Next time you sink your teeth into a crunchy Cox apple, spare a thought for Richard Cox, a retired brewer and besotted gardener, who grew the first Cox apple tree from the pip of a Ribston Pippin in 1826. The new apple would never have been known outside Slough without the help of the Duke of Devonshire's gardener, Joseph Paxton, who in the middle of the 19th century became the first president of the British Pomological Society.
Full of Pooteresque pretension, the society had been set up "to direct attention to the production of new varieties of fruits", particularly apples. Their first success was with the Cox, which Paxton promoted vigorously. Being a man of even more influence than his employer, he sent Cox graft wood all over the country.
By the time of the first Great Apple Show, organised by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1883, Coxes were exhibited by two-thirds of the 183 growers present. It is still the best-known British apple, though not the easiest to grow in your own garden, prone to canker, prone to scab – in short, best avoided unless you are willing to spray.
If you want the Cox taste, without the Cox troubles, try 'Sunset', which ripens in October, a little earlier than the Cox, and keeps through November until the middle of December. It is resistant to scab (unlike Cox), it is crisp and has a good, rich flavour. It is almost as good as 'Egremont Russet', the best-flavoured of all English apples. This has the added advantage of a naturally upright habit, so in a small garden, you can grow it as a cordon.
'Charles Ross' is another favourite of mine, and useful because it is as good cooked as it is raw. It is also very beautiful: large, round, shiny, the greenish-yellow skin flushed all over with rich orange-red. It is named after the man who between 1860-1908 was head gardener at Welford Park in Berkshire. He raised his apple in 1890, using 'Cox' as one of the parents. It does well with us in the West Country, but is also happy in the North.
Relatively few apple trees are self-fertile. That means you need more than one variety in the garden (or a neighbour's tree close by), so that they can cross-pollinate. Any variety you see marked as a triploid will not be a good pollinator. 'Jupiter', 'Crispin' and the famous cooker 'Bramley's Seedling' are all triploids.
In order to cross-pollinate successfully, trees have to be in blossom at the same time. Most good catalogues indicate which trees are likely to bloom together, though the weather can play havoc with these careful calculations.
With 'Sunset', for instance, you might plant 'Discovery', an early apple often ready in mid-August. Although it is slow to start cropping, the apples, when they come, are wonderfully crisp and juicy. 'Charles Ross' would also be a suitable partner. The type of tree you buy will depend on where you want to put it. Bushes start fruiting when they are very young, are easy to pick and spray, but difficult to mow under. There's no posterity in a bush apple and none have the satisfying shape of a full-blown tree.
Cordons, when planted against wires in parallel diagonals, make an excellent and productive screen. Pruning is easy. You just cut back to the main stem each season. A cordon will never crop as abundantly as a proper tree, but this is a good way of growing a wide variety of apples in a restricted space. Fans and espaliers are best of all, but wilful. Here, pruning becomes an art form, but whatever the effort, they will be worth the work.
Half standards and standards are the apple trees of picture books. Half standards have a clear stem of more than a metre (4-5ft). Standards go up to almost two metres (6ft) before their branches start. Their height makes spraying and picking much more difficult, but they are infinitely more pleasing to look at than a bush. When you plant a half standard, you can dream of picnicking in its shade, of slinging a hammock from its branches. There is no such romance with a bush.
The question of rootstocks (generally labelled with M numbers) is closely bound up with the type of tree that you buy. The modern trend is to graft apples on to dwarfing rootstocks, so that trees can fit into small gardens. Dwarfing rootstocks also bring trees into production more quickly. A tree on M27 stock will start bearing after two or three years.
Those sound like bonuses, and they are, but a tree on the intensely dwarfing stock M27 needs very good soil and does not like sharing its food and drink with grass or other plants around it. Trees on M9 also need extra care (and permanent stakes). Semi-dwarfing M26 is often used for cordons (and is the best rootstock to support an apple in a pot). For fans and espaliers, I like the semi-vigorous MM106. My favourite trees, half standards, will generally be grafted on vigorous MM111 or M25 and will have the strength to shrug off temporary hiccups. The best time to plant is between November and January.
One of the great delights of growing your own apples is experimenting with old varieties, especially those specific to particular regions. 'D'Arcy Spice', for instance, is an East Anglian apple, discovered at The Hall, Tolleshunt d'Arcy, near Colchester in about 1785. Properly ripened, the fruit is spicily aromatic (with a hint of nutmeg), sweet and acid.
'Cornish Gillyflower' was found in a Truro garden in about 1800. Gillyflower comes from the old French word girofle, meaning clove-scented. By nature, these are tip bearing trees, so you can't grow them as cordons or fans. But if you have space, here is a suitably spicy apple, late ripening and keeping well until early spring. You need to have a cool store for them, so they do not shrivel.
'Devonshire Quarrenden' is even older, mentioned in gardening books as early as 1678. Unlike 'D'Arcy Spice', which likes a hot, dry regime, the Quarrenden was prized because it could stand up to wind and rain. Horses for courses. That is what we are in danger of losing now: local distinctiveness, genetic diversity.
The commercial market is dominated by about nine apples; 'Cox', 'Bramley', 'Spartan', 'Discovery' and 'Katy' are among them. Nine varieties do not represent much in terms of genetic diversity. Nor do they stretch the taste buds. In this age of food-worship, it is extraordinary that so-called gastronomes, who can give a grid reference for every olive oil in front of them, do not know an 'Ellison's Orange' apple when it passes in front of their noses.
'Katy' is popular with commercial growers, because it looks good and crops regularly. But in terms of taste, it comes very low on my list. 'James Grieve', raised by a nurseryman in Edinburgh in the 1890s, tastes fabulous, but is unpopular with supermarket buyers because it bruises easily. 'St Edmund's Pippin' is another splendid apple, raised in Bury St Edmunds around 1870. It is a russet, however, with a rough, tan skin and russets are said not to "go" on supermarket shelves. For this paltry reason, it is difficult to find.
But nobody with a square yard of soil to call their own need face the hideous future that supermarkets offer: a riot of packaging with an insult inside. Choose boldly. And choose to grow an apple with local provenance, not a supermarket lookalike. In Worcestershire, you might go for 'William Crump', raised by the gardener at Madresfield Court, near Worcester in 1908. In Nottinghamshire, try 'Bess Pool', discovered c1700 in a local wood by the daughter of an innkeeper. Cornwall, Devon, London, Herefordshire, Kent, Norfolk, Somerset and Surrey are particularly rich in local varieties. Check them out in Apples: A Field Guide by Michael Clark (Whittet Books £19.99).
Buy apples with provenance from the following: Thornhayes Nursery, St Andrews Wood, Dulford, Cullompton, Devon EX15 2DF, 01884 266746, thornhayes-nursery.co.uk; Keepers Nursery, Gallants Court, Gallants Lane, East Farleigh, Maidstone, Kent ME15 0LE, 01622 726465, keepers-nursery.co.uk; J Tweedie Fruit Trees, Maryfield Rd Nursery, Nr Terregles, Dumfriesshire DG2 9TH, 01387 720880; Trees for Life (Frank P Matthews), Berrington Court, Tenbury Wells, Worcs WR15 8TH, 01584 810214, trees-for-life.com; RV Roger Ltd, The Nurseries, Pickering, Yorks YO18 7JW, 01751 472226, rvroger.co.uk.