10 top tips on planting apple trees!

Growing more of our own produce is becoming a big priority as food prices rise and we’re more aware of the health benefits of fresh, home grown fruit and veg. Remember that old adage "an apple a day keeps the doctor away"? Recent medical research proves that the apple has many medical benefits. Even better, good British apple varieties delight the taste buds with a host of delicious flavours.

So if you are thinking of planting some new apple trees or a whole orchard, here are a few hints to help you plan.

Think about what you want to achieve: Are you wanting apples just for eating or cooking? Do you want some that are good to store and would you like some for making juice or even cider? Both are excellent ways of getting a tasty out-of-season dose of vitamins!

1. Buy from a reputable specialist apple tree nursery

Specialist nurseries supply a large range of trees of proven quality, delivered in good condition with helpful instructions for care. A good nursery will be happy to answer reasonable questions and give intelligent advice to customers. The growers recommended here will deliver nationwide or you can ask your nearest orchard group if they know of a specialist nursery in your area.

2. Avoid supermarket trees or pot bound trees from generalist nurseries

This is because you are unlikely to know who grew them, how long they have been lying in stock or how they have been maintained during that time. Remember, a healthy tree needs a good root system in order to survive!

3. Bare rooted or potted trees – when and where?

The season for planting bare rooted trees varies depending on which area of the country you are in. For the South of the UK it should be done by the end of March; whilst in the North and Scotland you can plant till the end of April. Potted trees from a reputable supplier can be planted later in the spring and in the autumn.

4. Choose varieties that match your needs

Good nurseries give clear information about the trees they sell. If you are interested in making cider from traditional cider apples there are 4 main groups: sweet, bitter-sweet, sharp and bitter-sharp. You should aim to plant a selection of all 4 types to achieve a good blend. If you want to make a tasty juice choose a mix of cooking and eating apple trees.

5. Select reliable croppers of eating and cooking apples

Some varieties of apples have good disease resistance and can fertilise at a low temperature so they are less dependent on long spells of sunny weather to be pollinated. Recommended eaters with these properties include: Ashmeads Kernel, Adams Pearmain, Egremont Russet, Lord Lambourne and Ribston Pippin. Reliable cookers include James Grieve, Lord Derby and Annie Elizabeth. Don’t forget - be kind to the bees that will pollinate your trees! Invest in bee logs for mason bees. Plant companion pollen rich plants like clovers, flowering herbs and lavender, peas, beans and comfrey, and early flowering bulbs and shrubs so they can feed throughout the year!

6. Get the right rootstock

There are 3 categories of rootstock onto which different varieties are grafted which determine how tall your tree will grow:

  • For patios and containers M27/M9 rootstock producing dwarf trees is best (approx height: 2-3m/6-9 ft).
  • For gardens & smallholdings select MM106 rootstock producing medium sized trees (4-5m/12-15ft). If your space is tight these can be trained as cordons or espaliers so that several varieties can be grown in a relatively small space. Our experts caution against the multi-variety grafted trees that some nurseries promote - invariably one variety becomes dominant at the expense of the rest.
  • For orchards and farms choose standard trees grown on M25 rootstock (a mature tree will be 8-10m / 24-30ft). If well guarded, sheep and poultry can graze beneath these trees.

7. Choose a good site

Select ground that gets plenty of sun is well drained, if possible on a slight slope, and not in a frost pocket. Don’t plant new trees on the site of old trees - the ground will suffer from “soil sickness” - a fungal organism that affects fruit trees and roses, and damages young trees. Never plant in frozen or waterlogged soil.

8. Prepare the soil and tree roots

Dig a large hole (at least 60cm diameter) that will accommodate the spread of roots. Fork the bottom and sides of the hole to improve drainage. Mix a small quantity (e.g. 20-30g) of bone meal and a bit of lime into the soil. Make sure the tree roots are moist before planting.

9. Plant

Secure a stake in the hole and then plant the tree on the leeward side of it, spreading the tree roots widely. Cover the roots with soil, firming it down as you back-fill. Don’t cover the graft point - it should be 5cm/2in above soil level. Secure the tree with a purpose-made tree tie. Apply a mulch of well rotted manure. Keep 1m clear of grass and weeds around the base of the tree as competing plants deplete the nutrients that the tree needs. Use either black horticultural plastic that allows water but no light to penetrate or spray with weed killer. If rabbits are a problem, put tree guards around the trees.

10. Keep a log of your trees

It’s a common mistake to think that we will never forget what trees we’ve planted where, so it’s good to label your trees. Plastic labels fade, become brittle and break. For a permanent record staple the label to a piece of tanilised wood or scratch the name onto a metal strip from a drinks-can and bury the label in the ground beside the tree – that way you’ll have a permanent record! It also helps to have a map of your planting kept indoors.

We are indebted to Adam Powell of Adam's Apple Trees in Devon, and to Duncan Small of Charlton Orchards in Somerset, for advice which they generously shared with us. Both Adam and Duncan have years of apple growing experience and are experts in their field.