At this time of year, it can be difficult for you to prise yourself from the warm embrace of the sofa and out into the great outdoors, but if you have designs on planting a fruit tree in your garden or allotment, now is the perfect time to pull on your wellies, stride outside and make it happen! This planting guide will serve you right for all fruit trees, but as obsessive cider makers, we’re concentrating on the noblest of them all – the apple tree.
How to choose the best tree
When choosing your apple tree, there are various rootstock combinations to consider. Left to grow on its own roots, an apple tree has the potential to reach sizes of over 15 ft. To retain some kind of control over the tree’s growth, most fruit trees will be grafted onto the stump of an already established, similar tree. The grafted tree will then take on the characteristics of its surrogate parent stump, inheriting size, vigour and disease resistance.
When buying your tree, note the various rootstock options listed as codes. Typically, M9 and M29 rootstocks will produce a semi dwarfing tree that’ll stand 6-10 ft. high when fully mature, whilst an M25 rootstock will produce a huge, vigorous tree, suitable only for those with enormous gardens. For a medium-sized garden, an apple tree grafted onto a MM106 rootstock should do the trick. It’ll give you a good-sized 10-13 ft. tree which can be restricted to a smaller size with a spot of tactical pruning.
You’ll also need to keep an eye on which pollinator group your chosen tree resides in. There are a few decent self-pollinating trees out there (Howgate Wonder is a good choice if you are looking for a generous cropping, multi-purpose apple) but your tree will most probably need a pollinating pal of a different variety located nearby in order for it to bear fruit.
Planting your tree
If possible, choose a sunny, sheltered spot that has moderately fertile, well-drained soil. Don’t be tempted to add compost to the planting site as this may result in the tree developing a weak, lazy root system. Tree roots that have to reach out and find nutrients in the soil will be stronger in the long run.
Firstly, prepare your planting site by stripping away any turf and grass before commencing digging. The ground can be iron hard at this time of year, so we’d suggest using a heavy-duty mattock. At the very least, make sure you are equipped with a sturdy spade that is up to the task.
Dig your hole at least three times the width of your root ball, ensuring the hole is as deep as the tree’s root system. It will spread its roots laterally as well as vertically down so it’s worth forking the sides of the hole to loosen the soil a tad to give those roots a helping hand. Water the roots of your tree thoroughly before positioning your tree in the hole
Start to backfill the hole, tramping down the soil with your boot as you go. Once you’ve filled the hole, give the site a good soaking with three or four bucketfuls of water. Finally, mulch around the base to keep weeds at bay, then stand back and admire your work.
To stake or not to stake?
Some experts will tell you it’s not always necessary to stake your tree. The theory being that a good old buffeting from the elements will rock the young tree back and forth, working the trees fibres like a bodybuilder would work a bicep, therefore encouraging a stronger root set and a thick, healthy trunk.
However, our own experience with the unstaked planting of our MM106 trees (which was mainly down to laziness rather than a considered choice) produced mixed results. Six years on, our Fair Maid of Devonstands upright and proud, whilst our poor old Yarlington Mill and Kingston Blacktrees have got a proper wonk going on.
Staking is of course essential when planting on a particularly exposed, windy site, or if planting a tree that demands it, such as one that has been grafted onto a dwarf rootstock. To stake a tree, simply hammer your stake in before you place the tree in position and secure the tree to the stake with a flexible tie to allow for a bit of movement in blustery conditions.
Finally, it’s worth protecting your newly planted tree from deer and rabbit attacks. You’ll find those spiral plastic tree guards in most garden centres, but chicken wire is the better, more eco-friendly alternative.
Water the root area thoroughly after planting (three or four bucketfuls should do the trick) and if possible, continue to water your tree once a week in spring and summer, watering twice a week during prolonged dry spells.
Apple trees will only start to bear significant fruit after three or four years, and if you do get the odd apple making an appearance in the first couple of seasons, it’s best to pick them off whilst they are still small. This will encourage the tree to develop a full, healthy branch framework before fruiting begins in earnest.