Beginner’s Guide to Growing Fruits

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.

Dirty Dozen Garden Fruits

The Environmental Working Group has released their 2015 list of the Dirty Dozen, the 12 fruits or vegetables commonly available in grocery stores which carry the most pesticide residue.

Otherwise known as EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, the report calculates that USDA tests found a total of 165 different pesticides on thousands of fruit and vegetables samples. This is an amazing fact, considering the explosion in demand for organically-grown produce.

After looking at the 2015 Dirty Dozen list, I counted 7 which I regularly grow in my garden and rarely consume from any other source. The others I purchase organically, and preferably locally-grown, whenever possible. Eating pesticide-free produce is especially important, as a new report from the World Health Organization has determined that the most-used herbicide in the world, Roundup (chemical name: Glyphosate), is a probable carcinogen. (The EPA revealed this month that they may start testing food products for Glyphosate residues.)

So which of these do you grow yourself?

Apples


Apple trees are abundant at garden centers each spring. But growing apples successfully with organic controls is quite difficult, unless you’re blessed with perfect weather conditions and few pests, including airborne and waterborne fungal spores. Same goes for pears, which I spent years enjoying, until fungal infections wiped out my three trees in two seasons.

Peaches


Oh, how I love fresh peaches. As a young gardener, I took my shot at growing peaches, but gave up after three seasons. The straw that broke the peach tree’s back was a Japanese Beetle invasion which wiped the peaches out, along with the tree’s foliage in a matter of days. That, after finally figuring out the hard way that thinning had to be done weekly while fruits were developing, and that pruning had to be done judiciously each winter. I figured it was easier to support my local organic farmer and buy his/her peaches.

Strawberries

There are dozens of varieties of strawberry seedlings available at garden centers and online every year. And strawberry plants are easy to grow if you follow a few simple guidelines and invest in bird netting (because I guarantee that our winged friends will beat you to the harvest). Strawberries can also be grown easily in containers, especially a strawberry pot, which allows more room in your garden for other things.

Grapes


Grapes are high on my list of “next food crop to experiment with”. But I’m cautious, as grapes require a perfect location, lots of sunlight, vigilant pruning, and strict cultural controls.

Celery


I’ve been growing celery organically for years in my garden with no real difficulties or disappointments. In fact, each year I freeze dozens of jars for use over the winter. Yet, I hear complaints from many gardeners that celery is difficult to grow. The key is to start seeds indoors over winter, and plant well after your last frost date. The key is water – the roots of celery plants are very shallow, so they dry out very quickly. But if you stay on top of your irrigation schedule, and mulch the root area with compost, you shouldn’t see any problems.

Spinach


This crop couldn’t be simpler. Plant a seed, water it in, add compost to the soil, and cut as many leaves as you like as often as you like until frost. Or harvest the entire plant at one time and plant another seed in its place. I start spinach seeds indoors over winter, plant in mid-April, and enjoy it late April into November. Grow a variety acclimated to your local weather and give it a little shade, as some will go to seed in the heat of summer.

Sweet Pepper

I love growing my own sweet peppers. I start them indoors from seed the first or second weeks of March and plant them in my garden around Memorial Day to avoid any late frosts which will terminate the plants abruptly. Sweet Peppers are one of those vegetables (fruit technically) that tastes sweeter and fuller when it’s fresh-picked and eaten immediately. Fresh just can’t compare to store-bought, much like tomatoes. Read my advice on growing sweet peppers.

Cucumbers


There’s nothing quite like cucumbers fresh off the vine. And there are so many varieties to grow which simply aren’t available in stores (but perhaps at farmer’s markets). And the good news is, these are also easy-peasy. When you plant cucumber seeds, be sure to water them daily until germination. They also like a trellis to climb on, which keeps the fruit out of the soil where it may rot or be eaten by insects. Cucumbers love sun, but the leaves are very susceptible to fungal infection, so water the roots of the plants only, and keep the leaves as dry as possible.

Cherry Tomatoes


Weeds. Cherry Tomatoes grow like weeds. If you fail at growing cherry tomatoes, then we’ll have to revoke your license to garden. I don’t think I’ve ever planted one seed that didn’t germinate, or didn’t find a gazillion new cherry tomato plants in my garden late each spring from tomatoes that were dropped the previous year. Plant the seed, water it, watch it grow, eat the tomatoes. Cherry toms also grow well in wide containers, as long as they have a trellis or other upright support to grow on. Check out my posts on growing tomatoes.

Snap Peas


Peas can be little finicky to grow. It’s a “snap” for some gardeners and difficult for others, as much depends on local weather conditions, how fast your winter turns to spring, and how quickly your soil warms and dries in spring. In my garden, it’s absolutely hopeless to start peas from seed in spring, as the soil is way too cold and wet. Even planting seedlings is a challenge, as they just sit there waiting for the soil to warm. Unfortunately, the pea plant then comes into flower in June, and is quickly wiped out by the summer heat. Peas are cool weather crops and if you have soil which just won’t warm up enough to plant in March, it’s best to start peas indoors in February and plant seedlings as soon as the snow melts. Or plant seeds late in the season for a fall harvest.

Potatoes


Potatoes are a very low maintenance crop, once you get the hang of it. Buy seed potatoes (basically cut potatoes, each of which has an “eye”), plant them the appropriate distance apart, and harvest in fall. The really cool thing about potatoes is that you can start harvesting and eating them when they’re small. But they’re best after they put on a little mass, usually halfway through summer. After that point, you can harvest potatoes as you want them. Come fall, and before frost, you must harvest your potatoes, let them dry, and then store them properly to eat all winter. Read my post on growing potatoes in your garden.

Kale / Collard Greens


Kale and Collard Greens are simple leafy greens to grow. Just be sure to buy varieties which are suitable for your climate. Some varieties of kale will die out as soon as the weather turns a little chilly, and some will keep producing right up until it snows. Others will slow down in the summer heat. And all leafy greens benefit from a little afternoon shade.

So which of the fruits and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen list have you grown in your garden?