By Hannah Stephenson
Whether you’re into a crisp crunch, a sweet, juicy flavour or the tart tang that makes a crumble or pie a dessert to savour, the apple is among the gardener’s favourite.
We grow more apples both commercially and in the garden than any other fruit tree. But you don’t have to have a massive space to get to the core of success, because you can grow apples in pots, although you’ll need to give them more tlc than you would to trees in the ground.
Pot-grown trees may produce fewer fruit than those grown in the ground, but they can be grown on paved areas and courtyards in the smallest gardens.
Many apple trees can be grown in a pot, provided they are bought on the appropriate dwarfing rootstock, supplied with pollinating companion trees and kept well fed and watered.
Free-standing trees or upright cordons are best for growing this way, trained as pyramid or bush trees.
Dwarf pyramids are conical in shape and trained to produce tiers of branches all the way up the main trunk, starting around 60cm above the soil surface.
Cordons are vertical ‘poles’ with short branching spurs along their length. Similarly, ‘minarette’ fruit trees, slender, columnar trees, bear their fruits on short spurs all the way up a vertical stem rather than on long, spreading branches.
Six to eight feet tall (1.8m-2.4m) when mature, minarettes are perfect for container growing, and can be planted as close as two to three feet apart in open soil.
Apples on dwarfing rootstocks such as M26 or M9 can be grown in large tubs or pots (38-45cm diameter) filled with John Innes No. 3 compost. These rootstocks keep the tree small and slow-growing, as well as bringing it into cropping early on in life, which means you may be picking your first apples within two years of planting.
Fill the pot to a level where the graft union of the fruit tree will be above the surface of the compost once it is planted. You will need to anchor a thick bamboo cane into the bottom of the container to support the tree.
You will also need to make sure the container is stable since, particularly when the tree is in leaf, it can act like a sail and get blown over in a strong wind, potentially damaging both the tree and the container.
Containers with a narrow base are therefore best avoided. If you put a stake in the pot, then you may be able to anchor it from the top to a nearby fence.
The RHS recommends the following culinary apples for growing in containers: ‘Arthur Turner’; ‘Bountiful’; and ‘Howgate Wonder’, while its dessert apple recommendations include ‘Alkmene’, ‘Discovery’, ‘Falstaff’ and ‘Fiesta’.
With any pot-grown tree, don’t make the mistake of potting into too large a planter too soon. A snug pot will not only keep the tree small and manageable, it should also force it into producing a good crop of fruit long before a similar tree that is planted in open soil.
According to fruit tree specialists Ken Muir (www.kenmuir.co.uk) it may be tempting to put a small plant into a large container straight away, but this is not advisable, as the volume of compost in relation to the roots is too great to create water movement and air circulation through the soil, which will result in stagnant compost and may in turn cause root death.
The vital thing is to keep container-grown trees well-watered, particularly during hot summers. Add water-retaining granules to the soil and mulch or underplant with spring bulbs or shallow-rooted plants that will keep weeds down and moisture in.
Apple Day is on October 21. A series of events will be held nationwide during that month, including family days with the National Trust (www.nationaltrust.org.uk)