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Apple trees are a sight to behold in spring - completely covered in delicate blooms, their spreading canopy dripping with the weight of the flowers, it can't help but uplift the soul. Apples are a staple fruit and grown in many parts of the world and unlike many other fruits, each variety of apple brings with it a totally different taste sensation. Some apple trees are specifically grown for apples that are suitable for cooking, other trees are grown just for munching on. As with cherry trees apple trees require a pollinator, most apple trees need another one to pollinate them and to make it even trickier, different varieties of apples flower at different times so you will need 2 that flower approximately about the same time.
Apple trees - the choice
What type of apple tree do you want? Unless you have the space for one, the old standard apple trees would probably be too large for a small backyard. Plus, you would probably need a ladder to harvest the apples - which in itself is a wonderful experience if you are anything like me. You can opt for those cordon type apple trees which are those angled at 45degrees crucified up against a wall if you are really short of space but with cordons the apples you get off them won't be huge. I think you need to choose one that suits your gardening style. Even if there's space, and you're not a big apple eater, then a big apple harvest may not suit you - you'll be giving bushels away on a weekly basis! Most apple trees are grafted onto a root stock and it's the root stock which determines the ultimate size and rate of growth of the apple tree.
Apple Tree Root Stocks
All apple tree root stocks are given 'M' names (short for Malus - which is the genus for apples).
dwarf root stocks - usually suitable for cordons, bushes, dwarf pyramid apple trees
semi-dwarfing stocks - suitable for bushes, fan espaliers
MM4, M2, M25,M1
Vigorous root stocks - for large trees, large fan espaliers.
Apple trees - cultivation requirements
You're not going to be moving your apple trees so it's crucial to prepare the soil well by adding plenty of compost and organic matter. Apple trees prefer an open sunny position and planting is best done in late autumn-early spring. How far apart your apple trees are is dependent entirely on what type of apple tree you've picked. Dwarf stocks for apple cordons can be planted as close as 30 inches apart whilst your standard apple trees would need to be at least 30 feet apart to reach their absolute potential. Unless your apple tree is espaliered up against a wall, you will need to stake the apple tree. Mulch around the tree on planting and then again each spring with more organic matter. If you are living in an area with late frosts, you may need to throw fleece over the tree to protect the blossoms when they start to appear.
Apple trees - pruning and trainingPruning an apple tree is not hard once you've done it the first time. After you've first planted your tree, you need to shape it. Apple trees, especially varieties grown on dwarf rootstock, are usually trained to a central leader, or main trunk. This method is called central-leader training. The leader is allowed to dominate, and the overall tree form looks something like a pyramid. Do the major pruning in winter when trees are dormant. Prune in summer only to maintain size or remove diseased limbs. If you plan to have a fan/vase shaped apple tree, you need to prune the leader to about 30 inches above the ground. You will notice that side shoots will appear just below the cut - leave these alone, they will form the crown of the apple tree. Any other side shoots that appear lower should be removed. After the first season, reduce all the new growth to about half and there you have the basic framework of your tree. Most pruning and training afterwards involves cutting out dead wood and maintaining the open vase shape of the tree. Apple trees fall into 2 groups - there are your tip bearers and spur bearers. With tip bearers, you need to cut back the shoots in spring. Otherwise most apple trees are pruned in winter.
Apple trees - pruning two basic cuts
Before you get started, it's important to understand the basic pruning cuts and how plants respond to them. There are two types of pruning cuts: thinning cuts and heading cuts.
Thinning cuts remove entire branches or limbs, paring them back to their point of origin or the juncture where they meet another branch. Thinning opens the interior of the plant to receive more sunlight and channels energy into the remaining branches. In most cases, thinning enhances the natural shape of a plant. The thinning cut is the preferred type of cut for pruning apple trees.
Heading cuts are made anywhere along the length of a branch or limb to produce more vigorous growth below the cut. This growth is often weakly attached, however, with narrow angles that form between the original branch and the new growth. Heading cuts are necessary when pruning young trees, as explained below. Because mature trees seldom need lots of new branches, heading cuts are made less frequently as the tree ages.
Apple Trees - Maintenance Pruning
As apple trees mature, your goal is to let light and air into the center of the tree by removing crowded, crisscrossing and dead branches. Also prune to maintain productivity throughout the canopy by removing branches that have become unproductive and making heading cuts on selected branches to produce new, productive growth.
Remove diseased or damaged limbs and limbs that compete with the central leader. Suckers are the small shoots that grow from below the bud union, a swollen area at the base of the tree. (Desirable apple varieties are usually grafted onto selected rootstock to produce a durable, hardy tree. The bud union is where the two are joined.) Cut suckers off as flush to the trunk as possible.
Apple trees - harvesting
Thin out apple trees in early and mid summer to ensure that the individual fruits aren't touching one another - that way you ensure a better crop. If you find that in the early years, the branches aren't strong enough to support the weight of the fruit borne, they may need support with rope (I find old nylon panty hose is a superb alternative). When picking your apples, a simple twist with your wrist should snap them easily off the tree. If you need more than that, then the apples are probably not ripe enough yet.
Apple trees - storage
Some varieties of apples store better than others. In general the early fruiting varieties don't seem to store as well as the later fruiting varieties. If you are planning to store your apples, you need to store them in a cool, dark, dryplace and ensure that each individual apple isn't in contact with another apple. Only store your best fruit, no point putting a bad apple in with the rest...as the saying goes.
(adapted from article from CornerHardware)