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Growing Trained Fruit Trees

All Bent and Twisted – Growing Fans, Espaliers and Cordons by Kevin Croucher of Thornhayes Nursery.

Cherry fan trained“Oh no! My gardens not big enough for fruit trees.” A commonly heard cry, the length and breadth of the country. The correct answer in virtually all cases would be, “Not true”. In recent years, fruit growing by amateur gardeners has seen a resurgence. This is at least in part due to the good works of organisations like Common Ground in highlighting Britains heritage of wonderful fruit varieties. Also the fact that people are fed up with the poor range of fruit available in most supermarkets. Britains native commercial fruit growers have progressively been squeezed out of business over the last 20 years. So most people now, if they want quality ripe fruit, that hasn’t been picked under ripe, cold stored and shipped half way round the world, have to grow it themselves. However, if you don’t have the space for an orchard, don’t worry. All the major top fruit types; apple, pear, plum, cherry etc, can be grown trained on walls, fences or free standing wires, as fans, espaliers or cordons. There are various gardens to visit, to see this done well. However, you don’t have to be a professional to succeed. I once visited a person who had an excellent example of a fan trained plum against a wall. It was his proud boast that despite having never done it before, he followed the directions in the RHS book, “The Fruit Garden Displayed” and that was the result.

On a wall or fence, you can place horizontal wires about 18—24 inches apart, up the stucture. Or you can construct a timber or metal framework, with strained wires attached. This could be a major design feature, like an arbour or an arched walk .A plea at this stage. Do your ground work properly in advance. Get construction and wiring done in summer or early autumn. Use good quality, galvanised, mild steel wire. This should be attached to securely mounted galvanised screw eyes and strained with turnbuckles or similar. If your support wires are flimsy, the whole structure, as soon as it is tested will fail and look a mess. These support wires, if well done, will last for twenty years or so with little maintenance.

Espalier trained pearOnce the support wires are in place, you can cultivate the area. Often soil at the base of walls or fences can be poor, dry and compacted. So the whole area needs to be deeply cultivated. Obviously if it is badly infested with weeds, they should be sprayed off with a glyphosate herbicide before you start any work, or dug out. When I say the whole area I mean it. You don’t just cultivate the planting pits for the individual trees, but the entire length of the wire structure and as far out from it as possible. Ideally at least a yard. If the soil is poor, you might add some organic matter, but don’t overdo it. This preparation should be done sufficiently in advance, say September, to allow the soil to settle ready for winter planting. Loose fluffy soil, full of masses of organic matter, will go to a goo in wet winter weather, rotting young newly planted roots and encouraging disease.

Such wire supports will be suitable for any of the following types of trained tree.

  • Cordons- These generally have one main stem usually trained obliquely (at 45 degrees) or vertically. They can be planted about a yard apart and grown up a 6ft -7ft stucture. Thus all work can be safely done whilst standing on the ground. It is a suitable system for growing Apples and Pears. Some people have achieved questionable success with cordon Plums. However, that is not something I would suggest for a beginner. An average cordon apple will produce 8-10lb of fruit per annum. Therefore, an established row of cordons on a 25ft garden fence will produce up to 80lb of fruit. Bear in mind also that vertical cordons can be grown as free standing columns in a garden to save space and/or be a formal design feature. Cordons if scaled down in size, can be used to grow redcurrants, whitecurrants and gooseberries.
  • Espaliers- These have stems trained horizontally in tiers at about 18-24 inches apart. I have seen them trained up 20ft walls in 10-12 tiers. However, if you restrict yourself to a 6ft stucture with four tiers at 18 inches apart, all work can be safely done from the ground. This system is suitable for Apples and Pears. They are usually planted to occupy a space about 10-12 feet across.
  • Stepovers- This is a single tier espalier at about 12-18 inches above ground. In recent years it has become a trendy edging to potagers and the like. However, there is a place for them in certain garden designs.
  • Fans- This can be used for virtually all the fruit types. Planted about 10-12 feet apart and grown about 6-8 feet high. As with espaliers they can be much bigger if space allows.

There are other more complex systems of training. However, they could come later, once you’ve perfected your skills.

Something else you need to consider is orientation or aspect. If you were setting up an independent structure to train fruit trees on, ideally you would have it on a gentle south slope orientated north to south. However, in the real world, most people have less choice. Most apples, pears, plums and cherries can be grown on a wall or fence that faces somewhere from southeast to northwest. Certain types of fruit, such as Gages, Peaches, Nectarines, Apricots and some Pears prefer a continental climate. So the increased heat created on a south or west facing wall makes them produce a crop. Grown away from the wall they would grow, but rarely if ever fruit. Peaches, Nectarines and Apricots also may need hand pollinating in our climate. They are not a good choice for a raw beginner, as Peaches and Nectarines also have particular disease problems. In cold gardens at high altitudes, south or west facing walls hold heat and allow late season dessert Apple varieties to ripen properly, which they would not do in the open. By contrast, in most gardens, a north or east facing wall or fence will be warm enough to produce quite reasonable crops of certain hardy cooking plums, morello cherries and early to mid season cooking apples.

Fan trained plumOblique cordontrained pears

Pollination is something that worries a lot of people who don’t have room for many trees. However, it is fairly straightforward. You can grow one pear, one cherry or one plum, if you choose a suitable self fertile variety. Apples need to cross pollinate, so you need at least two compatible varieties. Also, people think that if they have never grown trained fruit before, they need to buy pre-trained trees to stand any chance of success. This is simply not true. In my opinion, it is better to start with a young maiden tree and train it to your particular site. Furthermore, by buying pre-trained trees, you are restricting your choice of varieties. A nursery with a large range of varieties, is not going to have all of them available in pre-trained forms.

The success of growing fruit in this way depends largely on the rootstock used. However, don’t think that you automatically need the most dwarfing rootstock you can lay your hands on for trained trees. You need enough vigour to produce and maintain your chosen structure on your site. I have seen very nice garden designs fail, as the trained fruit trees used were not vigorous enough, to fill the space required on the site, due to a too dwarfing rootstock. Inadequately vigorous trees will also be less able to cope with pests and diseases. So the best rootstocks to use in my experience in the West Country are as follows.

Cordons – Apples on MM106 except for very vigorous triploid varieties like Bramley’s Seedling which are better grown as espaliers. Pears on Quince A or Pyrodwarf. In my experience Quince C is too dwarfing except for a few very vigorous varieties.

Stepovers – Apples on M9.

Espaliers – Apples on MM106 Pears on Quince A or Pyrodwarf

Fans – Apples and Pears as for Espalier. Cherries on Gisela 5 and Plums on St Julien A.

One significant plus of growing trained trees is the timing of operations. Most of the pruning is done in summer, between July and early September. So a stroll around the garden with a pair of secateurs on a warm August evening can be therapeutic and productive. Trees trained in any of these ways should start to produce their first fruit in the second or third summer after planting.

Some final words of advice, if you do decide to go down the road of growing trained fruit trees. Firstly, don’t rush. Do some research and plan well in advance. Get a good book on the subject, preferably with photographs and diagrams. The RHS publish several good ones. Here at Thornhayes we can advise on selection and planting and offer training courses during the year to aid customers in perfecting the skills required. If you do this right, you will have years of enjoyment and healthy crops. Money and time well spent.