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How to choose an Apple Tree

How to choose the right apple tree

With a large array of options, deciding on your first tree can be complicated. First there is a decision about which variety to choose - varieties differ in their uses, taste, date of ripening, disease-resistance and fertility. Then, there is the decision about how you want your tree to be supplied - Trees can be supplied as bare root or containerised, and varieties can be grafted onto different rootstocks, which will affect a tree’s size and time to fruit.

To help you choose the right Apple Tree for you, we've pulled together everything you need to know about Apple Trees. 

How do you want to use your apples?

Cultivars can be divided into dessert, cooking and cider apples.


Cooking Apples - Cooking apples are firm and maintain their structure when cooked, the best of which remains Bramley’s Seedling, rare for a historical variety, this cultivar is a recipient of RHS’ Award of Garden Merit, which means it’s the best of its kind. Sour straight off the tree, cooking apples’ flavour improves in storage as the acidity falls over time. For apple pie, for example, it is common to combine a sweet and tart apple. 


Dessert Apples - Dessert apples are sweeter and cooking apples larger and more acidic. Dessert apples are great for eating fresh of the tree – a typical example being the Cox, which is both aromatic, crisp and juicy. Read on for more about the various tastes of dessert apples.


Cider Apples - Cider apples often taste awful straight off the tree due to the high levels of astringency and bitterness. However, it is these features that add colour, body and mouthfeel to a pint, producing a well-proportioned flavour. For both cooking and cider making, two varieties are often combined to produce the best depth of flavour. For cider varieties, apples vary in their acidity, tannins and sugars, producing four flavours: bittersweet, bittersharp, sharp and sweet. 

However, not all varieties belong exclusively to one category, for example, the versatile Granny Smith is great both fresh and cooked.


Which apple tastes the best?

Each variety has a fascinating history of its own and came into being for a variety of reasons. Historical cultivars are produced in abundance with the most popular dessert and cooking apple in the UK (Cox and Bramley), originating from the 19th century. Others, produced through various breeding programmes, are selected for certain characteristics. These modern varieties are often the recipient of RHS Award of Garden Merit and are superior in many respects to their predecessors.

Before deciding on a dessert apple, it can be worthwhile trying what’s on offer in a supermarket, but not all varieties will be available to purchase as a tree. Cripps Pink (better known by its brand name Pink Lady) is not available to purchase in the UK due to fears from the brand owner the UK’s climate will not do the apple justice. However, there are lots of great alternatives that you can grow yourself:

Cox's Orange Pippin Apple - If you want to achieve an aromatic, crisp and juicy taste, look no further than Cox’s Orange Pippin – its nuanced taste is far better than imported cultivars such as Braeburn and its descendants.

Red Windsor Apple - A similar modern variety, Red Windsor, itself a descendent of the Cox, has the same robust flavour and aromatic qualities, although is a tad sharper.

Russet Apple - For something different, try Russet Apples. Russets are distinctive for their rough, brownish skin with a taste oft described as sweet and nutty, similar to pineapples. 

Worcester Permain Apple - Worcester Pearmain, is distinctive for its strawberry flavour, a trait which has contributed to its popularity with breeders.

When do you want do harvest your apples?

Apples can be divided into early, mid and late picking season varieties with apples ripening from early summer to late autumn. The picking date varies significantly on location, but a midseason variety will always ripen later than an early-season variety. If you are to buy more than one tree, it is recommended you buy trees with different picking seasons to ensure you have fresh apples throughout the harvest period, rather than endure a glut.

Different picking season apples exhibit different storage qualities. Early varieties are best eaten straight off the tree and do not keep. They tend to be brightly coloured and are often sweet and juicy with a natural waxiness. Mid-season varieties do not keep well either, but their freshness can be extended with refrigeration. They tend to be firm fleshed and harder skinned. Late season apples can be kept for several weeks or months with some varieties’ flavour improving after a period of storage. Generally, they are very rich in flavour, drier in texture and russeted.

Which apple tree will be resistant to disease?

Apple trees suffer from a range of diseases, most of which are easily treatable through containment and fungicides. Many affect the fruit itself, noticeable by slow growth, discolouration and abscesses. Others cause damage to the leaves, stem and roots, reducing a tree’s productivity. Common problems include canker, scab and powdery mildew and it is resistance to these diseases one should watch out for.

Varieties with good disease resistance have long been selected for breeding programmes, producing cultivars with excellent disease resistance such as Red Windsor. It is modern cultivars such as these that are best selected if you are an organic gardener don't want to use fungicides to prevent disease. 

Which apple trees are fertile?

Crabapple trees are known for their blossom and ornamental apples, which can also be used in cooking.
Like most fruiting species, apple trees can be self-fertile or self-sterile. Self-sterile varieties, deprived of the pollen from another cultivar, will not produce fruit. However, it is probable that you already live within range of another apple tree, especially if you are in an urban area. Crabapples will also pollinate apple trees and can be commonly found in commercial orchards. So, overall it is likely, you do not need to purchase two trees unless you live in an isolated location.

If you are in an isolated location, it is worth noting triploid trees will not pollinate other cultivars, so it is important to buy it with either: a self-fertile variety or two self-sterile varieties. It is also worth noting that all apple trees, including self-fertile varieties, benefit from a pollination partner, so for bigger crops partner up.

Should I choose a bare root or a potted apple tree?

Trees can be supplied bare root or containerised, which each have their own advantages and disadvantages, although none of these differences will affect a tree’s long term health; there are two important distinctions worth considering.

Bare root apple trees - most apple trees produce fruit in their 3rd and 4th year. As bare root trees are young, in their 1st or 2nd year, you’ll have to wait a few years until they fruit. If you wish to train your tree into a fan, espalier or cordon it is important to buy a bare root tree that is easier to train. Training your tree against a south-facing wall will improve yields.

Potted apple trees - potted trees are older due to the fact bare root trees are transferred into containers upon reaching a certain age. (Although, this does not mean all potted trees were once grown in the ground as some nurseries grow trees exclusively in containers.) Overall, if you buy a potted tree, you can expect fruit in the current year, although don’t expect a large crop straight away.

Which rootstock should I choose?

Among other factors, rootstocks influence the size of the tree and the date it bears fruit.


Semi Vigorous Rootstock

  • Vigorous rootstocks produce larger trees but take longer to fruit.
  • Height & Spread: 4 x 4m

Semi Dwarfing Rootstock

  • Semi dwarfing rootstocks produce smaller trees but take less time to bear fruit.
  • Height & Spread: 3 x 3.5m
  • Don't forget to plant with a stake or support, these trees produce such heavy crops in relative to their size they can lean or fall over; their roots are also shallow are liable to being uprooted.

Dwarfing Rootstock 

  • Dwarfing rootstocks produce smaller trees but take less time to bear fruit.
  • Height & Spread: 1.5 x 1.5m
  • Don't forget to plant with a stake or support, these trees produce such heavy crops in relative to their size they can lean or fall over; their roots are also shallow are liable to being uprooted.

When should I plant my apple tree?

Trees are best planted in the autumn, allowing time to establish a root system before the summer. It is not recommended to buy a bare root tree in the winter when the ground is frozen as it is impossible to plant. Nor is it recommended to plant in the peak of summer as trees without an established root system can wilt in the heat.

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