The selection of orchard fruits

Things are quiet in the kitchen garden – and on the blog – at the moment, not so much because there is nothing to do, but rather because we are in the middle of some major renovations to the house and short of time. One matter that we have been attending to, though, is the selection and purchase of young trees for the prospective orchard. Over the next couple of weeks, I will write a few articles on our selection of varieties and preparations for planting.

Beyond the kitchen garden lies a reasonably large plot of land that is currently serving little purpose, except as a home to our bee hives. We have thought for the last couple of years that it might be nice to plant a small orchard there, but did not get around to it last winter, except to plant a walnut and sweet chestnut at the far end. As some nurseries, and often those that carry a range of the older and more obscure varieties, supply their trees as bare root specimens during the dormant winter months, it was getting late to place an order; indeed, many sorts will be sold out already at this time of year. We were fortunate, though, to be able to source all of the varieties we wanted for the next stage in developing the orchard.

As we already have quite a number of fruit trees in the kitchen garden itself, one might quite reasonably wonder why we would then plant an orchard as well. When they are mature, we might produce quite a large amount of fruit from those trees, even in their restricted forms, however, to my mind, there is something very special about an orchard, and the land really is not likely to be used for anything else. Even without the promise of baskets full of fruit, the planting of a tree brings its own pleasure. At every stage of its lifecycle, the orchard is a thing of great beauty; the early years, with their promise of rich harvests, the productive years, and even the slow decline of the trees into decrepitude. A field full of trees is a wonderful place to be. At some point, when the trees begin to mature, we must consider the construction of, perhaps, a little summer house, or at least a nice spot to sit in the orchard, where it can be properly enjoyed. When mature, the orchard will no doubt produce far more than we can use, but the intention is to use one of our outbuildings as a fruit store, so that we can provide, hopefully, fresh apples from the earliest of the season in August, through until at least the end of winter. In days gone by, with the provision of a good fruit store filled with the right varieties of carefully handled fruit, apples could be available for up to nine months of the year, and those months when they were not available were filled with the summer soft fruits. Regardless of the fruit and what on earth one can do with tons of apples and pears, there is much pleasure to be derived from planting trees of old varieties, not just to preserve them, although that is important, but so as to experience a living part of our history.

Our selection of varieties for the orchard was somewhat hampered by the choices already made for the kitchen garden – the pear and apple cordons and the plum and gage fans. If we had decided from the outset to plant an orchard, my first choice of apple would be Ribston Pippin, a historically important and once popular variety, and a truly magnificent dessert apple, which I wrote about in a recent article. However, we have this variety growing as a cordon already, so I did not want to replicate it, nor could I bring myself to grub out the cordon so as to replace it with something different. There are, of course, several hundred varieties that one might consider planting, so although I had already planted out my shortlisted sorts, there were still many fine and interesting old apples and pears to consider. The one tree that I did leave for the orchard is the Old Greengage, perhaps the most delicious of plums, and planted in its place in the kitchen garden a Bryanston Gage – an old local Dorset variety, thought to be a cross between the Old Greengage and Coe’s Golden Drop, which I heard about from a friend.

My general idea for the area is to provide, nearest to the house and kitchen garden, a range of traditional orchard fruits – apples and pears, of course, but also quince and medlar, then, perhaps, a few less traditional fruits, such as Japanese plums, an Asian pear and a cherry plum, and finally a nuttery and truffiere. The latter involves the planting of trees inoculated with one of the truffle fungi. Various sorts are available, and, after some years, may produce a small harvest of fresh truffles. Although various species of tree may be inoculated, hazel is commonly used, so a little truffiere fits readily with the nuttery. The nuts, and, perhaps, coppiced hazel wood, then come as a bonus. To begin with, though, we are concentrating on getting the main fruit trees established, along with a couple of almonds and a mulberry, then reviewing what space is left and how best to utilise it.

When considering the planting of one or more fruit trees, the choices are vast, and, given that the trees can live for very many years, it is worth spending the time to make a careful selection, whatever your personal preference might be. One can, of course, grub out unproductive trees or those bearing fruits that are found not to be to one’s taste, or top graft one or more new varieties, but such decisions result in the loss of several years of growth, so some care at this stage is beneficial.

My personal preference is for old varieties. From our experiences this year with the first fruits from our cordon apples and pears, we have found them to offer most delicious fruits, which I much prefer to modern sorts. No doubt there are modern varieties with some merit, but an old variety also comes with an interesting history. Having decided to plant, at least for the most part, old sorts, one then has a choice as to whether to seek out local varieties or select from the best, provided they are suitable for the local conditions, regardless of where they originally arose. There is certainly some attraction in seeking out local varieties, some of which might be rather in danger of disappearing, but I have generally made my selection from a more broad range, searching old texts from the 1800s for the finest and most interesting sorts of their day. However, if one prefers a modern sort of apple, or other orchard fruit, it is still worth taking the time to make sure that it will grow well in the local environment, and ensure a complimentary selection of varieties.

If planting a number of fruits of the same type, it is worth looking at the season of use, and considering a selection of varieties that will give a long period of fruit. With apples and pears in particular, it is worth noting that the picking time is often not the ideal season of use. The Ribston Pippin, for example, is said to benefit from four to six weeks in store before use. Later apples and pears may be stored for some months before they are ready for eating. It is worth bearing in mind that it is the late apples that typically store best. The early summer apples are often good only for a few days from picking, whilst some late season varieties can keep for several months, perhaps sweetening and improving in storage. Pears are similar, although generally not keeping quite as well as apples.

Depending on the local environment, some attention to the flowering time may also be needed. Fruit trees are grouped according to flowering time, and generally any tree from one pollination group can successfully pollinate any other from that group and one of the neighbouring groups; for example, an apple from group C can pollinate other apple trees from groups B, C, or D. A great many are from groups C and D, but there are oddities that one must be careful with – one of my chosen varieties, Court Pendu Plat, for example, is in group G and rather difficult to find a match for that I would be happy with. Thankfully, crab apples can help, as they flower over a long period and make good pollinators. In the urban setting, one might be able to plant a single apple and still get a crop, because, within the range of the pollinating insects, neighbours may have a suitable pollinator. In isolated environments, more care is needed, although crab apples are often found in hedgerows.

Whilst two trees from the same or neighbouring groups are usually fine, there are some exceptions. For example, the pears Louise Bonne of Jersey and Williams’ Bon Chrétien are mutually incompatible. Others are poor pollinators, and some are triploid. The pollen of triploid varieties is effectively sterile, so one would normally need to plant with two other varieties for all to bear fruit. There are, though, some self fertile varieties that will bear a crop without a pollinator, and others considered partially so, where a modest crop may be produced without cross pollination, but an improved crop when planted with compatible trees. A self fertile variety is, therefore, ideally paired with a triploid variety if only two trees are to be planted and the triploid sort is desired.

The final concern is the selection of an appropriate rootstock for each tree. Fruit trees are rarely grown on their own roots, but on specially developed rootstocks that determine to a large degree the final size and the vigour of the tree. Each variety varies to some extent also, so when selecting rootstocks for our cordons, I put the weaker varieties on a stronger rootstock. Naturally, the environment impacts on the choice of rootstock. On poor soils a more vigorous rootstock may be needed, and some are a little fussy about the conditions, for example, being prone to disease in wet areas. In the orchard, though, it is a fairly simple matter. I am looking for good sized trees, but not quite the most vigorous available. I have selected MM106 for apples, Quince A for pears, and St Julien A for plums. These should form good sized orchard trees, but will be a little reduced I imagine by the soil conditions, our gravelly, sandy loam being rather prone to compaction and difficult for tree roots to penetrate.

Outside of the orchard, a little more care is needed to make sure that the rootstock is of suitable vigour for the training envisaged. I have tended, though, to select a more vigorous rootstock than some might recommend, especially for the cordons, as I am not at all convinced by the very dwarfing stocks. If they struggle to put on vegetative growth, I wonder how they have the capacity to sustain a decent crop of fruit. I prefer, then, to deal with any excess vigour through other means. If adopting one of the restricted forms, pruning is based on developing a system of fruiting spurs. Not all varieties develop spurs; some are tip bearers, and others partial tip bearers. The latter might fruit somewhat in a restricted form, but a proper tip bearing sort is most likely to lose its fruit buds during both formative and routine pruning. In the orchard, though, this is no longer a problem and I can happily plant the partial tip bearer Blenheim Orange without fear of pruning away the crop.

These, then, are some of the general considerations in planning a small orchard. In later articles, I will look at the specific varieties we have selected for our orchard.

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