Creating a fruit-lover’s utopia in your garden or allotment is easier than you’d think.
Many people’s response to the thought of growing fruit in their garden is “I haven’t got room”, “the birds will eat it before I do”, “I’d rather grow flowers because they’re prettier”, or “it’s a bit too tricky”. Well, they’re wrong. And they’re missing out. Here’s why.
It’s perfectly possible for a beginner to successfully grow a good crop of apples, pears, plums, cherries, figs, apricots, peaches, nectarines, raspberries, grapes, kiwi berries, blackberries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries, and strawberries in a small space.
Just read that list again – it’s pretty impressive. Short of bananas, citrus and avocado, I reckon most people would be happy with that as a substitute for their usual supermarket fruit aisle. We garden writers bang on about helping bees – collectively these crops produce thousands of flowers just begging to be pollinated. Will they look pretty? Of course! How many of us would gladly grow an ornamental cherry or crab apple in our garden? Then why not grow a tree that delivers not only the blossom and autumn leaf colour, but a bumper edible crop to boot? The architectural foliage of a fig, the autumn leaf colour of a grape, cherry or blueberry, the billowy blossom of an apple, peach or blackberry – it’s all there for the taking, along with a massive trugful of delicious bounty. What’s not to love?
So, to the practicalities. The sweeter the fruit tastes, the more sun it needs. Therefore grapes, kiwi berries, strawberries, figs, apricots, nectarines, peaches, greengages and cherries are ideal for suntraps. Grapes and kiwi berries can ramble over archways, strawberries can nestle in pots or vertical plant pouches, and the remaining trees on the list are excellent candidates for fan-training. Did a shiver just run down your spine? Trust me, fan-training is a synch. Just splay all the branches evenly out against the wall, like an outstretched hand. As the years go by, cut out some of the old bits and tie in some new bits – job done. The idea is that the sun can then easily reach and ripen the fruits which in turn boosts sugar levels. The walled kitchen garden where I work is smothered in wall-trained trees. But they’re also a fantastic space-saver, growing no more than 25cm away from the wall.
Tarter fruits such as currants, gooseberries, raspberries and morello cherries are happy in shadier sites. These can all be fan trained against walls or fences too. Fixing horizontal wires to the supports makes for easy training, and don’t forget to utilise any vertical spaces offered by shed or garage walls. Whenever you choose any tree or bush, opt for a compact variety if space is an issue. Some varieties such as blackcurrant ‘Ben Sarek’ and raspberry ‘Ruby Beauty’ are naturally petite, making them ideal for pot culture. Others, like apples, pears, cherries and plums can be bought on dwarfing rootstocks (just check the label or ask a specialist fruit nursery) which also keep trees to a manageable size.
As I mention apples and pears, I should also bring in another training method – the cordon. Don’t panic: it’s essentially a single vertical stem – that’s it. Many fruits (including most apples and pears, along with red/white-currants, gooseberries, cherries and plums) crop in such a way that they can be trained, literally, like a pole. Often they’re sold as “minarette” trees in fruit catalogues. Growing to head height and no wider than 40cm, you can create an impressive collection of varieties in a narrow 3m bed, or grow them in pots. Pruning consists of snipping back any new side-shoots to 10cm in July.
Growing in pots is ever-popular, and all the fruits in that impressive list at the start can be container-grown. Good compost is important – a loam-based John Innes blend holds its structure and nutritional status far better than multipurpose compost over the years. Thick, glazed or non-porous walls insulate roots from extremes of heat and chill, plus they retain moisture well. The larger the container the better, however tempting it is to grow a broad range in lots of little pots. High-potash liquid feed from May till late August will see you well (use ericaceous fertiliser for blueberries).
A final note on pollination – for maximum space efficiency, choose self-fertile varieties wherever you can. These set fruit on their own without the need for an additional pollinating plant. All the crops I’ve listed bar apples, pears, plums, cherries, kiwi berries and blueberries are totally self-fertile, so that’s easy. And there are self-fertile varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries, kiwi berries and blueberries, too. So come on, take the plunge into fruit growing and you’re only regret will be why didn’t you dare sooner.