I have only once chopped down an apple tree, a much loved Bramley that had contracted canker after years of providing me with apple wine. I hated to do it, but all living things have their time. Since then I have planted three others, whose juice is fermenting in the kitchen, two of them anyway, the fruit of the third is not ready yet, though it will be soon.
Types of apple
Apples fall into three broad types; dessert, cooking and cider. Cider apple trees are becoming more popular again, and they can be quite prolific. One thing to know about dessert apples is that they fall into different pollination groups, a, b, c,d,e depending upon their time of ripening. To ensure that the trees pollinate you should ensure that they are planted in near one of their own group or one on either side, so that the pollination will take place. Otherwise you will not get any fruit. The nursery should advise which group the trees that you are purchasing belong to. Cooking apples fall into three groups, but the rule is the same. Within each group there is a wide range of different types. Apples also fall into two further groups, those that bear fruit at the tip and those that bear it along the branches. Be aware of what type you are planting.
All modern apples are grafted onto rootstock. This means that they are not grown from seed. The reason for this is that when plants are grown from seed they are related to both parent plants, so that you cannot guarantee that they will be like the plant that you want. If you want them to be like the male, they will only be half that male. But grafting uses what we call vegetative propagation, and you can guarantee that the plant will be of the type that you want. But rootstock matters, as it determines the size of the tree. Some rootstocks are dwarfing, others semi-dwarfing and others standard. so when you are purchasing apple trees specify which sort of rootstock that you want. More specific advice can be given by the nurseryman.
All fruit trees are to be planted at the dormant time of year, which is November to February. Make square a hole wider than the roots and large enough to take the tree plus some compost/manure. It should also be deep enough to ensure that the tree can be planted to the point at which stem reaches the roots. Some people place a tube into the ground so that water can reach the roots. Place the tree in the hole and add some of the compost/manure, then fill back the hole. Tread down firmly so that no air pockets will be in proximity to the roots, as they will prevent absorption of nutrients, Water well. Then place a stake and fasten it to the apple tree. Use a figure eight knot, so that the twine will not be too close to the bark, as it can cut in and damage the tree.
After the first year prune the tree, cuttting any branches according to the instructions given by the nursery. You should only purchase from a nursery that provides instructions, as those that do not advise will be slipshod. Pruning involves cutting some branch growth so as to facilitate root growth. The small apples growing in the first year should also be taken and composted without being allowed to grow, as you want to encourage root growth.
Pruning is an art learned by practice. It always looks easier in the books than it does when facing the complex reality of a tree. Apples should be pruned in January. All weak growth should be taken off, and so should any stems that cross another. If you have tip bearers, be careful not to prune the tips of any branches that you want to bear fruit. By Autumn you can see the fruit buds on the apples, so look for them before pruning.The aim of pruning is to clear unwanted growth, and good pruning should clear the heart of the crown so that the light can reach the centre of the tree. The ideal fruit tree is chalice-shaped.
One important point is that if you cut off the top of the main stem, the trunk, you will stimulate branch growth lower down and the tree will become bushy, as the auxin released by the axial bud at the top that prevents other branches from growing is lost. You control height, but you cannot thus control future growth.
If possible, paint over the pruned areas with a protective substance to prevent canker and various nasty fungi getting into the vulnerable heart of the tree. Always keep your eyes open for fungal infection, and if you find it be ruthless. There is no cure. Get rid of the branch and burn it.
The soil around the apple should be kept fed with manure and compost. Around that old Bramley I used to have a compost heap and leaf mould bins, which provided a leakage of nutrient down to the roots. Leaves and leaf mould are always good for trees. Last Autumn I mulched around all my fruit trees with leaves taken from a generous local gardener, and they protected the soil against damage from heavy rain, kept it warm and provided some limited nourishment for the trees.Deciduous trees are naturally surrounded be fallen leaves in their wild habitat. I usually soak the leaves so that they are too heavy to easily blow away, and the winter rains keep them wet. You will see the leaves slowly disappearing in Spring as the microscopic fungi eat them away
However, it is sometimes a good idea to leave a small gap between the leaves that you lay down and the tree, as otherwise field mice that will enjoy living in the warm leaves through the winter might nibble the bark and damage the tree.
Leaf mould is leaves that have decayed for over a year. It is distinct from compost as leaves decay by fungal action rather than by bacteria, as is the case with compost. Leaf mould contains some nutrients.
Apples have many uses besides being simply eaten. I make apple wine out of mine, using a small cider press, but I also have a fruit and vegetable dehydrator, which provides me with dried apple. The dried fruit keeps really well.