An apple tree is a wonderful thing, an orchard even better, but there have been some amazing advances in horticulture of late, meaning that even the smallest garden (a pot on a patio no less) can be capable of producing apples in autumn.
Most apple trees are large, so breeding techniques have had to get round this by grafting onto a ‘dwarfing rootstock’. This simply means attaching one apple variety to a different root to get, say, a crisp red-skinned, disease-resistant variety that will remain relatively compact. These smaller trees do need decent soil to thrive, however, so dig in plenty of well-rotted manure or garden compost when you plant them.
Will my tree need a mate for pollination?
Most fruit trees need to be cross pollinated by bees or other insects in order for them to set fruit, and a lot of them need pollen from a different tree, which would need to be close by. However, there is now an impressive number of self-fertile varieties available, so if you only want one tree look out for these.
What about all those fancy-shaped apple trees?
Dedicated pruning to a cordon, fan or espalier is great way of keeping apple trees small, and it’s really practical, too. A fan simply fans out flat from the base, with main branches trained along wires; a cordon is similar but planted at a 45 degree angle, and with the main branches trained horizontally to short spurs; an espalier is upright, with the fruiting branches trained horizontally. One you’ve established the basic shape, you’ll need to prune them a couple of times a year to keep them compact and productive. You can grow apples as ‘step-overs’ (almost like a low apple hedge).
I’ve heard of two varieties of apples on one tree - is this possible?
Yes, clever grafting can produce a specimen with two varieties on one tree. Called ‘duo’ trees, they normally have one variety per neatly pruned stem, grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock, so they’re a good option for a small garden and quite a talking point.
When should I plant?
Bare-root trees can be planted from late autumn to early winter, when the tree is dormant, while container-grown trees can be planted whenever you like, as long as the soil isn’t waterlogged or frozen. Soak the roots of bare-root plants for a few hours before you plant them and always stake new trees to steady them in the wind and get well established.
Which varieties work best?
‘James Grieve’ is a pretty red apple with a sharp flavour that’s also good as a cooking apple. ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ is a firm dessert apple with great flavour, and it’s good for storing, too. ‘Falstaff’ is a good one for disease resistance, and ripens in October, while ‘Golden Noble’ is a popular cooking apple with a tangy but not acid flavour.