How to Choose the Right Apple Tree For Your Garden

, written by Jeremy Dore gb flag


Unlike the stereotypical image of men, I actually enjoy shopping. Spending time choosing a gift for someone or wandering round shops is quite a creative process for me.  So when my brother said he would like an apple tree for his birthday this week I was happy to oblige.  Apple trees are actually quite complex things to choose successfully – as well as the hundreds of varieties you also have to take into account many other variables relating to the eventual size and position of the tree.  So what are the  most important factors to consider?

Most apple trees are sold as one-year old or two-year old plants. The best time to plant them is at the end of autumn or early spring, avoiding the frosty winter weather, whilst giving them a little time to establish their root systems before the growing season gets underway.  If you are ordering from a specialist nursery then they will probably come bare-rooted and will need the roots to be kept moistened for a few days until you are ready to plant them out at which point the roots should be soaked overnight.  You can also buy potted trees which can be planted later into the year but it’s still best to stick to the above times.

Which age of tree to get depends upon your aims and the price you are willing to pay:

  • One-year old ‘maiden’ trees are cheaper and have not yet been pruned to a particular shape
  • Two-year old trees have usually had some pruning to a standard shape such as cordon (straight, planted at an angle usually along a fence), espalier, bush, standard etc.  They are more expensive but will start fruiting for you sooner.
Apple cordons

Then there is the complicated matter of ‘rootstocks’ to consider.  In theory it should be possible to grow a full-sized apple tree on its own roots but in practice no-one does this.  Instead, apple trees are ‘grafted’ (or joined) onto the roots of another tree which determines the size and strength of the resulting plant.  Through years of research a number of rootstocks have been selected as giving the best results, with inspiring names such as M9, M26 and MM106.  So how do you choose?  Well, in practice, there are usually only a few that will be available and the three I’ve just mentioned are the most common:

  • M9 is a ‘dwarfing’ rootstock which limits the eventual size of the tree to about 6-8ft or 2m tall.
  • M26 is ‘semi-dwarfing’ - a little larger, needing good staking for the first few years
  • MM106 is ‘semi-vigorous’ – about the size seen in many orchards, reaching a height of 10-13ft (3-4m)
  • As well as height, each rootstock will have preferences for different soils and the size will depend on how they are pruned or trained.  Keepers Nursery produces a good guide.

    Next on the list is the pollination group.  Some apples are self-fertile and can be planted alone.  Most, however, will give best results when planted with other apple trees nearby that blossom about the same time.  To simplify the selection of trees, apple varieties are given a pollination group: a letter indicating how early or late they flower.  The other pollinator must be a different variety of apple.  In my garden, for example, I have varieties Discovery, Fiesta and James Grieve which are all group C or D.  Again, Keepers Nursery have an excellent database which allows you to ‘show suitable pollination partners’ for any variety you look up on their website.


    Age, rootstock and pollination group all have to be chosen carefully and we haven’t even considered the most important factor yet: taste.  This is of course a very personal matter and in my opinion the best way to tackle it is by eating! (After all, you are going to have many years supply of this apple!)  A supermarket is not going to be very much help here.  Far better to get down to your local orchard, or even one of the many Apple Day events held around the country.  For me, the best variety I grow has to be Fiesta: the perfect mix of crisp, tangy and sweet taste with a bit of crunch.

    An apple tree is an investment in future years.  For the first year or two it’s best to remove the blossoms so that the plant can grow strong without bearing fruit.  After that they really are simple to keep.  A bit of pruning, an occasional top-dressing of the soil with compost or potash and keeping them watered when young in very dry summers.  So after quizzing my brother on where the tree was going to go and doing a little research I have ordered him a lovely MM106 Fiesta to be delivered this week.  I quite enjoyed the process of choosing it and I hope it will be a gift he will enjoy for many years to come.

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Show Comments


"I recently had the same predicament for my sister. We took quite a while at our excellent local nursery, Duchy. With a bit of help from the staff and some preference for my sister we whittled it down to the well known bramley and one of the local varieties, the trenance, which the nursery are currently growing. We chose the local and look forward to the surprise of what the fruit will turn out to be like. I also bought "apple wine" M25 this spring for my allotment another local variety with no information whatsoever on it's taste, colour etc. Should be exciting to see what happens."
anna on Saturday 29 November 2008
"Tragic writing revealing of your lack of exerience/knowledge. "
maskremover on Saturday 29 November 2008
"Unlike Jeremy I dislike shopping! However, I do like to be an encourager and Jeremy, my wife thoroughly enjoys your blog so keep it up. Ignore the harsh and often quite pointless comments. To maskremover I would say rather than a comment that shows pride and insensitivity, maybe you could actually add to the article and show that your knowledge is real. At the moment you just sound like you're full of bull. Unlike Jeremy who has offered advice and help."
Richard Brown on Sunday 30 November 2008
"On Apples, enough bickering, can someone help me with pruning a 2yr old Red Devil which is cropping well this year on long branches not far from touching the ground with their tips. Should these leaders be shortened in Winter, tackled in some way at some other time of year, of left alone. Surely a new apple wont grow next year from the same position where there's one hanging this year?"
Perplexed Annie Slade on Thursday 6 August 2009
"Annie, the important information here is what shape you are training the apple tree into - is it a cordon, espalier or conventional tree? A conventional 'bush' tree shape will be pruned in winter during the dormant period and in the second year you would normally prune leaders back by 1/2 and less vigorous ones back by 2/3. Restricted shaped trees such as cordons are pruned in summer using the Modified Lorette system - cutting back mature shoots from the main stem to 3 leaves and other side-shoots back to one leaf beyond the base rosette of leaves. With espaliers it's the same apart from you have more than one main stem."
Jeremy Dore on Friday 7 August 2009
"I would like to know the best way to grow dwarf apples on how far apart should they be planted?"
mari on Monday 4 January 2010
"Mari, you will find some good information on how to space and grow dwarf apple trees in our GrowGuide for them at"
Jeremy Dore on Monday 4 January 2010
"Another root stock to consider is the M27, which can be used for step-overs. I am planting some in my allotment this year as borders."
Ash on Monday 15 November 2010
"Prior to the 1960s, my grandfather was head gardener for a local authority on the south coast - as a young lad, he taught me gardening. Today, I'm nearly 70 and am always willing to learn and I've learnt from this website. Yes, I knew that apple trees need a pollinator and I knew about root stocks but this is a very good article - and it has come at a very opportune time as I'm about to buy/plant 3 more fruit trees for my house in Penrith."
Doug Beard on Thursday 10 November 2011
"Apple training course heres. Here is useful thing to prunning apple trees. This information is very helpful to cultivate apple. "
enammom on Thursday 1 December 2011
"I found your comments simple and helpful. I would like to plant a small fruit orchard and am completely ignorant other than very basics. Trying to achieve an artistic finish as well as interesting crop of fruit. Ideally, a few crabapple too. Fiesta top of list -thanks - other favourites with only requirement being very crunchy? We are in a very clay area of West Gloucestershire...."
Luce on Monday 20 February 2012
"Thank you very much. I enjoyed the informative article and comments. Does anyone know of varieties which will do well in south central Texas. I sometimes feel that I am gardening in Hell with the long hot dry summers. "
Fred on Sunday 29 July 2012
"How much root space do I need to allow between a 'Pink Lady' apple tree and my house? I want to plant a fruit tree for shade and fruit but am not sure about possible damage."
Christine on Monday 3 September 2012
"Apples are good should I plant now ?tn "
Robert on Tuesday 24 September 2013
"I love apples and have 10 varieties in my garden. They do vary in taste from year to year and this year has been excellent for flavour. For cooking I have Edward 7 (dependable) Rosemary Russett lovely flavour and almost a dessert apple this year. Ashmeads Kernal which if you keep it until Christmas has the most lovely rich scented flavour in cooking and eating. My favourite eating apples were always Cox Orange Pippin which do well here, but the quite rare Pitmarston Pineapple is winning hands down now. I think it is only rare because it is a small apple so not suited to commercial growing, but for a full of flavour bite (and a little hint of pineapple in a rich crunchy apple) they are superb, and the tree bears good heavy crops after 4 years, starting from 5 apples in year 1 after planting and working up. I could go on, but hope that is enough to encourage you to try varieties. Read the descriptions from the nursery to match what you like in an apple and what other people like."
Sarah on Thursday 13 November 2014

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