Mike’s Guide to Backyard Apples

A recent Okanagan vacation reminded me that a lot has changed since I used to spend summers at my Grandma’s Westbank home back in the 1970s. Gone are the freestanding apple orchards, all replaced with thin cordon types supported on wires to a height of about 7-8’ tall, where they can be hand-picked without ladders. It makes perfect sense as far as commercial production is concerned but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have one or two old-fashioned apples growing in your backyard for fresh eating, canning, or even making delicious pies. So, here is everything you need to know about choosing the right ones.


Apples need a minimum of 6-8 hours of sun a day in summer, with more being better. They will tolerate a lightly acidic pH but prefer fertile soils that are moist and well-drained. Sandy soils can be amended with compost or Sea Soil and wet areas should be avoided altogether.

How Many Apple Trees Can I Plant?

That depends on the rootstock used, with the more common M26 producing trees that average 10-12’ tall and wide, while the more compact M9 or M27 trees usually reach only 6-8’ tall and wide, but require permanent support. You will want to leave at least 6’ between mature trees to allow for good air circulation and sun penetration. People living on smaller lots can consider columnade forms such as ‘Golden Sentinel’ and ‘Scarlet Sentinel’ which will mature at 8-9’ tall and 2-3’ wide when planted in-ground. Another option would be tiered espalier apples which are meant to grow flat against a south or west-facing fence or wall.

What If I can Only Plant One Apple Tree?

Then you are going to have to choose a self-fertile variety such as ‘Spartan’, ‘Gala’, ‘Golden Delicious’, ‘Cortland’ (which also pollinates ‘Elstar’ and ‘Cox’s Orange’), or even a crabapple, like ‘Dolgo’. Another good option is a multigraft tree with 3-5 different varieties – these can come in both espalier and free-standing forms.

Do Other Apples Require Pollination?

‘Gravenstein’ Apple

Most apple cultivars are not self-fertile and require the pollen from a different variety that blooms at the same time. Apples can be considered early, mid-season, or late bloomers, so make sure your apples flower during the same season to allow for cross-pollination.

There are also some varieties called triploids which have three sets of chromosomes and are technically sterile, meaning that they require pollination from another apple but provide no viable pollen themselves. These include cultivars such as ‘Bramley’s Seedling’, ‘Belle de Boskoop’, ‘Gravenstein’, ‘Jonagold’, and ‘King’.

Cultivating mason bees also greatly helps with production, as these often emerge just as the apple blossoms open and they are very effective pollinators.