Careful and judicious pruning creates room to grow,
and will deliver fuller, healthier fruits more quickly
One of the joys of gardening is that patience is usually rewarded.
Plants increase in size and impact as time passes and fruit trees are no exception.
Understandably, however, an oft repeated question runs along the lines of "how do I get more fruit, more quickly?"
There are a number of golden rules in gardening but the most important of them all is summed up in "as ye sow so shall ye reap."
In general, you only plant something once. And well planted stock invariably grows better than badly planted stock. So here are some pointers:
- Choose the site wisely
Remember that positions that face east risk early morning sun damaging buds that have frozen overnight before they have time to defrost. Shady north-facing sites will see both tree and fruit growing more slowly, and a side effect of less sun will be less sugar in the fruit – so choose cooking varieties for north facing locations. South-facing will give you more sun and more sugar – great for eating varieties. Sites that are exposed to wind, driving rain and frost will inevitably suffer damaged and dropped fruit. Exposed locations make it difficult for pollinating insects to do a good job too. A cosy, sheltered site will encourage faster and sweeter ripe fruits, and improved growth rates overall.
- Prepare the ground thoroughly
Dig planting holes that are comfortably large enough to accommodate a fruit tree's roots without them being cramped. Remove weeds, other tree roots, stones and other rubbish. Improve the soil (remember a fruit tree can crop well for between 50 and 100 years). Use well rotted compost or horse manure either of which also improve the structure of the soil helping it hold moisture in dry weather and drain better in wet. Do this in preference to using chemical fertilisers which tend to have a short life (the exception is bonemeal which is very long lasting indeed). Mix the organic matter in well with the soil from the planting hole and make sure all lumps and clods are broken down to a decent tilth.
- Use Rootgrow to speed root development and establishment
- Stake the tree well so that its roots get a chance to establish and search out nutrients, rather than fighting to stay upright
- And golden rule number two; water the tree well if the weather is at all dry from March to August in the year of planting. And always keep the ground around the tree weed-free to reduce competition for moisture and food.
All the above will help ensure that your fruit tree both establishes quickly, and grows away strongly.
Pruning: Always thin your fruitlets for better crops
Once your tree is established it will first need to be pruned to form a basic, fruit bearing branch structure. Then all that is needed is water, remedial pruning when something goes wrong and the practice of basic hygiene to prevent the spread of disease and pests.
We have a selection of instructional pruning videos for 1-, 2- and 3-year old trees:
- Pruning a 1-year old maiden fruit tree
- Pruning a 2-year old fruit tree
- Pruning a 3-year old fruit tree
In the first year of flowering, enjoy the blossom, but then remove all the little (usually green) fruitlets as soon as the petals fall. This promotes root growth and you will see the benefit in every year that follows. The quality of a fruit crop is also always improved by judicious thinning of the fruit and this is something you should do every year.
Apple trees, for example, tend to form clusters of five to seven fruitlets. Reducing the clusters to one or two will encourage the tree to produce much larger fruit that ripens earlier. The total crop weight is likely to be the same, but you get bigger apples, earlier.
Plum trees are famous for producing so much fruit that their branches break. In early years, remove two out of three or even three out of four plums, leaving the remainder well-spaced along the branch. Fruit quality is improved and fungal diseases that rot the plums are much less likely to spread through the tree.
Buy older, larger trees for a shortcut to harvesting
If you want to wait less time before harvesting fruit from your garden, bear in mind that fruit trees are sold in a range of sizes. One year old trees are called maidens, and are the basic building block from which all other fruit tree shapes are built, including bushes, cordons, half standards, fans, espaliers, stepovers and so on. This is achieved through very specific formative pruning in the early years... but it means that you'll probably be two or three years from a decent harvest.
Beyond a maiden, the shapes you'll find at Ashridge Nurseries are bushes, cordons and half standards. All of these are a full year and more older than maidens, and have been pruned specifically to those shapes. Buying these saves you an equivalent amount of time, bringing that harvest a couple of years closer! Read more about fruit tree shapes here
The shape of the tree also affects crop size. Cordon fruit trees have relatively small crops, but their compact elongated shape means they can be planted between 60-90 cms apart. These are ideal for confined spaces or where a lot of variety is wanted, and are best grown supported against a fence or wall.
Bushes are larger and freestanding, spreading to between 2 and 3 metres across, and carry more fruit than cordons. They are ideal for medium sized gardens, or for fruit such as cherries and plums which need to be netted against birds. Half standards carry the heaviest crops, reaching 3.5 metres in diameter and so need the most space.
So, in summary, select the shape of tree best suited to your carefully chosen planting site, prepare the ground well and take extra care with watering in the year of planting. And if you want to save a year or two before you get your fruit harvest, buy a ready pruned fruit tree.
Happy planting (and pruning!)