Beginner’s Guide To Choosing An Apple Tree

Apple trees can seem a bit complicated, what with rootstocks and pollination groups etc. To make it all seem a little more straight-forward, our knowledgeable tree men, Rob and Nick, have put together a basic guide. We hope it helps but the best thing is to come and see us at the nursery – we’ll be happy to help you in person!

Location: apple trees favour a sheltered, sunny spot. They are not too fussy about soil, though like most of us they prefer good loamy earth to sink their roots into. It’s best to avoid anywhere too soggy or too stony.

Size: the great thing about apple trees is that there’s one for every garden! For hundreds of years, gardeners and horticulturalists have been experimenting and selecting different rootstocks in order to restrict the size of the apple trees and increase their fruiting and disease-resistance. Apple rootstocks have all been given a capital M, followed by a number, to tell them apart. Each one produces a different size of tree. Unfortunately they don’t run in numerical order (that would be too easy).  All our labels at the nursery have details of the relevant rootstock on them. So…

For a small garden: look out for M27 and M9. M27 should keep the tree around 2m, while M9 will give you a tree around 2.5m. These trees will each need a permanent stake.

For a medium-sized garden: M26 is ideal producing a tree up to about 3m.

For a larger garden: MM106 will give you a tree over 4m.

Pollination: the most important thing to remember is that however complicated it all seems, it usually all works out fine! In fact, if you live in a well-populated area you probably don’t have to worry about any of this. There will be plenty of pollinating trees around. If in doubt, plant a crab apple tree and, due to its long flowering period, this will pollinate a large number of apple varieties.

However, if you live in an isolated spot with no evident apple trees around, you may need to pay attention to the next bit. Apple trees need other apple trees nearby to pollinate their flowers in order to make fruit. The key is that the apple trees must both be in flower simultaneously in order for pollination to take place.

To make things easier, apple trees have been classified into pollinating groups which reflect their flowering period, from 1 to 7 or from A to D. The RHS have a self-explanatory list here  This list is very useful in pairing up pollinators. To be on the safe side we often suggest choosing an apple variety that flowers mid-season rather than late or early (Groups 4, 5 or 6 / Groups B or C) – something like Scrumptious or Laxton’s Superb.

Now we may already be beginning to sound overly complicated and we haven’t even mentioned Bramleys, which need two pollinators! Panic ye not. As we touched on earlier, things have a way of working themselves out on the pollinating front. Not least there are some self-pollinating varieties like Red Devil that bypass the whole issue! At this stage, the important thing is to understand the size of tree and the variety you might be interested in. We’ve got some suggestions of our favourite dessert apples below:

Rob’s favourites: I love Red Windsor and Scrumptious. Red Windsor has a very distinctive flavour a bit like a Cox – it’s a lovely looking apple too! Scrumptious is sweet, crisp and ready in September. Though best eaten straight from the tree, I have found that it keeps very well in the fridge for up to six weeks.

Nick’s favourites: Red Devil has always been a favourite of mine and not just because I’m a fan of Manchester Utd. Brilliant red colour, juicy and self-fertile, it’s a winner! Sunset is my other top variety. It’s similar to a Cox but copes far better in our damp Cornish conditions.

Many people are a bit daunted when it comes to pruning but apple trees are very forgiving and it would be very difficult to kill one by pruning in a gung ho manner! The main thing to consider is that the developing fruit need maximum light and air circulation to ripen properly, so keep the centre of the tree open by removing inward growing branches so the fruit form on the outside of the tree. Lateral branches can be thinned and shortened to encourage fruiting spurs to form. Remove any damaged or diseased branches as soon as seen, cutting back to healthy wood. Apple tree pruning is best carried out in winter when the tree is dormant but no harm will come if it's carried out at other times of the year. All pruning tools should be cleaned between pruning.

We do hope that this has been helpful as a starter but please don’t hesitate to come and see us at the nursery for a chat!

It's easy to forget that apple trees are not just about fruit - they have beautiful blossom in the spring too!

Our tree men, Rob and Nick, have forty-five years' experience at the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery between them. They are here to help and give advice so do pop in and say hello!