Apples: stepover (horizontal cordon) training

As gardens get smaller, planting apples trained as stepovers is one of the best and most attractive space-saving ways to grow fruit. As the name suggests, the stepover is a low-growing, horizontally-trained tree that can literally be 'stepped over'. Stepovers can be planted along an edge of a path or a bed, and make an excellent divider on an allotment or fruit garden.

Stepover apple

Quick facts

Suitable for Growing spur fruiting apples and where space is limited
Timing Prepare support and plant in winter; start training in spring
Difficulty Moderate

Suitable for...

The stepover apple (horizontal cordon) is a modified training method of the oblique cordon. It is best suited for spur-fruiting apple trees.

It is necessary to start training on very young trees. Choose a maiden whip that is supple and can be bent over. A maiden whip is a one-year-old tree with either no side branches or only sparsely branched. The main stem must not have been pruned to encourage branching.

Make sure that the selected cultivar is grafted onto a M27 rootstock. Although M9 and M26 rootstocks are suitable for conventional cordon training, they would be too vigorous for stepover training.

When selecting a cultivar, bear in mind that most apples are not self-pollinating and you may need to plant two different cultivars unless a suitable pollination tree is growing near by.

How to train stepover apple

Train a stepover in the following way;

  • Prepare a single tier support using robust posts, at least 60cm (2ft) long spacing them 1.5-2m (5-6½ft) apart. Fix to the posts a tightly-stretched horizontal wire suspended 45cm (18in) from the ground
  • In winter, plant the maiden whip next to the post and tie the tree to it. If more stepovers are planted in a row allow 1.5-2m (5-6½ft) between trees
  • In spring, start gradually and carefully bending the tree towards the horizontal wire. Tie the stem to the wire at several places to distribute the pressure and ensure it bends evenly
  • The gradual bending of the stem may take the whole growing season
  • In summer, shorten any laterals (side branches) that develop from the main stem to three leaves
  • Do not prune the leader until it reaches the desired length, then prune just above a bud
  • The subsequent summer and winter pruning is the same as for a single, oblique cordon
  • If the growth becomes more bushy and vigorous at the bent trunk end of the tree, an additional winter thinning may be necessary around that part

Problems

Stepover apples suffer from the same pest and disease problems as more conventionally grown trees. These include codling moth, apple canker, apple scab, brown rot and powdery mildew.

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