Plant an Orchard for Wildlife

‘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 garden.  Bliss!

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! 

Pollination  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.


Growing local  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 benefits. 

Wildlife that benefits from fruit trees

  • Birds including tits, warblers, tree creepers, blackbirds, bullfinches, thrushes and starlings.  Goldfinches often choose to nest in fruit trees.

  • Mammals such as bank voles, badgers, hedgehogs and foxes.

  • Butterflies especially speckled wood, comma and red admiral which feed on fallen fruit.

  • 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 winter.

  • Check with your nurseryman that you have the right varieties to pollinate each other.

  • 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, Golden Noble

  • 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



© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017