How To Choose, Plant And Maintain A Fruit Tree

Late autumn and winter is the perfect time to plant fruit trees and, whatever sized garden you have, Martyn Loach thinks there's space for a tree if you choose carefully and manage correctly.

Created by Martyn Loach on Tuesday, 4th of September, 2018.


Apple Tree

Once you have tasted your own apples, pears or cherries in season you'll realise how much tastier they are compared to those from a supermarket.

What Type Of Apple Tree Should I Choose?

The 'rootstock', onto which a tree is grafted, decides the eventual size of a tree, while the grafted variety (or scion), such as Discovery or James Grieve, determines the type of fruit produced.

For apples, the most common rootstocks include 'M27' which is very dwarfing, meaning that the tree will grow up to 6ft tall and is therefore suitable for tub grown or stepover trees. 'M9' is a very common commercial dwarfing rootstock (up to 10ft) and is right for small gardens and cordons and 'MM106' produces a tree that is between 10 and 12 ft and ideal for fans, cordons and espaliers.

The root stock not only influences growth vigour but also imparts some pest and disease resistance and has suitability for different types of soils. The final height of a tree will also depend on variants such as climatic conditions, the application of fertiliser and pruning techniques.

What Are The Different Varieties Of Apple?

Eating apples can be split into early, mid or late flowering varieties and, for the best crop, these must be pollinated by a different type. So it is sensible, if there are not apple trees in adjacent gardens, to choose at least two trees that flower at the same time. Here's a selection:

Early: George Cave, Egremont Russet, Lord Lambourne,

Mid: Cox's Orange Pippin, Discovery, Ellison's Orange, James Grieve, Laxton's Superb,
Worcester Pearmain

Late: Lord Derby, Newton Wonder

(If you want cooking apples, Bramley and Grenadier are suitable cross-polinating varieties)

The choice of variety largely depends on personal preference in terms of flavour and texture but difficulty of growing may also be an influence. For example Cox's Orange Pippin is extremely popular but won't succeed in colder parts of the country and needs good management to prevent mildew and canker.

How Do I Plant An Apple Tree?

Plant bare rooted trees, preferably no older than two years, when they are dormant i.e. during the winter. You'll need to dig a hole about 3ft wide. If you suffer from poor soil add orgnanic matter and fertiliser to the discarded top soil. Locate a robust 2in stake in the hole, the top of which should be lower than the planted tree's bottom branch. Place the tree next to the stake and re-fill the hole with the top soil up to the same level as before, making sure there are no air pockets. Then firm the soil and tie to the stake before mulching.  

Trees that have been grown in a container can be planted throughout the year. If you have good soil, dig a hole that is just a bit larger than the root ball. For areas with poor soil, the hole should be larger so that fertiliser and organic matter can be added. Once watered and out of the container make sure the roots aren't pot bound and plant in the hole to the original level. After firming the soil, use two short stakes and a cross bar to secure the tree, throughly water and lay a mulch.

What Maintenance Does An Apple Tree Need?

All apples will benefit from a well balanced spring feed and organic mulch. Keep well watered especially when the fruit is developing, and the surrounding area should be kept weed free.

Pruning is required to encourage fruiting, to keep the tree's shape and regulate its size. Special maintenance is required if you are growing the tree as an espalier, cordon, stepover or festoon, these need careful training against walls and the use of posts and wires. However, in general you should always prune adjacent to and above a outward facing bud, with the cut angled away from the bud.

What Type of Soil Do Cherry Trees Prefer?

Both sweet and sour cherries will do well in deep, loamy soil that is well drained, sour varieties can tolerate poorer soils. The pH should be 6.0 – 7.0. Sweet cherries should be planted in a sunny position while sour varieties can do well on north facing walls and in more shady situations. As they flower early, keep trees away from positions that are susceptible to frost and shelter from cold winter winds. A dressing of lime when the tree is planted is recommended.

How Tall Do Cherry Trees Grow?

Cherries can grow into very large trees, perhaps the largest of all fruit trees. This means that they are impractical for the small garden and very difficult to manage. Picking fruit that hasn't been eaten by birds can be problematic.

Grow sweet cherries as staked bush trees only with a dwarfing rootstock such as 'Gisela 5' that will grow to about 10ft in 5 years or preferably as fans on a south facing walls.

Sour cherries can be grown on the 'Colt' rootstock to reach about 12ft tall or trained against a wall.

Are There Self-Fertile Cherry Trees?

If you only want one tree, these are all self-fertile varieties: Sweet Cherries - Stella (Probably the best to choose - regular cropper, large black fruit), Lapins (heavy cropper, black fruit in late summer), Sunburst (black fruit in mid-summer). Sour Cherry - Morello (Proven to be the best cooking cherry with dark red fruits).

How Do You Plant A Cherry Tree?

Container grown trees can be planted at any time of the year. Water the tree while it is still in the container. If the soil is easy to work, it is necessary only to dig a hole slightly larger than the root ball. If the soil is poor, dig deeper and wider, and mix in some organic matter or fertiliser with the top soil that has been dug out. Take the tree from the container and tease out the roots quite vigorously if they are pot bound. Returning the top soil, plant the tree at the same level as it was in the container. Firm the soil. Place two short stakes inside the wall of the hole and a cross bar. Tie the trunk of the tree to the cross bar, water thoroughly and mulch.

For bare rooted trees, plant in their dormant period i.e. late autumn and winter. Dig a hole about 3ft in diameter, putting the top soil to one side. If the soil is poor, mix into the top soil some organic matter and fertiliser. Drive a sturdy stake (at least 2ins in diameter) deep into the hole, ensuring the top will be well several inches below the lowest branch. Fill the hole, shaking the tree to work the soil around the roots. Note the previous soil level (visible on the tree stem) and ensure that the tree is planted at the same level. Firm in, mulch and tie to stake.

Are Cherry Trees Difficult To Maintain?

Trees not on a dwarf rootstock can grow very tall, so you may consider training them as fans. Cherries will benefit from a well balanced spring feed and organic mulch. Keep well watered especially when the fruit is developing. Keep the surrounding area free from weeds. Use fleece to protect blossom from frost but allow in pollinating insects during the day. Net fruits to protect them from birds. Except for clearing away weak, diseased or overcrowded branches, cherry trees need little pruning.

What Type Of Soil Is Best For Pear Trees?

Pears do best in deep moisture retentive soils with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. They don't like the extremes of light soils or heavy clay but these can be improved in the normal way by the addition of organic matter, gravel and mulching to make them more suitable.

The ideal position would be sunny and sheltered, keep away from frost pockets particularly as the trees tend to flower early in the year.

Which Is The Best Pear Tree Rootstock?

The two main rootstocks on which pear trees are grown are:

Quince A: Good for poorer soils and the most common rootstock found in garden centres,

Quince C: Less vigorous than ‘Quince A’, and therefore will produce smaller trees which fruit
earlier, this rootstock is more suitable for growing cordons on fertile soil.

What Are The Most Popular Varieties Of Pear Tree?

The choice of variety largely depends on personal preference in terms of flavour and texture but note that some varieties such as Conference are more hardy than others.

If you are not lucky enough to have another pollinating variety close by, you will need two trees that flower at the same time or, as flowering times overlap, are in the next pollinating group to produce worthwhile fruit.

Pears can be split into early, mid and late flowering varieties:

Early: Williams (easy to grow, good cropper), Beth (best eaten fresh)

Mid: Conference (reliable heavy cropper), Buerre Hardy (very tender and juicy), Onward (soft
and succulent)

Late: Gorham (good cropper with a musky flavour), Doyenne du Comice (best of the late autumn pears)

Note that Onward was bred from Doyenne du Comice and they do not cross pollinate.

Good cooking pears are Hellens Early (Mid), Invincible (Early) and Humbug (Late).

How Do I Plant A Pear Tree?

Container grown trees can be planted at any time of the year. Water the tree while it is still in the container. If the soil is easy to work, it is necessary only to dig a hole slightly larger than the root ball. If the soil is poor, dig deeper and wider, and mix in some organic matter or fertiliser with the top soil that has been dug out. Take the tree from the container and tease out the roots quite vigorously if they are pot bound. Returning the top soil, plant the tree at the same level as it was in the container. Firm the soil. Place two short stakes inside the wall of the hole and a cross bar. Tie the trunk of the tree to the cross bar, water thoroughly and mulch.

For bare rooted trees, plant in their dormant period i.e. late autumn and winter. Dig a hole about 3ft in diameter, putting the top soil to one side. If the soil is poor, mix into the top soil some organic matter and fertiliser. Drive a sturdy stake (at least 2ins in diameter) deep into the hole, ensuring the top will be well several inches below the lowest branch. Fill the hole, shaking the tree to work the soil around the roots. Note the previous soil level (visible on the tree stem) and ensure that the tree is planted at the same level. Firm in, mulch and tie to stake.

How Do You Maintain A Pear Tree?

Although 'Bush' trees are the most popular and will mature at between 10 – 20ft, they can also be grown as a fan, cordon, espalier, stepover and festoon, but these need careful training against walls or with posts and wires.

Pears require no more maintenance than any similar fruit tree. Water well in dry spells, apply a balanced feed and mulch in the spring and prune each year.

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