‘An apple a day keeps the
doctor away’. How many of us grew up with that phrase ringing
in our ears? Thankfully, the importance of fruit and
vegetables in our diet has finally been more widely
recognised. Fruit however is valuable not just for our own
health, but growing apples, pears, raspberries, blackcurrants,
strawberries, plums and damsons is a
fantastic way of encouraging wildlife into our gardens.
Planting a single fruit tree, or a small orchard if you are
fortunate enough to have more space, fulfils many purposes.
Best of all for me at least, is that there are few things more
satisfying than picking an apple directly from one of my own trees on
a late summer evening and eating it in the sanctuary of my own
Assessing your conditions
So how do we go about
growing fruit trees if we are new to this idea, and what do we
plant to best serve our local wildlife as well as ourselves?
There are several things to consider before we venture to the
local garden centre or nursery, and a little research is well
worth the effort if your fruit is to be successful. Perhaps
the most important of these considerations is to look at your
local conditions, especially if your area is known for late
frosts. Fruit blossom can easily be spoiled by cold snaps in
spring, so by choosing later flowering varieties of apples or
plums, you can avoid problems caused by spring frosts. There
is a huge range of fruits available and their flowering period
covers several weeks. Later flowering varieties generally
produce later maturing fruit which is likely to keep for
longer, so that is another factor to take into consideration.
Local is good for other
reasons. Where apples are concerned at least 5,000 named
varieties were once grown in the UK but now only a small
proportion of these is readily available. Some nurseries
however, are beginning to recognise the appeal of our older
apple, pear and plum varieties and many are being
reintroduced. This gives us a great opportunity to choose
fruit that is suitable for our local conditions as well as our
own requirements. It is possible that by planting just a
handful of trees we can have tasty apples ready to be eaten
from July (Gladstone or Laxton’s Early Crimson for instance)
through until as late as April or even May in the following
year, if we choose varieties with good keeping qualities such
as Sturmer Pippin, Court Pendu Plat or Tydeman’s Late Orange.
The choice is enormous. All that is needed to ensure an
almost continuous supply of apples is a little space in the
garden and a cool, frost-free place to store them. Pears,
depending on variety, will also keep for long periods if
stored well, and plums and damsons can be packed into the
freezer, ready for tasty winter puddings, or made into jam,
jelly and chutney. And how satisfying it is to know that
planting these useful trees will benefit wildlife, providing
nectar and pollen for bees in spring, food through the winter months
and shelter at all times of year. Birds such as tits and
warblers will show their gratitude by removing the larvae of
moths and other insects, thus ensuring that your blemish-free
fruit is produced organically.
Apples are the fruit of
choice for many people and they give of their best in areas of
adequate rainfall and good summer sunshine, but there are
still many that can cope with more adverse conditions as long
as they have sufficient light and a soil that is not water
logged in the winter. If your garden is more than 200 meters
above sea level make sure that you choose varieties that are
recommended for more exposed situations. If you are confident
that your garden is suitable for fruit growing, now is a good
time to do a little research and find the varieties you think
best suit you and then get planting!
Although there are
self-fertile varieties of some fruits available, growing at
least two trees that are known to fertilise each other ensures
a good crop from both varieties. Specialist fruit nurseries
will be able to advise you on the finer points of pollination,
but the more trees you have the better the pollination, and
therefore the crop, is likely to be. You can ensure that your
flowers are pollinated by placing red mason bee nest homes
near the trees. These small bees are active at just the right
time each spring – when fruit trees are in full flower - so
are essential to your crop. Honeybees too will pollinate
blossom, so your local beekeeper will appreciate your choice.
One way of ensuring your
fruit’s success is to plant varieties local to your area.
Many names reflect the origin of the particular fruit at the
county level (Herefordshire Pippin, Worcester Permain)
through to the more local (Blenheim Orange, Beauty of Bath),
to the very local indeed. I have planted a variety called
Eynsham Dumpling – Eynsham being the village in Oxfordshire
where my mother was brought up. A variety with a name pertaining to
your local area is likely to have originated there and thus be
better adapted to your conditions. Growing local is also a
way of ensuring that these wonderful old varieties are not
lost. Check also which varieties have been traditionally
grown commercially in your area – these too are more likely to
thrive with you.
Big or small?
Your last consideration
will be the particular rootstock onto which your fruit is
grafted. This will determine the final size of your tree,
from a tiny ‘step-over’ variety or a cordon, suitable for the
smallest garden, to an old-fashioned orchard apple tree with
stature and grandeur. These larger trees are more difficult
to harvest of course, but wildlife will benefit tremendously.
Check appropriate spacing with your nursery and plant as you
would any tree – with good organic compost in the planting
hole, a mulch of the same on the surrounding soil and a stake
where necessary to ensure stability. Water at planting time,
and through the next spring and summer if the weather is dry.
The wait for your fruit isn’t necessarily a long one. A
second year maiden apple can produce a couple of apples in its
first year, giving you something to look forward to!
Over the last 25 years our
countryside has suffered a huge loss with the removal of many
commercial orchards. This has been reflected not just in the
lack of variety of fruit in our shops but in our native
wildlife populations too. Huge flocks of redwings and
fieldfares, thousands strong, are no longer seen feasting on
fallen fruit in commercial orchards. If we can help to
redress this situation by finding space in our gardens for an
apple, a pear or damson, we are not alone in reaping the
Wildlife that benefits from
Birds including tits,
warblers, tree creepers, blackbirds, bullfinches, thrushes
and starlings. Goldfinches often choose to nest in fruit
Mammals such as bank
voles, badgers, hedgehogs and foxes.
speckled wood, comma and red admiral which feed on fallen
Honey and mason bees,
wasps and many other invertebrates.
Fruit Growing Check List
Make sure your garden is
suitable – fruit trees do not like waterlogged soil or
exposed windy conditions.
If you have room for more
than one tree choose varieties that are ready to eat in
early summer, plus other that will keep well through the
Check with your
nurseryman that you have the right varieties to pollinate
Choose the right
rootstock – if you have a small space trees on M27 or M9
rootstocks will take up less room.
Plant for wildlife-
early ripening apples such as Beauty of Bath soften on the
tree and thus benefit birds, foxes, badgers and butterflies.
Check with your local
authority which may be giving grants to plant orchards.
My favourite apples
For flavour – Ellison’s
Orange, Sunset, Reinette D’Ananas
For cooking – Grenadier,
For wildlife - Beauty of
Bath, Bramley Seedling
For blossom – Brownlees
Russet, Rosemary Russet
For looks – Adam’s
Permain, Lord Hindlip, Orleans Reinette
For keeping – Melrose,
Blenheim Orange, D’Arcy Spice, Bramley Seedling