There is nothing like wandering down to your own little orchard on lazy late summer days. Watching your own fruits swell and turn dark in colour before you pluck them from the tree is one of gardening’s true pleasures.
Here are some things to consider when planning to add fruit trees to your garden:
There are dwarf trees, half-standards and standards. Bigger trees will give more fruit but take up more space. If you have acres of land or a huge garden by all means go for standard trees. But beware of planting a sapling in a small garden only to have it grow into a monster that shades your other plants and your neighbour’s windows. You may have to chop it down and you will feel sad that you lost your tree. Remember that trees are slow-growing and will probably outlive you, so planting them is a long-term investment you could get attached to. If you choose large ones you will not be able to fit many trees on the same amount of land, in actual fact even half-standards can be too much for the average UK garden unless you just want one – so if space is any kind of issue at all take a look at dwarfs.
Dwarf trees are great because you can build your own miniature orchard with various types on a relatively small plot. In the ground they still grow large enough to impress, and don’t worry, the fruit isn’t dwarf-sized. They also do OK in pots but they will remain miniature, so you can even get away with them in backyards.
Choosing a Spot for a Small Garden Orchard
A small garden orchard should usually be sited at the rear of the garden and follow a square or rectangular shape. The reason we plant trees at the rear of a garden is because they are the tallest plants and putting them at the front would spoil our view of the land. Ideally, the spot should be sunny and sheltered with good drainage but you may not have those benefits at the back of your garden. Don’t fret, fruit trees will usually do alright anyway so long as the environment is not excessively damp and windswept.
If you want to plant trees individually around your land or in some kind of pattern of your own creation then feel free, they can look beautiful that way. But remember that even dwarf trees will steal a lot water and light from other plants, which is another reason we tend to keep them together in an orchard.
Building a Small Garden Orchard
There are many ways to build a nice looking mini-orchard for your garden but let’s look at a basic example which you can easily adapt to suit your space:
Imagine you have a rectangular strip of land about 6m (20’) deep stretching across from left to right at the rear of your garden. You would use the front 2m (6.5’) for a row of trees and a gap to enter the orchard, the second 2m for a path, and the third 2m for another row of trees. You would then be able to walk along the path between the two rows of trees to tend them and pick your fruit. You could eventually decorate the entrance gap with an arch and some climbers. As the trees grow and thicken you would have a little oasis of fruity calm at the bottom of your garden to relax in on summer days.
The measurements used above were just an example. You will need to base your distances on the space you have available and the kinds of trees you choose. Fruit trees all require different amounts of space between them depending on size and cultivar but it is seldom less than 1 meter. They should come with information about how to space them correctly.
Start by digging over your whole designated orchard patch a few times. Dig down at least 50cm (2’) and get rid of all weeds. This will be hard work but worth doing properly as the orchard could last you forever. Dig in some sand if you have a problem with wetness. Then dig in autumn leaves, bark or grass cuttings – any organic matter is good. Level the ground and rake to a fine finish.
When your ground is ready, roll out a length of weed-stopping membrane along the central 2m where you wish to put the path. Cover the membrane with a decent depth of builder’s sand mixed with a little cement and rake it flat. Lay your flags or stone down to form a path along the length of your little orchard. Do the same for your entrance gap and join it up.
If you want to get flashy you can build a little fence in front of the first row of trees to act as a windbreaker and grow some grape vines up it.
Now you have your groundworks ready you can look into selecting fruit tree types to populate the area. Although possible, you are unlikely to be growing fruit trees from seed, instead you will buy miniature trees from retailers who have done a lot of the hard work for you.
The main types of fruit trees discussed below are all from the Rosaceae family so are planted and maintained in a similar manner. Most will take over two years from planting until you get your first harvest.
Apples are first to come to mind when we think of fruit in English gardens. Apple trees are hardy and easy to care for, with delicious fruit.
There are many apple varieties so you should choose trees which suit your tastes. Do you want cooking or dessert apples? Do you like them sweet or tart? If you can, choose types that you have eaten before and enjoyed. Also consider how many apples you can realistically consume and use this to help you choose varieties by yield. If aesthetics are high on your agenda then consider the colour of the fruit and its blossom.
If you have space for several apple trees you should choose different cultivars that flower at the same time because cross-pollination will improve the fruit. But don’t worry if you only have space for one, apple trees are more common than you might think and bees travel quite far. Beginners should choose those cultivars that have high disease-resistance so that they are less likely to have to deal with any outbreaks.
Bear in mind that most of the apples we buy from the supermarket are now grown in southern Europe where it is warmer. Growing in the UK will yield a slightly different flavour depending how far north you are. In general, all apple varieties (and most fruit trees in general) like sunny, sheltered spots so southeast England will yield the best results. Harvest time for most cultivars is autumn, from late August until early November.
Some favoured apple tree cultivars:
A great tasting light yellow apple with a sweet flavour and crisp flesh. They can be grown in the north in sheltered areas. Harvest mid to late season.
A soft but deep-flavoured red apple which is good for desserts. It may not taste satisfactory if grown too far north. Early season harvest.
A hard and acidic dark green apple with a sharp, refreshing flavour. This variety needs a lot of sunlight or it may be unpalatable. Harvest late season.
The UK’s favourite cooking apple. Fantastic for mother’s apple pie or apple sauce. Harvest late season.
Elongated fruits with a more floral taste than apples, they are great on salads and make yummy sticky puddings. Pears require an even warmer climate than apples to perform well and this should be taken into consideration. There are many different cultivars of both cooking and dessert pears and some require cross-pollination.
Some good pear tree cultivars:
A new pear strain with a fine flavour and bred to be reliable in the UK climate. It has the benefit of being self-fertile, so one tree will definitely be fine. The fruits are large. Harvest late season.
The classic dessert pear with a rich flavour. Like Concorde it is self-fertile. Conference will do ok further north and tends towards a heavy harvest. A good beginner pear. Harvest mid-season.
Deep purple cooking pear with hard flesh like an apple. Great for making stewed pears. It has good disease-resistance and will weather the cold quite well. Harvest very late in the year.
These bulbous, purple stone fruits cook up into excellent crumbles, jams and pies. Most plums are self-fertile good croppers even in colder areas but do require sunshine to ripen the fruit. Plums prefer more clay in the soil than apples or pears.
A selection of tried and tested plum tree cultivars:
Britain’s most well-known plum. A self-fertile, heavy cropper with a sweet taste. Can be cooked or eaten fresh. Harvest early in the season.
Deep purple plums like those in films and fairy tales. Can be cooked or eaten fresh. Very early harvest.
Mirabelle de Nancy
Large yellow plums that are very sweet. Excellent straight from the tree. Self-fertile with mid-season harvest.
Planting Fruit Trees
Apples, pears and plums can all be planted using a similar method. Plant them when they are dormant between late autumn and early winter but not when there is frost.
First soak the roots in a bucket of water for a few hours to bring them back to life. While the tree is soaking you can dig a hole. The hole should be deep enough to incorporate the roots and at least a third wider to allow them to spread. Plant a stake in the hole to tie the tree onto, then plant your tree and spread the root. Fill the hole and water in well, hold a hosepipe at the base of the tree for at least ten minutes. Tie your tree to its stake and give it a good mulching.
Caring for Fruit Trees
The first few years after planting are when young fruit trees are at their most vulnerable but once they have a few winters under their belt they become hardy and established.
During the first year it is most important to keep a young tree watered so that it can establish strong root systems. The leading cause of death among young fruit trees is under-watering. You should water your trees at least once per week for the first year until they are established, especially during summer. Hold a hosepipe at the base of the tree for at least five minutes to drench the ground.
Keep the area around the tree free of weeds for the first three years and mulch regularly. If you have a problem with animals that might eat the tree then put some plastic fencing around it until it has grown. Keep an eye on the tree’s stake and make sure it is not restricting growth. After 2 years you can remove the stake to allow the trunk to thicken up.
Other Fruit Trees for UK Gardens
Here are some other fruit trees that will also perform well in the UK:
Cherry trees are another common sight in Britain and will fruit well here. They tend to crop in summer rather than autumn. Look for self-fertile varieties or they may not fruit without grafting.
For a crop that comes from the Middle-East they are surprisingly well suited to the British climate but will require a sunny, sheltered spot. They will produce a heavy harvest towards the end of summer and most are self-fertile.
Peaches like a sunny spot but will also grow outside in Britain due to selective breeding for hardy varieties. Many are also self-fertile. They tend to crop at the back-end of summer.
They are quite complicated to care for and take a long time to grow to fruition but all are self-fertile. They will fruit throughout autumn and winter. Be aware that their leaves can poison other plants.
It is much too cold to grow citrus fruits outdoors in Britain. But if you have a decent-sized conservatory, greenhouse or a room with lots of light, then oranges and lemons can grow there in pots to be taken outside during the warmest months.
They need a bright, sunny spot indoors, and you will need to feed and water them regularly. Never allow citrus trees to be exposed to temperatures below 10°C but don’t put them near a radiator either or they will suffer. If you think you can manage the extra care citrus requires then you should be able to get a decent crop when the trees decide to flower.
Now you know all about the subject you can see that fruit trees are not as complicated as you might have imagined. Hopefully you will have lots of luck with your orchard!