protruding collar that will heal over.


Remove any dead, diseased or otherwise damaged stems.


Remove any rubbing stems that are crossing each other and opening up wounds.


Remove stems that are growing into and crowding the centre of the tree. The aim is to let in light and to promote good air movement through the tree when it is in full leaf during summer. This helps to prevent fungal disease from taking hold.


Remove any shoots from the base or lower stem of the tree.


Remove any stems that are rocketing vertically from main branches.


Cutting out the center stem on young trees generates a more umbrella-shaped tree that makes picking fruit easier as they are lower down.


Apple trees can be grown against walls and fences - trained into decorative fan shapes as well as cordons (single stems with short fruiting spurs along them). There are special pruning guidelines for these in books on pruning.

PESTS

The more you grow apples, the more you will learn what particular pests and disease might be an issue in your location. The extent to which you might lean towards chemicals is up to you, but remember that these chemicals are seldom used without side-effects that can be detrimental to the wider environment of your garden. To reduce the likelihood of your trees falling victim to and suffering from pests and diseases look after your trees.


Remove any dead or diseased stems and fruit regularly.


Sweep and compost fallen leaves.


Mulch and feed, ensure constant moisture during dry weather.


Spray fresh spring foliage with Neem oil spray to kill aphids, scale insects and mites.


Coddling moth is a particular pest and numbers can be reduced by hanging traps amongst your trees in mid spring.


For best advice on how to deal with fruit tree related problems in your area seek out local organic growers and talk to them. A half hour chat can save on years of trial and error.