Top tips on growing apples

You can eat apples nearly all the year round, and you need only go as far as your own garden. As well as being beautiful and friendly, apple trees will produce many different varieties and reclaim local history, say Sue Clifford and Angela King, directors of Common Ground

English to the core?this is our perception of the apple. But apples came to us from the Tien Shan, the Heavenly Mountains between China and Kazakhstan. From here, they accompanied traders, long before silk, along the trade routes and latterly, via the Romans and others, to our shores. Here, despite the contrasting mildness of the climate, we have sifted and sorted novel saplings and their fruits to find varieties that suit us and the disparate places where they grow.

The greatest testimony to our affection and wisdom is the persistence of some varieties, for every apple pip offers a new shuffle of the genetic pack. To perpetuate a Grow-bi-nights, a Lady Henniker or a Court Pendu Plat requires our intervention and care. We learned to graft?taking a cleanly cut twig and splicing it to another tree base or rootstock, encouraging it to weld its fortunes and favours to a host that may give it full rein or restrain its height.

From medieval monasteries, cottagers and through Henry VIII’s own fruiterer, Richard Harris, grafts of promising varieties were selectively passed on. The Victorians perfected the art?sowing pips, cross-pollinating, experimenting in the spirit of the age. Head gardeners, farmers (making cider for their labourers) and nurseries added to the range.

The RHS became the conduit for the ‘introduction’ or registration of varieties, although many had long histories. In about 1825, retired brewer Richard Cox planted a pip of a Ribston Pippin at Colnbrook and produced what would become the most successful of English apples?the Cox’s Orange Pippin?although it was not to be recognised widely in his lifetime. Our most popular cooking apple, Bramley’s Seedling, started life as a pip even earlier. Long before Mr Bramley owned the garden in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, it had been planted by a very young Mary Ann Brailsford at the start of the 19th century. The tree still survives, although it reclined gracefully long ago, growing up from its elbow in the ground to produce a ton of apples in some years. Every Bramley originates here.

The apple stands out from its neighbouring orchard fruits such as the cherry, damson and pear because of the thousands of varieties we can grow that extend the season. The Victorians not only wanted flavours and textures for eating and cooking, but they also needed the nourishment, especially through the winter and spring. Different apple varieties proved amenable to picking from mid July or eating until Easter. May Queen and Hambledon Deux Ans make greater claims. The later-maturing apples tend to be longer in the keeping, being more acid.

Apple trees are well worth growing for their beauty alone. The blossom, with its dark and light pink paling to white petals against the green leaves, is glorious. Brownlees Russet blossom is thought to be particularly fine, and Arthur Turner is the only apple to have an RHS award for its flowers. All are appreciated by bees and other insects, without which pollination and hence the setting of fruit would not happen.

Our long relationship has made for myriad customs (crabbing the parson), games (dookie apple) and sayings (upsetting the apple cart, apple-pie order). The ancient custom of wassailing on old Twelfth Night to banish evils spirits from the orchards and to ensure a good crop for the following year is on the increase; apple bobbing, apple bowling and longest peel have gravitated to Apple Day, October 21, established by Common Ground in 1990.

Chutney and pickle, pie and pudding, from recipes carried in the head, were guided by the type of apple used. Researching the farm orchards around Ryedale in the North York Moors, George Morris found that the orchard was the woman’s domain. On marriage, the bride would move to the man’s farm, bringing graft wood to her new home to propagate. ‘The selection of different varieties in the orchards was purposeful. Some were early maturing?codlins for example, which are ready for cooking as tarts and pies in late August and early September. They were followed by a succession maturing during the autumn and early winter, often more suited for dumplings or baked apple dishes. After Christmas came other varieties sometimes characterised by name?Greening, hard and sour until Easter or May; then, tasty cookers. Interest was maintained by varieties with characteristic taste?Gooseberry, Lemon Pippin or Green Balsam. Such a succession could only have been created by a skilled cook. Anecdotes support this?the farm worker who expected apple pie every day, but was never bored ‘for all tasted different’.

Imaginative storage of the goodness of the fruit has given us cider. Its making has a distinguished history ?indeed, the finest ciders were once chosen above wines, and may be again as small-scale producers multiply and seduce with ever-more refined wares. Hundreds of cider varieties?Kingston Black to Slack-ma-Girdle?have been bred in the South-West and West with bittersweet, sharp, sweet and bitter-sharp varieties that can be blended to achieve the desired flavour. In the South-East, cider is made using cooking and eating apples.

Traditional orchards with tall, standard trees offer the best of habitats. Doing the minimum, you can pick some of the fruit, leaving the rest for myriad creatures. Cutting the grass twice a year (part in late July and all in September) nurtures a great range of wild flowers and busy insects. Letting sheep graze it for you, or occasionally allowing entry to orchard pigs (the Gloucester Old Spot carries this name) needs care. You can prune the trees if you want to increase the yield or restrict growth; plant soft fruit or flowers for cutting between the rows; keep a flock of chickens to keep down the codlin caterpillars and provide you with orchard eggs; choose beehives to help with pollination and for orchard honey or you can fill the place with tents and enjoy hard work together picking the fruit.

Because apple trees mature quite early, they develop qualities that are attractive to wildlife comparatively quickly?fissured bark, holes and decaying wood that are enjoyed by insects, birds, lichens and fungi. Little owls, woodpeckers, starlings and tits nest in the holes; buzzards may sit on the tops; blackbirds, starlings, redwings, fieldfares, butterflies, hares, badgers and foxes enjoy the fallen fruit. Apple trees are one of mistletoe’s favourite hosts in the South and West. The richness for nature is only now being accepted?1,868 species of plants, animals and insects have recently been counted in just 13 acres of old apple and plum orchards in Worcestershire, a magnificent tally of everything from birds to bats, butterflies and bees to fungi, flowers and lichens. Tall trees, undisturbed ground, no spraying?here, biodiversity can thrive and we get wholesome food.

With the decline of commercial and farm orchards, gardeners can play an important role in continuing our orchard heritage and relearning how to feed ourselves. The area of orchards in England has dropped by 57% since 1950, and much had been lost before. Common Ground is campaigning for fruit trees to be planted in gardens, hedgerows, parks, country parks, field corners, roadside and railway verges, schools, hospitals, factory grounds and in Community Orchards for their beauty, fruit, and for wildlife. In Darenth Country Park, Dartford, Kent, once the farm of a mental hospital, the old hospital orchard has been replanted with 150 fruit trees. Many schools now have their own orchards and we know of more than 300 Community Orchards across the country. Some squeeze a few new trees into a patch by the railway; some have fought to save acres of old trees from development; some groups are driven by the excitement of producing their own apple juice or cider; some by an interest in nature.

Orchards are not just for villages and the country. Norwich, it was famously mused in Tudor times, ‘was either a city in an orchard or an orchard in a city’. One tree in every garden makes an orchard, as Dame Henrietta Barnett planned in Hampstead Garden Suburb. A single large standard or half-standard tree in an average-sized back garden will look and feel better than lots of small ones, giving room to play and provide welcome shade. An old tree felled by a great wind will generously redirect its growth at the same time as offering a seat as well as a picking platform and climbing frame. Alternatively, you may want lots of small trees of different varieties to take you through the seasons, with fans or espaliers against a warm wall. Anything would be better than importing more than 70% of our apples as we currently do.

Common Ground’s quest to find ways of showing the importance of local distinctiveness?the variegated meaning that develops as nature and culture rub along in our everyday surroundings?could not be better served than through orchards. We have worked well with nature to produce beautiful and productive places for our mutual benefit. It is in this philosophy and practice that a future can be forged ensuring every place has its apple, its orchard and a long story to keep on telling.

* Read more on food and drink