With over two thousand varieties in the UK, choosing the right apple may seem confusing at first, so we’ve created this simple guide to cut through the jargon and explain everything you need to be an apple expert
Heritage, Modern or Cooker?
Apples have been grown in Britain since at least Roman times. Each seed will produce a new and unique variety, so a large number of varieties have developed by chance over the centuries. The best of these have been propagated by grafting to produce new trees identical to the parent, meaning that today we can grow the same fruit that was originally grown decades or even centuries ago. We’re big fans of traditional or heritage varieties which have a wide range of shapes and sizes, tastes and textures. Often these older varieties have rich, complex flavours – a gourmet’s delight!
More modern varieties also have their place in today’s gardens. In the 20th and 21st centuries, dedicated breeding programs have developed new varieties to suit modern tastes and the rigours of monoculture growing and supermarket supply chains. These apples are often large, attractive fruit with crisp, sweet and juicy flesh, so can be great to encourage children to eat more fruit. The trees are also often bred to be disease-resistant, high yielding and easy to grow – a definite bonus, especially in organic gardens.
One of Britain’s most popular and tastiest apples is the well known ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’. Although a delicious heritage variety, it is notoriously disease-prone, so difficult to grow organically. However, a range of modern varieties have been bred from ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’, giving apples with a similar great taste, but on healthier trees. These varieties include ‘Fiesta’, ‘Flanders Cox’, ‘Kidd’s Orange Red’ and ‘Sunset’. The heritage variety ‘Ellison’s Orange’ has Cox as one of its parents and inherits a somewhat similar flavour.
Most of the apple varieties we offer are ‘dessert’ varieties – great for eating raw. These dessert varieties can also be cooked, but need a different approach in the kitchen – they often retain their shape more and may lose some of their flavour, becoming more bland when cooked. However, we also offer a couple of varieties of ‘cooking’ apples which are usually too sharp to eat raw, but when cooked the flesh collapses to a lovely fluffy puree, and the acid sharpness mellows on cooking, often developing richer, more nuanced flavours.
Early, Mid-season or Late?
Different varieties ripen at different times. ‘Early’ and ‘Second Early’ varieties usually ripen in August or September and are delicious straight from the tree, but will rapidly lose their flavour and texture if stored. ‘Mid-season’ apples are ready for picking in September or October. Some will be good for eating straight from the tree, though most will improve if stored for a week or two. In storage, they will lose acidity, gain sweetness, and the more complex, rich flavours and aromas will develop. ‘Late’ varieties may be ready for picking at the same time as mid-season apples, but need to be stored for a few weeks or months for their flavours to fully develop. Many of these late apples will keep well all through the winter and will still be delicious and refreshing in early spring.
Our list of apple varieties gives approximate picking and eating dates for each variety of apple, but of course this will vary from year to year depending on weather, and will also vary from place to place. So use these dates as a guide, but get to know the unique ‘personality’ of your tree and learn to tell when the fruit looks, feels and even smells ‘just right’!
Picking and storing apples
Apples are ready for picking when they come away easily from the tree – gently lift and twist each apple to check. If they don’t come away easily, leave them and check again the following week. If you start to get windfalls under the tree, this is often a good sign that it’s time to start picking.
To store your apples, make sure you pick out only the best specimens. Any apples with bruises or other damage should be eaten quickly, as they are likely to become rotten sooner than unblemished fruit. Pick the fruit carefully, making sure not to bruise or damage it, and don’t try to store windfall fruit – bruises may not be visible at first, but they can be an entry point for the bacteria and fungi which cause them to rot.
Make sure you check that your variety is suited to storing: early apples will need eating ASAP but mid- or late- season apples will usually store well.
We lay out our fruit in a single layer on wooden trays, but some folks prefer to put them in clear plastic bags with a few holes poked for ventilation. Most grocers get their frut and veg in cardboard or wooden trays that are ideal, so if you ask nicely you can probably get a few from your local shop.
Apples store best in a cool, ventilated space with moderate humidity. If you have only a few apples from a small tree, they are probably best in the fridge, but if you have rather more, it’s best to make room in an unheated, shady shed or garage. We have a couple of shelves in the garage where we stack our trays of apples and they usually last well right into spring (unless we eat them all first!). Your apples will keep best somewhere that stays cool but not frosty, and with a bit of air flow as still, damp air can encourage mould to form. Be careful of sheds in sunny spots – even in winter they may get quite warm on a clear, sunny day, and watch out for mice!
We have a quick peek at each tray of apples each week when we take some into the house for eating. It’s important to spot any signs of rot early, before it has a chance to spread to other apples.
For apples to set fruit, most need to be pollinated by a different variety. In most gardens this is unlikely to be a problem as bees can travel long distances to spread the pollen, and even if no-one is growing apples near you, your tree may be pollinated by a wild or crab apple, or even an ornamental crab apple in a local park.
Pollination can seem complicated if you’re new to fruit growing, with different varieties in different ‘pollination groups’, and some ‘triploid’ varieties that don’t produce viable pollen. If you have any doubts or queries, please get in contact and we’ll help you find the right tree for your garden.
The Mother Tree is a partnership between Richard Lewis and Schumacher College, a department of The Dartington Hall Trust, which is registered in England as a company limited by guarantee (no. 1485560) and a charity (no. 279756).