Choosing which apple trees to buy can look confusing.
Have a quick read before you just nip down to B&Q.
Don’t muddle up the size of the plants you buy, with their size once they reach maturity.
First off, let’s talk about how big they will grow to. Will grow to. Apple trees are not grown from seed. In order to keep them true to type, they are grown from a cutting (“scion”). The scion is grafted on to a “rootstock”, which determines how big the tree will grow. It also accelerates its fruiting. Different rootstocks give you different terminal sizes of tree. We mostly sell apple trees on two, MM106 (or “M106”) and M25 (not the motorway).
M25 will give you a tree up to 6m tall after 10 years. It’s the size we see in Somerset in traditional cider orchards. These trees spread to over 5m, so need to be planted from 6 to 8 metres apart. They need relatively little management, but will need harvesting with a ladder!
MM106 is the size we sell most of for gardens. This rootstock will produce a tree up to around 4m, with the same sort of spread. Reckon on planting 4 – 5m apart.
We usually sell apple trees as maidens – that is, one year old “whips” which look not much more than sticks. We also sell 2 – 3 year old “bush” plants, which have had some pruning. Generally, the smaller trees are when they’re planted, the quicker they will get going, the better they will establish and the longer they will live. They’re better value too, particularly when you take into account the haulage and planting costs of bigger plants, which will also need staking. Normally, fruit trees on the rootstocks we use won’t need support other than a cane initially.
People do sometimes want older trees, however, which are sometimes possible to find. Usually it’s because they want fruit quickly. You will have a reasonable crop of apples from a tree which is 5 or 7 years old if a tree is on MM106 or M25. The bigger the tree will grow to, the longer it will take to fruit.
What do you want your trees for? Remember that mature apple trees will produce a lot of apples. A lot. You may want to keep them for eating, or turn them into juice. You might want to make your own cider, or have penchant for vast quantities of apple crumble. Apple come in three types; cookers, eaters and cider apples. Some varieties will do two jobs, but probably less well than a specialist. If you’re going to make juice, you can use a combination.
Some folk sometimes get round to harvesting their apples at all, and just like the blossom. Fair enough – you can find some really beautiful varieties.
People can really get their knickers in a twist about pollination. Fruit trees generally need another compatible tree nearby to facilitate pollination and, thence, fruiting. By “compatible”, it also has to be an apple tree, and one which is flowering at the same time. A few trees are even “triploid”, meaning they need two other cultivars. If this sounds like a palaver, these varieties have a lot going for them, so can be worth persevering with. “Normal” trees will just need one friend. This should be a tree in the same or adjacent pollination group – i.e. it will be in flower at the same time. If you’re in any doubt just buy a crab apple; they flower for ages and will pollinate virtually any apple. Something like ‘Dartmouth’. Lovely blossom too. And there’s the jelly.
Geography & History
Apples are part of our history. No, really. You can still buy a descendant of Isaac Newton’s apple tree. Many areas of the UK have their own apple tree varieties, sometimes properly old, which will have done particularly well there. Hereabouts in Somerset we are surrounded by cider trees, which flourish in our heavy clay and wet, warm winters. There are lovely eaters further east which do well in lighter soils and lower rainfall. It’s worth doing some research to find out if you have a local apple, and seeing if you can at least squeeze it in somewhere.
Changing weather patterns in particular mean it’s not impossible to grow heritage varieties in non traditional areas though. We grow apples from East Anglia, which do pretty well.
Don’t be afraid to chose old varieties. If you can only find them to buy with difficulty, it doesn’t mean that they’ve fallen out of favour not because they taste bad. Generally it’s because they don’t travel or store well, or look odd. Maybe they don’t crop reliably or heavily. Does that worry you? These are some of the most trouble free, beautiful, healthy trees you can find.