Apples are the most popular and one of the easiest tree fruit to grow. Although they are usually grown as half standards or bush trees, they can be trained into numerous shapes, which take up very little space - such as espaliers and cordons - so you don’t need an orchard to grow several varieties.
The easiest and quickest way to grow apples is to buy a young, ready-trained tree.
There are also other varieties of Malus, called crab apples, grown for their highly attractive flowers, foliage and small edible when cooked crab apples.
How to grow apples
Apples prefer a warm, sunny site, which isn't too exposed - strong winds can reduce pollination by bees, leading to a poor crop. Always plant out of frost pockets, which again can reduce pollination.
They prefer a fertile soil enriched with lots of organic matter, which holds plenty of moisture in spring and summer, doesn't dry out or become waterlogged.
There may be more than 3,000 varieties of apple, but your local garden centre or nursery will probably only stock a few of the favourite, best selling ones. First decide whether you want eaters or cookers, and then try to find out which varieties are local to your area - as they’ll probably be more suited to your soils and climate. Some of the most popular are:
Eaters Braeburn, Cox's Orange Pippin, Discovery, Egremont Russet, Gala, Scrumptious, Sunset.
Cookers Bramley’s Seedling, Bountiful, Grenadier.
Dual purpose Blenheim Orange, James Grieve.
Apple trees are available grafted onto one of a range of different rootstocks, which control the overall size the tree will grow to as well as how early in their life they start fruiting. The most common ones are shown below. The eventual size will vary, depending on your soil; on heavy clay and fertile soils the trees will grow bigger, on very poor soils a very dwarfing rootstock may produce a weak tree.
M27 (Extremely dwarfing) Suitable for trees up to 1.8m (6ft) high.
M9 (Very dwarfing) Suitable for trees growing in pots or a tree up to 1.8-2.4m (6-8ft).
M26 (Semi-dwarfing) The best rootstock for growing in a pot, cordons and espaliers. Trees will reach up to 3m (10ft).
MM106 (Semi-vigorous) Producing trees up to 4.5-5m (15-17ft).
Almost all apple varieties need another different apple variety that flowers at the same time to help pollinate it and produce good crops of fruit. Even those described as self-fertile will crop better if there are other suitable varieties growing nearby.
In most urban neighbourhoods another suitable tree should be within bee flying distance for this not to be a problem. In isolated gardens another variety from the same or adjoining pollination group will be needed for heavy cropping.
Plant bare-root trees between November and March, and container-grown ones preferably in autumn, winter or spring. Dig a hole 60x60cm (2x2ft) and 30cm (12in) deep. Add a layer of organic matter - such as compost or well-rotted manure - to the base of the hole and dig in. Place the roots of the apple in the planting hole and adjust the planting depth so that the old soil mark on the trunk is level with the soil surface.
Now mix in more organic matter to the soil and fill in the planting hole. Stake the tree with a rigid tree stake and two tree ties so that it is fully supported against the prevailing winds. Water in well, apply a granular general feed over the soil around the tree and add a 5cm (2in) deep mulch of well-rotted garden compost or bark chippings around the root area.
Large patio pots (minimum of 40-50cm/16-20in in diameter) can be used to grow apple bushes growing on dwarfing rootstock (M27 or M9). Use John Innes No 3 Compost, as its weight will help with stability.
How to care for apples
Once established, apple trees are unlikely to need regular watering, except in extreme drought conditions. But watering during fruit set will help ensure a bumper crop. Trees growing in containers, however, will need regular watering in spring and summer to prevent the compost drying out.
Add a controlled-release or granular plant food to the soil surface each spring to ensure the tree is fed throughout the growing season.
If you buy a fully trained tree, apples need little in the way of pruning for the first few years. Beyond that, it pays to know what, how and why you're pruning, as wrong or excessive pruning can lead to crop reduction. Most times all you need to do is remove dead, diseased, dying or damaged branches, branches that rub against each other and those that cross from one side of the tree to another.
If you constantly have to prune the top of the tree to reduce its height, then you've probably bought one growing on the wrong rootstock!
Pruning apple trees is pretty simple if you know a few basic rules:
Free-standing trees Prune in winter. If the variety is a tip bearer, thin the branches out, to open up the centre of the tree, ensuring that the remaining branches have their tips uncut.
Spur-bearing varieties Cut shoots back to about 4 buds to encourage new flowering and fruiting spurs to develop. Thin out excess spurs.
Trained trees (espaliers, cordons and pyramids) Prune in late summer, when the new growth is cut back to 2 buds. They may benefit from a second prune in winter, when some of the older spurs can be thinned out.
Apples tend to thin themselves by dropping some of their fruit in early summer, known as the ‘June drop’. If you still have a bumper crop that the tree can't fully carry in mid- to late summer you will need to thin out. Thin dessert apples to leave 1-2 fruit every 10-12.5cm (4-5in) and cooking apples to 15-20cm (6-8in). The centre of each fruit cluster has an apple called the king fruit, and it’s best to remove this one as it usually develops into a misshapen fruit.
To check if the fruit is ready to harvest, gently cup one with your hand, lift, and lightly twist. It should come off in your hand easily with the stalk attached.
Early cropping varieties should be eaten straight away, as they will only keep for a few days. Mid-season varieties should be eaten within a few weeks. Late cropping varieties are often tough and tart when harvested, so need to be stored before being ready for eating.
Store fruit in a dark cool place with good ventilation. Place in a well-ventilated or slatted box, spaced out so air can circulate between the fruit. Check regularly and remove any that are rotting.
Apples may also be susceptible to the following pests, diseases and problems.