Feeding And Caring For Apple Trees

Like all other plants fruits have special need for the three major nutritional elements-nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. They also require many other minerals in lesser quantities, some quite minute.

‘Straight’ fertilizers are recommended for the provision of the three major elements-sulphate of ammonia and Nitro-chalk for nitrogen, sulphate of potash for potassium and superphosphate for phosphorus. Natural manure provides all these three and all the minor elements.

Many excellent proprietary mixed manures are now on the market and these may be used with every confidence according to the makers’ instructions.

The Care of Apples

Most gardeners plant two- or three-year-old trees which have already been pruned by the nurseryman into the required shape-bush, cordon, pyramid, espalier or fan. It is more interesting to start with a one-year-old tree (a ‘maiden’) and carry out the shaping yourself: this is cheaper, but it means you have to wait longer before you can pick fruit.

As soon as a new tree has been planted you must consider what pruning is necessary, according to the age of the tree. Winter pruning, carried out while the tree is dormant, promotes growth and in the early years, when the framework of the tree is being built up, can be fairly drastic. Later, when the branches to carry the crop have been developed, winter pruning should be more restrained, the aim now being to stimulate fruit bud formation rather than much more growth. Summer pruning encourages fruit bud formation and keeps trees within bounds.

Pruning Bush Treesbush apple tree

  • FIRST WINTER: If a maiden has been planted, the first pruning consists of beheading it at a point immediately above a growth bud about 18 to 24 in. above soil level. This cut determines the length of stem below the main branches.
  • SECOND WINTER: Select the three or four sturdiest of the resultant shoots made during the first summer. These should be evenly spaced round the tree and will form the main branches from which other branches will spring. The aim should be a goblet shape with an open centre. Shorten each of the selected branches to between a third and a half of its length, making the cut beyond and close to a bud pointing to the desired direction. Cut back any other shoots, not needed as main branches, according to vigour, the weakest to one bud and the strongest to five buds.
  • THIRD WINTER: Each of the three or four main branches will have produced one extension growth and a number of laterals. Cut back the leader by a half. Choose two or three of the strongest and best-placed laterals as new branches and cut these, too, back by half. Cut back other laterals over 5 in. long to the fourth bud and any laterals pruned in the second winter to one bud of the new growth. Any feathers growing from the main stem of the tree should be removed entirely.
  • FOURTH WINTER: The stage has now been reached when, to encourage fruit production, pruning may be substantially less drastic. Subsequent treatment will depend upon the habit of growth of the tree in question. Most apples form fruiting spurs naturally or when their laterals are cut hard back. Some varieties, however, tend to make their fruit buds at the tips of young shoots and at or near the tips of older shoots. These are called tip-bearers. Examples are ‘Bramley’s Seedling’, ‘Cornish Gilliflower’, ‘Irish Peach’, ‘Lady Sudeley’, ‘Mr Gladstone’, `Tydeman’s Early Worcester’ and ‘Worcester Pearmain’. A few -`George Cave’ for one, ‘Crispin’ (`Mutsu’) is another-bear their fruit terminally and on spurs. If tip-bearing varieties have all their leaders and laterals cut back, few if any fruit buds will be formed.

For the spur-forming majority of varieties only tip the leaders, removing about 2 in. and cut back new laterals to three buds and previously pruned laterals to one bud of new wood. Eventually the spur systems will become overlong and possibly congested. Remove a few entirely and shorten others by a half. Should growth be weak cut back branch leaders more than usual – by a half, even three-quarters of the new growth.

With all systems of pruning, a first step is to cut out entirely any dead or diseased wood and any shoots growing in an undesirable direction (e.g. congesting the centre of a bush tree, directly towards the wall of a wall-trained tree) or crossing or chafing against another shoot.

If a shoot on a tip-bearing variety is left unpruned, it should develop a fruit bud at its end during the next year which, if still left unpruned, will produce fruit in the third year. If a tip-bearer is to crop well a good proportion of shoots must be left unpnined and the system known as renewal pruning is suitable.

Each year some fruited laterals are shortened to two buds so that two new shoots are produced the next summer. The remaining laterals are left unpruned to make fruit buds.

When a tip-bearer has begun cropping the tipping of leaders may cease.

Pruning Oblique Cordons

Oblique Cordons

  • FIRST WINTER: If a maiden spur-bearer is planted, no winter pruning is necessary. Prune tip-bearers back by a quarter. Should there be any feathers of more than 4 in. cut these back to three buds.
  • MID- JULY : Cut back mature laterals (those which are becoming woody at the base and are more than 9 in. long) to the third leaf after the basal cluster. Leave immature laterals for similar treatment at mid-September. If, by mid-September there has been secondary growth from your first cuts, prune this back to one bud from the point of origin.
  • SECOND JULY AND SUBSEQUENT YEARS: Cut back mature laterals as in previous summer. Where sub-laterals have formed, and are mature, cut back to one leaf after the basal cluster. Deal with previously immature laterals and sub-laterals in September.

The leader of a cordon does not usually need to be cut until further height has to be restricted and then it should be shortened, as necessary, in May. Before that, however, greater length can be accommodated by unfastening the cane to which the tree is tied and pressing it down to a more acute angle before refastening to the wires.

In time the fruiting spurs may become overlong and congested. They may be shortened or thinned out in winter.

Pruning Dwarf Pyramids Dwarf Pyramids apples

The laterals and sub-laterals along the branches of a pryamid are pruned in summer in the same way as those on cordons and, accordingly, the spur-bearing varieties are much easier to deal with than those inclined to tip-bearing.

  • FIRST WINTER: Behead the maiden at about 20 in. above soil level, just above a bud which will grow to provide further upward extension. Rub out the next bud below this (its growth would tend to compete with the leader). The next three or four buds should point out evenly round the stem. Rub out any buds pointing in the wrong direction (i.e. too close to their neighbour). The aim is a central leader growing vertically with three or four branches evenly spaced below it. The bottom three of these buds will be stimulated if you take a notch out of the bark immediately above each bud. Feathers more than g in. from the ground but less than 12 may be used to form the first branches: cut them back to about 6 in., to a bud pointing downwards.
  • FIRST SUMMER: Tie the leader to a bamboo cane if necessary to make it grow vertically. If more than four sideshoots have appeared, cut the surplus back to four leaves after the basal cluster in mid-July.
  • SECOND WINTER: Pruning now is designed to provide a second tier of branches to fill the gaps between the branches of the tier below. Cut the central leader to a bud 12 to 18 in. above the previous winter’s cut and to keep the central stem vertical, on the opposite side. Select suitable buds to form the branches, rubbing out unwanted ones and notching the two lowest. Prune back the leaders of the first tier of branches to downward-pointing buds about 9 in. from the point of origin.
  • SECOND SUMMER AND SUBSEQUENT YEARS : Treat laterals and sub-laterals as those on a cordon.
  • THIRD WINTER: Prune as in second winter. When the desired height limit has been reached defer pruning of the central leader until May and then cut it back by half. Thereafter cut new growth back to ½ in.

Pruning Espaliers

Espaliers are usually sold ready-trained with two or three pairs of horizontal branches. There is no reason, however, why you should not plant a maiden tree and train your own espalier. Then you can have a single pair of branches or, if you wish, four, five or more tiers.

There is no rule as to the height of the first pair of branches or the space between subsequent tiers-usually about 15 in. is convenient. For preference plant an unfeathered maiden and cut back to a bud just above the lowest horizontal support wire. This bud will provide vertical growth to carry- the second tier of branches 15 in. higher in a year’s time. Below the top bud look for a pair of buds as nearly as possible opposite each other. The growths from these will form the lowest pair of horizontal branches and to stimulate the lowest bud make a small notch just above it. Rub out any unwanted buds.

Tie the resultant shoots from the two lower buds to canes fastened to the wires at an angle of 45. If one shoot grows more strongly than the other, lower it slightly to a more acute angle and raise its partner slightly, nearer to the vertical. Try thus to get equal growth in the two shoots. At the end of the first season lower both canes half way to the horizontal, then down to their permanent horizontal position at the end of the second season.

Treat any laterals and sub-laterals arising from these horizontal branches as those on a cordon. Year by year a further pair of new branches can be made as desired. Leaders need not be pruned until the limit of available space is reached unless growth is unsatisfactory-in which case in winter cut back the new growth of leaders by a half or more. Pruning Fans Except in the coldest districts, apples are not satisfactory when trained against a wall. However, an apple can be fan-trained, the ribs of the fan being fastened to horizontal wires.

The initial training follows the method adopted with peaches. Once established treat each rib as if it were a cordon, though when it reaches the limit of available space it cannot be bent down to a more acute angle and so the leader must be cut. Fruit Thinning In good years failure to thin may result in a glut of undersized apples and put such a strain on the tree that it can produce little fruit the next year. In this way a habit of biennial bearing may be induced. Certain varieties are notorious for this alternate good and bad crop habit.

Timely fruit thinning will often check a tendency towards biennial bearing. Start thinning as soon as the fruitlets have set and you can form an idea of the possible crop.

With most varieties the central apple in each cluster (usually larger and hence known as the king) does not in the end prove the best. So begin by removing any obviously blemished fruitlets and then all the kings (an exception here being ‘Worcester Pearmain’).

Thin in about three stages, first reducing each cluster to one apple. Then continue until finally about one fruit remains for every 25 to 30 leaves. Dessert varieties should not be closer than 4 in. apart, cookers 6 in.

Watering And Mulching

  • Never wait until signs of distress are noticeable. Watering is particularly desirable in the spring for newly-planted and young trees and an equable moisture supply in the soil is always important.
  • Mulch trees in early spring with a 2-in, layer of rotted manure, garden compost or peat to help maintain soil moisture.


An apple is ready for picking as soon as it will easily part company with the tree, the stalk remaining on the apple. Pick by taking an apple in the palm of the hand, lift it to a horizontal position and give a very slight twist. If ready, the apple will come away quite easily. The picking season begins in late July and extends into November for late kinds. Early varieties of apple should be eaten quite soon after picking.


Mid-season and late apples will only keep to their proper season (by which time only will their full flavour have developed) if they have not been picked too soon (which results in premature shrivelling) and if they have been stored in good atmospheric conditions and a low temperature.

A cellar provides the nearest to ideal conditions-moist air, adequate ventilation, darkness and an even temperature as near as possible to 40°F (4.50C). If a shed has to be used, do not worry about an occasional drop in temperature to a few degrees below freezing but never handle the apples at such a time.

If you have a cellar or an insulated hut or shed, space the apples out, stalk uppermost on clean shelves. If space is short, wrap the apples separately in squares of newspaper or oiled apple wraps and put carefully into boxes. Feeding Where apples have been planted on cultivated garden soil of reasonable fertility they are likely to need little feeding in their early years beyond an annual spring mulch of rotted manure or compost.

Things To Watch For

  • Always watch for signs of potash deficiency: fruits may drop excessively or be small, leaves may assume a bluish-green shade, developing paleness between the veins and eventually looking scorched at the edges. Dress with 1 oz. per sq. yd. of sulphate of potash.
  • In normal circumstances a suitable annual spring fertilizer dressing for established trees would be 4 oz. of superphosphate and oz. of sulphate of potash per sq. yd. If no natural manure or compost is available for mulching, use peat and add 1 oz. per sq. yd. of sulphate of ammonia to the fertilizer. If growth is sluggish, increase the sulphate of ammonia to 2 oz. per sq. yd.
  • Over-vigorous growth can be checked by sowing fine grasses up to within a foot or so of the trunk. Mow the grass several times during the growing season but always leave the mowings to rot in situ. When growth has steadied down the grass will need feeding with an annual dose of 2-4 oz. of sulphate of ammonia and 4-1 oz. of sulphate of potash with 1 oz. of superphosphate per sq. yd.

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