There’s nothing quite like sinking your teeth into a juicy, home-grown apple. First there’s the crunch as you puncture the skin, followed by that burst of cool, aromatic flesh – all rounded off by a sweet, nectar-like taste. But aside from the obvious benefits of freshness, flavour and frugality, there are plenty of other compelling reasons to grow a tree or two of your own. With supermarkets and food stores offering just a meagre selection of varieties, perhaps the biggest advantage is access to the literally hundreds (and possibly even thousands) of exciting options open to the kitchen gardener. No other fruit has so much tradition, folklore and abundance associated with it. The home grower is very much spoilt for choice.
Autumn is the perfect time to be thinking about ordering and planting new apple trees. In most places the soil will still hold residual warmth from the summer, allowing easy working of the ground and potentially quicker establishment. Our previous article covered basic guidelines for choosing apples and rootstocks but it’s worth explaining the sometimes confusing influence of pollination groups on variety selection. Many would-be apple enthusiasts are put off by the apparent complexity of this subject. This is a shame as once you understand the basics, it’s really quite straightforward.
Pollinating Apple Tree Flowers
Like all fruit trees, apples need to be pollinated if they are to set fruit. This involves the transfer of pollen from the stamen (the male part of the flower) to the stigma (the female part). Pollinating insects such as bees work hard at this job, which is one reason why it’s so important to plant pollinator-attracting flowers in among our crops – to keep them on side and coming back! Wind will also help to pollinate apple blossom.
While some varieties of apple are able to fertilise themselves (trees described as ‘self-fertile’), others require pollen from another tree to do the job – a process known as cross-pollination. In all cases, however, a higher rate of fruit set will be enjoyed when trees are cross-pollinated, so a small group of trees is always better than one lonely specimen, even if it is self-fertile.
Of course, not all apples blossom at the same time and, to add another player into the game, not all varieties are necessarily compatible. Certain types called triploids require not one but two other fruit trees to ensure good pollination – and these mustn’t be other triploids. This might rule out triploid varieties for some, but a number of popular, good-tasting apples – for example, ‘Bramley’s Seedling’, ‘Ribston Pippin’ and ‘Jonagold’ – happen to be triploids, making them worth the apparent effort.
Apple varieties, like plums, pears and other fruit trees, are grouped according to when they flower. The earliest pollination group to blossom is group A, followed by groups B and C and, bringing up the rear towards the end of spring, group D. Any respectable fruit nursery will catalogue the varieties it offers according to pollination group, making the selection process considerably simpler. Needless to say it’s best to pick varieties from the same group to ensure they will be in flower at the same time, though varieties from adjacent groups will offer some overlap and hence pollination success.
Growing two or more apples shouldn’t pose a problem in even the tiniest of gardens given modern dwarfing rootstocks. Nevertheless, those clever nurserymen have come up with the ultimate in convenience – the family tree. Family trees feature a single rootstock onto which has been grafted two or more varieties; you get to enjoy a number of tempting varieties on just one tree. This clever solution serves two purposes: it saves space and guarantees pollination, giving an almost failsafe result. As well as offering varieties from the same pollination group, the nursery should also have selected varieties with about the same vigour to prevent one of the grafted varieties from dominating over time.
When Choosing Apples, Go for Taste
The real joy for us kitchen gardeners is that with so many varieties in each group to choose from, there’s still ample room for manoeuvre. It means there’s plenty of scope to choose exactly the qualities you are after, even if your search list is narrowed down to a single pollination group.
First and foremost, consider whether you are after an eating apple or a cooking apple. Varieties sit somewhere along a sweet to acid scale, so that those with a sweeter taste are suitable for dessert purposes, those that are more acidic are good for cooking, and those hovering in the middle can be used for either. Be guided by a variety’s description in making your choice and, if you can, get yourself along to one of a number of special apple days where many unusual (and common) apples will be there for the tasting – ultimately the best way of deciding what you’d like to grow.
Consider also your local climate. If your garden is prone to snap frosts late in spring, opt for varieties that come into blossom later to reduce the risk of damage to your prospects. Bear in mind when varieties crop. With a little thought there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy home-grown apples from August to the following spring by selecting a range of immediate eaters and storing staples.
The secret to any thriving miniature orchard lies in the planning. A few hours invested in scouring the catalogues and nursery websites to draw up a list of favourites that will work for you and your location is time well spent. Years of delicious, appley splendour are the reward for meticulous planning.
By Benedict Vanheems. Bee on apple blossom photo courtesy of Mullica.