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.

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.