Apple Trees

Planting Distances Between Fruit Trees

How far apart should fruit trees be planted? This is one of the most commonly asked questions when someone sets out to plant an orchard, or a row of cordons, espaliers or fan trained fruit trees.

The short answer is that free standing fruit trees should be planted one metre further apart in the row and two metres further apart between rows than the total mature width of the tree. So if an apple tree will end up 3 metres across (diameter) then plant it 4 metres away from its neighbour in the same row and 5 metres away from the corresponding tree in the next row.

Cordon fruit trees, espaliers and fan trained trees should be planted so they do not touch when fully grown.

The answers are simple, but because fruit trees vary, they may need a little explanation.

Fruit tree orchards first.

An orchard is simply a collection of free standing fruit trees.  Emphasis here in the phrases “free standing” and “fruit trees”.

Orchards are free standing – the last thing you want is to have to renew stakes and ties used to support trees because their own roots are not strong enough to do the job.  Inevitably the stake breaks when the tree is in full fruit (at its heaviest) and tree and crop are both lost.

Orchards are collections of fruit trees. It is rare in domestic gardens and smallholdings to have single variety orchards.  Most commercial orchards are multi-variety as well although they tend to be single species (i.e apple trees only). In smaller orchards, it is perfectly usual to have a mix of species as well, so apples can grow with cherries, plums and pears.

For a free standing form such as an apple tree to be self supporting it needs to be growing on a rootstock of sufficient vigour to produce the root system large enough to anchor the tree in winds and when laden with fruit. For apples the rootstocks required would be M111,  MM106 or M25. Try to make sure these are grown in the UK as we advise on our homepage. The rootstock you choose determines the eventual size of the tree. So MM106 and M111 trees should be planted between 4-5 metres apart, while M25 trees will need at least 6 metres.

Apples are the most widely grown fruit tree in the UK; an orchard survey in the West Country a couple of years ago revealed that over 4 out of 5 fruit trees grown in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire were apples.  Over half of the remainder were pears with cherries coming a poor third.



Frost Affects Fruit Tree Pollination

We tend to take fruit tree pollination for granted. But it need not be so…. Apple trees with no apples? Pear trees without even a pair of pears?  Was 2012 a fruitless summer for you? Probably and the proof of this article was in the prices and origin of the fruit on the supermarket shelves.  This was a miserable year for fruit that grows on trees.  Great for soft fruits like redcurrants, but dire for topfruit like apples, pears and plums. At times it felt as if this site was pointless….

As in REALLY, TRULY, DESPERATELY bad.  Our orchard of 37 apple trees actually had 5 trees that had no fruit at all – as in none. I have never seen a season as bad as 2012.

The reasons were mainly in the weather.  We had a lovely warm February; unseasonably warm.  Plants all over the UK broke into growth as a result. The buds on the early flowering trees and plants (generally those that flower before they produce their leaves), started to swell as root systems began to pump sap in response to the warmth.  As sap rises, so flower buds force open their protective casings and the water content of soft flowering material increases.

Early March was pretty much the same and then the cold weather came. Once a plant has started into growth it cannot be reversed.  So the second half of March brought bitter cold all over Europe. Here in sunny Somerset we recorded -14C in mid-March.  Temperatures stayed low and the weather stayed dry (you will remember that there was much talk of hosepipe bans). Flower buds were mashed by the freeze and there was not enough moisture around for fruit trees to even try to repair the damage. So flowers were deformed and pollen, such as there was, sterile.

Not all of it of course, just most of it.

The weather also did terrible damage to bumble and mason bee populations – these are the pollinating workhorses of our ecosystem doing far more work than the average honeybee, but without warm hives and friendly beekeepers to feed them on unseasonable days. They emerged too early and then were frozen out.  If you think of honey bees as “busy” you should talk to a mason bee which does in a day what a honey bee can only manage in a week.

So no flowers, no pollen and no pollinators. A fruitless summer. Yuck. The blessing such as it was lay in rising water levels that were clearly critically low in March 2012. Hosepipe bans were averted and those plants that rejoice in plentiful water really partied. Watermelons anyone?


A crab apple tree helps the pollen go down
John Downie Crab Apples

Ripe John Downie Crab Apples

Crab apple trees improve apple yields and if you have the space in your orchard, you might like to plant a variety such as Malus John Downie or Malus Evereste in November. These are both crab apples that flower pretty much all the way through the fruiting apple flowering season and are sufficiently related to domestic apples to be perfect pollination partners. Because of their long flowering period and viable pollen, you will never have to worry about apple pollination groups again which makes growing fruit trees even more fun….

One John Downie or Evereste crab apple will permit the pollination of an orchard of anything up to 40-50 trees. What is better is that both these varieties also carry masses of crabs that will enable you to make enough crab apple jelly to keep you family going all year. Evereste is probably the heavier cropper of the two, has a semi-weeping habit when laden with fruit which look like perfect miniature apples.  John Downie’s crabs, on the other hand, are probably more decorative.

When planting a crab apple as a pollinating tree, try to get it as close to the centre of the orchard as possible. Obviously, if you have a large orchard and need more than on pollinator, you will want to “sprinkle” them around a bit.  However, (subject to our advice below) it is a bad idea to plant in the hole left by an apple tree that has died or been grubbed out as apples, being members of the rose family, suffer from replant disease.

Our (non guaranteed opinion) based on testing in our own orchard is that replant disease can be overcome with the use of Rootgrow. This is a natural preparation that contains mycorrhizal fungi. These are fungi that occur naturally and that form a beneficial association with plant root systems. They provide water the the plant in exchange of receiving its waste starches.  The fungi grow incredibly fast and can effectively increase a tree’s root system several hundred times in the months following planting.  By the way, whether you are worried about replant disease or not, all fruit trees will establish faster and crop more heavily if you plant them with Rootgrow.  At the time of writing it is the only planting aid of its type that is recommended by the Royal Horticultural Society. We think it is a remarkable product and a real boon to gardeners of all types, not just those who grow fruit trees.

Pineapple Apples in England in October

Ripe Pitmaston Apples straight from the treePitmaston pineapples are not what it “says on the tin”. But they are next best thing. If you have never tried a Pitmaston Pineapple apple then you are missing out; it is typical of the type of fruit this site is trying to promote.

It is a funny little thing, small at maybe only three inches long, conical in shape and golden yellow with slight russeting when ripe. It is a child sized apple but don’t let the kids eat them all (my grandaughter loves them and is therefore an exception to the rule…) as these little apples pack a punch well above their weight.

The flesh is creamy and the texture is crunchy – a really ripe Pitmaston Pineapple cracks when you bite it. It had better because they are so small that you will only get 2 or 3 bites; BUT the taste is sensational. No other apple tastes quite like it.   Lightly acid with masses of sugar and a flowery scent. Deliciously sweet for the first 5-10 seconds and then an absolutely unmistakable after-taste of pineapple rushes in and a grey, chilly, windswept Somerset (as it often is in October) suddenly becomes Jamaica.

And it does not do this just in Somerset actually, I just live here. The Pitmaston Pineapple was bred in Worcestershire as so many good apples have been. It was bred  (by a Mr White who managed the orchards of Lord Foley of Whitley) in the town of Pitsmaston, near Worcester. Lord Foley sold it to Mr Williams a losal nurseryman who introduced it to a wider market towards the end of the eighteenth century. It was a seedling of Golden Pippin but neither Mr White nor Mr Williams ever revealed the other parent (if either ever knew).

Pitmaston Pineapple trees are heavy cropping, have excellent disease resistance (they are especially resistant to apple scab) and are as tough as old boots. They are self sterile, which means that they cannot pollinate themselves but they will pollinate and be pollinated by fertile and self sterile apples in apple pollination groups C,D and E. They will grow pretty much anywhere that apples can in the UK so they work well in frost pockets, higher locations and in the North and Scotland. As a spur fruiting apple, it is suitable for training against a wall as a cordon or espalier.

Which is a good thing because Pitmaston Pineapple is one of those apples that get children (and adults) interested in fruit. Every orchard or garden should have one.

Kingston Black – King of the Cider Apples?

Kingston Black is the best cider apple tree there is.  That is the general consensus. No favouritism here even though both it and I come from Somerset (albeit in different centuries). But it is a special apple and well worth highlighting on the Fruit Trees site

When cider is described as vintage, it refers not so much to its age, but to the fact that it is made from a single variety of apple.  In cider parlance vintage equals unblended.  Sort of a single malt.  Opinions vary about the best single malt (my favourite is Glenmorangie) but few argue that cider made from Kingston Black apples stands on its own.  I have heard it described as the Cox’s Orange Pippin of cider apples and the analogy is not a bad one.  The flavour in unrivalled but Kingston Black is also harder to grow than some others and (like Cox’s Orange Pippin) is a modest yielding apple. But balance against that the ideal combination of acid, alcohol, body, fruit and tannin and you can see why this is an apple apart. Which of course is why Kingston Black apples are generally used to improve a blend of other apple juices from heavier yielding trees.

Just like other apples with the word “black” in their name, Kingston Black is extremely dark in colour – deep red turning to dark purple, at times almost black. The apples themselves are short stalked and quite little.  There are lots of them, but they need thinning .  It has a pronounced biennial habit and as hinted above, is a relatively weak cropper which has relatively low resistance to both scab and canker.  This is a tree for an orchard where chemicals are used, or for one where organic practices are properly applied.  It is not really a tree for the kind of orchard you plant and forget except at harvest time.  Having said which it grows wonderfully well for some people who just leave it alone…..

For the reasons of low yield, being disease prone and having a biennial cropping tendency don’t plant this as your only cider tree (there are more reliable vintage varieties).  However, if you are planning to plant an orchard with cider in mind (6+ cider trees) then Kingston Black should be first on your list.  If it grows for you and crops well in a good year, spoil yourself and make an unblended cider from Kingston Black.

Tasting it yourself before offering to share with your friends is a great test of the meaning of the phrase “self-sacrificing”….

Spartan Apple Trees – Welcome to the Dark Side

Spartan apple trees are seriously photogenic.  They are generally beautifully formed, they carry masses of blossom in spring and they are generally laden with (when ripe) very dark red, small, crunchy, sweet fruit.  A real child’s apple and one deserving of special mention on the fruit trees site.  We needed to send a picture of a bush apple tree carrying fruit to someone who wanted some at their wedding reception, so what could be better than a Spartan?

My eyes lit on a good looking specimen which I duly started to photograph.  It had a perfectly formed cluster of red apples that, although young were picture postcard perfect.

Turning it round to see if it had a “better side” I noticed that it also had another cluster apples.  However, unlike the first, these were completely green. I had a really good check to make sure this was not one a family apple tree (an apple tree with a total of three varieties grafted onto the same rootstock) that had got muddled up with the single variety apple trees, but the leaves were the same all over, the fruit shapes were identical and there was only one graft, and that was two inches above soil level. My chosen tree might conceivably not have been a Spartan but it was assuredly a single species apple tree.

Now Spartan apple trees tend to ripen in a rush (i.e. pretty much all at once) and these, as you can see from the pictures are weeks apart.

While waiting to send plants out, we tend to keep them quite close together and the only possible explanation I can come up with is that the green apples were in deep shade, while the reds were in the sun. This leads one to thoughts of delaying the ripening of some apples on a tree by deliberately shading them. Paper bags, fleece, socks all spring to mind as potential parasols…. suggestions anyone?

What certainly works is the “tattooing” of fruit using sun and shade.  So here is a fun idea for an almost free birthday card for someone with a July – October birthday.  Choose an apple that ripens at the right time of year. Preferably a red apple such as Spartan, Red Windsor, Discovery, Rosette etc. Make a cut out stencil – I think masking tape would be ideal with your message. Keep it short as apples are not huge, something like “I love you” might work.  Stick the stencil on to an unripe apple and pick off the rest of the cluster so it is all by itself.  Sit back, let nature take its course and at birthday time you should have an apple proclaiming “I love you” in bold red type on a green background.  The more painstaking amongst you may wish to use Letraset and stick individual letters onto an apple to spell out your message in green against a red background. Just a thought

Scrumptious Apple Trees (and Scrumptious Apples)

Scrumptious apple trees are another apple breeding success. They are the “children” of Hugh Ermen – the best producer of new apple varieties in the UK.  The man is a genius (and proof that amateurs can win) and has a list of apples to his name of which perhaps the most well known are Limelight, Red Devil and Winter Gem. Scrumptious is a lovely apple, nearly full red, with crisp firm flesh when picked.  It is relatively early, ripening in September. Unusually for an early apple, Scrumptious holds well on the tree for at least four weeks and will keep for a further couple of weeks if you store it in a cool place.   For a relatively early apple, these are brilliant qualities (none of those Discoveries all ripening on the same day…). It is also sensational eating straight off the tree. Just another apple for the fruit trees website.

Scrumptious apple trees are self fertile (but remember in the apple world self fertile means they carry fruit without needing another variety of apple as a pollinator but crops are always better if cross pollination occurs). Unlike Discovery which is one of Scrumptious’ parents, it fruits over an extended period. For those of us who suffer from the cold, its blossom handles spring frosts pretty well making it a good choice for frost pockets and colder parts of the UK.

For the more technical, Scrumptious apple trees belong in group C for pollination. They can therefore be pollinated by any (non-triploid) apple in pollination groups B, C or D. Its parentage is Golden Delicious and Discovery and it is therefore preferable (but not essential to select a pollinator that does not also have either of those varieties as a parent). It is a spur fruiting apple tree, which means pruning is straightforward and which also means that it can be grown as a step-over, a cordon or as an espalier as well as the more usual bush and half standard shapes. It performs well on semi-vigorous MM106 and semi-dwarfing M9 rootstocks which means it can fit into any garden or orchard capable of housing a fruit tree. Bare-root apple trees should be planted between November and the end of April while container grown trees – which tend to be more expensive- can be bought at any time of year.