Apple growing, a cautionary tale.

I have an allotment. On it is a large fruit cage, taking up a third of the plot and in which I grow, reasonably successfully, soft fruit. I have raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, blueberries,  blackcurrants and red currants. The allotment rules don’t allow me to plant trees in the ground, so I am unable to plant fruit trees on the plot.

Not a problem, I can grow a few apple trees in my garden. I actually started growing apple trees in my garden long before I got the allotment. My first foray was with three apples and a Victoria plum. The apples were Herefordshire Russet, Suntan and Elstar. They were all planted as two year old bush trees on MM106 stocks. The russet produced half a dozen good apples in its first year and a respectable crop in its second. In the next couple of years the fruits were very small and scabby. When I decided to dig it out and put up a polytunnel it was not a difficult decision.

‘Elstar’ seemed to get a good write-up wherever I looked, as a good grower with good disease resistance and with well flavoured fruit. That was not my experience. All I ever saw were very scabby, very small fruits that didn’t taste of much. A work colleague had brought ‘Holstein Cox’ back from her native Germany and it was doing very well for her so I accepted the offer of some scions and started to turn Elstar into a family tree. The plan was for Elstar itself to leave home.

Apples-2
Family apple tree. The trunk is ‘Elstar’, most of the smaller branches are something else.

At the same time that I grafted three or four scions of Holstein, I also grafted a couple each of Red Windsor and Meridian. I didn’t really expect many, if any, to succeed. I also didn’t label them. Bad mistake. All nine scions took, most of them grew away well, but I don’t know which is which.

Suntan thrived. Away it grew, strong and healthy. In a year or two it was flowering like an ornamental crab but it was doing so once Elstar, Herefordshire Russet , Holstein et al had finished. There was nothing to pollinate it and I ended up with almost no fruit. I have spur pruned it as an open bush shaped tree, which has worked well, restricting its size whilst maintaining prolific flowering.

Apples
‘Suntan’ apple. Spur pruning in summer has worked well to restrict the size while still producing abundant flowering, if not fruit.

Somewhere along the way I had planted a tree of Red Windsor, on M9, a dwarfing rootstock. M9 is the stock that virtually all commercial growers use and until quite recently has been almost unobtainable in retail nurseries. Commercial growers plant at high densities, growing as spindle trees or something similar, supported on wires and at 3-4 feet spacing. Key advantages for them are that the trees start cropping very quickly and the fruit is a little larger than on other rootstocks. Yield per hectare is very high. I saw these merits as being just as relevant to me as a domestic gardener, plus the fact that in a limited space I could get in more varieties, giving me better pollination and less risk of gluts.

Red Windsor hasn’t done terribly well; it crops freely enough but the fruits have been small and scabby. It hasn’t grown very much.

Did I mention I am in Cornwall. A lot of things grow very well in our mild maritime climate, even some apple varieties, but scab and canker can be devastating.

I decided I needed a late flowering variety to pollinate Suntan. It seemed suitably disease resistant and the few fruits I did get were good. I wanted cookers because all I had was eaters. I ended up with Newton Wonder and Lane’s Prince Albert, both on M9. I was thinking that they wouldn’t take up much room and in time I could graft a couple of bits from each onto Suntan and do away with the free standing trees.

Why two? Well, Newton Wonder is a triploid, as is Suntan, so I needed Lane’s Prince Albert to pollinate Suntan, then something else to pollinate Lane’s Prince Albert. Truth is it doesn’t add up now, though it did at the time.

Neither have grown well, certainly not well enough to start hacking off bits for grafting. Trees on dwarfing rootstocks need pretty good growing conditions to succeed; I’m not sure they get what they need in my climate. I am sceptical whether they will do the job of pollinating Suntan. Suntan itself, in the meantime, is beginning to show a bit of a susceptibility to canker.

In the winter of 2016/17 I grafted some more bits onto Elstar. Plympton Pippin, Tregonna King and Meridian. Two west-country varieties that should do well and Meridian, mostly in the hope it will enable me to identify the bits I did before.

Just for good measure, I planted a maiden tree of Holstein Cox on MM106. It is a strong grower and I will need to restrict its growth. It had one apple on it in 2017 and it was superb.

Apples-3
‘Holstein’, a German ‘Cox’ hybrid that has so far shown real promise, but what do I do with it?

It’s crunch time. I have six trees, three on MM106 and capable of making 12-15 feet unless restricted, three on M9 and probably doomed to perform badly. Suntan is getting canker and crops poorly. My strategy to improve its pollination has failed. If it goes then Newton Wonder and Lanes Prince Albert may as well go too.

My Elstar based family tree is passable, though I’m not sure that having a trunk and branches of Elstar between the MM106 rootstock and the varieties I have grafted on top of it is a good idea.

Holstein Cox needs to be trained into something that I can spur prune and keep within bounds. It’s also not in the ideal location as it will shade the glasshouse.

Part of me wishes I’d never started. For probably 10 years of trying I doubt I’ve had 50 edible apples. I’ve learned a bit. Grafting shoots of different varieties onto an existing tree is easy. See varieties growing successfully in a garden nearby before you plant them. Spur pruning to keep a particular size or trained shape is easy enough.

I’m not thinking about what could have been growing in that space these last ten years or how much fruit I could have had if I’d planted the right varieties. I’m thinking about what to do now and the blog I’d like to be writing about it in five years time.

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