How to Start a Fruit Garden

How to Start a Fruit Garden

If you read last week's post you will know we talked about adding wood ash around gooseberry plants. I had a couple of emails asking if wood ash can be used around all fruit (it can't) so thought we might have a general look at fruit growing this week. By the way, wood ash is alkaline so shouldn't be used around acid loving plants like blueberries or around raspberries which prefer a slightly acidic soil.

Why grow fruit? Interestingly only one in three people who grow vegetables also grow fruit. It is often assumed that fruit growing is more complicated than growing vegetables or needs too much space but this is really not the case. Unlike vegetables which need to be started from scratch every year, fruit needs only a feed and a prune to remain productive for years. Strawberry plants will yield well for 3-4 years, raspberries for 10-12 while tree fruit like apples, plums or pears will provide delicious fruit for up to 60 years.

Apple tree height rootstock

As regards space, the smallest garden will have a spot for soft fruit, even if it's just a few pots of strawberries. Gooseberries, blueberries, currants or raspberries take up as much space as a rose bush so are also an option for most gardens. As regards fruit trees, grafted rootstocks mean you can have a tree of almost any variety at whatever size suits your garden. A grafted tree means the above ground part has been grafted or joined to a root from another variety. The root will control the vigour and ultimate size of the tree but has no bearing on the variety of apples produced. You can see an example of rootstocks and the resulting tree sizes above. An M9 semi dwarf is probably best suited for most standard size gardens.

Apple trees in orchard

As you will have noticed, the choice of fruit varieties in the shops is pretty limited. The range of apples in my local supermarket are usually either 'Pink Lady', 'Royal Gala', 'Granny Smith' or 'Jonagold', neither of which does much for me whereas there is unlimited choice if you grow your own. It is rare to see currants or gooseberries in the shops either, nor will you find greengages, medlar, loganberries, tayberries or a whole host of other more unusual and delicious fruit.

Fruit types Broadly speaking fruit is split up into two types; soft fruit and tree fruit. Tree fruit includes apples, cherries, figs, plums, pears, apricots, peaches, mulberry, nectarines, quince and medlar while soft fruit covers everything else including blueberries, currants, gooseberries, hybrid berries, raspberries, grapes and melons.

Espallier apple

Training Tree Fruit As we know the size of tree fruit can be controlled by the rootstock but trees can also be trained into various shapes, usually for growing against walls or for creating fruiting boundaries. Forms include espaliers (above), fans, cordon or stopovers. Apart from being decorative, trained fruit is a good option for a smaller garden without the space for larger trees. Fruit grown against a South facing wall also benefit from the radiator effect of reflected and stored heat from the sun.

Trained stopover apple tree

Espaliers are suitable for apples and pears, fan shapes are used for plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines and apricots. Cordons (a single branch, usually grown diagonally) is used for apples and pears, its compact shape allows a number of different cultivars to be grown in the same space. Stepovers (above) are grown as decorative edging and are squat, laterally trained fruit (usually apples) grown at knee height.

Loganberry fruit

Soft fruit Soft fruit is generally not difficult to grow with strawberries, raspberries, currants and gooseberries being particularly easy in terms of pruning and feeding. Hybrid berries (all related to the bramble and including loganberries, tayberries, tummelberries and boysenberries) need support wires so require some preparation but, like their bramble cousin, are very vigourous. Blueberries are also fairly trouble free provided you use the correct soil/compost mix which needs to be acidic and free draining.

Plum tree trained against wall

Where to plant a fruit garden

Wet feet - Neither tree fruit nor soft fruit will cope with wet feet so make sure the planting area does not become waterlogged in winter. If a damp site is your only option create raised beds or mounds of soil to keep roots out of wet soil.

Full Sun - A sunny spot is best for all fruit though some soft fruit like currants (black, red and white) or raspberries will tolerate partial shade but will still require approx 6 hours of full sun a day.

Frost pockets - Your fruit season can be over before it begins if blossoms are effected by a late frost; I single night of hard frost can mean no fruit for the season. Cold air flows downhill like water so the lowest parts of your garden will be the most frost prone. Keep an eye out on cold mornings for pools of mist at ground level which tend to indicate a frost pocket.

Bird eating strawberry plant

Birds - However much care you give your fruit you can be guaranteed birds are paying more attention that you are. They also get up a lot earlier. Bear in mind that most soft fruit will need to be netted when it is ripening to protect from birds. A few bushes can be easily netted with bird net either directly on the bush or on a frame. If you are interested in building a larger fruit garden a walk in fruit cage is the best long term option.

Plant North to South - Most soft fruit is tall growing so casts a significant amount of shade. Arranging rows from north to south gives the optimal amount of light to both sides of the bushes or canes. Also bear in mind the height of fruit and shade it casts when deciding where to place in a mixed fruit and vegetable garden.

Mulch raspberry canes in spring

Planting and Fruit Care - The most economic time to plant fruit is in the dormant season (winter) when more cost effective bare root plants are available. The future success of your fruit is all in the effort put in when planting. The planting hole should be at least 1m in diameter for trees and 50cm for most fruit bushes. Mixing some blood, fish and bone through the soil in the planting hole will encourage good root development and give the young plant a welcome slow release feed.

Weed free area around fruit tree

Once planted a top dressing of well rotted manure in springtime followed by a moisture retentive mulch will be all that is required. Keep the area around the plants weed free at least to the approximate size of the original planting hole. For trees the weed free area should be the approximate width of the crown (branches) of the tree as this is a good indicator of the extent of the root spread. This is particularly important, and often overlooked, for fruit trees which will show a big improvement in the first four years of growth if kept free of grass or weeds. Although not the prettiest option, a dressing of manure covered by 'Mypex' landscaping fabric will keep weeds out and retain moisture without any further work.

Growing gooseberry at home

Mulch to retain moisture -  A surface mulch of garden compost, manure, wood chip, or light dressings of grass clippings will feed the soil, keep weeds down and help retain moisture. The soil should not be allowed to dry when fruit is setting or ripening, a mulch will be very beneficial especially on a clay soil which may be prone to cracking.

Wood ash feed - As we said last week, wood ash is good feed around gooseberries although I should have pointed out it should be avoided if you have an alkaline soil (as wood ash is also alkaline). Gooseberries are also the exception as regards feeding as they tend to do better if neglected rather than being pampered. The reason is nitrogen (in manure) promotes new green leafy growth which will attract gooseberry sawfly. You will be better with a light dressing of compost mixed with wood ash which will give the potassium needed for fruiting.

How to prune gooseberries

Pruning - Pruning tree fruit requires a bit of explanation which I cover in separate articles on our blog (linked below) so not one for a quick sentence or two. There are some fine pruning differences between currants, gooseberries and blueberries if you want to feel like a pro but the following method will get you 85% of the way there for all three which is a lot more than most people do. Simply remove any wood, right down to the base, which is over 3 years old. The reason is fruit bushes produce the best fruit on branches 2-3 years old, any older and production declines. In general try to keep the centre of the bush open to let in a much light as possible.

Hopefully you can learn a little more about pruning fruit bushes, in this case gooseberries, by watching the video above, I can't say it's my best work but I think it gives the general idea.

How to prune old and neglected apple trees How to care for young fruit trees How to plant apple trees - video Pruning currants and gooseberries - video How to grow raspberries How to grow currants How to grow gooseberries

Homegrown raspberries

OK, OK, I'm hooked, I want to grow some fruit! You say. But where can I source some top quality bare root fruit delivered direct to my door? You say.

Well, look no further, we have an extensive selection of soft and tree fruit which you can peruse at your leisure by clicking the blue button below.

That's it for now. I'll see you next week!