So many gardeners dream of having an orchard of their own but equally the majority of gardeners aren’t blessed with endless space. The start of your fruit tree growing dream can seem a bit daunting…. But hold onto your dream and harness the anticipation because almost anything is possible for this is where the excitement really starts!
Modern fruit tree growing encompasses a wealth of growing methods – some new some old – combined with smaller rootstocks and varieties that are perfect for garden growing. Not only this but they tend to come into productivity earlier in life than bigger growing tree. You might think a tree that grows quickly fruits more quickly but that isn’t actually the case. Of course we would all like to be harvesting our first fruits as quickly as possible none of us likes to wait any more than is necessary and most dwarfing or miniature trees will start to produce two years after planting and sometimes even the following summer after planting.
So armed with a bit of well sourced knowledge and some forward planning start the journey to your dreams today.
You don’t have to be an expert for this beginners guide aims to simplify the process of choosing the perfect fruit trees for your garden regardless of horticultural aptitude or goal.
Rootstocks are key
All fruit trees come grafted on to a rootstock – or understock – as it is sometimes known. That’s basically the root of the tree. This is crucial in any decision or plan because the rootstock determines the growth of the tree. Choose the wrong one and you could end up with a tree that grows as big as your house or at least something that is so vigorous you are constantly pruning. Whilst even dwarfing trees put out new growth each season – necessary for the annual production of flowers and fruit – it will be tempered by a dwarfing or compact rootstock and this makes them more manageable and ideal for more confined spaces. You might think that this will vastly reduce the weight of crop produced and whilst inevitably the bigger the tree the better the crop, the disparity isn’t as great as you might imagine.
Modern dwarfing stocks have been developed not only for restrained growth but greater productivity. Plus a tree that doesn’t expend so much energy making lots and lots of vigorous new growth is better placed to concentrate on fruit production. Which is of course what we all want from our trees! One word of caution, good soil preparation is key because these trees expect good hearty soil and a fairly consistent water supply, they are less able to cope with poor soil or drought because they don’t have the resources to handle trying conditions.
That said a smaller collection of trees does make it easier to ensure they get really good treatment and as is the case with any gardening endeavour the more you put in to it the more you get out of it.
Here's a run-down of the best small rootstocks by fruit type. In all cases the spread of the tree is usually about the same as the height. Remember also that there will be slight variations in ultimate size because different varieties have different levels of vigour so even on the same rootstock they may mature to slightly different sizes.
There are a few smaller growing rootstocks for your apple trees; the smallest of all is ‘M27’ which is classed as truly miniature. It will reach a height of around 180cm’s. It can be grown in small beds and borders and is the best choice for container growing. The next step up is ‘M9’ stock; this is known as dwarfing. You can expect an apple tree on M9 stock to mature to around 200cm’s plus. It has quite small roots so needs good soil but is productive from an early age and the most popular general garden rootstock for apples. Lastly consider ‘M26’ stock which is semi dwarfing, growing to about 300cm’s+. It isn’t really suited to container growing but is perfect if you want a relatively restrained tree for a smaller lawn or grassed area.
Pear trees can be super-vigorous so it’s important to select the right choice for your smaller garden. Not only that they are traditionally take the longest time to bear fruit and again earlier fruiting is encouraged by smaller trees. To this end ‘Quince C’ is really the only choice making a nice easily controlled tree of around 200-210cm’s when mature with more upright branches. Fine for the smaller plot and container growing.
PLUMS GAGES AND DAMSONS
These closely related fruits all share the same rootstocks. There is nothing more joyful than a freshly picked super juicy plum, or a sweetly aromatic greengage – or a super-tart damson that just makes perfect pies and jams! Look for the aptly named ‘Pixy’ stock which falls somewhat between miniature and dwarfing making a fine easily managed tree of approximately 200cm’s. Again ideal for the container, intensive orchard, smaller lawn etc.
Growing cherries as a smaller tree has the dual advantage not only of being space-saving but also it makes it easier to get your harvest before the birds do. Netting is quite important even in urban areas because birds are attracted to the bright red fruits almost like a magnet and tend to rise earlier in the morning than we do! A smaller tree is obviously much easier to net. ‘Gisele 5’ is ideal for modern gardens bearing fruit earlier in life and making a nice small tree of 180-210 cm’s. There are other Gisele prefix rootstocks which are not so compact so make sure you buy the Gisele 5 stock.
PEACH NECTARINE AND APRICOT
Unfortunately, these fruits don’t graft well in to small stocks. They tend only to be grown on St Julien stock which can make quite a big tree – fine for fan training but not so suited to bush growing unless you have a bigger area. But there are some varieties which are naturally smaller growing so look for these. With Peaches that’s Garden Lady or Bonanza, Nectarine ‘Nectarella’ and Apricot ‘Isabelle’. These four are ideal patio trees that will never outgrow their welcome.
Choose Your Spot Wisely - Explore all the options
You may be surprised at the different ways in which fruit trees can be utilized even in smaller areas. Here’s some practical ideas you may well be able to explore for your garden.
AGAINST FENCES AND WALLS
Espalier and fan trees need support and have an almost completely flat habit that hugs the support so as you can imagine if you have a spare wall or fence they take up almost no additional space whatsoever. And as this is in itself a restrictive growing method the area doesn’t have to be as big as imagined, infact an area of around 2 metres high and the same wide is ample. Apples, pears, plums, gage, damson, cherry, peach, apricot – all are suitable.
The espalier method – which consists of two or 3 tiered side laterals up each side of the main stem is suited to apples and pears whereas the stone fruits are traditionally grown as fan shaped which as the name suggests does indeed have the outline of a ‘fan’ Apples and pears can be grown as either espalier or fan. It’s also ok to underplant with smaller subjects such as shorter annuals, herbs, some alpines or even strawberries and cranberries.
So have a look at that spare wall or fence or even if it is already home to something unproductive or uninteresting think about switching to a fruit tree instead.
When making your choice as to what to select the aspect is important. A sunny south or west facing aspect is ideal for practically anything whereas less promising north or east facing walls and fences can be a home to hardier kinds – look at hardier apples, cooking apples, damson or the cooking cherry ‘Morello’
POTS AND CONTAINERS
A big boom in container gardening, brought about by inevitably shrinking garden space, has suited the extended cultivation of fruit trees in pots down to the ground, Making sure you buy trees in the smaller growing rootstocks mentioned at the start of this article is the number one most important factor. Container size is also vital – not too small but not too large. The latter might surprise you but if you over-pot then the soil stagnates and becomes airless. A container size of 20 litres or thereabouts is perfectly fine for all subjects, maybe a nice half barrel but not much bigger than that. A hearty compost mix such as a loam base is recommended, coir and peat based doesn’t have such an ideal composition to support trees in pots long term.
Make sure you are prepared to water daily during the summer months – adhere to these two principals and you are most of the way there to enjoying your own miniature orchard in a pot. They can be situated anywhere you like but for preference a site that gets a good amount of sun is best, but preferably not one that gets too baking hot un summer as under these conditions it can be difficult keeping up with watering and the compost may overheat and the trees will get stressed. If it is sheltered from strong winds this is also an advantage to save them from blowing over.
ALONGSIDE PATHS AND WALKWAYS
Most fruit trees these days are available In columnar growing habits, in particular cordons, which utilize the power of vertical space whilst at the same time taking up very little in width, so these trees are perfect to act as sentry’s by a door, to line a path or even planted in a close row 2’ apart to act as a divider in the garden. They can be planted in the ground or in containers. Another advantage is that trees are very easy to prune and maintain so if you’re the type that trembles when faced with the thought of reaching for those secateurs then these trees are for you! You can space these trees just 60 cm’s apart or a little less in a row.
Apples, pear, plum, gage, damson and cherry are all perfect for this type of growing method but not peach and apricot.
This growing method also enables you to grow a much wider range of fruits than you might have previously thought because of the much closer planting distance.
Staking is optional depending in the site selected. Generally they can be grown as self supporting, or maybe just offered a stout bamboo cane in the early stages, but if it’s prone to strong winds something more robust for anchorage is a good idea. If growing in a stout post wither end with two straining wires at around 24” and 48” is fine.
GROWING IN GRASS
A smaller lawn or grassy area can still look like a traditional orchard just on a slightly smaller scale by using dwarfing trees. The planting distance is determined by the width of the tree plus 60-90cm’s extra so the trees aren’t touching and to allow for room to move between for upkeep and that all important harvest time.
Key cultivation tips are to keep the area around the base of the trunk free of grass and weeds. Staking will also be necessary unless the area is well sheltered.
GROWING FRUIT AMONGST THE FLOWERS
Perhaps you just don’t have an area that can be utilized solely for fruit trees. But that’s ok because there is nothing nicer or more attractive than having the joy of the spring blossom in an area that might have been thought of as only suited to the flowers. An added advantage is that pollination if the blossom will be greatly aided by the presence of nectar rich flowers nearby which will encourage bees and other pollinating insects to linger in the area and do their work on your promised fruit crop.
Smaller bush trees can have lower branches removed as they grow so you can plant beneath what you will as long as these are smaller subjects that won’t compete too much for valuable nutrients and water.
Cordons can also be dotted through a flower border adding valuable vertical accent and of course creating little to no shade.
Choice Of Variety
Because you are likely to be restricted in the number of varieties you can incorporate into your garden it is vitally important to make the best choice. Whilst personal preference may well play an important part in your decision it is also important you take other qualities into consideration.
Number one amongst these is pollination. If you are growing just one of each – i.e. one apple, one pear for example – these must be self pollinators. This is because the majority of varieties need another different one to cross fertilise with. So unless there are other suitable trees in the immediate vicinity your new trees may have a very poor crop or nothing at all at worst! By choosing from the list of self compatible varieties below this avoids the issue.
The other quality you need to consider is hardiness and general reliability, you might fancy one of the older heirloom varieties and many do have some fine qualities but if they tend to be biennial bearers – fruiting mostly every other year, or prone to disease for example again with a limited number of trees this can be frustrating. Make sure each tree will earn it’s keep and this is where variety selection is so important.
Here's our recommendation for self fertile reliable ‘doers’
Redsleeves – early ripening rosy red sweet apple for use August and September.
Greensleeves – mid season, sweet crisp pale green fruits.
Red Falstaff Heavy cropper, mid season, stores. Similar to Braeburn in character but better.
Saturn Gala-like but again better. Mid season, very disease resistant.
Red Devil For use September and October, very red outer skin and stained red inner flesh, sweet taste and attractive blossom.
The above are all eaters; when it comes to cookers there aren’t any really self fertile ones but Bountiful comes closest accepting pollen from a wide range of other apple and Malus. It has a sweet taste that needs little or no sugar and stores well.
Concorde – Second early, sweet ripening to pale yellow. The best garden variety.
Conference – Well known, mostly reliable and always self fertile.
Invincible – Ultra hardy, stores late, crisp and sweet when ripe.
Jubilee – number one choice for hardiness and reliability, August ripening red-purple fruits.
Violetta – Northern European variety so frost hardy. Early than Jubilee, attractive skin finish.
Marjories Seedling Late ripening deep purple, dual purpose.
Czar – Predominantly a cooker but can suit fresh use too, late August season, well known.
Victoria is self fertile but not the most reliable so not one to include unless it’s a must-have for you.
There are a few good self fertile cherries the following get our vote….
Sunburst Good sweet dark black red fruits, most popular.
Stella Older but good, dark red, reliable with good flavour.
Summer Sun Dark coloured fruits ripen a bit later, good cropper.
Lapins Large lustrous fruits full of juice, impressive.
Morello A cooking variety which s very hardy and reliable and always worth growing.
PEACH APRICOT & NECTARINE
When it comes to these fruits they are all pretty much self fertile. They expect a warm sheltered sunny aspect or a good sunny wall to give of their best. The following are hardiest and most reliable:
Peach Peregrine Look no further for a garden Peach. Nectarine Lord Napier first choice for Nectarine, and Apricot Goldcott.
That’s it. I hope this article has given you the guidance and inspiration you need to get the best from your smaller space and garden. As always any questions or comments welcome and thanks or reading.