Andy: My Garden School Tutor, Pip Bensley is not only the Clematis Queen (see Pip's online gardening course - Climbers and Clematis), she’s also pretty keen on growing her own fruit and a few veggies. She is also used to selecting fruit trees and bushes to sell in garden centres, and she’s very familiar with all the questions gardeners ask about growing their own apples. Like me she finds gardeners are often bewildered by rootstocks, pollination charts and complicated pruning schedules. I asked her to share her thoughts on how to grow your own fruit with our blog readers.
Pip: About 20 years ago I tried allotment gardening. I learned very quickly what a big commitment it was to maintain a plot. I also swiftly decided that it wasn’t for me. My free time was precious and I wanted to enjoy it at home. So I don’t have big vegetable beds and fruit cages, but what I do really enjoy is mixing productive plants in with the ornamental trees and shrubs in the garden.
If you have never done this before then I think one good place to start is to incorporate an apple tree in your garden. It doesn’t matter what size of plot you have, there truly is a tree for every situation. Choosing apple trees may seem very complicated at first but actually bear these simple tips in mind and you will end up with a beautiful, blossoming, fruit tree.
Cooker or Eater?
Apples split into two types; your choice depends on your taste. If you cook with apples a lot then go for a cooking apple. They are the toughest and they will stand more challenging conditions and less sunshine. If you prefer to eat your fruit fresh off the tree, then choose an eating apple.
The final size of your tree is decided by the rootstock number after the name. This is something that you don’t need to understand to choose, you only need to know what each number does. In the UK the following rootstocks are used:
M27 makes a very small growing bush for the garden that you can also use to shape into a small “trained” tree or grow in a large pot in loam-based growing medium on the patio.
M26 and MM106 give an easily manageable tree for the average garden. This size accounts for the huge majority of trees sold.
M25 and MM111 are best left to those who want traditional trees on a 1.8metre (6’) stem to fill a large orchard.
Check the rootstocks available in your part of the world.
Apples are perfectly happy growing in normal garden soils, although if you live in an area where the soil is very shallow you may get much better results growing your apples in raised beds or big pots.
Pollination is something that can be off putting. It is simply the task of creating the fruit by getting pollen from one tree to another tree. Cutting all the technical stuff out all it means is that the majority of apples need another apple to be in flower at the same time.
Luckily insects are oblivious to fences and boundaries and if a neighbour within about 20 metres (70ft) of you has a tree in flower at the same time that will do the trick. It doesn’t matter whether it is a fruiting apple, or just an ornamental crab apple it will work. A few apples are clever enough to pollinate themselves, look out for the term “self fertile”. If all else fails you can cheat and hang cut branches of apple blossom from another tree in jam jars of water off your tree and it will act as a pollinator for you.
Apple blossom doesn’t like being frosted, it can spoil it and then you don’t get any fruit. If you think your garden is prone to frost damage then choose an apple variety that flowers later. Also bear in mind that a very windy spot can make life difficult for pollinating insects and so find a sheltered corner for your apple tree if your garden is open to strong winds. Apples do like sunshine, so a sunny spot is desirable, however they will still grow happily as long as they get at least half a day of direct sunshine while they are in leaf.
This is where you need to know what kind of apples you like to eat. There are so many different ones. For example I hate the sharp twang of ‘Granny Smith’ but I love the fresh zing of ‘Discovery’. ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ leaves me cold but an ‘Egremont Russet’ is a real treat. Before choosing take a little time to think about the type of apples you enjoy and then spend some time reading the labels. Another thing to bear in mind is that apples fresh off the tree always taste better than mass produced ones so varieties that taste bland from the supermarket can be a real surprise.
Apples come in more than just the traditional bush or tree shapes. For small gardens cordons, Ballerinas or Starline trees (all with a simple single stem) can be grown as free standing pillars. For a really stylish, formal look a row of them can look amazing flanking a path. They can also be grown against a wall as can Espaliers (a two dimensional layered tree) which save space and takes advantage of the extra warmth from the wall.
Water your tree really well. Take time to dig a big hole, your apple will really appreciate it. Use a bag of shrub and tree planting compost for each tree. Sprinkle some fertiliser and mycorrhizal fungi in the hole to help your tree establish quickly.
Apples, especially the smaller ones, like to be fixed to stakes. The aim is to keep the roots still rather than the top of the tree; this allows the stem to flex and makes it grow thicker and stronger. Always put your stake in the ground before you plant the tree, this stops you damaging the root system. Use a stout stake: remember it’s holding the tree up rather than the other way round.
Fixing the stem firmly to the stake is important and many tree ties can be somewhat inadequate for the job: use a good one and check it regularly as the tree grows. It should be tight enough to hold the tree firmly but not cut into the stem.
Treat yourself to a good fruit growing book. Anything by Harry Baker, a God about all things fruit related, will is perfect. Or a simple Fruit Expert book by Dr Hessayon will do the trick, then sit down in a quiet corner of the garden to learn more while your apple gets settled in.