How to grow and care for apple trees
Apple trees are the most popular fruit trees grown and they are also one of the easiest. Thanks to dwarf rootstocks there is an apple tree for every size of garden, even containers. Once established, apple trees are very low maintenance. Different apple trees ripen at different times, which means that if you choose a number of trees carefully, you should be able to harvest your own delicious apples over quite a long time.
There are hundreds of different varieties of apples so the first thing to decide when considering growing your own apple trees is whether you prefer a cooking or dessert apple, or both - some are suitable for either, giving you the best of both worlds.
Unless you choose a self-fertile variety or a family tree (a fruit tree with more than one variety) you need to grow more than one apple tree. Apple trees are grouped according to their pollination times so either grow more than one apple tree of the same variety, or grow trees that flower at the same time so that they can pollinate each other.
Plant apple trees in a sunny, sheltered spot to give fruit the best chance of growing and ripening and away from frost pockets. A rich, free draining soil is best.
How to grow apples
Growing your own apple tree allows you to try some of the hundreds of different varieties available. You can even have a go at growing a heritage variety that may have been local to your area for hundreds of years.
To grow your own apple tree, dig a hole no deeper than the rootball but three times as wide. Plant a pot grown tree at the same depth that it was planted in the pot, but if you are planting a bare root apple tree look for the soil mark on the stem as a guide. Refill carefully around the roots with soil and firm in your tree by stepping around the base.
Staking fruit trees helps to anchor their roots and to stop windrock, but always use a stake that is only one-third the height of the tree to allow the stem to sway in the wind and gradually thicken. Insert the stake firmly on the side of the prevailing wind so the tree is blown away from the stake, and secure it in place with a tree tie, using a spacer in between the trees stem and the stake to stop them rubbing together. Check the tie regularly to make sure it's not too tight, and loosen it as the apple tree grows and the trunk expands.
Water your tree well until established, but once apple trees are settled they need very little attention from us - just take care to water them in dry weather, and as fruit starts to swell in summer. Fork in some general-purpose fertiliser each spring, followed by a mulch with a good layer of garden compost or leaf mould.
Pruning Apple Trees
If you grow your own apple trees they need to be pruned every year, to help keep them in shape but most importantly to get the best crop. Pruning depends on the way your tree has been trained and where it fruits - on either the spurs or the tips. Minarettes with their single stems and open habits are a good shape for smaller gardens and containers, and the simplest thing of all when growing your own fruit tree is to buy an apple tree that is already trained to shape. Then all that needs to be done is to reduce the main leader in spring and to prune any new side branches back to three leaves in the summer. When the apple tree is dormant in the winter, thin stems to maintain the trees shape and keep an open branch structure.
When to harvest apples
You will know when to harvest your apples when windfalls appear on the ground. If you are wondering how to harvest apples, cup an apple carefully in the palm of your hand and twist its stem. There should be no need to pull or tug, and if it comes off easily it is ripe. Early apple tree varieties are ready from as soon as mid summer, although these early apples do not store well and must be eaten fairly quickly. Those that are ripe in mid autumn can be stored through the winter in a cool garage or shed. Check stored apples regularly to make sure the fruit are still healthy, and do not allow fruit to touch so that disease doesn't spread.