An apple a day keeps the doctor away. That might be a horrible cliché, but growing apples in your garden really is a wonderful way to make sure you and your family stay happy and healthy. Growing apples in your garden could be a great way to expand your home-grown diet, without having so spend hours maintaining your garden. Apples are easy to grow, and once established, can pretty much take care of themselves. If you put them in the right place, choose the right variety, and keep a weather eye on things, they should produce an abundance of fruit for you year after year.
The apple tree (Malus domestica) originated in Central Asia, where one can still find its wild ancestor Malus sieversii. These fruits have been grown for thousands of years throughout Asia and Europe, and were brought by early European colonists to North America. The first apple orchard was planted on North American soil by William Blaxton in 1625. (Though crab apples or ‘common apples’ are a native species). Apple cultivars brought as seed from Europe were spread along Native American trade routes as well as being cultivated on American homesteads. John Chapman (better known as Johnny Appleseed), was a nurseryman why introduced apples to many states and he is viewed as a key figure in the history of the fruit in North America.
Though not native to North America, apples have come to play an integral part in the image of America and the ‘American psyche’. By the 1940s, the phrase ‘as American as apple pie’ had been coined.
Are Apples Right For Your Garden?
An apple tree, partly in full sun, partly shaded, in a forest garden.
Before you think about choosing an apple tree for your garden, it is important to consider whether or not apples are right for your area. The wide variety of apples means that there are suitable varieties for most temperate climate gardens. However, apple trees will need to be provided with suitable conditions in order to grow well.
Apple trees need a sunny and relatively sheltered spot, away from any frost pockets. Thetrees prefer a sheltered position in full sun, but will put up with a fair amount of shade and may benefit from some shade at mid-summer. Make sure, however, that apples always get at least half a day’s sunshine during the fruit ripening period.
They will do best in a moisture retentive yet relatively free-draining soil. If your site is prone to waterlogging or flooding, or has particularly shallow soil, then an apple tree will likely not be the best choice. Apples will do best in a well-drained loam that is at least 2ft deep.
When determining whether an apple tree is the right choice for your garden, you should also think about the pH of your soil. Apples prefer an acidic to neutral soil, and will do best when planting in soil that has a pH of between 5.8 and 7.0.
If the soil conditions are not ideal for apples, you may still be able to grow one. It is worthwhile remembering that while they may do better when planting in the soil in a garden, dwarfing varieties can also be grown in containers.
Of course, one more thing to consider when thinking about growing apples is whether or not you and your family will actually use the fruit. There is no point in planting anything in your garden that you will not actually use when harvest time comes around.
Choosing an Apple Tree
You could simply choose to plant an apple pip and wait for it to grow. But one of the most important things to understand about apples is that the seeds will not necessarily produce a tree that replicates the parent. Plant a seed from a delicious eating apple, and you may end up with almost endless variation. The tree you get could be a new and tasty variety – but equally, it could produce small or even inedible fruits. There is a huge amount of genetic diversity within the apple family for this reason, which is why there are so many modern cultivars to choose from.
Choosing an apple tree can be a somewhat confusing process. The first and most important thing to understand is that since seeds will not produce a reliable result, almost all modern apple trees are created through grafting. Grafting is a process by which the rootstock of one tree is joined to the top section (scion) or a different one. This process gives apple trees that can provide predictable results.
The rootstocks that are used on grafted apple trees will determine the vigor and eventual size of the trees. Certain rootstocks can create a dwarfing habit, while others will encourage a certain form, or create standard, full sized trees. Rootstocks can also be used to modify disease resistance.
When choosing an apple tree, it is important, therefore, to consider how much space you have available in your garden, and your other requirements. These requirements can help to determine which rootstock should be used where you live.
This cultivar offers cooking apples.
There are literally thousands of apple cultivars out there. The properties of the fruit are largely determined by the scion plant that it used on the grafted apple tree. Cultivars for apples are largely divided into two main categories – eating or dessert apples, and cooking (or cider) apples. In certain circles, these two types have been eloquently described as ‘biters’ and ‘spitters’. (Dessert apples need full sun, ideally, while cooking apples can cope with less sun.) But which of these two categories apples belong to is only one of the things to consider when choosing an apple tree.
You should also consider:
- The taste and texture of the fruits. (And your own personal preferences in these regards.)
- How easy fruits are to store (and how long they can be stored for). Some apples will keep much better than others.
- Disease resistance. (Some modern cultivars offer better disease resistance than others.)
When choosing cultivars, one thing to consider is that you can help to protect modern diversity in food production by opting for heritage varieties and keeping the apple’s genetic diversity alive. Even though there are thousands of cultivars, commercial production is rather more limited – focussed largely on a few varieties which offer commercially valuable fruits, which store well, and which can most easily be transported. This lack of diversity can bring problems, and make food production more precarious. As a home gardener, you can do your part in improving the sustainability of apple production by growing more unusual apple trees in your garden.
It is a good idea to choose cultivars that have been grown locally, and which are well suited to the conditions where you live. The best varieties will depend on where your location. You can get advice on the best apple trees for your area by speaking with experts at local plant nurseries or garden centres, or taking advice from gardening family, friends or neighbors.
Grafted trees are usually sold as named cultivars by garden centres, plant nurseries or online suppliers. Order bare root trees for best results.
It is also important to remember that for the best yields, apples need pollination from a different cultivar that flowers at the same time. (Domestic apple trees can also be pollinated by wild apples, so you may only need to plant one in your garden. Still, planting more than one apple tree is definitely worth considering.)
Since apples are insect pollinated, whenever choosing apple trees for your garden, it is also important to think about choosing other plants, and taking other measures to attract beneficial pollinators and other insects and wildlife to your garden.
When To Plant an Apple Tree
Apple trees should be planted within the dormant phase, between late fall and early spring. Try to choose a sunny and dry yet cool day for the planting, if possible. Once you have sourced your apple tree and it has been delivered, or your have brought it home, you should be sure to plant it out as soon as you can, and not let its root system dry out.
How To Plant an Apple Tree
The first thing that you will have to do, once you have chosen where to place your fruit tree, is prepare the area where it is to be planted. If the tree is to be planted on an area that has been overgrown, clear the area well before planting (using organic, manual methods) so as to reduce the strain of competition on the young plants.
If you will be planting your tree on an area which was lawn, it is a good idea to cover the area with cardboard to suppress the growth of the grass, and to cover this cardboard with layers of organic matter as mulch. You can also build up a growing area around your new trees using the ‘lasagna’ method. Just be sure not to allow the mulch to rest around the trunk of the sapling, as this could cause it to rot.
Simply cut a hole in the cardboard layer in order to create a hole that is the same depth as the roots of the sapling and around three times the width. Make a small mound of soil in the base of this hole and place the tree upon it, spreading out the roots in the hole around it.
At the time of planting, you may also wish to add some mycorrhizal fungi, as this will help the tree to become established.
Once you have made sure that the apple tree is upright and correctly positioned in the hole, backfill the area around it with a good mix of soil and compost, to provide a good balance of nutrients to give the tree a good start. Tamp the soil down gently but firmly around your new tree to make sure that there are no air pockets and to ensure that the tree is firmly anchored in the ground. Water it in well.
Apple Tree Care & Pruning
While they are becoming established, apple trees will do better if they are well-watered and do not have to compete with grass around their base. Prepare the area well before planting, and mulch well around the base of the tree. Water and mulch well with organic material especially while the tree is young.
An apple tree guild in a forest garden.
Create an Apple Tree Guild
Replace grass and competing weeds with a guild of beneficial plants including comfrey, borage, yarrow and alliums such as garlic or shallots, and aromatic herbs, which will help to gather nutrients, repel pests and attract beneficial insects such as pollinators, and underplant with perennial shrubs to form an under storey and make the most of your space.
Pruning Apple Trees
Apple trees are best pruned during the dormant period. In most of the northern hemisphere, this is between November and March. The important thing is to prune your apple trees after leaf-fall and before the sap begins to rise in the spring. Exactly when this will occur depends on where you live, and the conditions that are to be found locally. The timing of these events can not only vary depending on the climate in your area, but will also vary according to weather conditions year on year.
In my personal experience, it is best to prune apple trees after the worst of the winter weather has passed, but before the spring. Pruning in late-winter/ early-spring will make it less likely that your apple trees will encounter any problems with disease or rot, which can set in when pruning cuts are made.
Cut out any dead, damaged or diseased wood and prune for shape and size, aiming for an open canopy for free-standing examples. Apples can also be pruned to stand espaliered against a wall where space is tight.
Pruning for Health
The first reason to prune apple trees is for the health of the tree. A healthy tree, stripped of dead or damaged branches, will be better able to flower and fruit and will provide you will a bigger harvest at the end of the season. By removing branches that may rub against one another, you can help to prevent damage from occurring later in the year. Cutting back growth to a degree can also improve the health of your apple trees by encouraging them to put more effort into growing fruit rather than excessive foliage. By thinning the canopy of an apple tree, you can also make sure that sunlight can reach the heart of the tree, and this too will promote a healthy yield come harvest time.
Pruning for Size
Another reason to prune apple trees is to reduce their size. This may be for their own health, as they may be outstripping the local resources. It may also be for our own reasons – to reduce the shade cast on surrounding growing areas, for example, or to maintain a view from the windows of our homes.
Pruning for Shape
The third and final reason to prune apple trees is for shape. Where space is limited, or at a premium, apple trees can be shaped to form a low hedge, trained into a fan shape or espaliered against a wall. While, where possible, it is usually better to allow an apple tree shape to develop more or less naturally, in certain situations, pruning and training for shape can provide a valuable solution for home growers.
In this image you can see the basket I use to collect my apples.
Apples will be ready to harvest (depending on the exact location and variety) sometime between July and October. Choose earlier and later varieties to harvest apples over a longer period. To see whether apples are ready to harvest, gently cup fruit in your palm and push and twist upwards with a gentle motion. If the apple comes away easily from the tree, it is ripe and ready to harvest.
Dessert apples can obviously be eaten fresh, straight from the tree. If you have more than you can eat, however, certain apples can also be stored in a cool, dry place over winter. You could also consider:
- Drying your apples.
- Juicing your apples.
- Preserving apples by canning, or making into jams, jellies or chutneys.
Eating apples, of course, can also be treated in these ways. They can also be used to make a wide range of different culinary treats, from the traditional apple pie to crumbles and cakes, soups and stews, and a plethora of other sweet and savory recipes. You should have no problem using up an apple harvest when you grow apples in your garden.