Fruit by design

27 January 2017


THERE are more than 100 apple and pear trees in the walled garden where I work. Technically, you could call it an orchard, but that would give the wrong impression, as not a single one is growing free-form as a standard tree. The oldest specimens date from the middle of the 19th century, and the shapes in which they grow had been popular long before that.

Two rows of cordon pears are trained over arches to make a tunnel over a pathway; it is the most romantic and photographed part of the whole garden. There are also goblets, fans, open bushes, and espaliers. Some of the horizontal branches on the latter are six metres long. Deformities and missing limbs speak of mishaps long ago, and the winter skeletons add a dramatic structure to the garden, and look magical in a hoar frost.

They were a must-have for wealthy Victorians, who valued them as decorative features adorned with blossom in the spring and laden with fruit in the autumn. They formed living frames both linking and separating the different areas of a garden. But fruit trees have been trained for centuries for practical reasons, too. They do not take up much space, and the regular prun­ing encourages an intensive crop and an accessible harvest.

Unlike many of the Victorian head gardener’s pre­occupations, such as a daily buttonhole for his lordship, trained fruit is valuable today. It might still sound rather grand, but an espaliered apple is quite affordable at £47 from a specialist fruit nursery such as the excellent Keepers Nursery. With a little patience, it is even cheaper grown from a single-stem specimen (a so-called “maiden”, at about £17).

You will need to build a support framework of vertical posts and hori­zontal wires. Then plant the maiden, which needs to be a spur-bearing variety on a semi-dwarfing rootstock (MM106), midway be­­tween two posts, and, before spring, cut the stem back to about 30cm and a healthy bud, below which there are two more strong buds facing left and right.

In spring, rub out any other buds that begin to grow, and train the top shoot vertically. Tie the other two to canes at 45 degrees to the main stem, lowering them to horizontal in the autumn. Repeat each winter to build up the tiers, stopping at the desired height by permitting only two shoots to grow out each side of the vertical leader. Annual mainten­ance pruning of an established es­­pal­ier is simple: see the Royal Horti­cultural Society’s advice page on it.

A single-tier espalier is called a step-over tree, and, again, can be bought ready formed or home-grown as above, but this time select­ing a dwarf rootstock (M27), and leaving just two buds to grow at the outset. They can fit in the tiniest of plots, and are ideal for edging community plots where children get involved.

If you ensure that it is a self-pollinating variety, such as “Cox self-fertile” or “Braeburn Hillwell”, even a single one will provide a mini harvest of juicy, flavoursome fruit.

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