Guide to Growing Tree Fruit

Site and Soil

Most gardens can grow some tree fruit, apples and damsons being the most suitable for cold, exposed areas. With the exception of figs, the best crops will be obtained from fertile loam with a pH around 6.5, but adding organic matter. Mulching, watering and feeding fruit trees will help on less than ideal soils. It is unwise to plant new fruit trees in gardens where old trees have canker or where honey fungus is present. When planting fruit trees in grass, an area about 1m (3ft) in diameter around the trunk should be kept clear of weeds and grass.


The number of fruit trees you can accommodate in a given space depends, to some extent. On the rootstock on which they are grafted; apple trees offer the widest choice. Do be aware, however, that the more dwarfing the rootstock, the better the growing conditions and aftercare must be. Growth can also be restricted by training trees as cordons or fans. With apples, another option is to buy a so-called family tree, where several different varieties have been grafted on to the same roots. This neatly circumvents another complication, for apples and pears are not self-fertile, ie. another, compatible variety (or, in some cases, two additional varieties) are needed in order for pollination and fruit-set to occur.


Some varieties are inherently prone to biennial bearing, producing a worthwhile crop only every alternate year, and trees under stress can sometimes switch to a biennial slate. The process may sometimes be reversed by careful feeding, watering and light pruning.

Fruit trees are subject to many pests and diseases, but once mature, few control measures are realistic. A tar-oil winter spray and the use of biological control to limit codling moth are among the few routine measures that I consider worthwhile. Removing and destroying diseased fruit will have some impact on limiting damage in the following year.

Training and Pruning

Early training then, in later years, routine pruning is important with most types of tree fruit.


Malus spp. and hybrids Rosaceae

Garden apple trees fall roughly into three main types: the crab, the dessert or eating apple. And the more acid culinary apple or cooker (a fourth group, the very acid cider apple, is rarely grown in gardens). Some varieties are described as dual purpose and are useful in limited space, for they cook well but are not so acidic that they cannot be eaten fresh. .Apples can be trained in a number of ways, generally produce a good or even prolific crop with the minimum of attention, are available on a good range of root-stocks and are also the most versatile of all tree fruit.

Planting: in late autumn.

Spacing: depends on rootstock and training method.

effects of growth restricting apple rootstocks

Care: stake young trees and those on dwarfing rootstocks. Feed and mulch in early spring. Prune cordons and espaliers in summer and free-standing trees in winter; old trees should only have damaged branches removed.

Problems: aphids, bitter pit, codling moth, canker, fruit rot, honey fungus, powdery mildew, scab, winter moth, woolly aphids.

Harvesting: when the fruit parts readily from the branch if lifted and twisted; fruit colour as a sign of ripeness can be misleading.

Storing: fresh in cool, dry room with good air circulation. Put fruit in slatted boxes or pack in clean, plastic bags with ventilation holes. Late-maturing varieties can be left on the tree; generally the later maturing the variety, the better it keeps in store.

Varieties: check when buying that you have varieties that will pollinate each other. Generally, those that flower at the same time will be suitable.

Dessert varieties (in order of maturing): ‘Beauty of Bath’; ‘Discovery’; ‘Redsleeves’; ‘Fortune’; ‘James Grieve’, dual purpose; ‘Greensleeves’; ‘Ellison’s Orange’; ‘Sunset’; Blenheim Orange’, dual purpose; ‘Jupiter’, triploid, requiring two other pollinators; ‘Spartan’; Worcester Pearmain’; ‘Crispin’, triploid, requiring two other pollinators; ‘Idared’; Tydeman’s Late Orange’; ‘Kent’: ‘Golden Delicious’.

Cooking varieties: Bramley’s Seedling’, triploid, requiring two other pollinators; ‘Howgate Wonder’.


Pyrus communis Rosaceae

Pears are more difficult to grow than apples. Being slower to mature and less hardy. Your best chance of success is to grow a cordon or espalier against a warm wall. There is little choice of rootstock and most are grafted on to the moderately growth restricting ‘Quince C.

Planting: in late autumn.

Spacing: cordons lm (3ft) between plants, espaliers 4m (13ft), free-standing trees 4.5m (14ft 8in).

Care: feed and mulch in early spring. Prune cordons or espaliers in summer and winter, free-standing trees in winter.

Problems: aphids, canker, fireblight, fruit rots, leaf blister mite, pear midge, powdery mildew, scab, winter moth.

Harvesting: pick slightly under-ripe when the fruit parts readily from the branch.

Storing: Fresh, but arrange them individually, inspect regularly and remove them as they ripen. Hard, cooking varieties can be left on the tree until needed.

Varieties: ‘Conference’, ‘Beurre Hardy’, ‘Williams Bon Chretien’, ‘Doyenne du Cornice’.


Cydonia oblonga Rosaceae

Quince make attractive, self-fertile trees around 3m (10ft) or more tall but are slow in starling to fruit. The blossom is especially beautiful and the large fruits are aromatic but too acidic to be eaten fresh, so are used for making jelly or pies. The trees require a sunny, sheltered site and, in cold areas, they need the protection of a warm wall. Soil should be moist and preferably slightly acidic.

Planting: bare-rooted two to four-year-old plants in autumn or winter.

Spacing: 4-4.5m (13ft-14-3/4ft).

Care: young plants benefit from watering and mulching, established plants need little attention but remove suckers if they appear. Prune young quinces as you would apple trees; mature plants require only the removal of dead or crossing branches in winter.

Problem: leaf spot.

Harvesting: pick in late autumn when skins have turned from green to gold; or pick before first frosts when green; they turn yellow when stored.

Storing: store in cool, dark place with good air circulation but do not wrap or store in plastic bags because the flesh will discolour. Store away from other fruits as they have a strong aroma. Use in cooking or for jam.

Varieties: ‘Vranja’


Mespilus germanica Rosaceae

An attractive, self-fertile tree, offering spring blossom and red/gold autumn foliage colours, in addition to the fruit which look like large rose hips. A sunny, sheltered site is ideal although some shade is tolerated and they are hardier than quinces. Moist garden soil is suitable unless very alkaline or water-logged. Trees are usually grafted on to ‘Quince A’ rootstock.

Planting: late autumn to winter.

Spacing: 4.5m (14ft 8in) for bushes, 8m (25ft) for half-standards.

Care: cultivation is as for apple but little pruning other than initial shaping is needed.

Problems: caterpillars, leaf spot.

Harvesting: for the best-flavoured fruit, leave on the tree for as long as possible, preferably until late autumn. Pick when the stalk parts easily from the tree.

Storing: fruit must be stored to soften them after picking by a method called bletling. Dip the stalks in strong salt solution to prevent rotting and store, stalks upwards, on slatted trays. Use when flesh is soft and brown, to make jelly.

Variety: Nottingham’.

Growing Plums, Gages and Damsons

Prunus domestica

Damson Prunus insititia Rosaceae

If you have the space and a favourable site, a free-standing plum tree will crop with very little pruning. For the best fruit, the trees require a warm position; fan-training against a warm wall works well but requires more attention. Plums suffer in colder areas, as their blossom opens early and is prone to late frost damage. Most soils are suitable, except very dry or very water-logged sites. Most of the popular plum varieties are self-fertile but there is no true dwarfing rootstock. Gages are small, usually green or yellow types of plum, often considered to be the finest of dessert plums but needing more favourable growing conditions. Damsons are small plums and are hardier, but the fruit is astringent and should be cooked with plenty of sugar.

Planting: in late autumn.

Spacing: 5m (16ft) for tree or fan on ‘St Julien A’ rootstock, 3m (10ft) for tree or fan on ‘Pixy’ rootstock.

Care: Feed and mulch young plants in early spring. Prune fan-trained plants in spring, and pinch backside-shoots in summer.

Established plum trees need little pruning, but damaged growth should be cut out in spring rather than winter. Suckers should be pulled out promptly.

Problems: aphids, brown rot, bacterial canker, honey fungus, plum fruit moth, rust, silver leaf disease.

Harvesting: pick slightly before the fruit is ripe to avoid losing the crop to birds, wasps or brown rot.

Storing: not satisfactory fresh but may be frozen if the stones are removed or made into jam. Bottled or stewed.

Varieties: (all self-fertile)

Plums: ‘Victoria’, mid-season, easily the best all-round variety for dessert and culinary use; ‘Marjories Seedling’, late, a very useful, heavy-cropping, all-round variety to follow on from ‘Victoria’;

Gage: ‘Oulin’s Golden Gage’, early, the best of the widely available dessert gages.

Damson: ‘Merryweather’.

Peach and Nectarine

Prunus persica Rosaceae

Often thought of as warm-climate crops, they are fairly hardy, the only limiting factor being leaf curl disease. They will crop well in cool climates with shelter, but problems will arise on sites with cold springs. Even in mild areas, I suggest growing them fan-trained against a wall. The nectarine is a smooth-skinned variety of peach and its requirements are identical. The ideal soil is moist and slightly acidic, although it must not be deficient in calcium.

Planting: in late autumn.

Spacing: 4m (13ft) for fan-trained plants on ‘St Julien A’ rootstock.

Care: feed and mulch in early spring. Hand-pollinate blossom in spring. Prune established fan-trained plants in spring, pinch back side-shoots in early summer. When the fruit starts to colour, peg back the foliage to expose if to the sun.

Problems: aphids, bacterial canker, brown rot, fruit rots, peach leaf curl, silver leaf.

Harvesting: gently feel the fruit for signs of softness close to the stalk. Handle gently to prevent bruising.

Storing: for short periods only in a refrigerator but may be bottled after the stones are removed.

Varieties: Peach: ‘Peregrine’; ‘Rochester. Nectarine: ‘Lord Napier’.


Prunus armeniaca Rosaceae

Contrary to popular belief, apricots are hardier than peaches although earlier in blossoming, so they may need protection in early spring. They may be grown free-standing but generally are best fan-trained against a warm, sunny, sheltered wall.

Planting: in late autumn.

Spacing: 4m (13ft) for fan-trained plants on ‘St Julien A’ rootstock.

Care: feed and mulch in early spring. Check pH of acidic soils and, if necessary, add lime in autumn to raise to pH 6.5. Provide removable screen of fleece or plastic sheets to place in front of plants when blossom appears. Hand-pollinate in spring. Prune in spring and summer.

Problems: as for peaches and nectarines.

Harvesting: as for peaches

Storing: as for peaches.

Variety: ‘Moorpark’.

Sweet cherry

Prunus avium Rosaceae

For fresh, dessert cherries, you need a sweet cherry. Unfortunately, there is only one self-fertile variety, they are very frustrating to grow, romping away to form a large tree, and birds take all the fruit. I recommend fan-training against a warm wall to make netting easier or growing the self-fertile variety in a large fruit cage. There is one moderately growth-restricting rootstock in ‘Colt’, others like ‘Inmil’ that showed promise have proved unsatisfactory.

Planting: in late autumn.

Spacing: 5m (6ft) if fan-trained on the rootstock ‘Colt’.

Care: feed and mulch in early spring. Check pH of acidic soil and lime in autumn, if necessary, to raise the pH to 6.5. Use netting as fruit starts to ripen. Prune in spring and summer. Pull away suckers as they arise.

Problems: aphids, bacterial canker, birds, silver leaf.

Harvesting: when fully coloured, cut the stalks with scissors.

Storing: eat fresh.

Variety: ‘Stella’ (self-fertile).

Bitter cherry

Prunus cerasus Rosaceae

This is also known as the Morello, sour or acid cherry, names that indicate it is suitable only for cooking. It is easier to grow than the sweet cherry, producing a smaller tree, and most varieties are self-fertile but, again, I recommend fan-training and they are successful even against a cool, shady wall.

Planting: in late autumn.

Spacing: 4m (13ft) if fan-trained on the rootstock ‘Colt’.

Care: as for sweet cherries, but acid cherries are pruned on a renewal system to encourage the production of one-year-old wood which bears the fruit.

Problems: as for sweet cherries.

Harvesting: as for sweet cherries.

Storing: freeze if not used fresh for cooking.

Variety: ‘Morello’ (self-fertile).


Morus nigra Moraceae

The black mulberry is a wonderful-looking tree with superb-tasting fruit. It can reach a height of 6-10m (20-33ft), and is usually grown as a half-standard or standard. Prune simply to establish a strong and solid framework, and only prune in winter since it can bleed sap rapidly. A moist, slightly acid soil is preferred. Mulberries are grown on their own roots and are self-fertile.

Planting: late autumn to winter except in cold areas when spring planting is safer.

Spacing: 8-10m (25-33ft)

Care: similar to apples but only needs training to produce a strong framework; little or no maintenance pruning is required.

Problems: generally trouble-free although a canker disease may be seen occasionally.

Harvesting: when fully ripe in late summer.

Storing: freeze.

Varieties: normally sold as un-named varieties.

Cobnut | Filbert

Corylus avellana

Corylus maxima Betulaceae

The cultivated cobnut is a relative of the wild hazelnut; the filbert, with its shaggy husk, is a distinct European species. Both are suitable for the wilder, wooded garden as they need considerable room to grow, and conditions of light shade and shelter. Many are self-fertile, but as the male and female flowers don’t always open simultaneously, it makes sense to grow a mixture of varieties. Expect to harvest nuts after three or four years.

Planting: in late autumn.

Spacing: 5m (16ft).

Care: feed and mulch in early spring. Train as for a free-standing apple tree then, in late summer, use your hands to break all strong side-shoots growing from the main branches and leave them hanging. Cut the broken shoots back to 5-8cm (2 – 3-1/4in) in late winter or early spring.

Problems: powdery mildew, squirrels, nut weevil.

Harvesting: when the husks start to turn pale.

Storing: dry before storing.

Varieties: Cobnut: ‘Nottingham Cob’; Filbert: ‘Kentish Cob’.


Juglans regia Juglandaceae

Although only suitable for large gardens, I wish that more gardeners would take a long-term perspective and plant a walnut tree.

Planting: late autumn.

Spacing: 5m (16ft), plant a small copse of trees to ensure pollination.

Care: feed and mulch in early spring for the first few years. Regularly pinch back shoot tips to about six leaves, avoiding the shoots bearing male flowers; this will help induce fruiting earlier than the usual 10-15 years. Do not attempt to prune mature trees.

Problems: leaf blight, leaf spot, nut rot.

Harvesting: for pickling, collect in summer while shells are still soft. For eating fresh, wait until nuts drop.

Storing: clean, dry gently and store.

Varieties: there are named varieties of walnut, but trees hardly ever seem to be named when they are offered for sale. It is more important that you buy from an experienced fruit nursery and obtain grafted plants, with the scion taken from a parent tree known to be freely fruiting.


Ficus carica Moraceae

fig fruits will drop from the plant in late autumn or winterThe plants are self-fertile and hardy, but in cool climates they will only reliably produce edible fruit if fan-trained against a warm, sheltered wall. They differ from other fruit trees in two respects: they must have poor soil, and the small embryo fruits formed towards the end of one season are those that mature and ripen the following year. The best way to grow them is in a mixture of soil and limy rubble with the roots confined by putting 60cm (2ft) concrete slabs around the planting hole. Figs can also be grown in containers but will need plenty of water in summer and should be brought into a frost-free greenhouse overwinter.

Planting: in spring.

Spacing: one tan-trained plant on a wall at least 3m (10ft) wide and 2m (6-1/2ft) high.

Care: mulch well, no feeding required except in containers. Water well as fruit swells.

Prune wall-trained plants in spring.

Problem: coral spot.

Harvesting: wait until fruit hangs down and is soft with the skin just starting to split.

Storing: best eaten fresh.

Variety: ‘Brown Turkey’.

Climbing Fruit


Vitis vinifera Vitaceae

Although fruiting outdoor vines are found in gardens, for a reliable crop in cool climates, I would always cultivate them in an unhealed greenhouse.

Planting: in early spring or late autumn. Plant just outside the greenhouse then pass the main shoot in through a hole close to the base of the greenhouse wall. Prepare the planting position with liberal amounts of compost, broken bricks to improve drainage and 2.5-3kg (5 – 5-1/2lbs) of John Innes Base fertilizer.

Spacing: 2m (6-1/2ft) but one plant is enough.

Care: feed with general fertilizer in spring and mulch well. Water copiously when fruit is swelling and give a liquid high potash feed every two weeks in summer. Train carefully; prune established plants in winter and spring.

Problems: downy mildew, grey mould, powdery mildew, red spider mite, scale insects.

Harvesting: as the fruits change colour, taste to check for sweetness, then cut off in bunches with scissors.

Storing: for short periods at room temperature or in a refrigerator.

Varieties: ‘Black Hamburgh’; ‘Siegerrebe’.

Kiwi fruit

Actinidia deliciosa Actinidiaceae

Once known as the Chinese gooseberry, this fruit has been renamed and is now widely available in supermarkets; although the flavour is bland, it has a high vitamin C content. It is hardier than the grapevine, which is fortunate as it is too vigorous for most greenhouses, and should be grown against a tall, warm wall.

Planting: mid-spring or early autumn. Plant 20-25cm (8-10in) away from a wall and add well rotted organic matter if the soil is poor.

Spacing: 6m (20ft), female and male plants are often sold together in the same container for good pollination and should be treated as one plant for planting and spacing purposes, but trained in opposite directions.

Care: feed and mulch in early spring. Water well as fruit starts to swell. Prune as for a grapevine.

Problems: aphids, red spider mite.

Harvesting: pick as the fruit attains full colour and feels slightly soft to the touch.

Storing: for several weeks in refrigerator.

Varieties: ‘Hayward’, female; Tomuri, male.

31. July 2013 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Fruit & Veg, Fruit Trees | Tags: , | Comments Off on Guide to Growing Tree Fruit


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