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How to choose the best apple tree for your garden

Young fruit tree

This article is based on our experience in advising customers, and it follows the questions we typically ask when trying to recommend the best apple tree for a particular requirement.

Planting an apple tree is a long-term investment, as it will usually take at least 2 years before your new tree starts producing fruit and probably 5-10 years before it reaches full size. It is therefore a good idea to spend some time making sure you choose the the right variety for your needs and circumstances. For many of our customers this is all part of the fun, and the beginning of a process of learning which will continue for the lifetime of their tree.

When choosing an apple tree the main things to consider are:

  1. The kinds of apples you like
  2. The climate in your area
  3. How big you want the tree to be when it reaches maturity
  4. Pollination

For those in a hurry

If you don't have time to read the rest of this article and you just want us to recommend the best apple tree for your garden, here is the answer:

  • If you live at low-level anywhere in south-east, central, or eastern England and have normal soil conditions - choose Red Falstaff on the MM106 rootstock.
  • If you live in the far south-west, or Wales, northern England, Northern Ireland, southern Scotland - choose Red Windsor on the M26 rootstock.
  • If you live anywhere else you really should read the rest of this article, or try growing a damson tree instead.

Step 1. What kinds of apples do you and your family like?

Start by thinking about the supermarket apples that you like, as this will help to establish what flavour qualities you are looking for.

Common supermarket apple varieties
Golden DeliciousBraeburnGalaGranny SmithCoxRusset
Sweet, hard and crispTangy and crispSweet, mild, fairly crispAcidic and hardNot hard, tangy, traditionalMild sweet flavour, not hard

We actually supply trees of some of these supermarket apple varieties, and when home-grown the flavour can be far superior to shop-bought examples which are often picked too early. However these varieties prefer a warm dry climate and a good long autumn to ripen, so are most suitable for growing in southern England.

See our article on apple tree varieties we supply which are similar to supermarket varieties for more details.

It is also useful to think about what you will be using the apples for. The main uses are:

  • Eating fresh - straight from the tree
  • Storing for use later
  • Cooking - one of the best ways to deal with a surplus
  • Juice - home-pressed apple juice is real delight

If you are intending to grow several apple trees, it is worth considering the season of ripening, so that you can get a spread of cropping through the season. Different varieties ripen at different times, in a range from the start of August to November.

By the end of this step you should have an idea for the style of apple you like, what you want to use it for, and if you are buying several trees, an idea of the season of use that you require.

Step 2. Your local climate and conditions

It is important to consider your local situation, as not all apple varieties will be happy in all conditions. However for most parts of the UK the winter climate is not particularly relevant to growing apple trees. It is the period from spring to autumn that matters most.

See our article on the climate zones within the UK for more details.

South-east, central, and eastern England

Most apple varieties would ideally like to be growing in a warm, sheltered, fairly dry climate - as found in south-east, central, and eastern England. If you live at low-level in this area you can grow almost any of our apple varieties.

Further north

As you travel further north and west in the UK the climate becomes slowly more challenging for growing apple trees. Choose early and mid-season apple varieties as these are much more likely to ripen fully in areas with shorter growing seasons and cooler summers, and still give you plentiful crops of good sweet apples. Cooking apples also tend to have a wider climate range than dessert apples because they need less sun to ripen.

If you want to grow varieties that are more suited to the south and east you still can - provided you take steps to improve your local micro-climate. Start by finding the most sheltered south-facing spot in your garden. If necessary, try to provide extra shelter from the prevailing wind by planting a hedge. If you have a sheltered south-facing brick-wall you can train apple trees to grow against it - the equivalent of moving your garden hundreds of miles further south, as far as growing apple trees is concerned.

Step 3. How big do you want your apple tree to become?

Like all fruit trees, apple trees consist of two parts, the trunk and branches which you see above ground and are known as the scion or variety, and the roots or rootstock below ground. You can usually see a kink in the stem of a young apple tree, a few inches above the ground, where the tree is grafted to the rootstock.

Why does this matter? Because by using different rootstocks we can control the mature size of the tree. Depending on the rootstock used, a mature apple tree of any given variety can range in size from about 1.75m / 6ft to 6m / 20ft.

Apple rootstocks have rather cryptic code letters, which confusingly do not give any indication of the sequence. The following table is a simple guide:

Desired mature height of your apple tree (very approximate)

Up to 1.75m / 6ft 2.5m / 8ftAround 3m / 10ft3m/10ft to 4m/14ft5m / 17ft or more
Rootstock:M27 (needs a post) M9 (needs a post) M26 / M116MM106 / MM111M25

For most areas of the UK the choice of apple rootstock is determined simply by the desired mature height of the tree, as given in the above table. However in areas with difficult climates, poor soils, dry soils, and / or very cold winters, we recommend the M26 and MM111 rootstocks. These rootstocks, particularly MM111, are known to perform in very difficult conditions.

If you are planting several trees, try to use the same rootstock so that they will all have similar proportions as they grow to maturity.

If you want to grow your apple trees organically or without chemical treatments, err on the side of more vigorous rootstocks.

See also our article about the features of different rootstocks.

Tree form

In some ways related to the size of the tree is the tree form. We offer a number of formats - 1-year, 2-year, bush-trained, half-standard and so on. For most purposes the "bush" is the most suitable form. Contrary to what the name suggests, this is a proper tree, but trained in such a way that the branches start fairly low down the stem (roughly 40cm / 18") which makes it easy to pick the fruit.

For more details of tree forms that we can supply see our article on fruit tree sizes and formats.

Step 4. What about pollination?

Most apple trees need another compatible apple tree (which must be of a different variety) nearby in order for the blossom to set fruit and produce apples. There are some good self-fertile varieties, but these also crop better with a pollinator.

If you live in a suburban area or village in most parts of England, Wales, and southern Scotland it is safe to assume there will be apple trees in neighbouring gardens, and therefore you can plant your own apple tree and be fairly confident it will be pollinated.

If you live in a more isolated situation, or further north, or the climate is tough (windy or wet) you should consider buying two apple trees which can cross-pollinate each other. (Crab-apple trees are also good pollinators for apple trees).

For more details see our guide to fruit tree pollination.

Our online apple pollination checker lists varieties that are compatible with each other.

Dealing with stock shortages

Having decided on your ideal apple variety, you may find that we don't offer it on the rootstock or format you require, or we have sold out.

In this situation start by deciding your most important criteria: choice of variety, choice of rootstock (mature size) and choice of form (1-year, 2-year, bush, half-standard etc).

  • In practice the least important factor is usually the tree form. For example, if you wanted a 3-year tree but we only have a 2-year one, then consider compromising and ordering the 2-year tree because in the longer term (which is what counts with fruit trees) there will be little difference.
  • Next, see if we have an alternative rootstock of the variety you require. This means that the mature height of the tree will be larger or smaller than you ideally wanted. It is usually better to choose a more vigorous rather than less vigorous rootstock - because you can always prune back a tree that gets a bit too big but there is not much you can do about a tree that is too small.
  • Finally, consider an alternative variety.

Further suggestions

Some more thoughts based on our experience, and feedback from customers.

  1. If you are very keen to grow a specific variety, don't be put off if you think your climate is not quite suitable. See if anyone else is growing it locally, or similar varieties, and then give it a try. In the worst case you may not get any fruit, but the more usual situation is that the tree will just not be quite as productive as it would be in a more favourable location, or fruit quality may be less good. Over time you will probably find ways to improve cropping.
  2. Consider planting two trees (of different varieties) instead of one. Since we sell apple trees then obviously we would say that! ... but there are good reasons to plant two trees instead of one. Firstly, it helps with pollination. Secondly it means you can enjoy fresh apples at different times in the season. Thirdly, you can mix and match the flavours so that everyone in your family is happy. Finally, apple trees have good and bad years, so by having two trees it is more likely that you will get some apples from one or other or both trees every year. This is particularly good advice if you want to grow a variety that you know might not do well in your area but you want to grow it anyway - plant a second tree of a different variety to help with pollination and to spread the risk.
  3. Order as early as you can even if you don’t want to plant for many months. We have our widest range available from July onwards and you can order at any time, although delivery will usually be from September-April (for pot-grown trees) and November-February (for bare-root trees). You can choose the actual week of delivery within these periods.
  4. If you want a nice eating apple but are not too bothered which variety, choose a variety that is easy to grow. Here is a link to all our easy-to-grow apple varieties, which are also self-fertile or partially self-fertile, and good croppers.
  5. Conversely, don't be put off if the variety you want to grow is considered a difficult one and you don't think you are a good gardener. Most fruit trees, even temperamental varieties, are fairly easy for the average gardener, and you can always ask us for advice.
  6. Don't feel you have to get the variety exactly right first time … planting fruit trees is addictive, and many customers who were sure they only wanted one tree come back for a second or a third a year or so later.
  7. If you have children you have a real opportunity to introduce them to the pleasure of growing their own apples, which will hopefully establish a lifetime of healthy eating. Choose reliable varieties that scream "eat me". Also, think about using the M27 rootstock, which will keep the height of the tree down to around 6ft which is easier for children, and will be producing apples within a year - so they will be able to enjoy the apples before they grow up and leave home!
  8. Many gardeners want to grow their apple trees organically, or even better, without any chemical treatments at all. In this case the choice of variety is fairly important - choose ones that are known to be very easy and reliable to grow, see this link.
  9. Don't feel you have to grow 'local' varieties. The history of local varieties is often confused - Ribston Pippin for example, an excellent and well-known traditional Yorkshire apple variety first planted at Ribston Hall in Yorkshire in the 18th century, was almost certainly imported from France! A related point: the place of origin of a variety is rarely an accurate indication of how it will perform in different climates. Egremont Russet for example, a traditional Sussex variety, can be grown almost anywhere in the UK. Similarly Bramley's Seedling, discovered more than 200 years ago in a garden in Nottingham, is perfectly at home in the much hotter climate of the south of France.
  10. Similarly, don't assume that traditional heirloom varieties are better than modern ones. It is true that the traditional varieties have a proven track-record, and there is no doubting their old-fashioned appeal. However modern varieties can be just as good, and in the last 50 years growers have increasingly put the emphasis on flavour, which is perhaps the most important quality of all when choosing an apple tree. Try a modern Red Falstaff, or Herefordshire Russet alongside a more traditional Victorian variety and you will be pleasantly surprised ... although perhaps it should not be such a surprise, since these top modern varieties invariably trace their lineage back to the Victorian classics.

We hope this article will help you to choose the best apple variety for your garden, but if you are not sure please contact us and we will be happy to discuss your requirements.