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CARING FOR YOUR APPLE TREES
Apple trees are most vulnerable to problems in their first couple of years or so. Treat them correctly during this period and they need remarkably little attention throughout the rest of their lives. Choosing the correct variety in the first place, for your needs and situation, is crucial.
Give established trees a good mulch once a year, thin fruit if the tree produces too much, feed them twice a year, prune them correctly and maintain basic hygiene. Those are the basic tasks to ensure you have healthy apple trees which produce lots of fruit each year.
APPLE TREE CALENDAR
After you have read our articles on apple trees then you may want to see our one page care calendar which can be found here. It summarises all the care jobs you may need to look after your tree. It also gives times for preventing and treating common apple pests and diseases.
WATERING YOUR APPLE TREE
Apple trees planted in open ground have very different needs to those planted in containers. First let's deal with watering apple trees in open ground. Young apple trees, from one to three years old, are the most vulnerable to water shortages. Their roots are shallow and do not spread very far which can make finding water a problem for them.
Our advice on planting a new apple tree includes watering them well and applying a mulch immediately after planting. If the tree is planted in late autumn / winter then it should be left to its own devices as far as water is concerned until mid Spring time. There are two reasons for this, firstly for most of this time the tree will be dormant and will have minimum water requirements. Secondly the late autumn and winter weather will supply sufficient rain water for the trees needs.
In the first spring through to late autumn, water your tree if the ground conditions become dry. A simple test to determine if a young apple tree needs water is to use a trowel to dig into the soil to a depth of 3cm / 1in and see if the soil is damp. If it is then don't water - too much watering can damage an apple tree.
If the soil needs watering then use lots of it once to ensure the water goes deep into the soil. Then leave the tree for at least two weeks before testing again. To effectively water an apple tree remove the mulch where you are going to water and then replace the mulch after watering.
The water absorbing roots of a very newly planted apple tree will be within a a metre / yard of the trunk but as the tree grows to a two and tree year old those roots will move out slightly so water an area slightly further away from the trunk.
For apple trees four years and older water requirements will depend on the rootstock used. More vigorous rootstocks such as MM106 will rarely need watering, their root system will be wide and relatively deep. Less vigorous rootstocks will need to be watered when the soil becomes dry, in the height of a UK summer this may require watering an apple tree on an M27 rootstock once a week.
Apple trees will survive with no feeding, especially those on more vigorous rootstocks but they will do better when fed twice a year. Feeding them will result in a far better crop of apples and also reduce their susceptibility to pest damage and diseases.
We recommend feeding with Blood Fish and Bone in early to mid Spring and then again in late autumn with the same. A major benefit of an organic fertiliser such as blood, fish and bone is that it is very unlikely to apply too much. Apple tree roots tend to absorb water and feed much better from soil which is at the edges of the tree canopy (foliage), and this gets further from the trunk as a tree ages.
For young trees sprinkle four or five handfuls of blood, fish and bone around the tree, but not touching the trunk, at both feed times. Increase the amount of feed as the tree becomes bigger. If it is applied to bare soil then work it lightly into the surface with a trowel and apply water. If it is applied on grass then rake it in lightly and then water.
Organic mulch applied around an apple tree will tend to be absorbed into the soil over the period of a year. Worms will do this by dragging the material down into the soil, water and general de-composition will also have the same effect. So it's best to top up the mulch in mid Spring to it's original level.
The purpose of a mulch is twofold, to reduce water loss and to suppress weeds which, if left unchecked, will use up moisture and nutrients for their own growth. For young trees (one to three year olds) the mulch should be applied to a depth of 8cm / 3in and a spread of 1 metre / yard. As the tree ages the water absorbing roots will spread out so the area covered by the mulch should increase as well. Water absorbing roots will spread at least as far as the the canopy (foliage) of the tree.
This section is about how to prevent diseases in apple trees, if you are more interested in identifying and treating existing pests and diseases then click here for information. The preventative measures below are for general apple tree care and do not deal with special conditions which some apple tree growers may encounter.
CHOOSING THE CORRECT VARIETY
Some areas of the UK and some soil types are more likely to suffer from certain pests and diseases compared to others so it's well worth while asking other local gardeners or at the local allotment what to look out for. An example would be canker which is more common on clay soils. If that's the case then Winston, Katy, Lord Derby, Newton Wonder and several others have a good degree of resistance to canker. On the other hand, Cox's Orange Pippin, James Grieve and Spartan are very liable to suffer from canker and are therefore best avoided.
Apple Scab is another common disease which is transferred by air and rain. So if you are on an allotment with lots of other apple trees and pear trees nearby look for resistant varieties (there are many) and avoid those prone to this disease.
Several fungal infections affect apple trees and they are notoriously difficult to cure once they take hold. The key is to prevent them in the first place by ensuring fallen leaves and apples are picked up and burnt / disposed of well away form your tree. Correct pruning, especially cutting out crossing branches and keeping the centre of the tree open will greatly help avoid diseases of this type.
If your gardening routines often result in neglect of your apple tree(s) then bitter pit may be a problem. It is caused by irregular watering and lack of some nutrients. The way to avoid it is to water and feed regularly but at the same time some varieties are very susceptible to this disease. They include Bramley's Seedling, Cox's Orange Pippin, Egremont Russet, Newton Wonder and Warner's King amongst others. However, Jonagold and Gala both have good resistance.
In some areas wingless moths climb up the trunk of apple trees, normally from November occasionally right through to April and then lay eggs on the leaves. These can be prevented by grease bands placed around the trunk of an apple tree in October.
This is often a hard task to carry out, not because it takes much time or is difficult, but mainly because many gardeners cannot bear the thought of cutting off developing fruit. The truth is though that if your apple tree, particularly cooking varieties, has a large crop of developing fruit your best option is to thin the fruits out.
Experience plays a great part in knowing how much to thin out apples because different varieties produce fruit in slightly different manners. Our preferred method is to do nothing until after an apple tree has gone through "June drop" which is when many apple trees naturally shed some fruit. If the tree still looks like it will produce a lot of fruit we thin each cluster of fruit by first removing the central ("king") apple then thinning the cluster to two healthy looking apples, one on either side of the cluster. Many apple trees will not require any manual thinning of fruit at all.
Harvesting and storing apples can be as easy or as complicated as you want. However, get it right and with three trees you can be eating and cooking apples from late August to mid-March. Click here for our page dedicated to harvesting and storing apples.
PRUNING APPLE TREES
Stick to the basics and pruning an apple tree need not take lots of knowledge and time. Read our detailed instructions and help guide on how to prune apple trees by clicking here.