Heritage Fruit: History in the Garden

Growing and harvesting fruit is one of the great joys of gardening. Nothing quite matches the luxury of eating warm raspberries and blueberries straight from the garden, picking the first rosy Worcester Pearmain  of the season in September, or finding the soft fuzz has rubbed off the quinces in mid-October, revealing shiny yellow pear-shaped fruits ready to pluck for aromatic quince cheese. 

These heady summer and autumn harvests come festooned with tales passed down through the generations – none more so than our heritage varieties. Many of these are now rare or have even vanished as our once plentiful orchards have been systematically grubbed over the past 100 years. Not only were these orchards a haven for wildlife, they supported a genetic diversity that is in danger of being lost as modern fruit growing becomes more reliant on a limited number of varieties. So growing heritage fruits is not only a joy; it keeps old varieties extant and adds a twist of history to your garden.

Heritage Apples

Two of my favourite heritage apples are Blenheim Orange and Pitmaston Pineapple. Blenheim Orange has a deliciously sweet, nutty flavour and tastes great just off the tree or cooked. It was discovered in 1740 by a Mr Kempster who found it growing wild close to Blenheim Palace. Pitmaston Pineapple always sells out first at our local community garden apple day; its tiny size, glowing yellow colour and honey-sweet flavour making it a firm favourite with children and adults alike. It was first bred in the 1780s by a Mr White whose employer, Lord Foley of Witley, sold the breed to a nursery called Williams of Pitmaston – hence its name and arrival on the market.

Blenheim orange apple

Heritage Pears

A good heritage pear for gardens is the Glou Morceau. It is a fabulous pollinator partner for other pears and holds its blossom for longer than average, making it a fine ornamental variety too. Originating from Belgium in the mid-1700s, it is believed to have been bred by Abbot Hardenpont of Mons.

Other Traditional Fruits

My granny passed on her love of traditional fruits to me at an early age. When she was in her eighties, she organised the planting of a medlar in the churchyard near her home in Conwy; a tree that would mature and bear fruit for future generations to enjoy. Medlars have been grown in the UK for hundreds of years although they originated from the region around the Caspian and Black Seas, where they still grow wild today. Medlar ‘Nottingham’ is the most widely available variety with a sweet flavour, regular harvests and excellent disease resistance. 

Medlar fruit tree

Quinces are quite possibly my favourite fruit. We grow ‘Meeches Prolific’ – a variety from the US developed in the 1880s. Quinces prefer a warm, sunny position in deep, fertile, moisture-retentive soil. In October when the fruit begins to ripen, the garden is filled with a wonderful honeyed aroma which is even more pronounced when the fruit is cooked. We love to poach ours in cinnamon and honey, stew them with apples or make the fruits into a translucent orange jelly.

Meeches Prolific Quince

Fruit Trees in Small Spaces

Fortunately, you don’t need an orchard to grow fruit trees successfully. Cordons, espaliers, fans and stepovers all allow for fruit growing in even the tiniest space – we have managed to squeeze three dwarf fruit trees, three espaliers and one cordon into our diminutive garden, along with raspberries, strawberries, red and white currants, blueberries, Chilean guava, rhubarb, grapes and figs

If you don’t have room for a full-sized tree, choose a dwarfing rootstock – for example my plum and greengage are on semi-dwarfing pixy rootstock which restricts their height to three or four metres. Another option for small space growing is to choose a trained fruit tree. Espaliers have horizontal tiered branches and are ideal for sunny walls or fences.  Apples and pears can both be grown as espaliers or cordons (a single stem with fruiting spurs along its length). The advantage of a cordon is that it is possible to grow several different varieties in a small space. Many fruit trees can be fan-trained and there are few more attractive sights in spring than a blossom-covered plum fan against a sunny wall surrounded by daffodils and tulips.

Fruit tree in a small space

If there’s no sunny wall or fence in your garden, try growing stepover apples to edge a vegetable patch or flowerbed. In addition to providing a division between growing space and lawn or path, you’ll have beautiful white and pink blossom in the spring to attract pollinating insects and fruit in the autumn. The next few months are the ideal time to plant fruit trees, and with apple fairs and festivals taking place throughout the UK in October, you can explore the stories and flavours of our heritage fruit before you decide which varieties will be best for your garden and kitchen. 

Nic Wilson, writer and garden designer

By Ashridge Support

Ashridge Nurseries has been in the business of delivering plants since 1949.


  1. Paul Binding says:

    I am looking to plant a heritage orchard with approximately 9 different fruit trees on a piece of land and would appreciate your advice on appropriate varieties.
    The area used to be an orchard back in the 1800s, so it would be good to try and replicate this once again. Different varieties of fruit would be good.
    Very best wishes

    1. Ashridge Nurseries says:

      Hello Paul,

      Ooof, that’s not possible to answer without knowing quite a bit more about you, and the specific conditions in your garden, especially if you are in the North, where things like shelter from the wind or local frost pockets make even more of a difference than in warmer regions.

      The best people to talk to are old-hand fruit growers in your area, and to decide what you most want from your harvest. For example, do you intend to eat the produce fresh, or make jams and other preserved products? Is the fruit all for you (in which case pick what you like best) or do you plan to sell some (in which case I would pick popular varieties)? If you want to grow as organically as possible, then suitable disease resistance for your area is important (e.g. scab is mostly a problem in warmer parts of the country), but if not then it doesn’t matter so much. If you have a lot of people around to eat the crops as fast as they ripen, you don’t need to worry about how long the fruit keeps for: some apples barely last three weeks off the branch, and some are edible many months later.

      Planting in a sequence where no two plants of the same species are next to each other (e.g. don’t plant a pear next to another pear) is a great way to reduce the ability of pests and diseases to jump from one suitable host to another. Permaculture-oriented growers often add in nitrogen fixing trees and/or shrubs to add further diversity (the tough nitrogen fixers generally won’t need any insecticides, organic or not, so they will support lots of lovely insect predators even if the other trees need treatment) and improve the surrounding soil in the process. This charming chap is in Canada, not the UK, but his videos are still informative on that subject, and mixed orchards in general.

      The final thing to suggest is grafting. You can graft multiple cultivars onto one tree, or you could also over-graft an entire tree with a different variety – it’s not ideal, but it does give you the option of not starting from scratch if you decide that you don’t like a particular tree. Grafting is easy with a bit of practice, and you can practice on almost any tree: the basic techniques are the same.

      All the best to you and your project, and don’t hesitate to get in touch when you have more specific questions.

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