Tuesday 1 January 2013

Planting fruit trees

Having cleared and dug out an unruly bramble hedge over the last year, I've clawed back some space on my plot - about 6.5m x 3m in total. What I thought was a thin hedge was sprawling year on year over the rest of the plot.

In its place, I planned to plant some new fruit trees rather than create new veg beds. I already have damsons, plums, pears and a quince tree, and I find myself thinking more about fruit when there's a space to fill. Fruit trees tend to be much less labour-intensive than vegetables: they don't need replanting every year, just a spot of pruning, weeding under the canopy and checking for pests every now and again.

Another reason for going with fruit, I realised as I was cutting down the bramble hedge, is that it had been useful, not just in giving us a glut of blackberries every year, but in acting as a windbreak, as it lined the western edge of the plot, blocking and dissipating the prevailing winds. I'm hoping the fruit trees will do much the same job as they mature.

I consulted my ten year old as to exactly which fruit trees to plant; after all, he will be eating most of the produce. After some lively discussion and an agreement that it's disappointing that you cannot grow mangoes outdoors in London and really not worth trying, we chose two cherry trees and two greengages.

Greengage Reine Claude, just planted in, with  a sturdy stake
and a soft tie made from a leg from a pair of tights.

The cherries, because they are probably jointly our favourite fruit and even in high season they remain very expensive in the shops these days. The greengages are a nod to the beautiful Reina Claudias we buy when in northern Spain: greeny-gold bite-size fruits tasting like honeyed plums in all the supermarkets in July and August.

Both sets of trees have been grown on dwarfing rootstock, so that - I hope - they will fruit better and quicker than an ungrafted tree, but also crucially to keep the mature trees to a manageable size, so that we can reach all the fruit!

Both cherry trees are of the variety Stella, which is a sweet dessert cherry producing beautiful dark red fruits, and grafted onto Colt rootstock to keep the overall height down to around 3.65m when fully grown. I figure that if the birds look like eating the cherries before they're ready (and they will) I should be able to throw a net over the whole tree to keep the fruit safe until it's ripe.

The greengages are Reine Claude de Vars, and grown on St Julien A rootstock, which will cap the tree at about 4m at its full height.

All the trees were bought from Victoriana Nursery Gardens - I've had consistently good results with their plants and on this occasion they had the varieties I was looking for in stock at the right time.

Each tree was planted in the same way: with the bare roots soaked for an hour or so before planting, I dug a hole big enough to take the sapling comfortably, so that when placed in the hole the soil will come to the same level as it did in its pot. I've been told it's best to dig a roughly rectangular or square hole to encourage the trees to push out strong roots (apparently in a circular hole, the roots will grow round and round without spreading so much). Similarly, while you should refill the planting hole with plenty of organic matter, and water it in well, you shouldn't add fertiliser at planting time: you want the tree to send down strong roots in search of nourishment, not loll around luxuriating in an artifically enriched environment.

I also staked each tree to give it support while the roots establish themselves, and tied the main trunk to the stake with a soft tie (you can buy these, but I tend to use old pairs of tights for this). Finally I watered the tree in - a whole bucketful - added a mulch to conserve the water in the soil and help to suppress weeds, and tied a greaseband around the main trunk of each.

Greaseband on Conference pear: this protects
against a number of winter moths 
The greasebands protect very specifically against several varieties of winter moth: wingless females will climb up the tree to mate during the winter months and it is their caterpillars which eat the leaves in springtime.

The other great pest of apples, pears and plums (and other members of the plum family) are winged moths which lay their eggs on the leaves, and whose caterpillars bore into the ripening fruit to feast. Codling moths can give you maggotty apples and pears; plum moth will affect plums, greengages and damsons. Plum sawfly (not the same as plum moth) will cause the unripe fruit to fall to the ground prematurely.

Greasebands won't deter any of these winged moths. Here I've found pheromone traps to be effective. You place a pheromone capsule on a sticky band placed inside a rainproof trap. Hang the trap at about 4ft high in the tree and the female should be distracted by the pheromone and fly into the trap instead of the tree. On a commercial scale growers use these traps to ascertain how great a problem they have before deciding whether they need to use sprays to eliminate the moths. On a domestic scale, ie, if you have just 2-3 trees of each type, the traps can keep moth damage down to a minimum.

So I take double precautions and the results vary. Before I used the pheromone traps, my plum crop was largely unusable. Since installing the traps and renewing them each spring, a bad year means that say one in four plums will have some plum moth damage, a good year, such as 2012 will have zero damage. Yet this year, I had undamaged Conference pears, but maggots in many of the Doyen de Comice. The quince have never suffered any moth damage, although codling moth can attack quinces as well as apples and pears, according to the RHS.
Quince tree, Meeches Prolific, planted as a bare root sapling in 2008 and now
in its third year of fruiting. Although 2012 was the poorest yield yet, I'm putting this
down to the generally wet conditions and a late frost which we think got the blossom in late April.

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