Almost every garden most of will ever have known, at least those other than the very smallest, will probably have had an old apple tree or even several in it. These will have cropped for decades with no or little attention and so often get overlooked except when a few fruits are taken for use. Again most of us, given some space, will plant a few apple trees, but often with little consideration as to their variety and later usefulness.
Apples are a crop that needs much serious consideration, especially as they may well out last you. They are a perennial crop, holding the soil until eventually becoming apple fire wood which is one of the most sought. Apples can be simply picked and stored longer than potatoes, onions or most vegetables. They can be dried, juiced and processed in multiple ways, eaten with sweet or savoury dishes and drunk as the juice or as cider. Yet despite a number of aggravating pests and diseases the vast majority of apple trees will relentlessly crop year after year after year with virtually no attention at all.
But care should be taken over what you plant- it is not very sensible to grow the earliest croppers as big trees, or indeed as anything much larger than a small bush on very dwarfing stock. Firstly these are often tip bearers so resent pruning and thus are hard to control as trained forms, and grown as big trees they crop too heavily to eat up before they go over. The surplus crop can be juiced or processed but you have to be quick and many earlies do not have the flavour or quality of later ripening varieties and their juice is a white froth. Discovery is one of the few really good earlies and to my mind the best choice.
It is likewise a poor choice to plant mid-seasons as big or orchard trees unless you intend to process them in some way. Although they keep and can be eaten for longer they do not store long. However the finest dessert textures and flavours are amongst these so it does make sense to have several unusual and tasty, and perhaps old local, varieties. Thus these are probably best grown as cordons; this enables a very large range to be squeezed into a small space. Or for much less work in the same space, many fewer varieties could be grown simply as small bushes on very dwarfing stocks. However bear in mind that if it is bulk you are after for processing then plentiful mid-seasons can be scrumped for the asking; so why grow them? The late ripeners and storers are by far the more valuable. If they are to keep they need to be grown well and be perfect at picking time- it is harder to find good apples for storing if they are scrumped, whereas you can thin and thus improve your own crop. The very longest keepers such as Granny Smith, Tydeman’s Late Orange, Winston, Wagener and so on will be usable up till Easter with no effort and until early summer if you store them well. And it is healthier and greener to store buckets of apples and to juice these as needed than to make and freeze juice in the autumn (though of course made into cider that would now be ready to drink..)
As the late keepers need to be perfect to keep then they need thinning and so are again not best planted as big trees. As modest bushy trees trained to the classic goblet or pyramid shape they can be got at with steps and give a biggish crop. However for the best fruits for storing they are better grown as espaliers which can be most closely managed. They could be grown as cordons if space is very limited but the espalier form gives a much bigger crop which with keepers is the more useful.
Of course you need to have your favourite varieties- but don’t grow those easily found in the shops; grow the tastier and more interesting. You must have a russet as their flavour is superb, maybe an Egremont, or my favourite the floriferous Brownlees Russet. You need a frothy cooker such as Revd Wilkes which is far more useful than another Bramley. Or the divine Blenheim Orange which you can use as dessert and a cooker, sadly it gets a very big tree.
The classic mistake was to buy a trio; of a Bramley’s Seedling, a James Grieve and a Cox’s Orange Pippin. These, despite the Bramley being difficult as with triploid chromosomes it does not pollinate anything else. But with the other two as well all get pollinated. However the Cox is a miffy subject rarely grown well and although a good apple and eating well till the New Year it often fails to carry a good clean crop. (Try a Queen Cox or better a Holstein Cox instead) The James Grieve is delicious straight off the tree but goes over very quickly. The Bramley is a good cooking and juicing apple, easily scrumped everywhere, so why grow it? And it always makes one of the biggest apple trees on any rootstock. Rather than rushing to plant just any apples we can find at the garden centres we should examine why we want them; then the varieties deserve careful selection. As I’ve suggested above; earlies are valuable, in moderation, mid- seasons are worth growing for flavour, again in moderation and least required for bulk as all about for the asking, and most care should be taken to have several long keepers. Attending an Apple Day is a good idea, several are run by different organizations to promote the wonderful diversity of apples- there are nearly two thousand known varieties. Not all can be easily found but many hundreds are for sale as maiden trees which will crop in a couple of years, or even less.
Apples are so willing to crop, and over-crop, that they can exhaust themselves whilst young or go into bi-ennial bearing where they only crop in alternate years. Certainly the first summer after planting all fruits bar two should be removed (two and only two; for identification purposes to be sure you have the right tree!). The next summer most of the crop should be removed after June Drop when the trees drop many fruitlets naturally. This occurs about the end of June come July, however not enough fruitlets are dropped. If all the congested ones are removed, and all with blemishes, then those left become much bigger- and all those are near perfect and can keep well. This saves picking and storing or rejecting large numbers of smaller fruits which mostly go to waste in the end.
Indeed good thinning, together with the collection and disposal of all picked and fallen infected and infested fruitlets gives very good pest and disease control in itself. And more effectively controls the size and quality of the harvest for most trees than pruning methods.
Pruning must be done with trained forms from the first, carefully initially and then ruthlessly with shears once the shape has been formed. Summer pruning out three quarters of each growing shoot (except those for extending the frame) is almost sufficient for cordons and espaliers though a little autumn tidying with secateurs helps. Bush trees, either on dwarfing stocks or huge ones are best left unpruned- except for obvious remedial work. Do remove dead, diseased and rubbing or inwards growing branches. But otherwise leave well alone.
As you can see there is a distinct trade off between work and space- given space you can just plant trees big or small and crop them somehow. In a limited space or where a lot of varieties are wanted then cordons, and supports for them, need more effort in preparation, planting and future pruning. Espaliers give no more crop in the same space than cordons, probably less, but require far fewer stocks and slightly less work- cordons can be a couple of feet apart whereas espaliers need be ten feet or more. But cordons in the same space would give four or five varieties.
There are various other ways to grow apples- the low branch cordon or espalier running as a rail at ankle or knee height to the vertical spires of allegedly need-no-pruning varieties. Most of these have their uses but are more often seen growing well in garden show plots than in the real world. There is another alternative which is growing them in pots, or rather big tubs. Apples are not fond of this often being miserable and dying well before their time, and they can drop their crop easily. Even so they can be grown in tubs and this reduces the need for much pruning, indeed the cramping means they can be quite dwarf trees for years. If well watered and fed they can also be productive- but ruthless thinning of the fruits is even more important.
The rootstock is something that may worry some- but unless you ask you will almost certainly get a semi-dwarfing or dwarfing rootstock to make a smallish bushy tree. If you ask for a standard for a full size orchard it will come on a strong and suitable rootstock and if you ask for cordons they will come on another more suited and dwarfing rootstock. For almost every normal situation the weaker growing rootstocks are a better proposition as we want usable sized crops of apples not those of the big trees which by nature the apple would like to be.
If you live in areas with late frosts- not a common problem with apples which flower late, however Court Pendu Plat, a very old sort, flowers very late and can be relied upon. However a late frost can destroy whole crops almost anywhere occasionally, fortunately not very often.
And do buy locally if you can- the vendor should know what is suitable for your area conditions. Those in the wetter regions of the South West UK have less choice as many of the best apples like the hotter drier Eastern side. For example here in Norfolk I can grow D’Arcy Spice, the old cooker Mere de Menage, the tricky Golden Delicious, and the huge Howgate Wonder. If you grow in the wetter regions choose ones well adapted such as Irish Peach and local specialities. In most of the UK the choice is only limited by your space- I’ve heard of one chap with hundreds of varieties- only a branch of each as all were grafted by him onto his dozen or so orchard trees- cunning devil.