Apples and wildlife in the garden – a bumper crop and some golden nuggets

Gardner's Gold Crab Apples, Image by Rowena Millar

Rowena Millar, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's (currently Non-Roving) Wildlife Reporter, continues to show us how to make the best of our gardens for wildlife. If you've ever thought about planting your own fruit tree, continue reading this week's blog to find out why apples might be a great addition to your garden, as well as the many different varieties you can grow here in Cornwall.

This September, I’ve been harvesting, eating, cooking and storing apples. We’ve had a glut of eaters, plus large bags of cookers given to us by friends, so I’m leaving many smaller apples and bruised windfalls for wildlife.

In winter, passing redwings and fieldfares gorge on the red-berried hawthorn bushes dotted around our side of Kit Hill. I hope they’ll stop by and sample berries and apples in our garden, too, along with other members of the thrush family.

Apples are also eaten by mammals like badgers, hedgehogs, wood mice and voles, and they are a source of late-season sugar for butterflies, wasps, ants and other invertebrates.

Apples left out on the ground for wildlife

Apples left out for wildlife, Image by Rowena Millar

As they age, apple trees provide crevices and gnarly twigs ideal for nesting sites, insect homes and wildlife-attracting lichens. They can support mistletoe (Viscum album) – a local stronghold is the National Trust’s Cotehele orchards, near us. Mistletoe supports its own Mistletoe Marble Moth (Celypha woodiana), and Kiss Me Slow Weevil (Ixapion variegatum) and feeds the Mistle Thrush (note the name) and the Blackcap, one of our local songbirds.

A domestic apple tree

An apple tree came with our house in 1993, but became canker-ridden and straggly, despite standing against a south-facing brick wall. It’s a Queen Cox, originating from Berkshire, so not intended to withstand the driving wind, Atlantic drizzle and hill fog characteristic of our garden. However, some mulching, some careful amateur pruning, and assistance with the ‘June drop’ this year (I reduced countless bundles of several small, pinched-looking baby apples to just a couple), plus favourable weather, have worked wonders – so much so that some of the branches have been pulled from horizontal to vertical by the weight of the fruit. In fact, the entire tree detached itself from the wall and drooped at an alarming angle after a June gale, and we had to prop it up. The twigs snap easily, too!

Strangely, one side of the tree produces green fruits and the other, red ones (two grafts on one rootstock?). All of them are crunchy-crisp, tangy yet sweet, but they don’t keep long. Some end up sliced in the freezer, for use all year round.

Malus domestica, unlike Malus sylvestris (the crab apple), is not native to Britain, but was introduced via ancient trading routes before gracing our gardens and orchards. I looked it up on Wikipedia, which states: ‘this tree originated in Central Asia, where its wild ancestor, Malus sieversii, is still found today’. Its origin is the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains of southern Kazakhstan, where it spent millions of years spreading out into vast forests of variable trees. Sadly, populations are now vulnerable, under threat of extinction. Recent attempts to cultivate it for its cold tolerance have found that some of the ancient, genetically diverse varieties have unusual and useful levels of disease resistance.

The Romans used grafting techniques to selectively breed varieties they wanted, as we still do today. I attended a free grafting course in March 2015 at the Tamar Valley AONB offices. As a result, I am the proud grower of a Tommy Knight (originating from St Agnes), a Cornish Aromatic (grown in Cornwall for centuries) and a Plympton Pippin (a Tamar Valley variety), all of which have borne apples. Tommy is twiggy, so I am growing him in a south-facing hedge.

The crab apple

The crab apples on our young tree (a locally supplied cultivar named Gardener’s Gold) are abundant, and some hang on for months. Over the season they change from green to warm yellow, and brighten up the winter garden before falling and studding the lawn with gold nuggets. The abundant flowers are a spring delight.

Feral apples are dotted around local woods and hedges – perhaps a mix of native crab apples and fruit from cores tossed aside many years ago. I use slices of the tart-tasting windfalls to create delicious pies, crumbles and jams, but leave most for wildlife. Crab apple jelly is a heavenly elixir, curing the winter blues. In fact, apples are genuinely packed with vitamins and minerals, famously keeping the doctor away.

Maximise the wildlife benefits of your apple trees

Apple trees shelter invertebrates such as spiders, as well as the birds that eat them. Their nectar and pollen feed bees, and buds feed bullfinches, deadwood supports beetles and their predators … and then there’s the abundant fruit. All you have to do is plant your sapling, then provide some water and nutrition. For some good advice on apples and how to grow them, check out the RHS website

Apples probably benefit wildlife most if grown in sunny open sites, where they thrive, and in hedges. The older they get, the more lichen and other wildlife they support. If there’s space, grow various different varieties that pollinate each other, including crab apples. For information on flowering groups (grouped according to the time of flowering), visit this webpage on The Forest Garden's website

Crab apple tree with apples

Crab apple tree with apples, Image by Rowena Millar

Apples grown from pips might not resemble the parent, and local varieties are most likely to do well in local weather. A list of Cornish apples is given on Cornwall Council's website, available from quite a few suppliers.

Leave pest control to nature. Your balance of predators and prey will sort itself out, and it’s in everyone’s interest not to kill the tree.

If canker becomes a serious problem, the remedy is to prune it out. I had to remove most of our young pear tree due to canker not very long after planting, including the top of the trunk, but it has grown back and was covered in pears this year.

If you have room for an orchard, include habitats such as scrub, unimproved grassland, ponds and deadwood, to ensure that a wealth of wildlife can thrive there.

You can grow flowering climbers such as honeysuckle up apple trees for extra wildlife habitat, pollen and nectar, perhaps just being careful that your trees aren’t eventually smothered or weighed down.

As mentioned earlier, you can leave apples for wildlife, but even if you juice all of your apples or press every one into cider, wildlife will appreciate the leftover pulp. It is also a great addition to a compost heap.

Enjoy sharing your apple trees with wildlife!

More information on wildlife gardening