Unlike the stereotypical image of men, I actually enjoy shopping. Spending time choosing a gift for someone or wandering round shops is quite a creative process for me. So when my brother said he would like an apple tree for his birthday this week I was happy to oblige. Apple trees are actually quite complex things to choose successfully – as well as the hundreds of varieties you also have to take into account many other variables relating to the eventual size and position of the tree. So what are the most important factors to consider?
Most apple trees are sold as one-year old or two-year old plants. The best time to plant them is at the end of autumn or early spring, avoiding the frosty winter weather, whilst giving them a little time to establish their root systems before the growing season gets underway. If you are ordering from a specialist nursery then they will probably come bare-rooted and will need the roots to be kept moistened for a few days until you are ready to plant them out at which point the roots should be soaked overnight. You can also buy potted trees which can be planted later into the year but it’s still best to stick to the above times.
Which age of tree to get depends upon your aims and the price you are willing to pay:
- One-year old ‘maiden’ trees are cheaper and have not yet been pruned to a particular shape
- Two-year old trees have usually had some pruning to a standard shape such as cordon (straight, planted at an angle usually along a fence), espalier, bush, standard etc. They are more expensive but will start fruiting for you sooner.
Then there is the complicated matter of ‘rootstocks’ to consider. In theory it should be possible to grow a full-sized apple tree on its own roots but in practice no-one does this. Instead, apple trees are ‘grafted’ (or joined) onto the roots of another tree which determines the size and strength of the resulting plant. Through years of research a number of rootstocks have been selected as giving the best results, with inspiring names such as M9, M26 and MM106. So how do you choose? Well, in practice, there are usually only a few that will be available and the three I’ve just mentioned are the most common:
- M9 is a ‘dwarfing’ rootstock which limits the eventual size of the tree to about 6-8ft or 2m tall.
- M26 is ‘semi-dwarfing’ - a little larger, needing good staking for the first few years
- MM106 is ‘semi-vigorous’ – about the size seen in many orchards, reaching a height of 10-13ft (3-4m)
As well as height, each rootstock will have preferences for different soils and the size will depend on how they are pruned or trained. Keepers Nursery produces a good guide.
Next on the list is the pollination group. Some apples are self-fertile and can be planted alone. Most, however, will give best results when planted with other apple trees nearby that blossom about the same time. To simplify the selection of trees, apple varieties are given a pollination group: a letter indicating how early or late they flower. The other pollinator must be a different variety of apple. In my garden, for example, I have varieties Discovery, Fiesta and James Grieve which are all group C or D. Again, Keepers Nursery have an excellent database which allows you to ‘show suitable pollination partners’ for any variety you look up on their website.
Age, rootstock and pollination group all have to be chosen carefully and we haven’t even considered the most important factor yet: taste. This is of course a very personal matter and in my opinion the best way to tackle it is by eating! (After all, you are going to have many years supply of this apple!) A supermarket is not going to be very much help here. Far better to get down to your local orchard, or even an event like Garden Organic’s annual Apple Day. For me, the best variety I grow has to be Fiesta: the perfect mix of crisp, tangy and sweet taste with a bit of crunch.
An apple tree is an investment in future years. For the first year or two it’s best to remove the blossoms so that the plant can grow strong without bearing fruit. After that they really are simple to keep. A bit of pruning, an occasional top-dressing of the soil with compost or potash and keeping them watered when young in very dry summers. So after quizzing my brother on where the tree was going to go and doing a little research I have ordered him a lovely MM106 Fiesta to be delivered this week. I quite enjoyed the process of choosing it and I hope it will be a gift he will enjoy for many years to come.