Growing Apples Successfully

Type of tree: Bush, standard, half-standard, cordon and espalier.

Pollination: At least two apple trees are necessary to produce fruit.

Climate preferred: Temperate.

Aspect: Any. Early cooking apples can be grown against north-facing walls.

Ideal Soil: Well-drained ordinary soil which does not dry out excessively in summer.

Yield: 10 cordons will produce 20kg (441b) of fruit; the same harvest can be obtained from one standard or half-standard, four bush trees or four espaliers.

Planting and cultivation

The soil for apples can be made suitable by the addition of plenty of compost. For the first few years put down a moisture-retaining layer of compost or moist peat around the trees’ roots in mid-spring and water thoroughly during dry spells. Every early spring top dress the soil around the spread of the branches with general fertilizer at the rate of 35gm per sq m (4oz per sq yd). In early summer many of the smaller apples will be shed naturally from the tree. If the tree still appears to be bearing too heavy a crop, thin out the remainder and remove any inferior apples by cutting them from the tree with secateurs. If you allow a tree to produce too many apples one year, it will in all probability yield no fruit at all the following year.


An apple is ready for picking if, when you cradle it in your hand and twist it gently, it comes away easily from the tree. Store the surplus crop which cannot be eaten within a few weeks cither by freezing, or by wrapping the individual apples in newspaper and storing them in ventilated boxes or on racks in a cool humid place.

Pests and diseases

Regular espalier with upward-slanting branches...

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Aphids, capsids, codling moth (grubs tunnel into fruit), sawfly, mildew and scab.

The best plan is to have an annual spraying plan to give complete protection. Spray in winter with a tar oil wash. At bud burst, spray with an insecticide and a systemic fungicide. Spray again with insecticide and systemic fungicide at the green bud stage as the first leaves unfold; again at the pink bud stage; again at petal fall; and again at the fruitlet stage; and repeat three weeks after the fruitlet stage using only insecticide to give full protection against the grubs of the codling moth.


Standard, half-standard and bush trees can be pruned, only if necessary, in winter. It is a mistake to prune apple trees more than is absolutely essential as it often stimulates unwanted growth. Cordon trees are pruned in autumn. Espalier trees are pruned in autumn and winter.

(1) Bush trees are the most popular form of tree for modern small gardens and they enable a considerable quantity of fruit to be grown. They have a trunk which is about 60 cm (2 ft) high and they average 2.5 to 3 m (8 to 10 ft) in height with a 3 to 3.5 m (10 to 12ft) spread. Fruits usually grown in bush form include apples, pears, peaches, nectarines, plums, gages, damsons and cherries. They are normally planted at least 3.5 m (12 ft) apart.

(2) Cordon trees might almost have been developed specially for today’s small gardens since no other form of tree enables so much fruit to be grown in a restricted space. A cordon has a single stem with very short side branches and it can either be trained at an angle of 45 degrees against wires in the open, or upright against a house wall. Cordons grow to 3 m (10 ft) in length with a 45 cm (18 in) spread and are planted in rows with 60 to 90 cm (2 to 3 ft) between the individual trees, although they could be planted much farther apart if you wish. Apples and pears are usually the only ones grown in this form.

(3) Espalier, or horizontal branched trees, have a single central stem and two or three pairs of branches on either side which are trained on wires, either fixed to posts in the open or to a suitable wall. Apples and pears are the only tree fruits grown by this method. The trees grow to 1.8 to 2.4 m (6 to 8 ft) tall, depending on how many ‘tiers’ of branches are chosen and they are planted 3.6 m (12 ft) apart.

English: A picture of a special cordon fruittr...

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(4) Fan-shaped trees have short trunks and their branches are trained on wires on a wall, or fence, in the form of the ribs of a lady’s fan. This type of training is normally reserved for the more exotic trees such as apricots, figs, peaches and nectarines, as well as cherries and plums. The height of the average fan tree on an outside wall is 3 m (10 ft) with a spread of 3 to 4.5 m (10 to 15 ft). If more than one tree is grown, they should be spaced 3.6 m (12 ft) apart.

(5) Standard or half-standard trees have the same shape as a bush, except that standards have 1.8 m (6 ft) trunks and a spread of 6 m (20 ft) and half-standards have 1.2 m (4 ft) trunks and a spread of 4.5 m (15 ft). Apples, pears, plums and sweet cherries are all grown in this form, which is difficult to manage successfully in an ordinary garden. However, if you fancy lazing on the lawn in the shade of an apple tree, then this is the tree for you. With standard and half-standard trees, subsequent trees should be spaced at least 6 m (20 ft) apart. If you have insufficient room for two such trees, the problem of pollination can be overcome by planting a smaller form of tree of the same type close by.

(6) The soil for fruit trees should be thoroughly broken up with a fork to a depth of 45 cm (18 in) and sufficient soil removed from the planting hole to accommodate the tree’s roots comfortably. With bush and standard a sturdy stake should be hammered into the hole to support the tree before it is actually planted.

(7) Trim off any damaged roots with your secateurs. Then plant the tree so that the nursery soil mark on the trunk is at the same level as your garden soil. Fill in around the roots with good garden soil or soil enriched by mixing it with some well-rotted compost or peat. Shake the tree from time to time to get the soil to settle around the roots and firm the soil around the trunk with your heel. Finally use a tree-tie or an old nylon stocking, looped in a figure of eight, to secure the trunk to the stake. If the tree is growing in a grassed area, it is essential to keep a bare weed-free circle of soil at least 1 m (3 ft) around its trunk for several years to enable it to become established without competition from the grass for moisture and plant foods.

(8) Cordon and espalier trees should have their supporting framework of wires set up before you get around to planting. For a row of cordons stretch wires between sturdy hardwood posts (or concrete or metal posts) at 30cm (1ft), 1.5 m (5 ft) and 2 m (7 ft) from the ground. It is vital that the supporting posts should be set into concrete and that the wires are held taut by means of tension bolts. For espalier trees stretch wires every 30 cm (lft) to a height of 1.5 to 1.8 m (5 to 6 ft), depending on the number of ‘tiers’.

(9) Cordons are planted at an angle of 45 with the point where the tree was grafted uppermost. Ideally the stems of trees should point towards the north (or south in the southern hemisphere) to ensure that they get the maximum sunshine. Provide bamboo splints for the stems so that they can be secured more easily to the wires and also take some of the strain off the graft between stem and rootstock.

(10) Crowded and crossing branches, also diseased and damaged shoots, can be removed from standard, half-standard and bush apple and pear trees in winter. The idea is to produce an open-centred tree which looks like a goblet-shaped wine glass. However, be careful not to remove too many fruit-producing growths, which are the generally plump and rather rounded buds. Some varieties produce their fruit from buds on short growths known as spurs, while others have their fruit-producing buds mainly at the tips of the previous season’s shoots. It is essential that you decide which are fruit buds and whether the tree is a spur or tip-bearer before you start wielding the secateurs.

English: Espalier tree In the Spider Garden. E...

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(11) With cordon trees, cut back the new growth on the side branches in early autumn to four leaves beyond the cluster of leaves on the original spur. In late autumn the length of the main stem of the cordon can be shortened by as much as a third. Shorten the new growth again on the side branches to within two or three buds of the base of the previous season’s wood. Old wood can be distinguished from new wood by its darker bark colour. If the spurs on mature cordons become overcrowded, particularly on pears, thin out or remove completely in winter.

(12) The new growth from the spurs on the horizontal branches of espalier trees is pruned in autumn in exactly the same way as for cordons. The extension growth of the horizontal branches, by which the tree increases in width, should be cut back by up to half of its new growth in winter, depending on its vigour. Weak branches are always cut back more severely. Once the main side branches have reached the desired length, say 1.8 m (6 ft), they can be pruned annually in autumn as if they too were side-shoots arising from the fruiting spurs.

(13) With fan-trained apricots, peaches and nectarines, pinch back the side-shoots in late spring and early summer to the sixth leaf and the secondary side-shoots (sub-laterals) to one leaf. Crossing, crowded and dead branches can also be removed at this time. In autumn, after picking the fruit, cut back each side-shoot which has borne fruit to its replacement, and secure the replacement shoots to the wires with raffia or twine. Once the extension growth from the ‘ribs’ of the fan reach their alloted space, treat them as if they too were fruit-bearing side-shoots. If gaps appear in the fan, either through disease or neglect, fill them by retaining some of the shoots which have borne fruit and tie these shoots to the wires.

(14) Remove dead, diseased, crowded and outward-growing shoots on fan plum, gage and cherry trees in spring. In midsummer all side-shoots which are not required should be pinched back to the sixth leaf. After the crop has been harvested, cut back by half all those shoots which were previously pinched back. If the extension growth of the fan grows beyond its allotted space, cut the branches back at this time to a strong side branch.

(15) Before planting a fan-trained tree close to a wall, it is essential to improve the soil by forking it over to a depth of 45 cm (18 in) and adding plenty of well-rotted compost. For fan trees the wires should be secured to the wall or fence by bolts called ‘vine eyes’ so that you have a framework of horizontal wires at 23 cm (9 in) intervals to a height of 2 m (7 ft). Plant the tree so that its trunk is about 23 cm (9 in) out from the wall or fence and ensure that the nursery soil mark on the trunk corresponds to the same soil level as in your garden. In order to achieve the ideal fan shape, it is often an advantage to use bamboo canes as splints for training.

The side-shoots should be tied loosely to the wires with either raffia or twine so that there is some free movement to prevent their being snapped by the wind.

(16) Although apricots, peaches and nectarines are self fertile, they flower early in the year when there are few insects around to do the pollinating. So it is best to do the job yourself by dabbing the centre of each open flower in turn with an artist’s brush. Fan trees in greenhouses are always best hand pollinated.

(17) In areas where frosts are likely, the blossom on apricots, peaches and nectarines can be protected by covering the trees with a double thickness of lightweight plastic netting. If the weather is severe, the netting can be left on the trees to protect the young fruitlets.

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