Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

Growing lots of fruit in smaller gardens

Devon nurseryman Kevin Croucher urges those with smaller gardens to try growing dwarf varieties of fruit and start growing fruit against a wall as cordons fans or espaliers

Many people who enjoy their gardens only have small ones and often feel that they haven’t got the space to grow tree fruit.

A bush apple tree 8-10ft tall and wide is a bit dominating in a modest urban patch. However, there are ways of fitting various trained forms of tree fruits into a small domestic garden attractively and productively. It just takes a bit of skill and advice. At Thornhayes I run courses on 'Trained fruit- how to do it' and they are perennially popular.

The thing is that trained as cordons, fans or espaliers, the effect is quite contained and formal, therefore attractive in small gardens where space is at a premium.

Training fruit against south or west walls brings another consideration in to play. Such things as gages, apricots, peaches and many pears thrive best in a continental climate of hot summers and cold winters. They need sufficient heat in one summer to form fruit buds for the following spring. These buds need a chilling in the winter and if pollinated sufficient heat to ripen fruit and form flower buds for the next year. The pollen also has to reach a sufficient temperature to ripen and become viable.

Growing against a wall or fence makes fruit a more likely outcome of all your effort.  If you garden at high altitude or in an open windy site, possibly near the sea, you have a problem growing many fruits, even apples.

However, a sunny wall or fence will improve your odds.

Let’s consider the options available starting with the smallest. Apples on very dwarf rootstocks can be trained as step-overs. These are essentially single tier espaliers on an M9 or M27 rootstock, trained along a single wire about 18 inches above the ground. Each plant occupies about a six feet run. They are a pretty edge to a path or border.

Pruning is primarily carried out in August/September and they can each provide up to five or six pounds of fruit, once established and mature. Using a succession of varieties, a modest plot can provide fruit over several months.

Similar results can be achieved with pears grown on Quince C rootstock.

A couple of things to bear in mind

Trees on these very dwarf stocks must have very good fertile, free draining soil conditions and be kept totally free of competition from weeds or other plants. Also, as they are only producing small amounts of fruit, it is probably best to restrict your selection to dessert varieties.

Such dwarf trees could also be grown as small cordons, trained up a wall or fence for support. Generally though, I recommend cordon apples are grown on MM106 or M116 rootstocks and cordon pears on quince A or pyrodwarf rootstocks.

They have a greater vigour than M9 or M27 and are generally better suited to conditions in the wetter and windy west. If you read most books in relation to cordon fruit growing they will recommend “oblique” cordons, planted 1m apart and trained at 45 degrees against wires on a south or west facing wall or fence. This does a number of things.

  • The wall or fence provides hotter conditions and thereby sweeter, riper, more highly coloured fruit and better flower fertility and pollination in cold seasons.
  • A framework to train the plants against and provide support.
  • By training at 45 degrees the apical dominance of the leading shoot is suppressed and the plant more readily initiates side shoots and thereby fruiting spurs.

Trees grown like this, if trained six feet to seven feet up a wall or fence will provide eight to ten pounds of fruit per year, that can all be picked safely from the ground. Pruning is primarily a summer activity in August September. So again whilst being larger overall than step-overs, they are still tidy and compact; ideal for a small garden.

What I hear you cry if you don’t have a wall or fence?

And you don’t wish to construct an independent timber and wire framework that would dominate your small garden. Here is where we leave the text books behind and talk about “vertical free standing cordons”.

Cordon apples and pears can be grown vertically, but all the information on line or in books says that they have to be supported. They don’t. If you plant them as maidens (apples on MM106 or M116 and pears on quince A or pyrodwarf), without a stake and prune them appropriately, they will anchor and establish firm roots. This gives gardeners the opportunity to plant any number they like as free standing elements in the garden. They can be mixed in to an ornamental border or flank a garden path, as close as three feet apart or as far apart as you like. With summer pruning they can be maintained as a column two to three feet wide and six to seven feet tall, all managed and picked from the ground.
I have examples at Thornhayes that have been established in the ground for years, but I am their only advocate.

So far only apples and pears have been considered. There was much talk 20 or more years ago of growing cordon plums on dwarfing pixy rootstock. I know many very proficient fruit growers who experimented with a range of varieties over many years and eventually decided it wasn’t worth the effort. So my advice to would be cordon growers is stick to apples and pears.

If you want to grow plums and cherries in a confined space, then you will need a wall, fence or wire framework of some sort.
Not everyone can provide this, but if you have the location, then you can grow a fan. This will take up a space of six to seven feet tall and ten to 12 feet wide. If growing cherries, such a system also means that you are easily able to net the ripening fruit against birds, who otherwise will consume the entire crop.

A similar space could equally be used for a fan or espalier trained apple or pear.  

If having read this, you feel inspired to delve further, then I suggest you visit us at Thornhayes Nursery. There is a demonstration orchard with examples of all these different ways of training fruit trees.

Thornhayes Nursery, St Andrews Wood, Dulford, Cullompton, EX15 2DF.

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