Apples FAQs

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After a fine show of blossom and an excellent set of fruit, our ‘James Grieve’ tree has shed more than half its tiny fruitlets. What went wrong? ‘James Grieve’ is a very reliable cropper but, like many other varieties, is unable to swell every fruitlet (the tiny apple) that it may set as a result of pollination. Whenever the crop potential exceeds the ability of a tree to sustain it, nature steps in to relieve the stress, invoking what is called the ‘June drop’. When it is over there will still be plenty of fruit for you, but bear in mind that the ‘June drop’ in fact continues well into July.

We have a ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ tree, about 20 years old, which has developed several nasty-looking lumpy areas of rough bark around the top of its trunk. What treatment is necessary to clean it up?

It is evident that canker has started to attack. ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ is susceptible to this disease, especially if the soil is badly drained. Scrape the rough bark away right down to clean wood, then treat the exposed area with a wound paint to prevent re-infection and to encourage healthy bark to grow over the treated area.

We are thinking of planting a row of cordon apples to screen off our vegetable garden; the row would run almost north and south. What distance apart should we plant them?

This is an excellent idea. Make sure that the trees are on the dwarfing rootstock ‘Mailing 9’, and plant them 900 mm (3 ft) apart. It is preferable to buy maidens (one-year-old trees) rather than older ones, and if possible avoid planting tip-bearing varieties (those that carry most fruit at the end of the stems). Cordons should be planted at an angle of 45 degrees; if they slope from south to north they will get the full benefit of the sunshine.

Is it always necessary to keep the ground under apple trees clean? We have a large garden, part of it devoted to an orchard, and want to arrange things so that we don’t have too much work.

If the trees are either half or full standards and well-established, there is no reason why you should not grass the whole area down. All you need to do is to allow the grass and weeds to grow; then, when the overall height is about 75 mm (3 in), go over it with a rotary lawn mower: repeat the operation from time to time. In this way you will get a ‘tumbledown’ sward.

According to my gardening books, sulphate of potash is good for practically all kinds of fruit. I have given our apple trees plenty over the last few years, but now the leaves are yellowish with green veins. What is wrong?

Sulphate of potash is valuable if applied in moderation, along with the other principal plant foods, nitrogen and phosphorous. When you use Growmore (a balanced fertiliser) you are applying all three. By using too much potash you have created a magnesium deficiency—a condition clearly indicated by the leaf colouring. An application of commercial Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) at the rate of about 68 g/m2 (2 oz/sq yd) to the soil under the trees should help to put matters right.

Our garden is very small and we can find room for only one apple tree. Our friends tell us that unless we plant several we shall get blossom but no fruit. Is this true?

It is true that most apple varieties need another variety for pollination—and it must be a variety that blossoms at the same time. However, the nursery trade has an answer to your problem. You can buy what are called ‘family trees’—standard trees on a single stem, with three varieties grafted on top. They may all be cookers or dessert varieties, but in either case the selection will have been carefully made to ensure pollination.

We are planning to plant four apple trees—three dessert varieties and one cooker. Which ones would you recommend for northern England—our summers are usually cool?

To start the dessert season in September you will find ‘James Grieve’ a most reliable cropper; when picked ripe from the tree it is delicious. To follow in October, plant ‘Red Ellison’ for its aromatic, aniseed flavour. Then for keeping until November choose ‘Lord Lambourne’; you will welcome its good-flavoured crisp flesh. If you can accommodate only one cooker, make it ‘Lord Derby’, which defies the cold and sets its fruit without pips.

We have several apple trees, including ‘James Grieve’, ‘Charles Ross’, and ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’; but the fruit—when we get any—is always small. In addition, the leaves often have a pale yellow look about them. What’s the trouble?

The combination of small apples and pale-coloured foliage indicates that the trees are being starved of nitrogen. First, clear the ground under the trees, get rid of any grass or weeds, then start feeding the soil with Growmore fertiliser, which will supply nitrogen plus phosphate and potash. The best time to apply it is late February or early March. A foliar feed (that is, a plant food sprayed onto the foliage) during the growing season will also help.

My mother treasures an apple tree she has raised from a ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ pip, but after eight years it is still growing bigger without showing any signs of fruiting. Any ideas?

This is a common experience with seedlings; each one is an individual with a unique genetic make-up. If and when your mother’s tree does decide to crop, the apples will certainly be very different from those of a ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’. It would be a near miracle if its apples were worth eating; and, whatever their quality, it would be necessary to bud or graft the plant onto a dwarfing rootstock to restrict its growth.

I have been in the habit of pruning our young apple trees every July and again in November/December. Now, with the trees 10 years old, some of the varieties seem to have almost completely stopped cropping. Why?

There could be several reasons. July is too early to start summer pruning: it can cause fruit buds to break into growth when they should still be dormant These buds are not replaced, so the following season’s crop is lost Some of your apples may be tip-bearing varieties ; if so, there will be fruit buds towards the ends of the young branches —but perhaps you have been cutting these off in November or December.

Our ‘Egremont Russet’ apples are often covered with small brown specks. These are more than just skin blemishes—the flesh below the specks is also brown. Is this a disease?

It is not a disease but a disorder known as ‘bitter pit’, to which ‘Egremont Russet’ is particularly susceptible. It is undoubtedly related in some way to nutrition, and a low level of boron in the soil may be responsible. Experience has shown that domestic borax applied annually to the soil at the base of the trees at the rate of 34 g/25 m2 (1 oz per 30 sq yd) helps to eliminate it. To obtain even distribution, apply the borax in solution with a watering can fitted with a rose.

Why has our old ‘Bramley’ tree suddenly stopped fruiting, even though it still blossoms normally? It did well until our neighbour severely cut back some of his apple trees to let more light into his and our garden.

To crop successfully a ‘Bramley Seedling’ tree should have nearby at least two suitable pollinators which blossom at the same time; otherwise it does not set its fruit. It is evident that your neighbour’s trees previously provided the pollen, and they will do so again if allowed to re-grow their fruiting wood. The extra light and air, however, will certainly benefit the health of your tree.

Our old ‘Bramley’ tree has developed a crack in its bark from top to bottom of the trunk. What do you think could have caused this?

A crack of this sort usually follows a severe winter when the residual sap below the bark freezes. It is somewhat akin to the bursting of a waterpipe. If the bark alongside the crack shows signs of being loose, use a few large-headed tacks to hold it in close contact with the trunk wood. Paint the exposed wood with a bituminous wound dressing.

We have a standard ‘James Grieve’ tree planted in our lawn, and although the apples are always highly coloured and sweet, they are usually rather small. We have recently cleared a circle of soil around the tree to free it from grass competition. Will that help?

A fruit tree growing in grass is always liable to be short of nitrogen, which encourages growth. When nitrogen is in short supply, the apples will be small and highly coloured. Clearing away some of the grass will help. Keep the circle weed-free, apply water in dry weather, and do not forget a February application of Growmore fertiliser applied to the whole area beneath the branches of your tree.

Is there any answer to the biennial cropping problems of our apple trees? We have two varieties, ‘Superb’ and ‘Rev. W. Wilks’.

It has been suggested that de-blossoming one half of a tree would set up a rhythm whereby the two halves fruited in alternate years; in practice, however, it seldom works out that way. The best bet is to plant two trees of each variety. De-blossom one of each of the pairs this year while allowing the other to fruit. The de-blossomed trees will form fruit buds for next season.

We are in the process of making a garden in Kent. We would very much like to plant a ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ tree but have no space for another variety to pollinate it. Is there any chance that a ‘Golden Hornet’ crab-apple we planted not far away in our ornamental garden will act as a substitute?

You are lucky: ‘Golden Hornet’ is a very widely used pollinator for ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’. But the distance between the two trees must not be more than about 15 m (50 ft). Two eating-apple varieties that also make suitable pollinators for ‘Cox’s’ are ‘Discovery’ and ‘James Grieve’.

Several of our young bush apple trees have branches that now almost touch the ground. Should we shorten them?

When the branches bow down naturally it is a good sign, because from then on a tree usually fruits regularly and well. In fact, if the young branches had remained upright I would have recommended that you bent them down and anchored them to the ground, for this is a way to induce good fruiting habits. If the fruits actually touch the ground, however, cut back the affected branches to allow other younger ones to take their place.

We are re-planning our garden. We already have a ‘John Downie’ crab apple, which is a dual-purpose tree, providing blossom in spring and fruit in the autumn for making jelly. Is there a cooking apple worthy of planting in an ornamental garden?

Few of the best cooking apples are noted for their blossom, but ‘Arthur Turner’ is an exception and in a class by itself when it comes to blossom time. It is certainly worth a place on that score alone, and its upright growth habit is also a good point. From August to October it will provide large apples with fair cooking qualities.

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