Many left behind by the great summer of apples

A Generic Photo of apples in an orchard. See PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column.
A Generic Photo of apples in an orchard. See PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature GARDENING Gardening Column.

As visitors crunch their way through Apple Day events this October, Weekender looks at problems encountered by the few who haven’t had a bumper harvest.

It’s a bumper year for apples, experts have told us, thanks to last year’s wet summer, this year’s late spring and the glorious summer of 2013 –but what if things haven’t gone so well?

While many gardeners will be crowing about the vast amount of apples they’ve picked from their groaning trees, a few will no doubt be wracking their brains about the lack of fruit, brown spots, maggots and general poor performance.

So, if you’re in the latter category, why might this have happened?

Well, the tree may be in too dry a spot, which will result in little growth. It may be too wet and the roots may drown each winter, especially in a heavy soil when the roots may be confined in a hole full of water after every rain.

You also need to look at your soil, which may be too acid, too alkaline or just poor, with few nutrients.

Exposure to sun also has a bearing. If the site is too shady then the plant can become stunted.

Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) fruit specialist Jim Arbury, who will be identifying apples at several of the RHS Taste of Autumn Festival events in October, explains: “Sometimes you will find trees originally planted in the sun may have become shaded by a conifer hedge or a building and this can affect fruiting. There have been situations where fruit may appear on one side of the tree which isn’t shaded and not on the other, which is.”

If the tree was container-planted when you bought it, did you make sure you teased out the roots before planting? If not, they may all be trapped in their original place where they are now strangling each other underground –a problem which is often presented by the plant bursting into life in spring before petering out and looking forlorn all summer.

Others say their apple trees have grown well but simply haven’t flowered in spring. This is generally down to flowers being destroyed by frost, or trees being too young or too vigorous.

“Often, when you’ve neglected a tree, then pruned it very hard it will react by producing vigorous growth and may take time to crop again,” Arbury explains.

A give-away sign is when the branches are growing very strongly upwards, often with leaves that are dark green.

“The best thing to do with a neglected tree is to prune it over two to three years, to balance everything out, but it may take a few years to settle down again.”

Trees which look healthy but don’t fruit may be the victims of a serious water shortage at the start of the season, a problem which can easily be rectified.

They may also need another pollinator, especially if you live in an urban area with few other trees around. Apples generally need partners, but usually there are so many apple trees about that you can get away without planting a partner yourself. However, if in doubt, plant another apple tree nearby.

Apples infested with maggots and holes may have fallen victim to apple sawfly or codling moth. The best way to control them is to be vigilant early on in the season, removing any infected fruitlets and clearing up any fallen ones and destroying them as soon as possible along with the maggots within.

Heavy mulches under the trees laid over a woven fabric or plastic-sheet layer traps the hibernating pupai above. You can then expose them to the birds by raking the mulch aside in winter.

Arbury warns apple growers that their bumper crop this year might not be repeated next year if their trees suffer from biennial bearing, carrying a heavy crop one year and little or none the next. The tree exhausts itself by overcropping one year and then has to take a year or more off.

“Biennial bearing often happens in unpruned trees. It’s best to prune the trees (generally once between leaf fall in autumn and bud burst in spring) so that the cropping will balance out year on year.”

Another solution to biennial bearing is that after the June drop (which usually happens in July, when fruitlets fall from the trees), you should thin the fruits, removing at least half including the crowded, diseased and deformed and leaving only the best. This reduces the load on the tree by lessening the number of seeds, which it takes a lot of energy for the tree to make. The tree should fruit each year if the fruits are always thinned.

Arbury also advises not to give your tree too much competition. Leave around 1m (3ft) around the base of the tree to allow it to soak up nutrients, rather than allowing competitors like grass to grow right up the the base.

If you underfeed a tree you’re effectively starving it so it won’t set fruit. The answer is to feed it once a year in February or March with sulphate of potash and nitrogen fertiliser, following the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.

n For details of the RHS Taste Of Autumn Food Festival events at its four gardens, www.rhs.org.uk