Growing fruit in your garden is quite a different proposition from producing a few vegetables. The production of fruit is not a question of experimenting with quick crops on a ‘trial and error’ basis, but represents a permanent, long-term investment with trees and bushes being nurtured to maturity. On the other hand, it is not necessary to sow and plant every year, as with vegetables, and you can extend the sense of satisfaction felt at eating home-grown, freshly picked fruit.
There is no doubt that fruit has a better flavour when it is eaten fresh from the bush or tree. You can appreciate it in the peak of condition, and have easy access to varieties of soft fruit in particular that are in the shops for a short season at constantly high prices. Surplus produce can, moreover, be stored by freezing or bottling, or in the form of jams and jellies.
Fruit can be divided into two basic categories; top fruits grow on trees and include apples, plums, pears and peaches, and soft fruit grows on canes or bushes and include gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries, black and redcurrants and. The types you decide to grow will depend largely on personal preference and the amount of time and space that you have available.
Looking first at top fruits, the trees on which they grow should be considered as a year-round asset to your garden in a decorative sense, with their blossom in spring, leaves in summer and even the attractive shape formed by the bare twigs in winter. You can, therefore, plan their position in the garden much as you would any other tree; it is not necessary to allocate a plot for top fruit. Ensure that the tree is planted at a suitable distance from the house.
Fruit trees should also be in a sunny position where possible, to protect the blossom from late frosts. Indeed, some varieties can only be grown in warmer parts of the country, others are better suited to colder areas, and you should check when buying or ordering. Whatever the variety of the fruit you decide to grow, you will have to select the size and shape of tree you are going to plant.
A standard tree, which usually has a 6ft stem, should be considered in the same way as any other deciduous tree that will grow to a fair size, and should be allowed a similar amount of space; trees should be planted at a minimum distance of 25ft from each other. If you want a tree that will produce fruit quickly, this is not a good choice, since it will take several years to mature. If, on the other hand, you want to have all the benefits of a sizeable garden tree, with the added advantage of fruit in abundance in a few years’ time, then a standard will be ideal.
The half-standard has a stem of 1-1/2 to 4ft clear of branches; this makes it slightly more manageable forand picking, but a distance of 20ft between trees is still required.
A bush tree has a very short stem of about 2 to 3ft, with an open-centred head of branches. This is a very much more practical consideration for the small garden, particularly if you do not want to wait too long for your first crop of fruit. There is also a greater possibility of planting more than one tree since a distance of only 12 to 15ft between bush trees is necessary. Moreover, a ladder will not be needed for picking fruit and pruning the tree.
If there is space for only one or two trees in your garden, you may find it difficult to narrow down the choice of fruit that you want to grow, or wish to avoid a glut of one particular variety. The answer here can be a ‘family tree’, a tree that is formed by the grafting of three different varieties of apple pr pear on to one root. The result is a half-standard or bush tree that produces smaller quantities of each fruit over quite a long period, for the varieties are planned to complement each other in timing and use.
Top fruit trees are also sold in the form of cordons — a single, straight, narrow stem — and espalier — a vertical stem with tiered horizontal branches. However, we would not recommend either for the newcomer to fruit growing. They require a considerable amount of pruning and care in both summer and winter, and if allowed to grow too quickly can produce a lot of leaf and little fruit.
Buying and planting a fruit tree
The process of planting is much the same as for any tree, in that theshould be well dug and prepared, and a good large hole is needed to accommodate the roots. Fruit trees do require soil with good , but will tolerate soil that is not rich, cooking apples and plums being the least fussy. A stake will be needed for support.
Take care to plant the tree at the depth at which it has been growing in the nursery. The join where the fruit variety has been grafted on to the stock shows as a lump near the base of the stem, and this should be 2 to 3in above soil level. Keep the tree well watered in at least the first season after planting, and thereafter during any periods of very dry weather.
Trees are available from nurseries and garden centres in container grown or bare root form. The former can be planted at any time of year except in periods of very dry weather or frost, and open ground trees can be planted in autumn, winter or early spring, but again not when the ground is frosty or.
The tree you buy may have been pruned before it is offered for sale (check when buying); if not, you will need to prune it to encourage new, strong growth. If you plant a container grown tree in late spring or summer, you should wait until the tree has lost its leaves in autumn before pruning.
Look for the tree’s main ‘leader’ shoots and cut off approximately the top one third of new growth, using a sharp pair of secateurs; make a sloping cut. Then find the short, woody stems or ‘spurs’ that actually bear the fruit, and cut them to leave two or three fruit buds; these are the plumper, rounded buds.
A further object of this first pruning is to create a framework of branches that will form a well-shaped tree, continuing the work already done by the nurseryman. If a new tree is pruned too lightly, it will bear too much fruit in the first season and put on little growth, and this could result in a misshapen or stunted form.
Pruning established apple and pear trees
Pruning is sometimes regarded with a degree of trepidation by the newcomer, who feels that he is going to cause some irreparable damage to the tree, and therefore tends to leave well alone. In fact, there is no mystery to the methods of pruning, and the process is best approached with a degree of logic, and an understanding of the basic aims behind it.
Pruning an apple or pear tree can be carried out at any time between November and March, when the tree is in a dormant state, but the best time is in November, as soon as the leaves have fallen.
To prune a bush tree, first cut off any shoots that look diseased and unhealthy. Then single out one branch at a time and, starting at the bottom, prune the side shoots. These are the new shoots that have grown out along the branches during the summer. Side shoots that are short and sturdy can be left, but any that are longer than 4 or 5in should be cut back so that only two or three buds are left.
The ‘leader’ shoot is at the top of the branch. This is the new, young growth and only about one third of it should be cut; do not be tempted to prune it hard back.
Cut the leader shoot to a bud that is pointing in the direction in which you want the branch to grow, so that the tree keeps a good shape and all the branches have sufficient space to develop.
Spurs are short, woody and branched, and they should be spaced at approximately 5in intervals along the branches. Any spurs that look too long and weak should be pruned to leave just two or three of the plump flower buds. In order to ripen, the fruit on the tree must receive air and sunlight. As the tree gets older, you may see that the branches are too crowded for sufficient light and air to penetrate, and side branches that are crossing and cramped should be removed.
Standard and half-standard apple and pear trees require a similar treatment to that of bush trees for the first few years, but once they become more established, it will only be necessary to thin and shape the tree. The main aims should be to remove branches that are diseased or dying, and to prevent the centre of the tree from becoming too overcrowded. Should any large branches need cutting out, the cuts should be made with a sharp saw, and the wounds painted with a proprietary sealant. This helps the wound to heal quickly and prevents further disease.
Pruning plum trees
A newly planted plum tree should be pruned in much the same way as newly planted pears and apples. However, established plum trees must be pruned only sparingly. The spurs can be allowed to grow quite freely, and the leader shoot only needs to be cut lightly when the growth is very vigorous.
It is important that diseased, dying and awkwardly placed branches on a plum tree should be spotted and cut out when they are young, and still quite small. It is a more risky operation to cut out large, thick branches, but if this is absolutely necessary it should be done in midsummer and not in winter, so that the risk of infection by disease is reduced. Should you inherit an established garden with an old, neglected plum tree, do not attempt to carry out mass amputation of branches all at once, but tackle the re-shaping gradually, removing just one or two large branches each year.
One important point to bear in mind when you are selecting a variety of apple, pear or plum is that very few can be fertilised by their own pollen. Most must be cross-pollinated by a different variety in order to set fruit really successfully. If you have a sufficiently large garden for more than one tree, plant varieties that will cross-pollinate with each other (they do not need to be planted particularly close together). You can check on suitable varieties when buying.
If there is space for only one tree in your garden, then look around for fruit trees in neighbouring gardens, and if you can ascertain the variety, plant one that is complementary. Alternatively, it will be necessary to plant one of the few varieties that are self-pollinating to a sufficient degree. Self-fertile dessert apples are ‘Ellison’s Orange’ and ‘Laxton’s Superb’, and cooking apple, ‘Grenadier’. For a plum choose ‘Victoria’, and for pears plant either ‘Conference’ or ‘William’s Bon Chretien’.
Pests and diseases
There are various pests and diseases that can attack top fruit, some of them common to all types and others restricted to only one variety. Among the most common pests are aphis (green or blackfly); caterpillars; codling moth maggots found in fruit and woolly aphis, white woolly masses on branches and shoots.
Diseases include canker — hollows in the bark surrounded by swollen wood;— a powdery white covering on shoots and leaves; and scab — dark, sooty blotches on leaves and fruit.
There are proprietary chemicals to deal with all of these, and you should seek the advice of a knowledgeable salesman for answers to particular problems. Prevention is better than cure, and this can be effected by spraying with a tar oil wash in winter, when the buds are dormant. The other basic treatment is the application of a combined systemic insecticide and fungicide in summer.