Fruit Growers Treasure Trove

In this section you will find information on the various formats of fruit trees, maiden trees, bush trees; on the rootstock and its role in determining tree size; and on the possibility of growing fruit trees in containers. Just click on the headings in the interactive menu below.

Fruit trees and how they grow

Organic magic
If you can’t find manure…

Rootstocks and fruit tree size

Maiden trees and bush trees
Tree size and rootstocks
Rootstocks for apples
Traditional large bush trees

Fruit trees in containers

Growing fruit trees in containers
Size of the container
Soil and fertilizer
When to feed and how to water your trees in containers
Which types of fruit tree can be grown in containers?
Cherries in containers

Organic magic

All living creatures are interconnected, in ways that often we would never have imagined. For example, manure, which is classed as an animal waste product, is an essential food source to living creatures in the lower part of the evolutionary chain, such as fungi and bacteria, including those that live in the soil, in symbiosis with tree roots. So live manure is a superb form of food and nutrients to trees, in our case fruit trees.

Trees love organics: it can come out of a bottle, for example liquid seaweed, or out of a container, natural herb mixtures, or out of a bag, such as dried chicken manure, or straight from the stable such as farmyard manure.

For trees this is pure magic and I have seen the undeniable results as regular as clockwork many times during my life! The real essence of organics is linked to the thousands of nematodes, microbes, fungi and bacteria which work in close harmony with the trees, permitting the uptake of nutrients and giving the trees a real tonic. This in turn improves leaf quality and reinforces the immune system.

If you can’t find manure…

If you like your fruit trees to carry regular crops of fruit, do not let them go short of food.
On the market there is a superb product called SUPER DUG. It is totally dried organic natural manure. It comes in a 25 kilo bag. It is a wonderful tonic for all type of trees, shrubs and vegetables. When you plant fruit trees, follow the instructions on the bag, put a couple of spade-fulls in the wheel barrow and mix it well with the soil that you are going to put back into the planting hole. More details at www.compost-technology.co.uk

Rootstocks and fruit tree size

Maiden trees and bush trees

One particularly important factor when purchasing a fruit tree from a supplier is whether it is a Maiden or a Bush tree.

A Maiden is generally a tree in its first year, consisting of a single stem. For a few varieties, this may have a few initial side branches, but most will not. The buds on a maiden are mainly wood buds. So there is no chance of any fruit crop in the year after planting.

A Bush tree is a 2 to 3 year-old tree, usually with several side branches, usually with a good number of fruit buds. Fruit buds are essential for early cropping. A bush tree is also helpful because the side branches are ready to develop into the main framework of the tree, with a “fruit table” positioned for comfortable picking. Not all fruit trees form side branches in the second year, but, if it is an apple, in any case the tree will start to produce fruit on the central stem. By nature, pears, plums and greengages always take longer to come into production . Therefore in particular with these fruit types it is wiser to start with a 2 to 3 year old tree. With a bush trees, cropping usually begins the year after planting. They are sturdy, strong and healthy, with good levels of reserves in the tree structure. This helps them to resist diseases caused by the fungal spores that are always present in the air.

The height of the tree is not a feature which encourages early cropping.

Tree size and rootstocks

It is mistaken to think that tree size can be controlled by pruning. The fundamental factors involved in determining tree size are the rootstock and the depth of the soil. When ordering trees, the choice of variety is important, but tree size is also fundamental to ensure that the final trees are right for your garden. The major factor involved in determining tree size is the rootstock. Most fruit trees consist of two parts. The first is the “rootstock” or “stock,” which comprises the root system and the lower part of the stem, normally from soil level (the so-called “nursery mark”) to about 15 cm above the ground. The second is the “scion” which comprises the rest of the stem and the branches, and so it is this part that bears the fruit. Trees are created by grafting a tree variety – say Cox apple or Victoria plum – onto a rootstock.

Fruit tree union

Rootstocks for apples

This system is adopted to control the size of the tree and to improve cropping. So, for example, for apples, the rootstock named MM106 gives rise to a tree reaching a height of about 10 feet, while M26, M9 and M27 produce progressively smaller trees. M27 and M9 are therefore known as “dwarfing rootstocks.” However we do not recommend the use of M27 and M9 for apples for the average garden situation, primarily because in the average garden, M27 and M9 create a root system that is too weak to keep the tree upright in later years, when it is in full production. In addition, M27 and M9 trees tend to over-produce fruit in one year, with no, or very little, fruit the following year. For successful apple tree growing, MM106 is the best choice. It has proved itself over many years, and it forms a healthy tree which fruits at a young age. MM106 is suitable for all soils, including heavy clay soils, provided the soil is not waterlogged.

Other factors in addition to rootstock are involved in determining the height of a tree at maturity. These include type of soil, height of the location above sea level, exposure to cold winds or frost pockets, and the winter rest level of water in the soil. Equally important is tree spacing. The further trees are spaced apart, the greater their final height will be. This is why the figures shown below are provided as approximate guidelines only.

Another fact to remember is that the size of a tree at the time of planting does not affect the size eventually achieved.

Average tree heights obtained in garden/allotment situations

Apples
Rootstock Planting distance Final tree height Size description
MM106 10-12 feet 12-14 feet medium
M26 5-7 feet 8-10 feet medium-small
M9 4-6 feet 7-8 feet small – not recommended
M27 3-4 feet 5 feet small – not recommended
Pears
Rootstock Planting distance Final tree height Size description
Quince A 8-12 feet 12-14 feet medium
Plums, greengages
Rootstock Planting distance Final tree height Size description
St. Julien A 8-10 feet 12 feet medium
Pixie 7-9 feet 10 feet medium
Cherries
Rootstock Planting distance Final tree height Size description
Colt 8-10 feet 10-12 feet medium
Gisela 5 5-7 feet 6-8 feet medium-small
Peach, apricot, nectarine
Rootstock Planting distance Final tree height Size description
St.Julien A 10-12 feet 10 feet medium

Please note that the tree heights described above are given only as general guidelines. The final tree height depends greatly on depth of soil, site, and quality of soil.

You may ask, why can’t we be specific about planting distance? Why 8-12 feet and not, say, 10 feet? This is due to the many factors involved. Apart from the rootstock used, the variety of fruit, the depth of the soil, the available light and moisture throughout the growing season, all will influence the crop load and therefore the size of the tree. A heavy cropping tree will put on less new growth (extension growth) compared with a light-cropping tree. As an example of variety difference, Bramley’s Seedling makes a larger tree than, say, James Grieve. Trees grown on deep, water-retentive soil become larger than trees on drier or shallow soils. Trees grown in the shade crop less, and so tend to get larger than trees growing in sunshine. Fruit trees which go short of moisture during the summer months stop growing earlier each year, and will make shorter shoot extension growth. Fruit trees which are poorly pollinated will produce less fruit and therefore the annual extension growth will be much greater.

Finally there is the influence of the tree’s overall health, the site, microclimate, grass, weeds around the tree, depth of planting, nutrition, type of pruning, and the season in which pruning is performed. In fact, late summer pruning (in late July and August) tends to reduce the rate at which a tree will grow, whereas traditional winter pruning (November-March) produces strong regrowth of long new shoots.

So it’s a complicated equation. One rule of thumb that always applies is: if you have room, give the trees as much space as possible, so at the top end of the space range as detailed above. This gives them the chance to develop a fine tree canopy.

Rootstocks for apples

Apple trees are the fruit type for which there are most rootstocks. We can safely say that MM106 is by far the best and most robust stock for a mini-orchard. In addition, MM106 is suitable for all soils.

We don’t recommend the use of the dwarfing rootstocks M27 and M9 for several reasons. Firstly, for the average garden, M27 and M9 create a root system that is too weak to keep the tree upright in later years, when it is in full production. Secondly, the correct type of stakes necessary to stop the trees from blowing over are often unobtainable in garden centres. Third, M27 and M9 trees tend to over-produce fruit in one year, with no, or very little, fruit the following year. Lastly, the bark of M27 and M9 apple trees are the most appetizing to mice, rabbits, hare and deer, which nibble the bark in winter, leaving sick trees with too small fruit.

And so to summarize, the best rootstocks to use for apple trees are MM106 for semi-vigorous trees and M26 for semi-dwarfing trees, as well as for fan, espalier and stepover trees. We do not recommend the use of M27 and M9, because they require a regime of detailed care that is generally not possible in the usual garden or allotment situation. For successful apple tree growing, MM106 is the best choice. It has proved itself over many years; it forms a healthy tree which fruits at a young age. MM106 is suitable for all soils, including heavy clay soils, provided the soil is not waterlogged.

Traditional large bush trees

Modern fruit trees are generally grown on a dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstock that keeps their size down to manageable levels and can be grown to produce a fairly flat table at a height convenient for picking without ladders. But sometimes we get requests for the traditional old English fruit tree, the sort that grows to an appreciable size and ends up with gnarled branches that young children can even climb. An ideal tree for a village green with a good space around the tree to do Maypole-type dancing is the Granny Smith. The fruit hangs on the tree until Christmas without dropping and looks spectacular. However somewhere in a garden nearby there has to be a pollinator… otherwise no fruit!

A much better tree for a very large lawn or a village green is a John Downie crab apple. The fruit looks good and makes wonderful crab apple jelly.

Traditional bush type apple tree

Fruit trees in containers

It is important to ask the question: are fruit trees suitable to live and produce fruit in containers? Just visualize the enormous change we humans present to fruit trees. Under normal conditions the trees can explore and find the nutritional elements they need in a great volume of soil. If they cannot find what they need close by, the tree roots grow either deeper or further outwards until they finds the major/trace elements essential for their wellbeing. If however we plant our trees in a container, then we dramatically curtail root growth and make the trees very much dependent on us for their nutrition and moisture requirements. Some plants are more fruitful in containers. Take for example the fig. If it is planted in good, well-drained soil without any root restriction, it will tend to produce wonderful leaves. But this is often, under our climatic conditions, at the expense of fruiting.

Growing fruit trees in containers

To plant a fruit tree in a container is easy enough. To keep the tree growing well and cropping well over a number of years is easier said than done. The reason is straightforward. By its very nature, a fruit tree is capable of looking after itself very well, providing the tree’s root system can fully explore the soil at considerable depth and width all around. The tree cannot do this if we restrict its rooting environment to a pot or a container of any size. It is therefore very important to realize, once the tree is planted in a container, that the tree is no longer capable of looking after itself during the growing season. Obviously, the larger the container, the greater the volume of soil available to the tree. This in turn will mean that there is more soil available for the tree to explore. Assuming the tree is provided with a regular water supply, by some means of irrigation, a larger tree can be maintained. Therefore the first principle to take in account is what final tree size is desired for the long term. Container size is therefore a very important decision. Also one needs to consider the fact that by means of tree training and summer pruning, a smaller tree canopy can be maintained. Espaliers, cordons, and fan-shaped trees are all realistic possibilities. A fruit tree in a smaller pot will by nature remain a smaller plant and therefore needs less pruning and is easier to maintain. However a small tree will have a reduced cropping capability. It is as well to remember that in general terms about 30 healthy green leaves are needed for each apple, bringing the fruit to maturity and optimum size.

Size of the container

Regarding the size of the pot or container, you can start with a pot with a rim size of 15 to 20 cm. However after year two, the tree needs to be re-potted to a larger pot with a 25 to 30 cm rim. The ideal container needs to be at least 45 cm in width, with a minimum depth of 40 cm. Also it is just as well to remember that if the tree is placed on a patio or near a wall, it is liable to blow over and therefore needs to be secured. This of course is of less importance when the tree is placed inside a building. In that case it is just as well to remember the tree will need plenty of light in order to do well.

Type of container

There are numerous choices available in the form of containers for fruit trees. Containers have a great effect on the wellbeing of fruit trees. To begin with, the size/volume of the tree is in direct relation to the size and capacity of the container. The bigger the container, the larger the tree, of course as long as soil and water are readily available for the tree roots to explore. Secondly, not only the dimension of the container used is of influence. It does make a difference whether it is a clay pot, plastic or made from another material. Roots of fruit trees like to stay cool. Thin plastic pots are not suitable. Double-walled plastic is fine. Plastic pots should not be placed in full sun as the roots like to be growing in moist compost of moderate temperatures, and plastic in the sun gets hot and transfers the heat to the soil. Plastic pots in the shade are fine. Half an oak barrel or the equivalent is fine too. Smaller wooden containers have a tendency to dry out too quickly. Metal containers in the long term are less suitable. Large clay pots are very well suited for fruit trees.

Whichever pot is chosen, the drainage holes must never be blocked. Excess water in the container kills a tree just as quickly as drought. Therefore make sure the holes are loosely covered with broken clay pot pieces. A good size container will have a depth of 45 cm and a diameter at the top of approximately 40 cm. After a couple of years, repot the tree in a larger pot, using a soil-based compost.

Make sure that whichever container is chosen, there are good-sized drainage holes in the bottom, loosely covered with pieces of terracotta pots to stop the holes from closing in future years.

Soil and fertilizer

The type and quality of soil is of the greatest importance. What is a good quality soil? A good soil has a crumb-like structure, and the sand and clay particles are present in such a ratio to make it possible for the tree to take up everything that it needs; oxygen, water and the essential nutritional elements. Soil-based John Innes compost number 3 comes the closest to fulfilling these requirements. It is an advantage to mix some grit into the compost in order to keep the soil-based compost open enough for water to travel right through the container and not just along the sides. Mix some slow-release fertilizer into the compost. Follow the instructions on the packet. Too much fertilizer will harm the tree and weaken the root system. When filling the container, leave some room at the top without compost to make watering easier. Do make sure that the compost is thoroughly wetted after planting, and maintain the moisture content of the compost throughout the growing season. As mentioned above, the tree will need to be fed annually. The best time to do this is in the spring. During the summer months, foliar feeding is of great benefit to the tree, provided you follow the instructions on the packet closely.

When to feed and how to water your trees in containers

A watering can is not ideal. Particularly in containers one needs to pay attention to the fact that more often than not the water, when applied using a watering can, escapes via the sides of the pot or container. The water comes through the drainage holes and one thinks one has done a good job of watering. The centre of the pot stays dry and the trees suffer from water stress. It is better to apply the water via a drip system, which applies little water each time it drips. Also, soil is often very difficult to rewet if allowed to dry out too much.

Apply water and nutrients at regular intervals, definitely before wilting occurs. For fruit trees, apply a general purpose fertilizer such as Growmore in the early spring. To strengthen fruit buds, apply a light dressing after picking the fruit. Slow release fertilizers can do a good job. You can also foliar feed your trees with very good results. Fruit trees like good light conditions and if possible a sheltered position.

Some cooking apples will do reasonably well if partly shaded. However cherries, pears and peaches do best when grown in full sunlight. Plums do also well in slightly shaded positions. No fruit tree does well if put completely in the shade of a wall or another tree.

Which types of fruit tree can be grown in containers?

Single stem trees such as cordons usually do well. More demanding are espalier and fan types of trees. Pears and apricots are ideal for growing as espaliers. Cherries, peaches and plums do better when grown in an open fan shape.

Over-cropping

It is very nice to grow a good crop. If you overcrop the tree, the following year the tree does not crop at all or only a little. It therefore pays to thin the fruitlets, whichever type of crop it is.

Pests

Regarding pests, it is important to control greenfly/aphids and caterpillar. Fungal diseases such as mildew, scab, canker and brown rot can sometimes be a problem. Garden centres stock various products which will help to control these diseases.
All types of birds love to peck or eat fruit. Have a net handy before the fruit is at the vulnerable stage.

Fruit varieties for growing in containers

Apples, pears, plums and cherries all can be grown in large containers. However the variety and rootstock used need to be chosen with care.
Good advice is a help once the particular situation and spot for the tree/trees are known. Pollination requirements need to be taken in consideration if regular fruiting is desired.

Cherries in containers

From the point of view of controlling bird damage, you are far better off growing a cherry tree in a container. The tree will stay relatively small and is therefore easier to cover with a net, to stop the birds eating your cherries. Mind you, the size of the container is crucial. It needs to be at least 50 cm across and 45 cm deep. This container needs to be filled with the best top soil available. In the bottom of the container you need to have a couple of 2.5 cm sized drainage holes, which need to be covered with broken terra cotta pot fragments to stop the holes from silting up.

As cherries themselves are 90 percent water, you must make sure the trees never dry out! Water the trees at least twice a week with 5 litres of water each during the growing season. When very hot and dry, 10 litres of water each. Feed the trees with “Growmore” and follow instructions on the packet. Pruning is best carried out when harvesting is completed. This to avoid the pruning wounds becoming infected by the spores of different fungi such as “Silver leaf,” and not to forget the disease called Bacterial Canker.

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