Planting an apple tree in your garden or community green space has an obvious benefit – lots of lovely fruit in autumn, which you could be enjoying within two years of planting.
Apple trees are also hugely beneficial to all sorts of wildlife. Traditional orchards have become rare habitats in the UK – around two thirds of orchards have been lost since 1960. This is bad news for wildlife, as fruit trees support a diverse range of species.
Bumblebees and other pollinators feed on the nectar found in apple blossoms. Windfalls are an excellent source of food for blackbirds, thrushes and other birds. Butterflies – particularly red admirals – enjoy fallen fruits too.
As apple trees mature – which happens relatively quickly – fissures in the bark can provide homes and shelter for all sorts of invertebrates. And bats, bullfinches, beetles, fieldfares, redwings and woodpeckers will all be attracted to orchard areas.
Orchards are also an important part of our heritage. We’ve been cultivating apple trees – and enjoying the fruits they provide – since at least Roman times, when many species of fruit tree were brought into the country from the continent.
What should I grow?
Apple trees are ideal for garden situations, as – with regular pruning – they can be kept to a manageable size. You can also buy varieties grown on special dwarfing rootstock – these produce smaller trees, suitable for smaller spaces. You can even buy varieties that are suitable for containers.
However, choosing an apple tree can feel a little daunting. There are hundreds of different apple varieties in the UK – and garden centres, nurseries and online shops will probably have dozens to choose from.
Going for a familiar-sounding variety isn’t always the best option. Supermarket apples such as Granny Smiths, Pink Lady or Royal Gala are grown under special conditions to produce fruits with good keeping qualities, and uniformity of appearance and flavour. They are often imported from far-flung destinations such as New Zealand or South Africa, which have different climates to the UK.
Instead, choose a variety that will work well in local conditions – local nurseries and garden centres should be able to advise you.
In our exposed – and sometimes very chilly – Peak District garden, we have managed to grow a few varieties that have really thrived.
Katy (also called Katja) is a variety that’s originally from Sweden – so it does well in the East Midland’s colder winters. In early September it produces red, medium-sized fruits that are sweet and very juicy. It’s a hardy tree and frequently produces a large crop, even when the weather has been poor and other varieties have failed. Katy apples don’t store for very long though – eat them within a week of picking to enjoy them at their best.
We’ve found Winston to be another reliable variety. It’s a good choice to grow alongside Katy, as it’s in an adjacent pollination group (more about that in a moment) and produces fruits that store really well.
Originally named Winter King, this variety was renamed after the Second World War to honour Sir Winston Churchill. The fruits are smallish, streaked with green and red, and have a fantastic flavour that’s a little tart immediately after picking – but mellows and sweetens after a couple of weeks in storage. Pick the apples in late October, wrap in newspaper, and spread in a single layer in a shallow box. Stored in a cool place such as a frost-free shed or garage they should last well into March.
Jonagold is another option if you want apples that store well. It produces huge fruits that are sweet and juicy and will keep for a couple of months after harvesting.
Historically, each region had its own trees – and if you choose a local, heritage variety, it’s more likely to survive the conditions wherever you live.
We have a couple of apple trees that originated from here in Derbyshire: a Beeley Pippin and a Lamb’s Seedling.
These are both heritage varieties. Beeley Pippin, with its pink flushed skin and rich aromatic flavour, was first grown in 1880 in the village of Beeley, on the Chatsworth estate. Lamb’s Seedling dates from the 1860s and is a large, dual-purpose apple that’s ideal for cooking when first picked, but becomes a sweet eating apple after being stored for a few weeks.
Whichever type of apple tree you choose, it will need to be pollinated by another apple tree. If there are already plenty of apple trees growing in your neighbourhood – crab apples will also work – you don’t need to worry too much about this. But if you live in a remote area, or there are no other apple trees nearby, you’ll need to plant two trees to ensure a bumper harvest.
So when choosing varieties, make sure they flower at about the same time. All apple trees fall into one of several pollination groups depending on how early in spring the blossoms emerge. These pollination groups are usually referred to as letters (Group A, B, C etc) – although sometimes numbers are used instead, just to add to the confusion!
Choosing varieties with the same pollination letter or number, or trees from adjacent groups, will ensure that bees and other pollinators are able to visit the flowers on both trees – resulting in plenty of apples. For example, a variety in pollination group B will work with a variety from group A, B or C.
And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself with a lot of apples at harvest time, try making this quick and easy crumble!
6 medium apples, peeled, cored and chopped into chunks
1 tablespoon orange juice
200g plain flour
Put the apples in a saucepan with the juice, and simmer gently for about 10 minutes until the fruit is soft. Transfer to an ovenproof dish.
Rub together the flour and butter then stir in the granulated sugar (or use a food processor to mix these three ingredients). Sprinkle the crumble mixture over the apples and press down lightly with a fork.
Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C for about 30 minutes, until golden brown. Serve hot with custard, cream or ice-cream.