There is archaeological evidence that apples (Malus domestica) have been eaten since as far back as 6500 BC, and they have also been associated in mythology with youthfulness and health through the ages. While an apple is credited with solving the problem of gravity in Isaac Newton’s mind, they also have incredible nutritional value. Apples are the most versatile of fruit trees, with a wide range of cultivars ripening at different times during the season and therefore offering fruit from mid-summer to mid-spring, if stored correctly. They are well adapted to cold winters and can grow almost anywhere in the garden. The range of cultivars is such that they will suit most types of soil and climates.
For the trees to flower they need a long period at low temperatures, ideally below 7°C, which means the climate of the Western Cape is the most suitable and is where most commercial apples are grown. However, there are many thousands of varieties of apples, each with its own specific requirements. This means they can be grown in gardens almost anywhere in the country. In fact, large areas are devoted to commercial apple growing in Mpumalanga and the Free State. Your local nursery should have the cultivars available for your specific climate. For those with limited space, apple trees can also be grown in containers.
Apple trees are best bought from reputable nurseries. Apples are grown on suitable rootstock that determines the size of the tree and the time when it bears fruit. Your local nursery should be able to help you select the best cultivar for your specific needs. Depending on the cultivar, you may need to plant two varieties, so that they can pollinate each other.
Apples flower in mid- to late-spring, depending on the season and the cultivar. They may be vulnerable to late spring frost, so choose late-flowering or frost-resistant cultivars in areas subjected to heavy frost. Most apples are self-infertile, which means that they won’t set a good crop of fruit with their own pollen but will crop consistently when pollinated by compatible cultivars. There are exceptions and some are self-fertile. For good pollination, select cultivars from the same group if possible, or those from adjacent groups that will also serve as good pollinators. Trees grown in neighbouring gardens can also serve as pollinators.
Apples will benefit from an annual dose of potassium and nitrogen. Every third year you should also apply superphosphate in late winter, sprinkling it over the root area, just beyond the branch canopy.
Pruning must be done with care, so as to not prune away the following year’s fruit buds. Most pruning is carried out in winter when the trees are dormant. Use the open-centre pruning method to clear any branches that will prevent light from penetrating into the tree and shading out the central branches. This will ensure that fruit forms on the central branches, and not only on the outer branches of the tree. Fruit will only bear on wood that grew the previous year. You may also need to thin out the fruit by removing any abnormally shaped or damaged apples, so that the tree is not too burdened, which could cause branches to break.
Pests and diseases
Apples are susceptible to various insect pests as well as fungal and bacterial diseases. Keep your trees healthy and less likely to be attacked, by watering and feeding them regularly. When necessary, use chemical control for specific infestations.
The best time to plant apple trees is during the dormant season, which is winter. The soil must drain well and have a pH of around 6.5. Plenty of compost should be added to the planting hole. They prefer a sunny, sheltered position in the garden. Water well during hot, dry spells and control weeds around the trees to stop them from competing for water and fertiliser. Applying an organic mulch around the trees will help.