This is an ideal time to plant fruit trees. Jules Moore gives advice on choosing your site and your fruit
With winter setting in and the temperature dropping, now is the ideal time to think about planting fruit trees. Planting them in their dormant season means that they will have a restful few months without needing to provide energy for foliage or fruit growth and, if you avoid the very coldest weather, they will slowly put down roots and establish themselves ready for the spring. You don’t need much space to produce a large and varied supply of fruit. Unlike the huge, elderly trees, with out of reach fruit that pervade old orchards, the modern varieties are designed to grow much smaller and need a lot less space. They also come in different shapes and sizes, allowing you to fit them in along fences, walls and paths, as well as in the middle of a field. There are a great many different types of fruit, including some for cooking, some for eating, some which keep and some which don’t, some for making cider and perry (pear cider), damsons, best for jam, unusual types such as quince and mulberry and less hardy sun lovers like peaches, apricots and nectarines. The possibilities are endless. Here at Mumbleys Farmhouse, we successfully grow culinary, eating and cider apples, pears, cherries, damsons, plums and medlars. I have my eye on a mulberry tree for Christmas.Choosing which types of fruit to grow, and the varieties of each one, can seem a little daunting as the subject looks quite complex at first, but it is worth finding a specialist nursery as they will be very willing to give you advice and should know their subject well.
Choosing your fruitChoosing what fruit to grow is the next decision. Create a wish list first – decide what you like and what you want to use it for, eg cooking apples, perry pears, plums for eating, cherries for jam etc. If you are trying to create an orchard in a cold, windy area, apples flower last and, therefore, are the least likely to be caught out by a frost, so are a good choice to start with. Peaches, apricots and nectarines usually need the protection of a south facing wall (which has the added advantage that you can cover them with fleece to protect them from frost and from birds) although there are a range of new much hardier varieties being bred in America and Canada, which are now more readily available here (see www.pomonafruits.co.uk – 0845 6760607). You can also create a very individual orchard by selecting local varieties of fruit, some of which will be so rare that they may have been sourced from one orchard and have never been grown commercially. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily inferior, just that they have never caught the attention of commercial growers. They will have the added advantage of being ultimately suited to your region.When choosing fruit trees, you also need to consider pollination. Most types of tree fruit are self-fertile, but most apples and pears need to be cross-pollinated by another variety in order to produce a good crop. It is important to consider this when choosing varieties. If you are only planning to grow a very small number, self-fertile ones may be necessary. If your neighbours have fruit trees, they will help with the pollination, so it is worth finding out what varieties they are growing, if you can. Having a hive of honeybees in the vicinity will also increase your yields enormously. The closer the hive the better, but they don’t have to be in the orchard as they will find it – they forage over quite a distance if they need to. Our bees are kept very busy in spring as we have nearly two dozen trees of all ages, plus we have planted crab apples, which are good pollinators and look stunning, and have put a lot of wild cherries and plums in our new hedges.Fruit trees are grafted onto a range of rootstocks to control their eventual size. If you look at all modern fruit trees, you will see a lump towards the bottom of the tree trunk, showing where the variety has been joined on to the rootstock. You can now choose trees that will grow to less than two metres tall. Once again, nurseries can give you advice and the eventual height of the tree will be indicated on its label. Preformed shapes such as espalier, fan, step-over or cordon (the latter two for edging paths) can be expensive to buy ready formed, so if you want to grow your own, get advice about the best rootstock.Finally, you need to consider what age of tree you buy. Nurseries will sell you one or two year old trees called maidens or whips, which look terribly unsubstantial and weak, but they will establish much quicker than an older tree. It is best to resist buying an older, larger tree as it may be harder to establish at all and will probably cost you more in the first place. Garden centres sell a lot of trees in pots, which is useful if you need to plant one out of season, but at this time of year, bare-rooted plants will establish very well and represent very good value for money.