Monty Don loves apples. He has around 60 different types at his garden in Longmeadow, Herefordshire, growing in various forms – some are big trees, others stepovers, or smaller trees.
They are among the most popular fruits in this country and yet people have a fear about growing apples, says Monty in his latest book, Down To Earth.
“They somehow feel it has to be a big tree, but it doesn’t. You can grow stepovers or espaliers, you can grow fans or cordons. You can train the fruit to fit your space,” he explains.
“People also get very worried about what are actually quite trivial afflictions. It could be a bit of mould on a leaf or a bit of bitter pit on the apple, but by and large apple trees are robust. They don’t need much looking after.”
Some people are also confused by rootstocks, he observes. “It’s moderately complex because all apples are grown on a different rootstock, so the roots of one tree are joined at the graft to the trunk and branches of another tree. The root dictates the size and vigour and shape of the tree, and the bit above the root dictates the fruit.
“So you could have my favourite eating apple, Jupiter, as a dwarf, a cordon or a great big tree, but you’d need a different rootstock for each of them.
“All you need to know is, I want it to be this big, my garden is this size, what rootstock do you have? And a good garden centre should be able to tell you.”
Monty’s tips for apple-growing beginners
1. Find a sunny spot
Apple trees need sunshine and good drainage. Don’t grow grass right up around them. Clear the grass for at least a 1m radius around them until the trees are as big as you want them to be, then you can let the grass grow back up to the trunk. Grass will take a lot of moisture and nutrients they need.
2. Plant more than one
“Some apples are self-pollinating, but you should always plant more than one. There are eight groups of apples, which are numbered solely on when they produce their flowers. Number one is the first to blossom, and number eight the last.
“If you have two apples, one from group one and one from group eight, they won’t blossom at the same time and if they don’t blossom at the same time, they can’t cross pollinate. Either have two of the same group or one from either side, so if you have a group three apple, you should either have another from group three or one from group two or one from group four.
“The earliest apples start blossoming at the beginning of April and the latest blossom at the end of May, but the flowers have to be open at the same time to pollinate.”
3. Learn how to plant new trees
“Dig a wide hole no more than one spade’s depth deep, loosen the hole and the sides, but don’t add manure or compost.
“Plant the tree slightly higher than it is in the pot or, if it’s bare-rooted, slightly above soil level, so it’s on a tiny pyramid. Firm it in well, so it’s planted in a slight cone, not a well, because more trees die from being over-wet than too dry.
“Water it well, stake it and mulch it thickly with either garden compost or wood chippings, to keep the weeds down and the moisture in. You don’t add compost to the hole because you want the roots to grow out into the soil. If you put compost into the hole, the roots will stay and curl around and become almost pot-bound. Roots need to grow horizontally as quickly as possible.
“Most feeding roots are within a spade’s depth and horizontal. They don’t go down, they go sideways.”
4. Know when to prune
“If you prune hard in winter, you will get lots of shoots coming back and none of those shoots will have any fruit on them. If you want to reduce the size of the apple tree, do it in summer. If you want to stimulate it to grow bigger, do it in winter.
“Almost all apples produce their fruit on spurs and the spurs only develop on wood when it gets to two or three years old.”
5. Get inspired about varieties at Apple Days
“My advice is to go and taste as many different varieties as possible, see what they look like. Use it as an experience to extend your knowledge about what apples look and taste like. When you go to the supermarket, you’re just not going to have that opportunity. Then, if you find an apple you really like that you can’t buy in a supermarket, that’s the one to grow.”
Down To Earth by Monty Don is published by DK, priced £17.99. Available now.