This is essentially a decorative way of growing apples, although it will produce quite a surprising amount of fruit once it is mature, especially if the arms are long. Stepover apples are mainly used for edging paths in a kitchen garden, and look especially attractive in parterres or walled gardens. They are usually grown no more than 30–60cm (1–2ft) above the ground, and derive their name from the fact that they are low enough to step over. Any variety of apple that is spur-fruiting and is grown on a dwarfing stock can be used to create a stepover.
Short stout posts should be driven into the ground at about 2m (6ft) intervals. Stretch a wire between them about 45cm (18in) above the ground. Several stepovers can be planted in a long line, so continue the posts and wire as far as is needed, even around a vegetable plot.
Stepovers are generally grown with two arms, one on either side of the trunk. They can be considered a multiple cordon on which the horizontal arms are not turned vertically, or as an espalier that has only the bottom tier of branches. Sometimes, however, they are grown with a single arm, turned to left or right. This is more like a single cordon that has been laid horizontally rather than at an angle of 45 degrees. The two-branch stepover can be trained in the same way as a double cordon, except that instead of turning the arms into an upright position, continue to train them horizontally, tying them to the wires on either side of the trunk. This method is almost identical to growing the first tier of an espalier, except that the main leader is cut off immediately above the top of the two laterals.
The single stepover is developed either in the same way from a maiden whip or feathered tree (remove all the laterals except one), or by choosing a flexible single whip. Plant the tree near to one of the posts. Tie the section above the proposed bend to a cane and gradually pull this through an angle of 90 degrees, tying the cane to the wire with ever-decreasing lengths of string until it reaches the horizontal. The initial training then follows that of a cordon.
The subsequent pruning is exactly the same as if you were pruning a cordon, except that the length of the leader can be as long as you like.
The tip is usually removed just before it meets the tip of the leader coming from the next stepover, if there is one, so that a continuous hedge is created.
Summer pruning an apple stepover
1: A stepover of ‘Kidd’s Orange Red’ apples in late summer. The side shoots have grown during the summer and are now ready to be pruned.
2: The main summer job is to reduce all new side shoots from the main stems back to three or four leaves. In the case of new side shoots on old growth, cut them back to one or two leaves.
3: The summer pruning is completed. The longer side shoots will be reduced in the winter when the tree is dormant.
4: A stepover in winter showing all the side shoots shortened back to the fruiting spurs. Any clusters of spurs that were overcrowded have been thinned.
Training an apple stepover
In essence, a stepover is simply the bottom tier of an espalier-trained apple. It is trained in exactly the same way and is pruned once it is established in the same fashion as an espalier. It is important to prune the stepover regularly or it will grow out of character very rapidly. Avoid planting them where children might use them as a high jump.
Year one, winter: Plant a maiden whip in winter and cut off the leader below the wire support and just above two strong buds, which will develop into the arms.
Year one, winter: If a one-sided stepover is required, the leader should not be cut but moved though 45 degrees and tied in. During the following summer, it can be eased down into a horizontal position. Further pruning is the same as for a double-sided stepover.
Year one, summer: As the two top shoots develop during the first summer, tie them to canes at an angle of approximately 45 degrees. Remove any side shoots that develop below these two.
Year two, winter: During the second winter, gently lower the canes and tie the two arms into the horizontal wires. If the tips have reached the full extent of the support, cut them out, otherwise leave.
Year two, summer: During the following summer, cut back all side shoots to three or four leaves. Remove any side shoots that appear on the main vertical trunk.
Established pruning, winter and summer: Once established, cut new growth back to one bud each winter and thin the spurs. In summer, cut back any new growth on the spurs to one or two leaves and take out any other unnecessary shoots that cause crowding.