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The columnar apple - the most important tips and tricks for planting and growing


Even 30 years after the market launch of the first columnar apples, the so-called Ballerina® trees, the unusually narrow and upright-growing apple trees, still feel somehow alien and unknown. It is also noticeable how often the same questions regarding growth, height, pruning and plant spacing are asked again and again. In this article I will try to briefly and clearly convey the most important tips about columnar apple trees. You can find our Malini® columnar apples in our Lubera garden shop.

Buying a columnar apple...

Well, we must advertise a bit: the best way to buy columnar apples is, of course, at Lubera® ;-). In the columnar apples category, you will find no less than 9 Malini® columnar apples from Lubera’s breeding programme: they are all resistant to scab, they have little susceptibility to mildew and they have an improved fruit quality compared to the old types of columnar varieties. Modern columnar apple trees should definitely have good resistance to scab and it should also be made clear on the label or in the description how tall they will grow and how tall they will be after 8-10 years. Especially in terms of height, too many columnar apples have literally grown into the sky in the past. Often, namely, columnar apple trees are grafted onto very strong growing rootstocks, which makes them grow faster in the nursery and makes them look better, which also leads to more vigorous growth and poorer fertility in the garden. So if you buy a columnar apple tree, please pay attention to the information on fungal disease resistance and growth height. All of our columnar apples are resistant to scab.

And something else: not infrequently, one-year-old, unbranched trees normal varieties are advertised as being columnar trees or columnar apple trees, which is simply not true! So, if you suddenly discover a known variety as a columnar apple (columnar tree Golden Delicious, Jonagold...), then at least some caution is required. The special growth of the columnar apples has little or nothing to do with the treatment in the nursery, but it is due to the genetically determined growth behaviour of these varieties, that combines the extreme apical dominance (the urge to grow upwards) with the short intervals between the leaves and leaf buds.

Pruning columnar apples

Pruning column apple tree is fantastically simple and indisputable: all side shoots that are more than 20 cm long should be cut back in the spring to 5-15 cm. Period. At most, and especially when the growth is very vigorous, this cut can be done twice a year; once before the beginning of the growing season, at the end of February, and once in the summer around the longest day.

Planting columnar apples – it depends on the rootstock.

As with all fruit trees, we strongly recommend roughening up the rootball before planting. For autumn plantings after 1 October, we go further and advise shaking out the rootball completely before planting (and, of course, at the same time striping off the remaining leaves on the tree...). The higher you plant a columnar apple (the longer the rootstock peeks out of the ground up to the grafting point), the less tall the tree becomes; the lower you plant the tree (the lowest point should be that the grafting point is just above the ground), the more the tree grows. The growth difference caused by the plant height may amount between 5-20%. Finally and very important: all of our columnar apples are grafted onto M26 rootstocks and similar rootstocks and they absolutely need a stake in order to be sufficiently stable.

Most columnar apples on the market are grafted onto much stronger rootstocks such as MM106 or MM111 and they do not need a support. However, this supposed advantage is nullified by the poorer fertility on strong growing rootstocks and the greater tendency towards alternation (the columnar apple tree bears fruits only every other year). And maybe the most important thing is this: who really wants to have a columnar apple in his/her garden that is five metres high? How should it be picked and pruned? And that's exactly how such columnar apple trees grow, into the sky, when they're grafted onto strong growing rootstocks...


Columnar apples as a privacy screen

One of the best and most beautiful uses for columnar apple trees is as a privacy screen. In the winter, a hedge made of Malini®, which is what the columnar apples at Lubera are called, is semi-transparent and allows enough light to pass through. In the spring, it closes very quickly with the first leaves and the beautiful flowers. And autumn, there is also the reward of a great harvest. Just reach out your hand, grab an apple and bite into it...

For hedge plants, above all, we recommend the more vigorous Malini® columnar apple varieties, which reach a height of approx. 300-350 cm after 8 years: Malini® Dulcessa®, Fresco®, Equilibro®, Cuckoo® and also the latest novelties Malini® Mannequin and Malini® Topmodel that ripen in September. Malini® Subito®, Pronto® and Greenlight® form a significantly more compact hedge (with a height of about 180-250 cm after 7-8 years).

The correct plant spacing for columnar apples

To plant as a hedge, we recommend a spacing of about 40 to 50 cm between the trees. With the very slim-growing varieties, Mannequin® and Topmodel, the spacing can also be a little closer together; with the slightly broader varieties, Fresco® and Equilibro®, the spacing can be a bit further apart. Groups of three, in which three columnar apples (different varieties at best) are positioned in a triangle with a spacing of 50-70 cm, are very attractive in my opinion. Such a planting looks like only one apple column after a few years.

A height limit for columnar apples

Like I said, the most important measures to limiting the height are using the right varieties (i.e. the knowledge about the different growth strengths of the columnar apple varieties (our assortment has been divided into a vigorous growing group and a weak growing group) and a weaker growing rootstock. This is exactly the reason why we use the M26 rootstocks mentioned above and not stronger growing rootstocks.

Nevertheless, if the columnar apple tree is too high for you, we recommend cutting off last year's central shoot just above the base (at the end of last year's growth). In the spring, the sprouts are isolated on a central shoot, so that a multi-stemmed bush does not arise. After 2-3 years, the entire process can be repeated, only then cut back to the base of 2 or 3 years ago. This so-called base is very easy to recognise in a columnar apple tree.

After all, it pays to wait 2-3 years after limiting the height and to let the columnar apple tree grow a bit beyond the limit, as the “overgrowing” upper crown part of the columnar apple variety then starts to bear fruit. The additional growth is naturally limited and restricted by the energy needs of the fruits.


Columnar apples for pots

Of course, it is very attractive to use columnar apples in pots on the balcony or terrace, or for the two-sided decoration of an entrance or passage. For this, we recommend the more compact growing columnar apple varieties such as Malini® Subito®, Malini® Pronto® and also Malini® Greenlight®. Planted out, they reach a height of 180-220 cm after about 8 years; in pots they will probably grow to about 150 cm. This well-known overall rule applies for pots: the bigger the better! A container for columnar apples should at least 30 L at the beginning. A pot with a volume of 50 L would be better, as this gives the upwardly aspiring tree more support and it falls over less. As with all potted plants, good drainage should be ensured in the bottom of the pot; this can be achieved by using coarse gravel or styrofoam, and it is usually helpful to drill additional drainage holes into the pot.

For long term cultivation, we recommend using a container with a rather bright colour; the pot should not be black because otherwise it warms up too much in the winter and provides the tree with climate conditions that are too good. The substrate recommended is a structurally strong potting soil, preferably Lubera's Fertile Soil No. 1. For fertilisation, the long-term fertiliser Frutilizer Seasonal Fertiliser is suitable; use approx. 20 grams per year for every 20 L pot volume. The fertiliser should be applied at the end of February or in March in various deposits in the pot and at best also at different heights.

Columnar apples in pots during the winter

When overwintering, choose a shady, sheltered spot with as little direct sunlight as possible. When temperatures drop below -5°C, the container and lower stem area should be wrapped with insulating material. Protection against heat and sunlight is more important than protection against the cold.

Thinning out columnar apples

It is worthwhile thinning out columnar apples. In June, the natural falling of fruit takes place: the tree gets rid of the surplus fruits, which it believes it cannot feed and cannot develop into full-fledged fruits. So do not be alarmed if suddenly many small fruits are on the ground. If, after this natural falling of fruit, there are still many flower clusters with three or more fruits, it is advisable to thin all of the fruit clusters to 1 to 2 fruits each. This ensures that the columnar apple tree has enough strength to develop flower buds for next year's yield, in addition to developing the attached fruits.

Note for the newsletter readers: in the course of the next week we will publish another 3-4 articles about the columnar apple varieties in the Lubera Garden Book (online). So it pays to visit regularly, as not to miss out on anything...


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