Apples are the nation’s favourite fruit; we grow it more than any other kind. Unlike many other fruits the apple is at home here. Yet despite this, for those who grow apples there is always risk of having a disappointing year.
Weather plays its part and so there may be anguish across different parts of the country but even a fellow gardener down the road may be having some trouble which tells us there are things we can do to ensure a bumper crop of delicious and ripe apples.
The typical signs of a poor harvest may be that you only have a few, or even no apples at all.
Sometimes an apple tree can fall into a biennial harvest cycle, which means it only produces fruit every two or more years. This is typically because the tree has exhausted itself the year prior or isn’t receiving all the essentials.
Equally having a large amount of apples, but all of them being very small and poorly developed defines a thin crop. Surprisingly then, having too many apples as well as too few are signs of a failing tree. These symptoms lead to some different and some similar remedies.
Before I mention the different issues we do have some control over, it is worth mentioning the one critical factor over which we have less power; the weather.
- Periods of extended heat and the resulting drought can be particularly catastrophic for young apple trees trying to establish themselves. With underdeveloped leaves and roots they are far more susceptible to losing water and being damaged by hot temperatures.
- Drought aside, periods of long extended rain throughout the summer will prevent pollinating insects coming out which can be devastating. In 2012 Britain faced the worst apple harvest for several decades with orchards losing up to 70% of their entire expected crop for this very reason.
- Frost, however, is potentially the most damaging force against fruit everywhere. With the ability to destroy blossoms and fruitlets it can severely diminish a tree’s ability to bear fruit. If the country experiences warm weather in the early spring, instigating blossom, followed by a late and harsh frost a tree may struggle to bear any fruit at all. This is something British wine growers are struggling with this year.
To help improve your chance of seeing fruit it is important to make sure your tree is well watered, especially if it has been planted within the last 2 years. You can also use a horticultural fleece if there are late extended cold periods. Importantly it is a good idea to have a range of trees which blossom at different times of year to maximise your chances of pollination. See the ‘Pollination’ section for more details.
The main cause of an abundance of small, poorly developed apples and biennial harvest cycles is a tree which has exhausted itself in trying to produce a bulk load of apples.
Naturally the tree wants to make as many seeds as possible but this process requires incredible amounts of nitrogen. So if you want an annual supply of fully developed and ripe apples it may be necessary to thin your tree early in the fruiting period.
The tree may try to do this naturally in what is known as the ‘June Drop’ but it doesn’t hurt to give mother nature a helping hand. It may be traumatising to waste so many fruitlets but when it comes to human consumption quality certainly beats quantity.
- First of all rid the tree of any diseased, rotting or malformed fruitlets.
- After this simply remove the remaining apples until you are left with one apple per 4-6in for dessert (eating) varieties and one apple per 6-9in for cooking varieties.
- When choosing between apples it is always better to rid those on the underside of branches which may not receive as much light or air.
Pollination is usually the critical factor in how well your tree fruits. If your tree lacks a pollinating partner or the beneficial pollinating insects, cross pollination may not occur, resulting in a poor crop.
- An apple tree typically needs a pollinating partner within a proximity of around 50ft. This partner must also be an apple tree but of a different variety; very few apple trees are self-pollinating.
- Apple trees are categorised in pollination groups (1-6) based on when they come into bloom (1 being the earliest in the year). An apple tree such as ‘Red Devil’s Dessert’ (group 3) may pollinate a ‘Gala’ (group 4) however a tree such as ‘Bountiful’ (group 2) may have finished flowering before ‘Lord Derby’ (group 5) comes into bloom.
- In more rural settings, ensure your apple tree has the right pollinating partners nearby if you are to expect fruit. Ensure there are two different varieties with similar pollination groups. You can even plant a Crab-Apple tree, which makes a fantastic ornamental tree, to act as a pollination partner.
- Some apple trees such as ‘Bramley’s Seedling’ are triploid trees meaning they require two different pollinating partners.
- Make your garden attractive to pollinating insects. Lavender, Chamomile and Daffodils are all great plants for getting these welcome visitors into the garden early on in the year while also deterring the pests. See our guide to companion plants for fruit trees for fantastic tips on how to bring beneficial pollinators into your garden!
Pests and Disease
Unsurprisingly apples are a prime target for a whole host of pests and diseases. These biological annoyances can be the scourge of otherwise perfect fruit, causing ruin, rot and fruit drop. In particular apples suffer from ‘apple scab’, ‘codling moth’, ‘brown rot’ and ‘apple maggot’, among others.
The Solution for Disease
- Maintaining sound horticultural practices is the best line of defence against pests and disease. Pruning, weeding and keeping your garden clean of fallen leaves and rotting fruit is a simple but effective way of eliminating all those places which harbour apple-destroying life. Equally cutting the grass around your tree and applying a mulch will further help protect it.
- Most diseases such as Apple Scab and Brown rot are fungal and infect fruit through rotting material which may have been contaminated from last year. Burn infected leaves and fruit or bury at least 1ft under ground to prevent the spread of spores.
- Regularly check your fruit for any sign of infection or any wounds. Be vigilant when pruning and always sterilise your pruning equipment when dealing with a diseased tree.
- As the tree is budding in spring, certain fungicide sprays are available such as a copper based solution. This should be sprayed as the leaves emerge and then again 14 days later; this is, however, mainly preventative.
The Solution for Pests
- For insects such as Apple Maggot and Codling Moth again you want to destroy any potential hiding spots and prune out any areas of congestion. Hiding spots may include plastic tree guards and so a metal mesh guard is recommended instead.
- Nontoxic horticultural oils are a good way to kill dormant insects and their eggs which should be applied on the tree during spring. Sticky and pheromone traps can be used and should typically be set in early May before the insects mate.
- There are several all-purpose bug sprays but these can deter the more beneficial pollinating insects and should only be used when there is a clear infestation.
- Certain plants, such as chives provide a strong deterrent to pests including deer and rabbits as well as insects yet is attractive to many beneficial pollinating insects. Additionally dill, fennel and nasturtium all provide an organic solution to protect your fruit trees against pests. Again see our Companion Planting post for further details.
Hopefully I have helped to explain why your tree may be fruiting below par and you’ve found a remedy for this frustration.
Liam works in the buying team at Primrose. He is passionate about studying other cultures, especially their history. A lover of sports his favourite pass-time is football, either playing or watching it! In the garden Liam is particularly interested in growing your own food.