In The Garden

Apple tree growing
Apple tree growing

AS National Apple Day approaches, we take a look at what types of apples grow best in the UK climate and offers top tips for success with apple growing.

This week’s star plant is the sorbus, a small tree that bears bright berries in autumn while its leaves turn shades of sizzling red and yellow. Plus, advice on how to keep your herbs growing through the winter months.

At the core of apple growing

AS apple growers enjoy their best crop for a decade thanks to this year’s cold winter and damp summer, orchards are hosting apple festivals and events throughout the country this month, where the public can learn more about the different varieties and glean advice on how to grow their favourites.

Among those celebrating the harvest is Brogdale Farm in Kent, home of the National Fruit Collection and host to the UK’s largest apple festival on October 22 and 23. Brogdale grows a staggering 2,200 varieties, of which more than 500 will be on display.

One of the most important things to consider when buying an apple tree for your garden is its rootstock, says Michael Austen, a guide at Brogdale and experienced apple grower.

“The first thing is to consider how much room you have and then check what rootstock the young tree is on. If you have a small space go for the dwarfing rootstocks like M9 or M27, while if you have plenty of room you could go for an M25 rootstock.”

Most suburban situations provide good pollen due to the close proximity of other gardens and it’s not always necessary to have pollinators if the bees and other pollinating insects are generous with their visits.

There are some self-fertile varieties but others need a plant partner and you need to take heed of pollination groups. If you don’t have a neighbouring apple tree, select two varieties in the same group or the adjoining group. For instance, group 2 and 4 will pollinate group 3 as will any others in group 3.

“Buy a young tree, between one and two years old. The rootstock number should be marked on the label and if it isn’t, don’t buy, because the rootstock controls the size of the tree,” says Austen. “Any good nursery will tell you what rootstock the tree is on.

“Don’t go for a tree older than two years because the older the tree, the more risk there is when you plant it. Young trees tend to grow quicker than older ones.”

Bare-rooted trees should be planted between the end of November and the beginning of March, but avoid planting during frosty weather or when the ground is waterlogged. Pot-grown trees can in theory be planted at any time of year, but in summer it will need well watering and should be treated as if it’s still in its pot.

If you buy a tree that’s been in a container and find that it’s potbound when you remove it for planting, tease the roots open before planting it out, or the tree’s growth will be stunted.

Apple trees like well-drained, fertile soil in a sunny spot, but don’t plant them in pure compost, Austen advises.

“Don’t dig the hole, put the tree in and fill it back up with compost. Mix some compost with the soil you’ve dug out. If you plant the tree in pure compost it will tend to dry out and the compost might be too strong.”

If you have good soil, ideally mix some John Innes No 2 or 3 into the soil you’ve dug out and then fill in the hole, as this will help retain moisture.

Of course, young apple trees will need staking, but take care how you do it.

“All dwarfing trees will need a stake for the whole of their lives. The more vigorous rootstocks will need to be staked for the first five years and after that the rootstocks should be strong enough to hold the tree up.

“Put the stake on the windward side of the tree, so that the wind is blowing the tree away from the stake.”

If all goes well, you should be harvesting your first fruits in the third year after planting, building up to producing a full crop by the fifth or sixth year, says Austen.

Easy trees, which tend to be fairly disease resistant and produce good crops, include Red Falstaff, Red Windsor and Greensleeves, he says, as well as Egremont Russet, which is good for organic growing.

There are fears for the future of traditional English apple varieties, which are in decline due to a lack of consumer demand for home-grown varieties.

To help reverse the trend, Copella, working with The National Trust, has launched a Plant & Protect campaign to raise awareness and encourage gardeners to return the English apple to its former glory.

It has also teamed up with Thompson & Morgan, which is offering a range of English apple trees for your garden and advice on how to grow them. Full details can be found at

Best of the bunch - Sorbus (Rowan)

This deciduous tree comes into its own in autumn when it bears bunches of bright red berries and its foliage turns rich red or warm yellows.

S. aucuparia, the most common variety, is a medium-sized tree which can grow to 15m (50ft) and produces clusters of creamy-white flowers in spring followed by the berries in autumn.

Other good varieties include S. commixta, which is a slightly smaller tree with outstanding autumn foliage colour, as the leaves turn shades of vivid red, yellow and purple, and S. sargeniana, a large-leaved, slow-growing variety which takes on brilliant shades of red and orange in autumn, plus scarlet fruits.

Sorbus should be planted in the sun or dappled shade in fertile, humus-rich, well-drained soil. They make beautiful specimen trees.

Good enough to eat — keep herbs going through winter

If you’re worried about missing the flavours of all those home-grown herbs which you used throughout the summer, there are easy ways to keep stocked through the winter without going to the supermarket.

Sow a flowerpot full of basil seed, keeping it on a warm, sunny windowsill until the seedlings appear. Pick the leaves regularly to add to Italian dishes and sow some more in a few weeks’ time to keep the supply up.

If you’ve grown mint or parsley outdoors in summer, cut off a clump of it, complete with roots, and plant into a container of compost and keep it on a sunny windowsill to keep the plant going. Alternatively sow a pot or half-tray of parsley seeds every three months and the plants will keep growing all year round.

Evergreens such as rosemary and thyme will keep going through the winter months, so just snip a bit off when you need it.

Three ways to... make the best use of a small garden

1. Create a blend of open and enclosed spaces to blur the boundaries of your plot.

2. Strategically place a mirror or two in the garden to make an area appear larger.

3. Go for a few large features in a small space rather than a dozen assorted little ones.

What to do this week

Rake up fallen leaves as they fall, collecting them up to make leaf mould.

Prepare the soil if you are planning to plant bare-rooted trees or shrubs next month, digging or forking the area over and adding bulky organic matter.

Lift the last of your non-hardy or tender perennials.

Prune conifer hedges.

Continue to lay turf and sow grass seed to create a new lawn if the weather is not too cold or wet.

Continue to plant spring-flowering bulbs, except tulips.

Pick any remaining green tomatoes and compost the plants if they look healthy.

Tidy up strawberry beds, picking off diseased-looking leaves and removing runners so that the main plant remains vigorous.

Reduce the amount of food you give your fish in your pond.

Plant autumn onion and garlic sets if you haven’t yet done so.

Divide and replant congested clumps of nerines that haven’t flowered well.

Take hardwood cuttings from buddleia, elder, flowering currants and forsythia.