Planting Up More Cordon Apple Trees

Feature image - Cordon Planting - trees planted
Illustration from ‘Cordon Training of Fruit Trees’, Rev T. Collings Brehaut (1860)

Yesterday was a good day. Mainly because I took advantage of the end of the recent cold-snap to plant out five one-year-old grafted apple trees, which I’ll be training to grow as cordons.

The trees went in on our main allotment plot (Plot #59) which sits across the road from the orchard plot (Plot #79) that I’m one of the current custodians of. I’ve steadily been adding trained trees to the main plot over the past few years and prior to yesterday I’d planted three stepovers, six cordons (more on that in future posts) and one dark-leaved decorative Malus, which was a gift from a fellow plot holder and makes for a useful cross-pollinator (not that we’re short in that department, with so many other apple trees on the site).

Yesterday I added another five cordons – it was going to be six, but the single stem of new growth on one of them was particularly whippy and flexible and has a really nicely-positioned potential second leader bud, so I’ve decided to train it as a stepover instead – to a section of support posts and wires that I’d already installed.

Here’s the section in question, with the ground cleared of weeds, and the young trees in their nursery air-pots:

Support posts, wires and freshly-weeded ground, ready for the new trees

The next job was to remove the trees from their air-pots and plant them out. I can hugely recommend using air-pots for young trees, especially newly grafted ones. The design of the pots allows a really strong root ball to develop, which gives the new tree a massive boost. Here’s one example, (which hopefully you can make out against the similar background – note to self, bring cardboard next time to take photos against…)

Good, healthy roots on this air-pot grown one-year-old apple tree

The trees were all ones that I grafted last year. They’re all on M9 dwarfing rootstock (as opposed to the existing 6 cordons, which are on MM106, but more on that in another post) – and because the rootstock I used was already two years old when supplied by the nursery and so quite thick, I used a U-shaped grafting tool rather than making the usual whip-and-tongue graft with a knife. It seems to have worked quite well:

A good, healthy graft union between rootstock and scion.

You can still see the join at the moment, but the union itself is sound, and there’s no sign of re-growth from the rootstock. I’ll monitor it over the next couple of years, but in time, as the trunk thickens, it should blend in nicely.

After a year in their air-pots, the young trees had all grown well, with single-stem re-growth of the scion, which is ideal for cordon training. Here’s a close-up of the re-growth point where the terminal bud on the scion developed into a new leader last year:

The scion-top re-growth point sometimes results in a slight kink in the trunk, but that should self-correct in time

It’s fairly typical, if the scion is from a fairly thick section of stem, for the re-growth bud to come off at a slight angle to the original stem, leaving the cut end exposed. As long as this angle isn’t too obtuse then the leader should grow reasonably straight and true. In subsequent years, as the trunk of the tree thickens, any slight kinks should be evened out and become largely unnoticeable.

The planting method I used is the textbook version recommended in most fruit manuals: dig (rather than dynamite) a square-ish hole, to the depth of the soil-line on the trunk of the tree, making sure the back-fill won’t cover the graft union.

Then I added some powdered mycorrhizal fungi to the rootball and planting hole before back-filling. To be perfectly honest, the powder probably wasn’t absolutely necessary in this case, because the soil I planted into is quite rich in organic matter – it’s been used as a squash patch for the past two or three years – so it should have plenty of fungal potential already. But it doesn’t hurt to be sure.

After back-filling and gently-but-firmly heeling in – using the heel of my hand rather than the heel of my boot in this case, to avoid too much damage to the delicate feeder roots – I watered the trees in well to ensure good contact between roots and soil.

Here are some of the newly-planted trees, pre-watering:

A section of newly-planted cordon apple trees

The cultivars / varieties I’ve planted aren’t particularly curated or selected, as they’re a random(ish) selection of scions that were available this time last year. So we’ve ended up with:

Crispin‘ (‘Mutsu‘) – Raised in Japan in the 1930s, it’s a dual-purpose apple that’s meant to produce large fruit (although the scion came from a tree in the neighbour’s garden, so at this stage I only have their memory of the name to rely on, and to be honest, the fruit on their tree has never been massive… could be something else).

Greensleeves‘ – A ‘Golden Delicious’ x ‘James Grieve’ raised at East Malling in the 1960s, a dessert apple that ripens in September through to October, when it turns from green to yellow.

Rajka‘ – A modern, sweet, dessert apple from the Czech Republic, with ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘James Grieve’, ‘Lord Lambourne’ and ‘Worcester Pearmain’ in its ancestry.

Rosemary Russet‘ (hopefully) – I’ve left a gap for this Victorian-era heritage dessert apple. And I say hopefully because it’s newly-grafted this year, so I’ll have to wait and see whether or not it takes. The scion wood came from my recent trip to help with the winter pruning at National Trust Quarry Bank.

Wareham Russet‘ – This scion came from the tree on the Plot #79 orchard (I’m in the process of ‘backing up’ some of my favourite varieties from that plot, in case anything drastic happens to those trees, canker- or storm-damage-wise). I haven’t sampled the apples yet due to bitter-pit last year. As this is a physiological problem I’m hoping the cordon tree might fair better.

‘Winter… Something’ – (Yes, I forgot to make a note of the name for this post, but I do have the tag in the ground by the tree, so I’ll check at the weekend and post an update.)

This means we now have 11 (hopefully next year 12) cordon trees at the front-left of Plot #59, between us and the neighbouring plot.

I’m planning to install another section of post-and-wire supports opposite this one, along the central path up the middle of our plot. That will mean another dozen cordons to plant in years to come, resulting in a neat ‘enclosure’ of trained apples – two-dozen cordons on the long sides, with a stepover at each end – around growing beds that we can use for the likes of sweetcorn and courgettes.

I can’t wait to get them grafted.


  1. Great! , good luck. Year before last I purchased a 3 year old Scrumptious potted cordon, just one apple, no lower side shoots up to now with no sign of any breaking bud only the top third producing leaves, it is a duffer! I will plant it at the back of my small garden and let it do its own thing. My others , 5 different look good fat buds in Feb looks like breaking bud already. Bob.

  2. Hi Bob – Sounds to me like there might be an issue with nutrition and/or irrigation? Did you re-pot the tree when you bought it? Of not, then it might be suffering from having sat in the same compost that the nursery had it in for however long since they re-potted it?That would potentially explain the lack of leaves.

    Planting it out should definitely help, as its roots will be able to access a much wider range of nutrients. Unless it is a duffer… if it’s just a weak specimen or the rootstock was a poor one, and a good feed-up doesn’t help, then there’s probably not a lot that can be done for it, except to take scions (if there are any lengths of new growth strong enough) and re-graft to another rootstock.

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