A is for Apple. I’m beginning to think fruit trees should be at the core of any garden or estate; a perfect fusion of the useful and aesthetically pleasing, as well as promoting local distinctiveness and biodiversity. Rationally or emotionally it’s very hard to argue against planting fruit trees; the only difficult thing is to prioritise the grower’s requirements, and now is a good time to start thinking about them ahead of the planting season in autumn.
The golden rule is to grow the fruit you want to eat. There are many fruit trees with interesting back stories but they need to be useful too. I have just planted two of the legendary Guillevic Normandy cider apple trees, for example, which as a cider maker tick both boxes for me. What are you going to use the fruit for? If you intend to make jams and flans this will not only influence what to buy but also the volume of fruit that’s required. Apples need particular planning in this regard; an orchard-sized apple tree produces 1,000lb – that’s a lot of apple juice to process. For domestic use make sure you choose varieties that ripen at different times to avoid a glut. Try to find fruit to taste or follow advice; for apples in the UK visit the national fruit tree collection at Brogdale in Kent, where there are apples to taste and blossom to view. Their experts can also help you identify any existing trees you might have, and advise on orchard design (their next course is on June 9).
There are other reasons to grow fruit trees. The Victorians grew apples such as the James Grieve as much for their blossom as their fruit, for example. This works the other way around too; I don’t much like the habit of Victoria Plum trees – too stiff and upright – which means however much I might love the plums I won’t grow the tree. Their attractive blossom and different habits mean it’s generally easy to combine fruit trees into an existing garden design in a more relaxed way than growing them on commercial grids. Traditional fruit trees with less local edibles work well too, or they can be used as the canopy layer for a forest garden. At Mark Diacono’s Otter Farm in Devon, for example, quinces and plums rub shoulders with Szechuan peppers and pecans.
In our household there are other things to think about – I like early flowering trees such as almonds for my bees. Fruit trees produce masses of pollen and nectar for hungry honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees, and a well-chosen mix of “top fruit” and soft fruit can provide huge amounts of forage for them from February to May.
Orchards are great for wildlife generally, which is why traditional orchards are one of the UK’s priority habitats. A 1988 survey published in the New York Food and Life Sciences bulletin found 191 species of plant-eating insects in organic mid-Atlantic zone apple orchards in the US. Further up the food chain, bats and birds love orchards, especially insectivorous and cavity nesting species. Different types of fruit tree decay at different rates but they all have limited lives, which means a rich habitat for all sorts of interesting and endangered flora and fauna. Pears decay relatively slowly, then apples, and fastest of all are Prunus (cherry, plum, etc).
The traditional orchard floor is rich in fungi rather than wildflowers, as its soil tends to be too rich for a diverse sward to develop, but it too is a valuable resource for wildlife. Autumn windfalls are a boon for late butterflies and birds, as well as small mammals such as hedgehogs. We are currently working on a planting plan at our new house that involves a complicated understory, including nut bushes and soft fruit, which will be brilliant for biodiversity. Many smaller orchards used to work this way. The gardener’s happy – it looks lovely and is easy to maintain – and the cook’s happy with the myriad culinary opportunities it presents.
The next consideration is local conditions. Apples are possibly the least fussy of fruit trees; they are grown in every state in the US. They will do well further north than many others as they flower relatively late and their blossom is consequently less susceptible to frost, and some varieties will even grow in Mediterranean conditions. We are surrounded by cider orchards as we have heavy soil and wet weather. Perry pears do well hereabouts too. Plums, on the other hand, prefer lighter soils, but work well in exposed sites or around the edge of a mixed orchard, where they will protect other trees. By way of contrast, eating pears need sun and shelter.
Have a look around to see what’s growing close to you, and find out if there are any trees that have either originated from the area or were widely grown. It’s a great way of celebrating local distinctiveness as well; plant Sierra Beauties in California and Baldwins in New York.
People tend to worry unnecessarily about pollinating partners for fruit trees. Apples are easy; there’ll generally be another apple or crab apple in flower within a quarter of a mile to act as a pollinator. Most plums and gages are self-fertile. There are some fruit trees, like pears, which are self-sterile, so they will need at least one other tree in the vicinity. Consult a pollination list or a specialist nursery, but to my mind the most important thing you can do to encourage pollination is to encourage pollinating insects. You can build your own solitary bee box or buy a posh one; they really work, and more bees means more fruit.
Once you have decided on the style and content of your orchard area, for which it is best to ask for professional advice if it’s large, it is time to start with practical work. Mark the planned sites for your trees with canes. By grafting a “scion” on to rootstocks of different vigour you can have trees of the same variety but of very different sizes when mature. Traditional orchard apple trees, grown on super strong M25 rootstock, were typically planted up to 10 metres apart, whereas larger Perry pears on Pyrus communis rootstock need even more space as they can grow to the size of ash trees. Obviously, you’ll get less fruit from trees on less vigorous rootstocks, which might also need staking, but they can be a lot more convenient.
After you’ve finished tweaking the planting design, either spray off or mulch 1 metre diameter circles around the canes ready for the trees. Pre-order them in spring or summer for autumn delivery; many heritage varieties are only grown in tiny numbers.
Nick Mann is the founder of Habitat Aid
● RV Roger www.rvroger.co.uk
● Trees for Life www.frankpmatthews.com
● Brogdale Nurseries www.brogdaleonline.co.uk
● One Green World (US) www.onegreenworld.com
Unfortunately, unlike the popular image of Johnny Appleseed, it’s not possible to grow fruit trees from seed – the resulting plants and fruit will be nothing like their parent. You should buy “bare root” trees, which will be delivered when they’re dormant and give you a healthy and quick-growing tree. A one-year-old “maiden” grafted on to a vigorous rootstock will grow into a tree that is more than four metres tall.
It’s tempting to buy as big a tree as you can find; if it doesn’t go into shock you’ll get fruit more quickly and it will initially look more impressive. On balance, though, have patience; not simply because of the yawning cost differential but because of how well and how quickly a younger tree will develop. It won’t need a stake to support it or a big hole for it to grow in, and it has a much higher chunk of its root system intact. There’s a good reason it’s difficult to find many mature fruit trees for sale; they cost a fortune and fall over.
Try to source your trees online from a specialist nursery; not only will you find more interesting varieties, but the information the nurseries can provide and the quality of the product will more than compensate for any extra cost.