How to plan an orchard
PUBLISHED: 12:40 23 July 2020
Experts from West Dean gardens and Michelham Priory share advice on growing fruit trees in your garden
While many of us lack the space for an orchard, that doesn’t mean foregoing the considerable pleasure of growing fruit. There are many space-saving techniques to use to add some fruit to a smaller garden: you can espalier on fences, grow in containers, or plant a few fruit trees amongst ornamental plants. Many fruit trees, shrubs and vines are also highly attractive, can be trained in the smallest of spaces while still highly productive, and work well with any garden design. Five fruit trees is the accepted minimum to qualify as an orchard, but this can even be achieved in a small space with a bit of ingenuity. Training fruit against a wall or barrier restricts the size, creating shapes such as fans, cordons, goblets, espaliers, pyramids, step-overs and goblets. As with all gardening, it’s important to select fruiting varieties that are appropriate for your soil and conditions. Ensure you plant according to their requirements for sun, shade and drainage, look after their needs for water, feeding and mulching, accept that some fruit may be imperfect or fall prey to birds and insects, and in a few years you will be reaping the reward of a fresh organic harvest.
September is a great time to plan your fruit production, place orders and then, from November to early spring, plant bare-root trees. Container-grown plants can be planted any time of the year, though winter is best. Start by deciding where you have space available and what type of fruit you want to grow, for both eating and cooking. Apples and pears are undoubtedly the easiest to grow, but there are many other options, from plums and cherries to apricots, peaches, nuts and some old-fashioned fruit that are worth championing such as quince and medlar. In general you need a sunny, sheltered site with well-drained, neutral to slightly acidic soil. Extremely alkaline soils will stress your trees. Some fruit trees are grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks to be more manageable, but in an exposed site a vigorous tree would cope better. Restricted forms can be trained along wires, others are suitable if containers are your only option, so it’s helpful to seek advice from your local fruit tree nursery and specialist growers.
Apples are simplest for beginners, with thousands of different types. There are two main categories: dessert and cooking, with some apples good for both. You may like to grow a self-fertile cultivar, although generally it’s recommended to have at least two different partner trees nearby for cross-pollination, such as another variety apple tree that flowers at the same time, which can be a different size. When choosing, do your research of nursery lists to ensure you have the right flowering group trees together. The flowers of a crab apple nearby could be another option as they will pollinate most apples and the trees are quite small so a good space-saving tip, plus they have such pretty delicate blossom and attractive fruit, with the additional bonus of making tasty jams and jellies. Most pears need another tree nearby, of a different variety, which flowers at the same time for pollination, apart from ‘Concorde’ and ‘Conference’ which are self-fertile.
In Sussex we are blessed with fine examples to visit for creative inspiration, to discover the best varieties and gain some expert advice, including West Dean Gardens and Michelham Priory. You may just need to downsize to suit the home garden. Admire tunnels draped in pears adding height in the main Victorian kitchen garden at West Dean. Other forms of espaliered fruits and systems flourish in the orchard there, including cordons, pyramids, goblets and screens, as well as mature trees abundant with heritage varieties. West Dean head gardener Tom Brown says: “We expect a great deal from our fruit trees: beautiful blossom, a pleasing shape and delicious fruit. To help our trees achieve this rather impressive list, they require our help in the shape of fertiliser, removing competition from weeds and watering them in periods of dry weather. A good balanced feed at the start of the growing season and by clearing competition away from the base will go a very long way to a happy and healthy fruit tree. Also less is often more with pruning; people are either too nervous and end up with a bird’s nest of a tree or get trigger-happy with a saw and compromise their harvest. Aim to remove around one fifth of the tree every winter for apples and maintain an open habit to ensure plenty of fruiting wood is retained but the tree is gently regenerated over time.”
Michelham Priory has an ancient mixed orchard and also a delightful potager with espaliered apple tunnels. James Neal is head gardener there: “If I was going to create a small orchard at home I would definitely maximise variety,” he says. “I would go for self-fertile varieties, early and late varieties to extend the season and definitely dual variety trees of pear, plum and apple trees, a dwarf dessert cherry, a trained fig, a quince, a greengage, a mirabelle... It is easy to get carried away but with a bit of research and planning there are plenty of options to keep you busy gardening and eating. Dual fruit trees, which have several varieties grafted onto different branches, are very useful, especially if you don’t have a lot of space. Apples trees can produce a lot of fruit so not having a unmanageable glut of exactly the same thing, can make the harvest more interesting and more likely to be fully utilised, reducing waste. When considering varieties for people to espalier at home, think about how much space you want to grow in or cover and choose the appropriated rootstock variety. You can buy espaliers pre-trained or train them yourself. Espaliers can get crowded with apples in summer and apples often fall off in June, so before this happens try to thin out the number of apples to get better quality fruit,” he concludes.