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Growing Apples (Malus domestica)

Apples have been eaten for thousands of years and the number of varieties is staggering. An apple doesn’t grow true from seed (as with humans, the baby plant will have similar traits but be a unique mix of both parents), so most trees you buy have the desired variety grafted (joined) onto the roots.

Apples are a long-lived fruit tree and most are productive until at least 35 years old. Records exist of 100-year-old trees still bearing and one of the oldest is claimed to be the apple tree that inspired Newton’s law of gravity. It fell over in 1820, but put down new roots and is still going – 355 years later.

Growing requirements

There is such a large range of varieties of apples there is one to suit just about every situation, climate and soil type in New Zealand, except maritime conditions – apples are not overly fond of salt winds.

Pollination

Apples are pollinated by bees and while there are a few apple varieties which are theoretically self-fertile, you need two or more varieties to enable cross pollination. Even self-fertile varieties are usually more productive with a friend.
Cross pollination is when another apple variety (or a crabapple) is in blossom at the same time and the bee can visit both and transfer the pollen from one to the other. It’s nature’s way of ensuring diversity. Bees can fly a kilometre or more so even a neighbour’s tree can act as the polliniser.
A very few apple trees are called triploid apples. They often produce better quality and larger apples but do not provide pollen for other varieties.

Choosing the right variety for you.

With such a range of varieties there is an apple for every situation. When choosing, take into consideration:

Climate

Apples like some cold and need a period of winter chill to set fruit. Those living in Northland need to choose selected varieties for their warmer climate.

Taste and use

It is no point growing an apple you don’t like, and they can vary widely in flavour and texture.
There are some orchardists who will send you heritage apples in season (http://www.treedimensions.co.nz/ , http://www.thundermountain.net.nz/Orchard/)
or try farmers markets, NZ Tree Crop Assn field days or roadside stalls to taste.

  • Early apples (December-February) have a high sugar content and therefore are best eaten fresh. These are known as dessert apples. They go floury if stored too long.
  • Mid Season (March-April) apples are mostly dessert type mixed with others that fare better in storage. Also includes dual-purpose and good cooking apples.
  • Late Season (April-June) apples are okay for eating fresh but are known for storing and cooking well.
  • There are also apples especially suited for making cider (they are usually quite tart and not nice to eat), apples promoted for the high-health properties and varieties known for their disease resistance and easy care.

Selecting a range of varieties can ensure fresh apples are available for much of the year.

Rootstock

Your desired apple variety can usually be purchased, grafted onto different rootstocks. Size and soil are the considerations when deciding which rootstock is best for you. Don’t dismiss the importance of getting the right rootstock, it is an important as the engine in your car– you wouldn’t put a Lada engine into a Lamborghini and expect it to perform.

In NZ we mostly have the following rootstocks:

pots        espalier   orchard   
      M27 – less than 2m tall. Needs staking and constant feeding.
      EM9 – up to 2.5m tall. Needs permanent staking and constant care.
      M9 – less than 3m tall. Needs staking and constant feeding and well-drained fertile soil, not suitable for clay
      M26 – About 3.5m tall, good for espalier or topiary. Hardier than M9 but still needs care.
      MM102 – up to 4m. Resistant to woolly aphid.
      MM106 – up to 4.5m. Needs staking and good drainage. Resistant to woolly aphid.
      M116 – up to 4.5m. Suited to heavy or clay soil.
      Northern Spy – 5m or more. Hardy, vigorous, resistant to woolly aphid. Best suited to wet or clay soils.
      M793 – Up to 6m. Hardy, resistant to woolly aphid and collar rot. Bears heavier and earlier than Northern spy.

If you want an easy-care tree to plant out in the orchard, get one on a hardy, vigorous rootstock. It is much easier to prune a healthy tree than nurse a sickly one and those on dwarfing rootstocks have been bred for commercial orchards where they get constant feeding and disease managment.

Planting

In general, apples will grow as wide as they grow high and apples need sunlight to produce fruit so leave ample space, plus at least a one metre for a passage-way in between. That little stick really will grow that big.
For smaller spaces there are columnar varieties like Ballerina which grow only 30cm wide, or you can train your apple to grow along a wall or fence or over an arch – see our guide on espalier.

Feeding

Apples are very tolerant and do not need special attention. As with all fruit trees, ensure they get water during their frist summer as they establish and the more you feed it, the more it will feed you. See our guide on fertilising the orchard.

Pruning

Most apple trees fruit on spurs (little side branches) that grow on older wood, though there are a few called tip-bearers who fruit on the new tips of branches. If you continually prune back a tip-bearer you will not get any fruit so it is important to know if you variety is such.

You do not have to prune your apple every year. Commercial orchardists do and it is certainly the old school of thought, but I disagree. Why trim growth off each year only for it to regrow each year, to be trimmed off each year…?

Beyond basic hygiene of removing damaged branches, pruning is not for the benefit of the tree, but for the benefit of yourself.
I do believe in formative pruning the first year or two to ensure your tree grows to the shape you want, and after that do whatever you need to do to make your tree work for you. See our pruning guide.

With more attention, you can prune or train apples trees into any shape. Espaliering is when they are grown along wires which are great if you are short on space.
Make sure you choose a suitable rootstock and be prepared do more work – but the results can be stunning.