Stepover Apple Trees

Stepover apple trees are low-growing, horizontal apple trees and are not only a testament to horticultural skill and patience but also a practical and decorative option for gardeners with limited space. This guide delves into the intricacies of sourcing and growing stepover apple trees in Britain, catering to enthusiasts keen on adding a touch of elegance and bounty to their gardens.

Understanding Stepover Apple Trees

Stepover apple trees are essentially apple trees trained to grow in a horizontal direction, just above ground level, typically forming a single tier of branches. This training method transforms the tree into a living garden border, which can effectively outline paths, vegetable patches, or ornamental garden beds. The art of creating a stepover tree starts with a young apple tree, specifically a grafted specimen on a dwarfing rootstock, allowing for the control of its ultimate size and vigor.

Historical Significance and Modern Appeal

The cultivation of stepover apple trees is steeped in the Victorian era, a period known for its innovations in gardening and landscaping. Victorian gardeners admired these trees for their dual function as both fruit producers and ornamental features. Today, their appeal has not waned, as modern gardeners appreciate the ability to grow fruit in limited spaces, the aesthetic beauty of the trees, and the biodiversity they support.

Choosing the Right Variety

When it comes the time to buy stepover apple trees for your garden, the variety is paramount. Not all apple varieties are suitable for training into stepovers due to differences in growth habits and vigor. Ideal varieties for stepover trees are those with moderate vigor and a naturally spreading growth habit. Some popular choices in Britain include ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’, known for its exceptional flavor; ‘James Grieve’, appreciated for its versatility and disease resistance; and ‘Egremont Russet’, celebrated for its distinctive nutty taste.

It’s also essential to consider the pollination requirements when selecting your apple tree variety. Apples are generally not self-fertile, meaning they require pollen from another apple variety to produce fruit. Ensuring that you have compatible varieties for cross-pollination within your garden or nearby is crucial for fruit production.

Sourcing Your Stepover Apple Tree

Sourcing a stepover apple tree can be an adventure in itself. While some specialized nurseries in Britain offer pre-trained stepover trees, they can be quite rare and may require ordering well in advance. For those interested in the journey as much as the destination, starting with a one-year-old whip (a young tree with no side branches) and training it yourself is a rewarding process. Look for reputable nurseries with a wide selection of apple varieties grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks such as M27 or M9, which are ideal for stepover training.

The Training Process

Training a stepover apple tree is a gradual process that requires patience and precision. The first step involves planting the young tree at the desired location, ensuring it is well-supported with a horizontal wire framework or bamboo canes. As the tree grows, selective pruning and tying down of branches encourage the development of a horizontal tier of branches. This process typically takes a couple of years, during which gardeners must be diligent in their care, ensuring the tree is well-watered, fertilized, and protected from pests and diseases.

Initial Care and Maintenance

The early years of a stepover apple tree are critical for its future health and productivity. Regular watering, especially during dry spells, is essential for young trees to establish their root systems. Applying a balanced, slow-release fertilizer in the spring supports healthy growth, while mulching around the base of the tree can help retain moisture, suppress weeds, and provide a slow infusion of nutrients.

Advanced Care Instructions

As your stepover apple tree matures, its care evolves. Consistent monitoring and maintenance become crucial to the tree’s health, growth, and fruit production. Here are some advanced care tips to consider:

Pruning for Productivity

Pruning plays a pivotal role in the development and productivity of stepover apple trees. The objective is to maintain the horizontal structure while encouraging fruiting spurs. Prune in the late winter or early spring before the growing season begins. Branches that are sick, dead, or crossing should be removed in order to promote air circulation. Trim back vertical shoots to five leaves above the basal cluster in summer to promote the formation of fruit buds.

Pest and Disease Management

Pests and diseases can be a challenge for apple growers. Common pests include aphids, codling moth, and apple scab. Implementing integrated pest management (IPM) strategies, such as encouraging natural predators, using pheromone traps for moths, and practicing good hygiene by removing fallen leaves and fruit, can help reduce the impact of pests and diseases. Organic fungicides and insecticides can be used as a last resort, applied according to the product instructions and with consideration for beneficial insects.

Mulching and Watering

A thick layer of organic mulch around the base of your stepover apple tree not only suppresses weeds but also retains soil moisture, which is vital during dry periods. Watering is particularly important in the first few years and during prolonged dry spells, ensuring deep watering that reaches the roots rather than frequent shallow applications.

Harvesting and Utilizing Your Fruits

The reward for your patience and care is the bountiful harvest of crisp, home-grown apples. Harvest times vary depending on the variety, but generally, apples are ready to pick from late summer to early autumn. The best indicator of ripeness is taste, but a slight ease in picking and a change in the fruit’s base color are good signs that the apples are ready.

Storing Your Harvest

Not all apples are consumed immediately; many varieties store well, extending the enjoyment of your harvest throughout the winter. Store apples in a cool, dark place, ideally in single layers to prevent bruising. Check regularly for any signs of spoilage and remove affected fruits to prevent it from spreading.

Culinary Uses

The culinary applications of your harvest are limited only by your imagination. From traditional British apple pies and crumbles to chutneys, sauces, and fresh salads, apples offer versatility in the kitchen. Experimenting with different varieties can yield surprising and delightful results, enhancing both sweet and savory dishes.


Growing stepover apple trees offers a unique way to maximize space, adds structure and beauty to the garden, and provides the satisfaction of harvesting your own fruit. By understanding the principles of selection, training, and care, you can enjoy the many benefits these remarkable trees bring to your garden.