Our family has been growing apples for a long time. Going back to Katie’s grandparents, we’ve planted literally thousands of apple trees over several generations.
Every tree we’ve planted has been grown and grafted by us.
We’ve pruned hundreds of trees every year. Learned how to manage the many pests and diseases that plague them, without using any damaging chemicals. We’ve harvested, packed, stored, and marketed dozens of different varieties, and got to know their different characteristics.
You could say we know apples.
So when we recommend apples as one of the best fruit trees to grow at home, we’re speaking from experience.
Why do apples make such great backyard trees?
Apples are one of the oldest domesticated fruit types. They have a history that goes back at least 10,000 years to their origins in Kazakhstan. As they became domesticated they spread first to Europe, and then across the whole world.
They’ve been one of the most-loved fruit trees for a very long time, and for good reason:
- The trees and the fruit are quite robust, making them easy to grow, and a reliable cropper.
- There’s a huge range of different varieties available that ripen at different times. This makes it possible to plan for a very long harvest.
- They grow well in a wide range of climates, especially with the new low chill varieties.
- The fruit is really versatile. It is delicious, very healthy, stores well, and is easily preserved in a range of ways.
What conditions do apples need to grow well?
Apples prefer to grow in full sun, though in very hot climates the fruit may need some protection against sunburn.
They also need cool winters so they can get enough “chill factor”. Chill factor is an accumulation of the number of hours at a low temperature. It’s required for the buds to break dormancy in spring. Most varieties need between 400-1800 hours.
Apple trees prefer well-drained soil that is high in organic matter. If you’re planning to grow your apples organically (which we highly recommend), then steer clear of artificial fertilisers. They are usually quite salty and can damage the natural fertility system that apple trees evolved with over thousands of years.
Feed the soil under your apple trees with compost, worm castings, compost tea, or aged manure. These are all natural products that help to build soil health over the long term. Growing a mix of plants such as flowers and herbs under your apple trees will also help to build up soil health.
If they’re growing in healthy soil, apples will produce healthy, nutrient-dense fruit year after year.
The one thing apple trees don’t like is frost, particularly in spring when the trees are flowering. Being aware of this and choosing a site for your apple tree that is relatively frost-free will definitely pay off for you in the long run.
However, don’t be put off having an apple tree just because you get frosts. It’s relatively easy to protect your tree against frosts with site selection, microclimates, and frost covers.
How do you choose which apple varieties to grow?
How many varieties of apples can you name?
You probably know Pink Ladies, Fuji, and maybe Gala or Granny Smith. For many, that’s as far as it goes—after that it’s “red apples” or “green apples”. If you can name 10 varieties you’re doing really well.
That’s largely because the number of varieties grown commercially (and therefore sold in supermarkets) has steadily shrunk over the last few generations. And while there’s lots of research being done into new varieties, most will not end up in large-scale production, and it’s likely you’ll never hear of them.
So it might surprise you to know that there are literally thousands of named apple varieties (or cultivars) known. Most of them are not commonly found in nurseries these days, but a surprisingly wide range is available, if you go hunting for them.
Why has the number of varieties shrunk?
As with every other area of agriculture, it’s a response to the commercialisation and globalisation of our food systems. For a variety to maintain its position on a supermarket shelf (and therefore on a modern farm) it must:
- be increasingly productive
- withstand many months of cold storage with no loss of quality
- have a long shelf life
- be able to travel well, and
- be very consistent in appearance.
And as farms get bigger and bigger, it’s just a lot more practical and cost-effective to grow 100 (or 1,000) hectares of the same variety. Sadly, that means that the number of varieties you can buy is very small, and many of the older cultivars are out of production.
Why you should grow as many varieties of apple as you can
As a backyard grower, you have the luxury of being able to create a polyculture. Polycultures include as many different varieties of fruit as possible, as well as other plants.
Amongst the thousands of different apple varieties, some have the most fabulous names (who could resist growing Geeveston Fanny or Peasgood Nonesuch?) But they also have many different characteristics.
This diversity is one of the magical things about growing apple trees.
There are apples that are better suited to eating fresh, storing, drying, juicing, or making cider. It’s easy to find apples that appeal to a wide variety of palates, from very sweet to quite sour, or even bitter. Choosing varieties that ripen early or late also allows you to stretch your harvest period over many months.
We have a heritage apple project underway on our farm where we’re building a collection. We’re including many varieties you’ve probably never heard of (and must admit we chose some just for the name). You can read the whole list here.
So, why are we swimming against the tide and recommending that you plant exactly the opposite of a monoculture?
Protecting against risk with diversity
A diverse garden is much healthier than a monoculture for many reasons. An important one is that it helps to keep pest populations under control.
It also provides the best protection against risk that we know of. If the wild weather conditions (drought, flood, hail…) we’ve experienced on our farm have taught us anything, it’s that diversity is our best chance of bringing home a crop every single year, regardless of the weather conditions.
The variability between different varieties in things such as the timing of flowering, harvest times, and resistance to diseases all increase the chance that when something bad happens it won’t affect all varieties to the same degree.
That means that the more varieties you have, the better chance that at least some of your varieties will safely reach maturity each year.
So, back to which varieties you should choose.
The answer depends on how much space you have, and your goals for your fruit trees. If you have room, try to choose at least one variety that ripens early in the season, one mid-season, and a late-ripening cultivar.
The actual varieties you choose will depend on what you want to do with the fruit. Different varieties suit eating, drying, preserving, juicing, or making cider. More than 80 varieties are listed within the Fruit Tree Database we provide for Grow Great Fruit members.
Which apple rootstock will suit you best?
You’ve probably heard of dwarfing rootstocks?
Many different types of dwarfing rootstock are available. One of the largest is the MM111, which grows to about 80% the size of a seedling tree. One of the smallest is the M26, which is only about 40% of the size of a seedling tree.
Many of the trees you can buy at nurseries are labelled as ‘dwarf’ trees, but this is another area where we tend to buck the trend.
Here on the farm, we grow our trees on seedling rootstock, which are trees grown straight from an apple seed.
Seedlings grow into trees that are the biggest possible size an apple tree can become. In fact, seedlings are what sets the benchmark standard of 100% that other rootstocks are measured against.
Seedling trees can get huge (up to 5m tall). This means they are harder to prune, harder to thin, and harder to pick than dwarf trees. Pretty much everything has to be done up a ladder. However, with diligent pruning and careful management, you can stop the trees from becoming too huge.
We like seedling rootstocks because during the last drought, we observed that trees on dwarfing rootstocks really struggled. However apple trees on seedling rootstock—even the ones that had no irrigation—survived the drought. They are one tough tree, which makes them the perfect tree for droughts.
However, seedling trees are also harder to manage and take up more space. If either of these things is an issue for you, it’s probably safer to choose one of the smaller rootstocks.
Looking after your apple tree
As we’ve already mentioned, your trees will be healthier if you grow a wide range of other plants beneath them. This might include herbs, flowers, or vegetables.
Even a lot of plants you normally think of as weeds can be very beneficial to the soil. Therefore most “weed management” is not about killing or removing weeds. It’s more about planting and looking after the understorey.
However, it’s a good idea to reduce competition from weeds for the first couple of years. Mulch the trees when you plant them, then replace the mulch with living plants as the tree gets established.
Thinning is the practice of removing some of the fruit from the tree just after flowering. It’s particularly important to do this with apples. Most varieties will otherwise fall into the habit of biennial bearing, or only having a crop every second year. The technique of thinning is described in more detail here.
Apple trees can be pruned into a wide variety of different forms. The one we recommend that suits most backyards is the vase shape. You can read about our foolproof 7-step method for pruning in this blog.
Apples are also well suited to many variations of espalier, though some rootstocks suit this form better than others. A mid-range dwarfing rootstock will suit most espalier systems.
Pests and diseases
Apple trees have a range of pests and diseases that can attack them. The most commonly known (and most likely to bother you) include:
- Codling moth
- Apple dimpling bug
- Black spot
- Bitter rot
- Bitter pit
- Fruit fly
Learning how to manage pests and diseases without chemicals was one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when we converted to organic production.
We made soooooo many mistakes over the years.
But over time, we learned how to manage all of them. It turned out that even the problems that seemed unbeatable (like codling moth and fruit fly) have multiple solutions.
Through trial and error, we’ve developed a ‘toolbox’ of organic solutions for each of these pests and diseases. We talk about the technique we’ve come up with in this webinar that we could apply to all of these apple problems, and in fact to any pest or disease.
Apple trees do well in dry climates, but they do need regular watering.
The most efficient way to do this is to set up a simple (and preferably automatic) irrigation system. One dripper per tree is usually enough. Adult trees usually need watering a couple of times a week. Young trees or trees with no crop can often be watered once a week.
Why you should include an apple tree in your garden
Apple trees require a bit of specialist knowledge, particularly when it comes to pruning, and managing pests like codling moth and fruit fly. But they’re totally worth the effort.
In many ways they’re less vulnerable and a bit tougher than stone fruit. And because they store so well, they’re a key player in providing year-round fruit from your garden if that’s your aim.
You can also become part of the global movement to preserve and maintain heritage varieties by including one (or more) in your garden.
It’s great to have antique varieties in collections, but it’s much better to have them in gardens. That way the apples will be eaten, appreciated, and shared – and the more people that get to know and love a variety, the better chance it has of surviving into the future.