A Low-Growing Orchard: How to Purchase and Tend to Stepover Apple Trees

Stepover Apple Trees

In Britain, where garden space is often a premium, the cultivation of stepover apple trees has emerged as a practical solution for fruit lovers and garden enthusiasts alike. These horizontally trained trees, no taller than a small fence, not only serve as a functional and decorative border for gardens and pathways but also bring the delight of home-grown apples within arm’s reach. This article will guide you through the process of purchasing and tending to stepover apple trees, ensuring your low-growing orchard thrives in the British climate.

Understanding Stepover Apple Trees

Stepover apple trees are essentially dwarf apple trees grafted onto very dwarfing rootstocks, such as M27, which restrict their growth. They are trained horizontally along a low support, typically only about 45cm (18 inches) above the ground. This unique training method, combined with their compact size, makes them perfect for small gardens, patios, or even as an ornate, productive edging along garden borders.

The charm of stepover apple trees lies not just in their aesthetic appeal but also in their practicality. They require minimal space, making them ideal for urban gardens where space is at a premium. Moreover, despite their small stature, they can be surprisingly productive, offering a generous yield of apples when properly cared for.

Choosing the Right Variety for Britain

When it comes to selecting a stepover apple tree for your garden, the climate of Britain offers a broad palette of varieties suitable for this purpose. However, choosing the right variety is crucial for ensuring a bountiful harvest. Look for apple varieties that are known for their disease resistance and suitability to the British climate. Some popular choices include:

  • ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’: Renowned for its delicious flavor, this variety thrives in southern and central England.
  • ‘Egremont Russet’: A classic British apple with a distinctive nutty flavor, suited to most regions of Britain.
  • ‘James Grieve’: An all-rounder, good for eating fresh and cooking, and performs well in cooler climates.
  • ‘Katy’: An early variety, ideal for those looking for a quick harvest, and it’s also highly resistant to scab.

When selecting your tree, consider not only the variety but also the rootstock, as this will determine the size and vigor of your tree. For stepover apple trees, the M27 rootstock is preferred due to its very dwarfing nature.

Purchasing Your Stepover Apple Tree

Purchasing a stepover apple tree requires a bit of research and consideration. While some nurseries may offer pre-trained stepover trees, you can also start with a one-year-old maiden tree and train it yourself. Here are some tips for purchasing your tree:

  • Source from reputable nurseries: Look for nurseries with a good reputation for quality and service, preferably those specializing in fruit trees. They can offer valuable advice and aftercare tips.
  • Inspect the tree: Ensure the tree is healthy, with no signs of disease or damage. The graft should be strong, and the tree should have a good root system.
  • Ask about the rootstock: Confirm that the tree is grafted onto an appropriate dwarfing rootstock, like M27, for stepover cultivation.

Planting and Initial Training

Planting and the initial training of your stepover apple tree are critical steps that will influence its future health and productivity. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Choose the right spot: Stepover apple trees thrive in full sun and well-drained soil. Avoid areas prone to frost pockets, as late spring frosts can damage blossoms.
  2. Prepare the soil: Incorporate plenty of organic matter to improve soil structure and fertility. A balanced, slow-release fertilizer can also be added at this stage.
  3. Planting: Plant your tree during the dormant season, from late autumn to early spring. Ensure the graft union is above soil level to prevent the scion from rooting directly.
  4. Support structure: Install horizontal wires or a low trellis to support the tree. This will be crucial for training the branches horizontally.
  5. Initial pruning and training: If starting with a maiden tree, prune the leader (main vertical stem) to just above the desired height of your stepover. This will encourage the growth of lateral branches, which you’ll train along your support structure.

Caring for your stepover apple tree in its early years focuses on training it to grow in the desired shape while ensuring it establishes well. Regular watering, especially in dry periods, and annual mulching to retain soil moisture and suppress weeds are vital.

Ongoing Maintenance and Care

The essence of maintaining a healthy stepover apple tree lies in regular pruning, feeding, and watering. These practices are pivotal in sustaining the tree’s structure, promoting fruitful harvests, and preventing disease.

  • Pruning: Pruning is most crucial during the winter months when the tree is dormant. This is the time to remove any dead, diseased, or crossing branches. Summer pruning, usually around late July or August, focuses on shortening new shoots to direct the tree’s energy into fruit production rather than vegetative growth. This balance between winter and summer pruning maintains the tree’s form and encourages a bountiful yield.
  • Feeding: In early spring, apply a balanced, slow-release fertilizer around the base of your tree to encourage healthy growth. Additionally, an application of potassium-rich fertilizer in late spring can promote better fruit quality and yield.
  • Watering: Although mature stepover apple trees are relatively drought-tolerant, consistent watering during dry spells, especially for younger trees, is crucial. Water deeply and infrequently to encourage deep root growth, which aids in the tree’s stability and water uptake efficiency.

Pest and Disease Management

Stepover apple trees, like all apple varieties, are susceptible to certain pests and diseases. However, with vigilant care and environmentally friendly management strategies, these challenges can be mitigated effectively.

  • Pests: Common pests include aphids, codling moth, and apple sawfly. Employing integrated pest management (IPM) techniques, such as encouraging natural predators, using pheromone traps for codling moths, and applying neem oil for aphids, can keep pest populations under control.
  • Diseases: Scab, powdery mildew, and canker are prevalent diseases affecting apple trees. Selecting resistant varieties and practicing good sanitation by removing fallen leaves and diseased branches help prevent these issues.

Pruning for Productivity and Shape

Pruning is a critical component in managing stepover apple trees, essential for maintaining their distinctive shape, encouraging healthy growth, and maximizing fruit production. The best time for pruning is during the dormant season, from late winter to early spring, avoiding very cold spells which can harm the tree.

  1. Summer pruning: This involves trimming back the current year’s growth on the lateral branches to about three leaves above the basal cluster (the first set of leaves). Summer pruning encourages fruiting spurs and controls the tree’s growth without stimulating too much new vegetative growth.
  2. Winter pruning: Focus on removing any diseased, damaged, or crossing branches to maintain good air circulation. Thin out overcrowded spurs to improve fruit size and quality.

Remember, the goal of pruning is to maintain a balance between vegetative growth and fruit production, ensuring the tree’s energy is directed towards producing a bountiful harvest.

Managing Pests and Diseases

Pests and diseases can pose a threat to the health and productivity of your stepover apple trees. Common issues in Britain include apple scab, codling moth, and apple aphids. Here are some strategies to manage these challenges:

  • Regular inspections: Keep an eye on your trees for any signs of pest infestations or disease. 
  • Cultural controls: Good garden hygiene, such as removing fallen leaves and fruit which can harbour pests and diseases, is essential. Ensure your trees are well-watered and fertilized to maintain their health and resilience.
  • Biological controls: Encourage natural predators in your garden, such as ladybirds for aphid control, or use pheromone traps for codling moths.
  • Chemical controls: Use as a last resort and choose products carefully, preferably organic or those with minimal environmental impact. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Fertilization and Watering

Feeding your stepover apple trees is crucial for their health and productivity. Apply a balanced, slow-release fertilizer in early spring to support the growth and fruiting. Additionally, mulching with organic matter can improve soil health and moisture retention.

Watering is particularly important in the first few years after planting and during dry spells. Ensure your trees receive enough water to avoid stress, which can lead to poor fruit development or even tree death.

Harvesting Your Apples

The anticipation of the harvest is one of the great joys of growing stepover apple trees. Depending on the variety, apples can be ready to harvest from late summer through to late autumn. Here are some tips for harvesting:

  • Timing: Apples are ready to pick when they come away easily from the tree with a gentle twist. The colour of the apple and the ease of separation from the branch are good indicators.
  • Method: Handle the fruit gently to avoid bruising. Store in a cool, dark place to prolong freshness, and check regularly for any signs of spoilage.


Stepover apple trees are a charming and practical addition to any British garden, offering the dual benefits of beauty and bounty. Through careful selection, planting, and ongoing care, including pruning, pest and disease management, fertilization, and proper watering, these low-growing orchards can thrive in the UK’s climate.