Each year one or two of the budget supermarkets (and until recently, Woolworths!) have seen this as a great opportunity to add a small range of very reasonably priced fruit trees to their range. These budget trees can often be the first step for many into the wide and wonderful world of fruit growing, and I've heard nothing but good reports about the quality and vigour of these fruity bargains. If money is tight (and when is it not these days), they represent great value for the prospective orchardist.
Having said all that, there are to my mind several very real problems with opting for budget fruit trees, and if you can possibly afford it I would always recommend going the extra mile and buying a tree from a specialist nursery instead. Here's why:
For me, perhaps the single biggest problem with buying a budget apple tree is that it limits you to a very small choice of varieties. This wouldn't be such a problem if the varieties on offer were a bit more interesting, but sadly they always seem to be the 'usual suspects'. The fruit from Bramley, Cox, Jonagold, Conference etc. is all readily available to buy from supermarkets and greengrocers, and thanks to cold storage technology, available almost all year round. So why would we want to grow one of these ultra-common varieties? Surley the whole point of growing your own fruit is the opportunity to try something totally different from the norm, perhaps a rare and interesting variety from the literally hundreds available through specialist nurseries. Something that will suit your own taste, and perhaps just as importantly, your own specific soil conditions, microclimate, and skills as a gardener. You may also want to grow a variety which was developed locally to you, providing a little Local Distinctiveness.
It's also worth mentioning that the varieties used for these budget trees are often chosen on the basis of their familiarity to potential purchasers, and not neccesarily because they're the best varieties to grow in the average garden situation. Cox's Orange Pippin, probably our most widely recognised dessert apple, is often one of the varieties on offer, despite the fact that the beloved Cox is a very difficult apple to grow without the use of all manner of sprays and chemical additions. The Cox is prone to Mildew, Scab, Canker, and is absolutely not suitable for cold, wet conditions.
Another problem with these budget trees is the rootstock. Unless things have changed recently, I've never been able to identify the rootstock used for these trees, crucial if you want to know it's eventual size when mature. I suspect that most of these trees are grown on the popular MM106 rootstock, a good all-round stock, but perhaps too vigorous for smaller gardens, and certainly not suitable for a pot grown tree.
On a more technical level, the age of these trees can sometimes be a problem. If you want to train your fruit tree in a particular way, it's always best to start with as young a tree as possible. A one year-old tree (Maiden Whip) is often recommended since you can train the tree exactly to the form you require. A budget tree may be 2 or even 3 years old, and the basic form of the tree may already be too well established to train correctly.
There's no doubt that given the choice between planting a budget fruit tree, and not planting a tree at all, I would always recommend a trip to your 'local' Aldi or Lidl. But an apple tree is something that should thrive in your garden for decades, providing tasty fruit, beautiful blossom, shade and shelter well beyond it's pay-back time. I believe it really is worth spending a little bit extra for a variety which will be just that little bit more special, and is sure to give you pleasure for many years to come.
There is a good listing of specialist nurseries on the ukcider Wiki, including many which supply cider apple varieties: Nurseries for Apple & Pear Trees