Knowing your tips and spurs
I am sure that most people don’t think much about the apple trees they plant. It is so easy to buy an apple tree in a pot from a garden centre and just pop it in the garden. When you start to look into the ‘what’s what’ of fruit growing it can all seem very complicated and I am sure a lot of people just ‘glaze over’ and buy the first tree they see. With pollination and rootstocks to consider there are lots of things to think about before you decide what apples you want to eat. In practicality though, if you live in an urban area there is probably an apple tree next door that will deal with pollination and you don’t get much choice of rootstocks unless you deliberately buy a ‘patio’ apple which will most likely be on a dwarf rootstock.
But because I don’t shy away from technicalities, and the apples are just coming into bloom, I thought I would mention another complication: tip- and spur-bearing apples. I mention this because I frequently discuss summer pruning, done in late summer, when the current growth is shortened to promote the formation of short spurs that carry the flowers. This is all simple and straightforward except that some apples are ‘tip-bearers’. These produce their flower buds, and then fruit, at the ends of the shoots. If you do the standard summer pruning in late summer you will cut off all the flowers!
Does this matter? Well it may not affect what apples you plant but it will affect your pruning regime. It also affects how you grow the apple trees. Because they tend to have a looser shape, with longer shoots, tip-bearers are not as suitable to train into cordons and espaliers as spur-bearers. It can be done but it is not as neat and tidy.
The good news is that most apples are spur-bearers and even tip-bearers will produce a few apples on short spurs. I made a conscious decision, when I planted my apples, to choose spur-bearers, purely for laziness, so pruning would be less complicated. But I made an error and only after it was planted, did I realise that ‘Irish Peach’ (above and below) was a tip-bearer.
It means that the tree is more weeping than the rest, when carrying fruit. I prune in winter, cutting off some of the longest shoots to a few buds and these will grow into three or more strong shoots in summer, that will crop the following year. By removing a shoot I do lose one flower cluster but I get three the following year. In this way I can keep the plant a bit smaller and more compact and increase the number of shoots that will carry a crop. Obviously, don’t give the tree a haircut in winter or spring or you will get no flowers or fruit.
In contrast, you can see the short, fruiting spurs on ‘Spartan’.
And that was it. Until I decided to remove one of my trees. It was supposed to be ‘George Cave’ but was obviously not and I could not work out what it was, apart from inedible. It is possible it was a failed graft and the rootstock was fruiting. I was not prepared to put up with it and removed it. It is not ideal to replant an apple in the same spot but they had not been there long, I improved the soil a lot and used ‘Rootgrow’ to help establishment and did what I vowed not to do and planted a ‘Bramley’. Because these are the most widely available cooking apple I vowed not to plant one but I finally gave in. ‘Bramley’ is also a tip-bearer so was not on my initial list of consideration. And it is triploid, meaning it needs two other different trees to pollinate it, but I have twenty differnt apples, and it is beside the crab apple, at the end of the row so it should be pollinated without any issues. Just a few more years to wait.
There’s coincidence! I ordered some Irish apple cultivars from an Irish supplier quite a few years ago and specified that I wanted spur-bearing varieties as I wished to train as espaliers. One of the trees supplied was ‘Irish Peach’ and it has disappointed as an espalier for years. I have left it go a little wild in recent years, not confining it to the normal espalier shape and it has performed better but is very messy. This year I have added ‘Beauty of Bath’, ‘Discovery’, Worcester Permain’ and ‘James Grieve’ – all from English’s – and I hope they are all as specified – spur-bearing!
Perhaps you would know if ‘Cox’s Pippin is spur or tip bearing? It is on dwarf root stock. I hope spur bearing as that’s how I’ve been pruning it – but only in the past few years. Disappointingly I get very little fruit but enjoy the flowers! Photo must have been taken yesterday with that very blue sky!
Yes, Cox is a spur bearer so you will be OK. I don’t grow ‘Cox’ because it needs warm summers and is very prone to disease. It has ‘sired’ lots of very good apples that are almost (or better – depending on your opinion) as good for taste. But as you say, apples are trees with a long season of interest and the flowers make the worth a place alone. And there is always the chance of a good crop – like my plum trees!
GADS! This is one of my pet peeves! Gardening magazines do not help in this regard. They imply that growing apple trees and other fruit trees is as simple as purchasing it from a nursery and planting it into the garden, with no consideration for the very specialized pruning that they require. Also, they recommend a few cultivars that may or may not be available everywhere the information gets published.
I am glad I hit the mark with that one! I suppose that mags find it tricky to get cultivars right for a country as diverse as the US. But even here, some articles are a bit lazy and repeat the same old tropes. And of course there is plenty of info that is just wrong.
Well, California alone is more diverse than most countries. I can walk to more climate zones than there are in the entire state of Oklahoma. (I may have said that before.) That is why the entertainment industry was so prominent here before relocating to Hollywood years ago. All that diverse scenery that you see in movies really is here. (I happen to be near the planet Endor of Star Wars presently.) When I started writing my gardening column years ago, it was specifically for the chaparral climate of the Santa Clara Valley. Of course, that does not matter anymore.
Thanks Geoff for that information. I didn’t want to add last time that I’ve always had some sort of disease and have never discovered what it is – I suppose I didn’t try to hard! Every single year the leaves go brown, mainly starting from the edges or brown patches and I have a huge leaf drop. I have always assumed it was the dry soil here, however last year I mulched and watered it extensively and still it happened! I get a lot of drop on the very small developing apples too. Any advice?
‘Cox’ has a reputation for being difficult to grow and to be prone to disease. It could be mildew or scab. A good soil is needed so the mulch, though it will help, might not be enough. Last summer was ho and dry, which will encourage mildew and also lead to fruit-drop. Feeding and watering will help but may not be practical. At least fruit drop means you don’t have to thin so much. in the ‘old days’ you could spray with fungicide but that is not ‘de rigeur’ these days! I would mulch and feed and thin the fruits so you get few, large apples. Woolly aphid seems a big problem here on ‘cox’ in my limited experience (I didn’t plant one because of the issues) but it doesn’t sound like you have that.