I’m always slightly wary of compiling best-of lists as it’s bound to be subjective and there are also bound to be detractors…. ‘What about such and such variety, how could you miss this one’ – etc etc!
There is undoubtedly a use in compiling such a recommendation list, not just for the reading interest of those already familiar with growing apples, but as a helpful article for those less experienced who will need faithful standby varieties that will stand them in good stead regardless of horticultural apttitude, locality and whatever the frequently rotten weather can throw at them. And therein lies the vale – there being thousands of known apple varieties, how do you narrow it down to such a condensed list? Because taking into account the above qualities discounts the huge majority of them! It’s no use having a ‘perfect’ growing variety that never gets disease and gives you tons of fruit every year but tastes like chewing on a lump of plywood thus you never use most of them … and on the reverse side of the coin it might sound great to have some long-forgotten timeless treasure with a to-die-for flavour but which only gives you three scab-ridden apples every now and again, when it feels like it! Combining all those virtues may be almost impossible to find in any variety and of course many cultivars will continue to be cultivated on specific merits. But the ten I’m about to give you go as far as it’s possible in attaining the title ‘perfect garden apple’
I will start at number ten then, to gather some suspense as you read through and hopefully you won’t be tempted to skip straight to the coveted number one spot!
10] GAVIN This was released with fanfare from EMRS Kent in the 1970’s from a seedling raised in Hertfordshire in the 1950’s, but sank with little ado. It has largely remained the preserve of specialist horticultural collections but I have been championing it for awhile now as it deserves much, much better. This has to be one of the most scab resistant varieties I know; scab is a scourge of many apples and it’s difficult to get rid of; it can spoil entire crops. So that along makes this variety hugely important and it has good disease resistance as a whole too. It’s easy to grow and forgiving. No one trick pony, the fruits are attractive and nicely coloured and are usuaully ready by early October, keeping until Christmas in good condition. The flavour is agreeable, lightly aromatic and sweetish. It’s isn’t an overwhelming cropper but it is consistent and yields every year with no tendency to bi-ennial cropping.
9] DISCOVERY Maybe an obvious choice, but I wanted to include one early season variety. I pondered them all over and over again, but ultimately it still came down to Discovery as the all round best. So there’s definitely a reason why it has risen to become the foremost early in the UK for well over 50 years now. For those interested in apple history, Discovery is an Essex raised variety and it first became known in the 1930’s. The fruits are flat-oval in shape and predominantly red over a pale green/yellow ground. The flavour is superb, refreshing and slightly sharp but not offputtingly so. In common with all earlies it should be eaten straight from the tree to enjoy it at it’s best, when kept after picking it quickly loses it’s sparkle. Season August to early September. Does well grown as all systems and cultivation methods.
8] CRISPIN A Japanese variety no less, also known as Mutsu. For those with a good set of gnashers and who like solid, dense apples then none fits the bill so finely as Crispin. I like it because it seems impervious to seasonal variabilities and I have seen superbly fruiting specimens the length and breadth of the country. Crispin is quite a vigorous variety – it’s a triploid which no doubt gives it that extra touch of pedigree health and vigour. So I would recommend it on dwarfing stocks, or as a cordon to restrict it’s exuberance whereupon it makes a great garden or orchard apple tree. The fruits are sizeable, blocky, usually completely pale green, extra crisp and extra juicy – really satisfying to eat. Sweet but refreshing too. You can enjoy it from mid October and it hangs on the tree until Christmas and you can still enjoy it …… when stored properly it’s still good to eat in March. I have heard people cook with it too. 1940’s raised and shows no sign of ageing.
7] SPARTAN I love Spartan, it spoils me on so many fronts and really seems to have ‘everything’ There is only one slight disability that prevents it from ranking higher on this list; it’s so exuberant in it’s cropping that the fruits can be small unless thinned. Maybe you like smaller apples, or maybe your children or grandchildren will, in which case it’s not a problem. Spartan fruits it’s socks off, you may end up with too many to eat if that could ever be classed as a drawback then it’s a nice one to have. Spartan is one of the deepest red of apples, really attractive both on the tree and in the fruit bowl. Infact when grown as a cordon or against a wall, growing systems that result in less foliated branches and more sunshine therefore penetrates, the fruits are even deeper in colour and often quite an astonishing black-red. The inner flesh is contrastingly quite white. It isn’t a hard apple, easy to eat, and with an agreeable delicate flavour. It is sweet but not sickeningly so unlike the cloying Gala which personally I find a ghastly apple to eat and who’s popularity mystifies me. Spartan is at it’s best from October to late November. Spartan is an ideal garden variety and it has superb frost resistance – it originates from Canada so that’s no surprise.
6] HEREFORDSHIRE RUSSET There had to be one russet included and whilst there aren’t that many russet varieties to pick from, it soon become apparent that the more obvious Egremont Russet has been superceded. Herefordshire Russet is a true russet – it has a fine rough golden skin with just a few cinnamon red patches developing hear and there. Flavour-wise it combines that distinct nutty russet taste with an added depth, an added slightly sharp aromatic quality – a bit like a Cox crossed with a russet. The reason this new[ish] variety outranks Egremont for me is that it flowers a little later, thus avoiding early frosts, the fruits are larger, I find the flavour even better, and it’s also self fertile – the only russet I am aware of, that is. I doubt Egremont will fade from popularity anytime soon, but Herefordshire Russet is already appearing on our best sellers list, and rightly so.
5] JAMES GRIEVE An English apple growing luminary that actually hails from Scotland which speaks well of it’s credentials as a super hardy performer. Many of you reading this will already be familiar with James Grieve but to the uninitiated it’s an apple that wins both as a sweet-sharp dessert variet, left until October to eat, but earlier it suits many cooking applications. James Grieve is a durable, prolific cropper with no fads or foibles, it’s easy to grow and rewarding. The fruits are predominantly golden yellow with a few stipplings of soft red. No apple recommendation list would be complete without it, well over 100 years ‘young’ and still going strong.
4] REDSLEEVES A variety we first championed [and indeed introduced] in the 1980’s and remains a superlative early. Unlike many early varieties, Redsleeves has a longer season of use so whilst you can start harvesting in the second half of August, it’s still useable in early October. Redsleeves is a great season extender to add to any collection and the reason it’s such a perfect garden apple is not only because of it’s extreme reliability and frost hardiness [oh yes, it ius definitely one the most frost hardy of all varieties] but primarily because the tree is naturally compact. It needs less pruning, and is therefore easier to grow by novices. The fruits are flattish, a jolly deep rosy red, have a lovely sweet mild flavour, and are fairly small ‘though of good uniform quality. And the best bit? Redsleeves is self fertile so you can grow it on it’s lonesome, and still get good yields. A perfect patio or garden tree.
3] IDARED A controversial choice maybe, as Idared is hardly unusual and not especially celebrated these days, But when I count all it’s attributes it has to be one of the very best varieties to grow. Frost resistant, abundant yields but not prone to bi-ennial cropping [a fault where the tree crops only every other year, common in a good many varieties] Idared has superbly coloured, richly red lacquered fruits which will hang on the tree very late, into January, without spoiling. In storage you can keep them until April with ease. Idared is a true dual purpose variety – so many cooking varieties are flaunted as being dual purpose but in reality, even ‘though they sweeten, the flesh remains too course to be truly enjoyable eaten fresh. Not so Idared, it has a smooth crisp flesh which is great eaten as dessert later on. When cooked – from October to January – it keeps it’s texture, is sweet enough to be used with little or no sugar, and develops a distinctive slightly pear-drop flavour which is quite delicious. On the tree the sight of so many large and handsomely coloured apples is a joy to behold and the lilac tinted blossom is rather attractive too. Idared was American raised in the 1940’s and I have no hesitation in recommending it even to the nay-sayers who consider it 'boring'.
2] GREENSLEEVES This EMRS station Kent raised apple was first released in 1977 and over the last few years has become more and more popular, especially as a garden tree, although it never really took off commercially. It also gave us the aforementioned sister seedling ‘Redsleeves’ Greensleeves is a mid season apple that can be enjoyed from late September through to November; it is a moderate sized apple, neither too large nor too small, and is almost enirely green. It doesn’t have the astringent sharpness of a Granny Smith, but is less sweet than Golden Delicious and manages to combine a refreshing juiciness without being sour nor sickly. Greensleeves is utterly reliable, freely fruiting every year, easy to grow, spurring freely for all growing methods, and self fertile too – ideal for the one tree garden. Virtually the perfect garden apple tree….. and at last here we are – drum roll……
1] RED FALSTAFF It didn’t actually take much deliberation to crown the number one ‘best’ variety – it was the obvious choice; this newish variety, a selected clone of the 70’s variety Falstaff [another superb variety that easily could have made this list] Red Falstaff differs in it’s better colour, developing a strong red flush on the sunny side, it’s astounding disease resistance – such wonderful, clean growth – and it’s self fertile nature. It can crop heavily without the need for a partner tree. Red Falstaff is very, very precocious with abundant yields of medium to large sized fruits of excellent quality, every year. Even the blossom is superb, large and noticeably rosier in colour than traditional apple blossom. Taste-wise, I would hesitantly compare it to Braeburn – reluctantly because that variety,lets face it, despite being the doyenne of the supermarket, isn’t really blessed with much flavour at all. Red Falstaff is a similar kind of apple, but better I think. Fairly solid and juicy, pleasantly refreshing but not too sour. But it does develop – I actually prefer to wait for this variety to start to drop from the tree. Windfalls are slightly more tender although seldom‘soggy’ and have a lovely, fruity flavour. There always seem to be plenty in abundance. Hardiness is well accounted, blossoms have been recorded as having successfully set at -4 degrees! A superb variety in every way; season October to December or longer with careful storage. The undisputed perfect garden apple tree is Red Falstaff.
Bubbling under – some varieties that could easily have made this list: Sunset, Meridian, Saturn, Red Windsor, Limelight, Falstaff, Jonagold, Fortune, Suntan, Jupiter, Kidds Orange Red.