Which Fruit Trees Should I Grow?

I want to grow some fruit trees, but where do I start? I don’t understand pollination groups or rootstocks, or the difference between a stepover and a cordon and a maiden and a bush. Help!

It’s a familiar cry. Folk quickly get bogged down when they’re shopping for fruit trees, as there are so many varieties and options open to them if they want to do things properly, rather than nip down to the nearest B&Q and end up with the wrong type of fruit tree. I’m faced with the same problem at the moment as we consider the possibilities for our new garden, so I went back to basics…

I like these…

1. Which fruit do I/we like? Grow the fruit you want to eat! Delicious they may be to some, but I’m not very keen on Medlars – so there’s absolutely no point planting them. Although it’s easier said than done these days, try to find different varieties to taste. Although they’er not West country varieties, I’m a big fan of the apples Ashmead’s Kernel and St. Edmund’s Pippin, which we’ll be planting; I originally tried them at a local farmer’s market – no way would you find them in a supermarket.

2. What am I going to use the fruit for? Is there a keen cook in the house? If there’s someone who wants to make jams and flans it will not only influence the varieties you buy, but also the volume of fruit you can deal with. You’ll also need appreciative consumers. You might not like cider, but everyone loves home made apple juice – which you can freeze as well as drink fresh. An orchard sized apple tree can produce something like 1000lbs of fruit – that’s a lot of apple juice! If you have several of one type of fruit, make sure they ripen at different times and/or that you’re buying a variety that stores well.

3. Do I want anything else from my fruit trees? You may have secondary considerations to think about, maybe aesthetic. You might want particularly attractive blossom, of a certain colour and/or timing, or you might like nice looking fruit. In the Mann household there are other considerations too – I like early flowering varieties for my bees, which leads me to looking at more exotic options like Almonds.

Big trees for a good workout

4. How much space do I have? By grafting onto rootstocks of different vigour you can have a tree of the same variety but very different size. Obviously, you’ll get less fruit from the smaller trees, but they can be a lot more convenient. We only sell varieties grafted on larger rootstocks – see here for details of sizes and planting spaces – but you can find really dwarfing rootstocks or, alternatively, “cordons”, which can be planted under a metre apart. You can buy trained forms as well, to grow up walls and along paths.

5. What are the local conditions like? It’s no coincidence that we are surrounded by apples as we have heavy soil and wet weather, which puts paid to Quinces, for example. Perry Pears do well hereabouts too, which explains why Babycham was made down the road. Plums, on the other hand, prefer lighter soils. They will stand the wind though and, consequently, work well in exposed sites or around the edge of a mixed orchard, where they will protect other trees. By way of contrast pears need sun and shelter. If you’re not sure what will do well in your own garden, do some research. Have a look around to see what’s growing close to you, and find out if there are any trees which have either orginated from the area or were widely grown.

6. Do I need to think about pollination? Mostly not. Apples are easy; there’ll generally be another apple or crab apple within a quater of a mile to act as a pollinator. Most plums and gages are self fertile. The only tricky customer is the pear, most of which are self sterile, so will need at least another tree in the vicinity. If you’re worried consult a pollination list, but I suspect the most important thing you can do to encourage pollination is to encourage the pollinators.

7. How big a tree should I buy? This is a different question to any consideration about rootstocks. You can buy a one year old “maiden” tree, which is little more than a stick, and if it has been grafted onto a vigorous rootstock it will grow into a tree over 4m tall in no time. It’s tempting to buy as big as tree as you can find; you’ll get fruit quicker and it will look more impressive where you need it to. On balance, though, try to avoid it. It’s not so much the obvious cost differential as how well the tree will develop – you’ve got a much better chance of successfully growing a long lived and healthy tree from a small sapling as from a larger tree (say 6 foot and over) that’s been wrenched out of the ground to get to you. You won’t have to stake it or dig a whopping big hole to plant it in, and it has a much higher % of its root system intact. Simples. Within a few years the sapling will overtake the bigger tree anyway. Don’t – whatever you do – buy some fancy semi-mature or even mature fruit tree. It will cost you a fortune and it will fall over.

I’ve put a tentative fruit tree order in for this autumn’s bare root planting season. I’ll be getting the trees from me, if you see what I mean, but if you don’t buy your trees from Habitat Aid please use a specialist British nursery.

Newsletter No.14: May 2011

Chelsea is very much in my thoughts at the moment. I’ll be on the Hilliers stand for the first half of the week, where they are featuring our Meadow Anywhere seed mix. We have been growing planters for the exhibit – I say “we”, but I’ve been helped out by Steve Morton, the seed supplier, which has calmed my nerves considerably. Hilliers are handing cheques for £4,000 to Butterfly Conservation and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust at the show, which is the donation to them from sales. Now that’s how this should work!

Chelsea is also important to me as it gives me the opportunity to talk to landscapers and designers. If Habitat Aid is to succeed we have to persuade these folk to use native and local plants and to source them from us. We have a growing and enthusiastic group of retail customers who have been brilliant in spreading the word, but unfortunately you only plant an orchard or sow a meadow once!

New Products
In addition to the new products in the pond section we are now also offering wildflower turf – popular among designers as it gives you low hassle instant impact meadow.

Oh yes, and we have confirmed the Perry Pear varieties we are selling, for delivery bare root from autumn. How can you resist a tree called Beetroot Wick Court Alex?

I’m also revamping the “perennials” section on the website, which will end up as more “woody perennials” by the end of the month.

Our recent “making wildife ponds” course with Hugh Roberts was a great success, despite the dry weather. It reminded me what a great thing ponds are. We’ve recently expanded our product range in this area to include coir rolls and mats, pre-planted with either well established mixed plants or phragmites (reed). This is a really clever trick. If you use a butyl or plastic liner it can be difficult to create planting spots without using baskets (yuk!). Coir provides a growing medium which will keep the plants in place – plants which are already well developed, so will give you instant impact. The rolls sit nicely along the banks and you can lay the mats on gently sloping sides. Prices very according to delivery, so are available on request.

New Developments
We are chatting with a some high profile potential charity partners, with a view to designing and supplying new products for us to sell through our website, or through retail intermediaries. Watch this space!

Social Media etc.
I’m getting better at social media. We now have over 800 more or less genuine Twitter followers (I tweet as Habitat_Aid), in addition to our Facebook page, and the blog seems to be going well – I’m trying to get into Wikio’s Top 20 Environmental blogs.

According to Alexa the main website is now ranked the 393,031st busiest in the world, by the way. That looks like it might put us somewhere approaching the top 10,000 for UK traffic, whereas a year ago we were more like 20,000th. Like our progress overall I don’t know whether the result is good or bad, but the rate of change looks great!

The Bloody Ploughman Redux

Here’s the answer to the fruity murder mystery I posted a couple of weeks ago – how many heritage fruit trees are there in this who dunnit?

The Bloody Ploughman

They found the dead boy in the parsonage just after the coronation of George V. I remember it because I went to Ascot with my mother and nanny to see the new Queen, and came back tipsy after too many Gin Martinis. James Grieve, the young ploughman, was in the potting shed, where he had been beaten with the heavy rock which now lay beside him. There was a distinct aroma of brandy about, which had been spilt on some sacks, and signs of a struggle, including a broken hoe.

The harvest festival party was the night before and many of the revellers had stayed on, including the party from the big house, who had been enjoying Lady Henniker‘s hospitality. Lord Lambourne, back home from service in the Middle East with the Grenadier Guards, had found the body. His spartan exercise regime took him on a jog around the village shortly after sunrise, and when he passed the forge he noticed a trail of blood leading under the parsonage gate on the opposite side of the road. He called for help when he found the dead youth, and old Fred the blacksmith came running. Fred was the butt of a great deal of ribbing from the jesters in the village. He was known to his friends as the Cornish Giant and to his enemies as the Missing Link. Anyway, he fetched Doctor Hogg from Sandringham, but even the great man couldn’t do anything. He did notice a curious feature of the killing, though; someone had left a cat’s head close to the body, covered by what seemed to be green custard.

The delicious Annie Elizabeth, local coquette, was the main suspect. James had rejected her advances in favour of her rival in love, the wealthy Ruby Thorn, renowned Beauty of Bath. Nothing was ever proved, however, and soon after the murder war broke out. Lord Lambourne went on to become a pilot in the RAF and was badly wounded trying to escape from his cockpit at the climax of the Battle of Britain. Ruby met Lord Derby (the Olympic gold medal winner) at the Yalta Conference, and the Reverend Wilks married them at St. Cecilia‘s after the war. Annie Elizabeth died on Victory in Europe day in 1945, some say of a broken heart. Others reckoned it was the cider.

How did you get on? I think the total was 52 fruit trees, mostly perry pears and apples, though I might have missed the odd one…

Newsletter No.8: 11th October 2010

Progress To Date, or The Road Less Traveled
Well, I think we’re making progress. We’ve got some good media coverage coming up, which starts with the Alan Titchmarsh Show, for which we’ve provided bits and pieces including some native plants for ponds – which are among the best things we sell, so I hope it goes well. I have articles coming up for the FT and Bird Guides too, which I’m very grateful for. We’re up to over 400 more or less genuine followers on Twitter (@Habitat_Aid), which is hard work but I think helpful, and the blog and Facebook pages attract more readers, although they should do better. Recent grumpiness about Kevin McCloud and pumpkins has boosted readership, though…

The metrics for the main website continue to improve and the new British Wildflower Seeds site, a resource for people wanting to make smaller scale meadows, is doing O.K. too. Search Engine Rankings are a dark art, and the more we can help our suppliers the more I will be pleased; like independents on the High Street it is can be difficult for them to be seen.

We’re doing well promoting traditional varieties of fruit trees; sales are really encouraging as we approach the start of the bare root season, and we continue to expand the number of varieties we offer. We’ve been invited to the Malvern autumn show next year to sell Perry Pear trees, which I am really keen to promote. Our own young trees in the orchard here have been fantastic this year, and I’m harvesting the pears for a local Perry maker to use.

We’ve got a couple of major long term projects on the go with partner charities which I’m dying to spill the beans on but really, really can’t. In the meantime I’m very pleased to have signed up another local native seed supplier, this time in the Welsh Marches, who I think will be excellent – more anon. Talking of Wales, we have also expanded our range of native bulbs, with several new species supplied by the excellent Shipton Bulbs. I can also tell you that the British Beekeepers’ Association is now selling wildflower seed mixes from us, specially selected for bees, and that we have two one day courses on fruit tree management coming up, tutored by West Country fruit tree expert Kevin Croucher, of Thornhayes Nursery.

As if I haven’t been busy enough with work (where work starts and finishes is getting increasingly difficult to work out), it’s that time of year for jams and jellies, chutney, sloe gin and apple juice. Even the quinces have produced this year, to my great joy. Time to get a stall at a posh Christmas Fair methinks, as I’ve also had a bumper crop of honey and as usual we have an embarrassing amount of mistletoe. We’re picking the cider apples for the village Bullbeggar cider next week, shortly before our next lot of Large Black pigs arrive.

Apple Trees and Local Distinctiveness

Kingsley the ram
Kingsley likes Ribston Pippins

It’s September, and we’ve picked our early apples for juicing – despite the sheeps’ close attention. It’s funny to think of the generations of apple pickers there have been in our orchard. It was on the earliest map of the village there is, and we’re just up the road from a late Roman settlement; I can perfectly well imagine the Saxons having the same arguments with their sheep in the same place.

We’ve recently started to value traditional orchards for their ecology; since 1997 they have been Biodiversity Action Plan priority habitats:

Traditional Orchards are hotspots for biodiversity and have been shown to provide a refuge for over 1800 species from the plant, fungi and animal kingdoms.

Orchard Network

We’re also now valuing traditional local fruit varieties to eat (and drink!) of course, partly for environmental reasons and no thanks to the supermarkets, which aren’t set up to deal with localised purchasing. As for their aesthetic beauty, that’s never been in doubt – our Perry Pears are every bit as amazing in flower as any of the cherry blossom I saw in Japan when we lived there. The clincher for me, though, is the local and historic context of these old trees.

The fruite of apples do differ in greatness, forme, colour and taste; some covered with a red skin, others yellowe or green, varying indefinitely according to the soyle and climate; some very great, some little, and many of a middle sort; some are sweet or tastie, or something sower; most be of a middle taste betweene sweete and sower, to which to distinguish I thinke it impossible…
John Gerarde, 1597 (quoted in The Common Ground Book of Orchards)

No wonder; there are supposedly 6,000 varieties of apple in Britain. Like all the other varieties of traditionally grown top fruit here, they are all closely associated with their own areas and the history and social structure of their local communities. Where we are, in Somerset, the landscape is still dotted with mixed farm cider orchards full of local apple trees, many of them named after their villages. Originating within 10 miles of us, according to the Somerset Pomona we have Cadbury, Dunkerton’s Late, Honeystring, Neverblight, Norton Bitters, Pennard Bitter, Pig’s Snout, Porter’s Perfection, Silver Cup, Somerset, Sweet Pethyre, Yarlington Mill… And historical apple trees? You can still buy varieties dating back to Roman times. We sell trees grown from a graft of Isaac Newton’s tree and Hunthouse, the Yorkshire variety that Captain Cook took with him on his travels to fight scurvy.
One of the things I am most happy that we have done is to help Common Ground promote as many of these local varieties as we can and to help Ian Roger sell them. To my enormous pleasure we are now even selling Perry Pears and Mazzards (edible wild cherries) to add to traditional fruit trees like Mulberries, Medlars and Quinces and local varieties of Gages, Plums, Damsons, Pears, and Cherries. Beauty of Stoke, Claygate Pearmain, Cornish Gilliflower, Crawley Beauty, Keswick Codlin – there will be apple trees or other fruit trees which are local to you. If you had the choice – and they were similar prices – would you buy a sofa from Ikea or one designed by a local expert for your house? Even if you’re thinking about just popping a small fruit tree into your back garden don’t just pick up something from B&Q, but find a local variety. Chances are it will do better – and you’ll be contributing to a rich and ancient local heritage.

Perry Pears for sale

Another selling point for Perry Pears
Some good news from Ian Roger of R.V.Roger. I’ve rattled on before about the joys of Perry Pears, and I’m delighted to hear that Ian is starting to grow selected varieties, regardless of whether or not we can extricate any trees from the defunct Scotts of Merriott. He is beginning with Black Worcester, Gin, Green Horse and Sweet Huffcap, grown on Pyrus communis rootstock. If you would like to reserve any maiden trees for delivery from November 2010 please let me know. Woot woot.

Related Posts:
Perry Pears
Heritage Fruit Trees…A National Treasure?

Cider for the connoisseur

Press at Hecks
We had a barrel of 2008 Bullbeggar left over, so we thought we should bottle it before the 2009s arrive. Hecks of Street have been hugely helpful throughout our community cider project, and didn’t let us down today.
Perry on tap
What nice folk and, furthermore, Perry producers, who are buying some extra trees with us from the liquidators at Scotts. We picked our way through tonnes of apples and barrels piled high in their impossibly crowded yard to bottle and pasteurise 350 bottles of Bullbeggar and see the old vintage out. These will be available to the lucky burghers of Castle Cary at our village stall on Saturday, gales permitting. Some say that if Parker ranked ciders, the 2008 Bullbeggar would be a 95.

Malvern Autumn Show

Perry Pears
Perry Pears
Off to the RHS Autumn show at Malvern yesterday, which offered the usual mix of good and bad. Let’s get the bad out of the way…
if I see another Heuchera/Crocosmia/Pansy I think I’ll garrote myself. I don’t want to sound like a gardening fascist, but honestly – and the most hopeless plants for wildlife gardening, which was a notably absent theme in favour of plastic Box balls and double glazing. COME ON, RHS ! On the plus side, some gorgeous stuff from Cotswold Craftsmen by way of non-plant things. I’ve added the Orchard Centre and Hartpury Perry Park to my links, and had a nice chat to the folk from the Colwall Village Garden, which sounds like an excellent project. I also found some nice nurseries.
Hoyland Plant Centre has the National Collections of Agapanthus and Tulbaghia. Irresistible. I loved the Hardy’s Nursery stall, a plantsman’s delight I had been advised to look out for. I was particularly pleased to run into the folk at Trecanna Nursery too. I bought native Alliums, Wood Anemones, and Spring flowering Cyclamen coum from them. It would be great to have some more bulbs on our site and they’re just the sort of people I’d love to work with. More anon…

Perry Pears

Perry pear tree in autumn
Perry pear tree in autumn
We live round the corner from Shepton Mallet, home of Babycham and now Brothers Pear Cider, so you might think that perry, to pears what cider is to apples, is big around here.
It’s not. The new pear ciders are either made from imported concentrated pear juice with sugar added, or they’re cider with synthetic pear flavouring. Traditional perry is actually pretty much impossible to produce commercially as the trees are difficult to harvest and the juice difficult to ferment. The pears are inedible and crops erratic. In any case the trees are too big to spray. So why bother with it?
Perry is part of our heritage. It was most likely introduced to the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border by either the Romans or Normans. Local conditions suited the trees; rain and sunshine, and deep soils. Its long history means that there are estimated to be over 100 varieties in Gloucestershire, with many more synonyms rich in local meaning. Thus Yellow Huffcap is also Black Huffcap, Chandos Huffcap, Green Huffcap, Kings Arms and Yellow Longland. Other varieties are Mumblehead, Merrylegs, Lumberskull, Drunkers and Devildrink, Pint, Ducksbarn, Green Horse, Holmer and Nailer.
Perry pear blossom
Perry pear blossom
The trees are beautiful. We have planted Thorn, Butt, Brandy and Parsonage in our orchard and they are all very healthy looking trees, even given recent wet summers. No disease and good strong growth; Parsonage is the biggest variety we have, which will grow to the size of a reasonable sized oak. Even if you completely disregarded the fruit, they are worth growing for their blossom alone, which is early and fantastically plentiful.
It’s not just the blossom (great for our bees!) that makes them a really good tree for biodiversity. They are typically much longer lived than apple trees, and – as a rule of thumb – veteran trees will support more species. Traditional apple orchards are themselves great havens of biodiversity, but Jon Ardle quotes a 2004 survey of just 13.3 acres of three traditional perry orchards which recorded an amazing 1,800 species of plants, animals, and fungi.
Lastly, the perry itself. To be honest, I’ve tasted some pretty indifferent perry – but then I’ve tasted some pretty indifferent cider over the years. And I’ve tasted some lovely perry too. The shows are a good place to sample it; I had a lovely drop at the Royal Welsh and there is a Festival of Perry at the Malvern Show, 26-27 September.
We currently sell a perry tree collection and will be selling individual varieties later in the year – do let us know if you might be interested.

Courtesy of Rowan Isaac. The autumnal picture was taken at Minchew’s in Worcestershire and the blossom was at Gregg’s Pit, Much Marcle.