Apples are one of the most popular fruits and there are many varieties available to suit almost every taste. There are few sights as lovely as an apple orchard in full bloom in spring. The clouds of pink flowers lift our spirits and make us eager for summer.
Generally, apples fall into three types:
- Cooking apples. These are the apples best suited for cooking – making crumbles and pies. They are too sour to eat, but release their flavor when cooked.
- Dessert apples. These are the eating apples we are all familiar with. There are many varieties, including older heritage varieties that are now rare and in danger of disappearing. Some dessert apple varieties are fine to use in cooking too.
- Cider apples. These are specific varieties that are grown to make apple cider. These are usually far too sharp to eat raw, but when pressed and fermented make wonderful cider.
Many gardeners, who have space in their gardens, like to try their hand at growing apples. Apples trees can take between 3 and 5 years from planting before they produce fruit.
Planting apple trees, therefore, is an act of faith. That is why it is important to plant a reliable and trusted variety to ensure a good crop in future years.
Now, therefore, let’s try and answer the question in the title of this article. Do you need to plant both a male and female apple tree?
There is no straightforward answer to this question because apple trees generally are considered to be self-incompatible. This means that another apple tree needs to be grown as a pollinator.
Why have two apple trees?
Although apple trees are hermaphrodite (which means they produce flowers with both male and female features), they are not usually capable of self-pollination.
You will need another tree of a different but compatible variety growing nearby. One tree will provide the male features and the other the female. Choose a tree that blooms at the same time as your main tree.
The pollination process is carried out mostly by honeybees, but other insects are important too.
Try to encourage honeybees to your garden by growing other flowers and plants that they love. Insects generally will benefit from patches of wildflowers.
Some growers in the past devoted time and effort to growing apple varieties from seed, and many new and successful varieties were created.
Growing from seed is the only way to create a new apple variety. Often producing these new varieties was a labor of love requiring immense patience on the part of the grower.
Today, we can benefit from the hard work of those growers and choose from a huge variety of apples.
Some of the most successful apple varieties are household names, like Pink Lady and Gala. As new, more successful varieties came along, so older varieties fell from favor.
These heritage varieties all have their good qualities and efforts are being made to save them for posterity.
Some of the new varieties are, however, sterile. These should not be used as pollinators. Examples of sterile dessert apples are Jonagold, Mutsu, Stayman and Winesap.
Another factor to be considered when choosing varieties to grow together is disease resistance.
Apple scab is a problem for apple growers and growing only those varieties that are resistant is a good idea. It will save you heartache in the future.
When choosing, you will need to decide whether you want a dwarf or standard rootstock and whether the tree you choose is hardy for the area where you live. Also, do you want fruit that ripens early or later? What is the keeping quality of the fruit? In other words, does it store well?
What if I only grow one apple tree?
If you want to get a crop of apples but only have space for one tree, then you will need to consider a self-pollinating apple tree.
Growers and nurserymen suggest a few varieties that will self-pollinate. Among these are Gala, Rome, Empire and Golden Delicious.
However, self-pollination in these varieties is something of a hit-and-miss affair, and they will all benefit from another tree nearby to act as a pollinator.
Crops will be higher and you won’t have to worry as to whether there will be a crop at all.
The only type of tree that you can grow on its own is the grafted tree with more than one variety on it. These trees are sometimes known as Fruit Cocktail Trees’ reflecting the multiple varieties on each one.
One really useful feature of apple trees is that they can easily be grafted. This is the process of taking a shoot from one variety of apple tree and fixing it in place on another variety.
Most apple trees that are available are grafted onto a rootstock. The rootstock will determine the vigor of the grafted tree, and some rootstocks are used to create miniature trees or patio trees that are smaller than normal.
Grafting is a simple process, and can be learned quite quickly. It is possible to graft several varieties of apple tree onto one tree.
There are orchards containing maybe ten trees but those trees play host to upwards of twenty different varieties.
Gardeners who only have a small space can, therefore, plant a tree that has two or even three varieties grafted on to it. Provided these varieties all flower at the same time, so they will pollinate each other.
Grafting is important in the production of apple trees as they do not normally grow true when sown as seeds.
As apple trees only fruit when a different variety serves as the pollinator, so the seeds in each apple will be a mix of those two varieties. The seed will not grow true to either parent.
Apple trees won’t fruit if grown on their own. Two trees of different but compatible varieties will be needed. Pollination is carried out by insects like honeybees. Encourage insects by planting wildflowers.
Make sure the two trees you choose flower at the same time, are disease resistant and are suitable for the area where you live.
If you only have space for one tree choose a self-pollinating tree or a tree that has several varieties grafted on to it.
Have a look around your neighbourhood and check if other people have apple trees growing. Another tree nearby will mean you don’t have to grow a second tree. The bees and insects are not bothered by boundaries – they will fly from tree to tree quite happily.