The best way to plant apple trees (or how I did it)

So, this post is a bit delayed as I actually planted my apple trees on the Winter Solstice1 2020. To set the scene, it was getting dark and both of my children were scampering about getting cold and I felt the sense of an imminent demand to go home.  I’m pretty sure that the atmosphere was not conducive to a quality tree planting session but you know, it seems apt for 2020. 

First things first, when you want to establish an orchard, the decision you must make is what type of fruit you want and what varieties of those fruits are most useful for your plans.  I decided I wanted to grow apple trees - specifically varieties which will make good juice and cider. I also wanted trees which when mature will make quite large trees but small enough to allow me to grow a few different varieties on my tiny plot.

Surprising Fact No.1 - Apple trees aren't generally grown using their own roots!

Apple trees are often grown using the roots of another tree. It is  the roots (and partly the variety of apple) that dictate the ultimate size and vigour of the tree. When an apple tree produces an apple its seeds wont grow a new apple tree exactly the same as the parent tree2.  The new tree would be a genetic mix between the parent trees which went to create the apple.  So what happens if you come across a tree that you really like and want to grow another one?  Well that's when rootstocks come into the picture.  You take a piece of wood from the tree you like (called the scion wood) and join it to a rootstock (from a crab apple species or a species that has been developed in a horticultural research institute) that will produce a tree size and growth pattern that you require. 

The guidance from Natural England3 when planting a Traditional Orchard is to use a rootstock that is strong growing and will produce a large tree that will grow successfully amongst the meadow grasses.  These rootstocks allow the tree to live for many years and eventually grow to ancient trees huge in size but also with dead and dying bits which are great for wildlife.  

The rootstock they recommend for this is called M25. It will create a tree with a height of about 6m when fully mature and it will require spacing of 6m between each tree. I decided that due to my diminutive piece of land I should go with a slightly less vigorous rootstock allowing me to have a few more trees and the smaller size will make harvest a lot more straight forward as well.  The rootstock I eventually chose is called MM1064 this will ultimately grow to a height of about 4m and requires planting spacing of 4m too.  

So back to my plans for my fruit.  For the last 2 years I have been buying in apples to press juice for my own cider making. I usually go for a mix of cooking apples and eating apples which makes a decent East Coast Cyder. This influenced my choice of apples to plant but I also wanted to plant some specific cider apples as I have found that my cider would benefit from the bitterness/mouth feel that a cider apple juice provides. 

So the following is my variety list.

2 x Spartan (eating)
2 x Blenheim Orange  (eating)
4 x Bramley (cooking)
4 x Howgate Wonder (cooking)
4 x Dabinett (cider)

Sorry for the long preamble (it is quite a broad subject)...  With the light failing and the task of digging the holes, planting and mulching the trees ahead of me I had to ask another important question.  What is the best way of planting an apple tree and have I got time to do it?

Ideally, you would dig a 1 metre hole clearing out any perennial weed roots and loosening the soil on the sides and bottom of the hole. You can then plant the sapling at the same height it was planted in the nursery.  The other, much speedier, way of doing things, is to use a spade to cut a slit in the soil and then push the small rootstock into the slit.  Due to pressures i was under - of light and offspring - this is the method I chose.  

Now to prevent the trees having competition in the first couple of years a very good idea is to mulch around the base of the tree.  I managed to get hold of a load of free straw which makes pretty good mulch.  It will rot down quite quickly and I will no doubt have to redress it several times a year but it was free!  I might eventually try and get some hardwood wood chip which would last a lot longer.

The other bit of protection a new tree needs is from the local nibblers - rabbits, hares, deer etc.  I have used mostly 120cm plastic tree guards.  These I have connected to posts and allowed the trees to be loose inside the tree guard.  I'm hoping this will allow gentle swaying which should produce a stronger root system.  

As rain was coming in the next couple of days I didn't bother watering them in but ordinarily that would be a good idea as it helps the roots make a good connection with the soil.

Amazingly, I planted all 16 trees before light failed and before the children became too bored/cold.  Let's hope the trees settle in well and they get a good start in the Spring.  Now if only I could arrange a big Wassail5 party and throw mulled cider and hang toast in the branches.  I think that will probably have to wait till after the pandemic. 

(If you really want to know the best way of planting an apple tree - I recommend the following resources)

1 Monday, 21st December 2020
2 Just like us humans I suppose!


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