If you have ever been put off the idea of growing your own tree fruit, such as apples, pears, plums or cherries, simply because your garden is on the small size, think again; it is not difficult to grow a fair quantity of fruit in even a tiny garden. There is no need for an orchard, acres of land or even a large garden, so just how do you manage it?
Start by checking out the plant’s ‘rootstock’, which is the type of tree root that the variety you want has been grafted on to. The rootstock determines how big a tree will grow, and if you get one that has a dwarfing effect your tree will be much less inclined to become huge. Rootstocks ‘Pixey’ on plums, ‘M9’ on apples or ‘Quince A’ on pears should help to reduce the risk of a large tree developing.
You could also use an apple or pear as a border edging. Each tree will spread to 150cm (5ft) or more and can be trained to form a horizontal barrier at about 45cm (18in) above the ground – they look fantastic when in flower, and then bear fruit along the horizontal ‘arms’. A pollinator tree nearby is needed to ensure good fruit set or choose the self-fertile ‘Concorde’ pear and you’ll still get a reasonable crop with just one tree. You can buy ready-trained step-overs from some garden centres and specialist fruit nurseries.
Consider growing fruit trees in pots. There is no doubt that growing pretty well anything in a pot takes more effort from you, as the plant will be reliant on you for food and more moisture, but provided you use a good-sized pot – perhaps even a half-barrel – it can work well. It is best to use a loam-based John Innes No. 3 compost, but make sure there is plenty of drainage material at the base of the container – broken flower pots work well! Provided you make sure that no one variety gets out of hand and grows too vigorously, it is a useful idea in a smaller garden.
‘Family Trees’ are basically trees on to which two additional varieties of the same fruit have been grafted, meaning you can grow three varieties of apple or pear on just one tree. The varieties are selected by the nursery so that they all pollinate each other and so you should get a fair crop from an established tree.
When space is limited, you can grow ‘Ballerina’ or ‘Minarettes’ trees. These are what I call ‘skyward’ apples, because they produce their fruits on short spurs which grow out of the vertical main stem, with the result that you end up with a tree measuring up to 2.4m (8ft) tall, but which is so columnar that you can plant them just 60-90cm (2-3ft) apart if you want more than one tree. This form of tree is available as many different varieties, including dessert apples, cooking apples, pears, plums, gages and damsons. They can be grown in patio pots or in open ground.
Most fruit trees need a pollinator, or sometimes two, to ensure that the flowers on each variety are pollinated so that the fruit can form. If space is very limited and you can definitely only afford the space for one solitary tree, then you can still grow fruit: choose a variety that is described as ‘self-fertile’, meaning that the tree does not need a companion and can fertilise its own flowers. If you love apples, this might be a ‘Queen Cox’, ‘Greensleeves’ or ‘Red Devil’, or if pears are your passion, try the variety ‘Concorde’ or ‘Invincible’, for cherries try ‘Stella’ and for plums choose variety ‘Victoria’. If you do provide a pollinator you’re likely to get a heavier crop, but without you’ll still get a fair quantity of fruit.
If you have a fence or framework with a bit of planting space next to it, then you could also grow your fruit as an ‘espalier’, which means trained and pruned so that the tree lies pretty well flat against the fence with several parallel ‘arms’ that bear the fruit, or perhaps as a ‘fan’ where the branches are trained and pruned to produce a near flat fan shape against the surface – this works especially well for cherries, plums, damsons and even apricots.
Why not grow a cordon or single-stemmed apple or pear over a simple arch? Better still, grow one variety up one side and another (a suitable pollinator) up the other – it’ll look stunning in the spring when in flower, and then again when it bears its tasty crop!
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