Each February the bargain basement stores sell fruit trees for £3 or so each. Clearly for anyone on a budget this is A Good Thing! but some caution is needed.
(Where I say “Apple”, in this article, I basically mean “Any fruit tree” whether it be Apple, Pear, Cherry, Peach and so on)
There are some basic steps to choosing a fruit tree:
1. They need to be on the right rootstock – the variety of Apple is grafted onto a specific rootstock. The rootstock controls the size and vigour of the plant – whereas the top, Scion, is what provides the expected apple variety.
Dwarfing rootstocks, whilst they may seem attractive in order to keep the tree small / smaller, are much harder to look after. They need more feeding, watering and produce generally “weaker” plants.
2. Variety is very important. I am guessing that a lot of people make an impulse purchase of a fruit tree in the discount stores because “The Price Is Right” – my advice is “Don’t”! It will be a few years before your Apple tree is fruiting; during that time you have got to give it space and look after it (either a lot, or not very much), and if you then don’t like the flavour what’s the point? You’ll probably then want to chop it down and start again, with years of production lost, or “live with it” which is worse really, isn’t it?
So first up: research what varieties you want. There are a number of factors here, but I would suggest that the Number One Criteria is “Flavour” – grow what you like to eat, and if you don’t like it (or have never tasted it) “Don’t Buy It”! The fact your best friend loves it is little consolation – taste and flavour is a very subjective, personal, thing.
You will be able to buy specifically named varieties of Apple in the supermarket, and you may already have favourites. However, lots and LOTS of apple (and other fruit) varieties are not sold in supermarkets; for example, if they don’t keep well, or don’t travel well, or bruise easily then the growers and supermarkets aren’t keen to grow them. Each autumn there are Apple Day events; usually held at specialist fruit nurseries their are experts on hand to advise on varieties that will suit your soil, size of garden, and what you want out of the plant (maybe you want to grow it “like a tree” or train it along some wires in a Fan or an Espalier – not all varieties are suitable for that), but better still they have hundreds of different varieties of apple that you can cut a piece off and have a taste.
3. Your fruit tree needs a Pollination Partner. This is another tree, which must be of a different variety, which basically flowers at the same time – so the bees will be able to visit both trees and share the pollen between them. Some varieties are marked as Self Fertile which means that, in principle, they will fruit on their own with no other varieties in the vicinity. In practice, unless you have room for only one plant, it is better to disregard that and to always provide a pollination partner. Self fertile fruit trees with have higher yields, and some say better tasting fruit, if cross-pollinated rather than self-pollinated. Self pollinated trees may be biennial – only fruiting (well) ever other year, and those will often fruit annually with a pollination partner.
Some varieties produce a lot of pollen, and are therefore good at pollinating other varieties, and some are poor at producing pollen. There are lots of website with good information, so it only takes a few minutes to see which of the varieties you like are suitable Mates for each other.
One thing to be aware of is “Triploid” varieties. These are varieties that will not pollinate anything else. So you need at least one other variety that will pollinate the Triploid, but then that other plant itself needs pollinating, so if you have one/several varieties that are Triploid you need two other, non-triploid, varieties which can pollinate each other (and the Triploid variety/s).
In the case of Apples, the fruiting varieties can also be pollinated by a Crab Apple. Crab Apples make lots of pollen, and flower for a relatively long time, so make excellent pollination partners. If there is a Crab Apple in a neighbour’s garden you are Job Done!
OK, so you now have a list of varieties that you would like. If you are going to wait for the Spring sales then ideally your list will have substitutes that you are happy with, because it is a bit Pot Luck what you will find in the store.
You may also find that the packaging in the store is silent on what rootstock is used. The other thing, which I read of all too frequently on the Forums, is that the cheap bargains are often? wrongly labelled, even to the extent where a plant bought as an Apple tree turned out to be a Pear. Such mixups can happen with any supplier of course, but I am inclined to think that reputable specialist nurseries are less likely to have that problem.
Personally I don’t allow my young fruit trees to bear any fruit, I want them to get on with getting established for a long and healthy productive harvesting life after that, but I recommend that you let one or two fruit develop in the early years just so you can check that the tree is actually what you thought it was going to be!
How tight is your budget? An apple tree from a specialist nursery is about £15. It will either be pot grown, or bare root (only sold / planted November to February) in which case it will have been lifted the day that it is shipped to you, whereas a bare root tree in a “bag” in a supermarket may have been a week, or several, out of the ground travelling to the store and waiting for you to buy it.
An apple tree, perhaps baring the smallest dwarfing rootstocks, will probably yield £15 worth of fruit a year, certainly half that value. So in terms of payback buying a tree for £3, or £15, is not much difference in the long term. Of course if you can reliably find a good quality plant for £3, rather than £15, then what’s not to like? … but “reliably” may be the problem, personally I don’t want to lavish care, attention, and garden space on a tree for 3 or 4 years to only then find out it isn’t what I thought it would be and I have to chop it down and start again or live with it