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Growing fruit in small spaces

by Emma Cooper

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Damsons, credit: Emma Cooper

There’s nothing quite like reaching out your arm and harvesting a juicy pear, or coming in from the garden with your pockets filled with apples. Fruit trees are a low-maintenance way to have a productive garden, and now, with so many different dwarf varieties to choose from, it’s perfectly possible to have a mini orchard in even the smallest space. There are even fruit trees that are happy in pots, which is a great help if you’re always on the move or if you only have a patio or balcony.

Autumn is a great time to be planting pot-grown fruit trees, as the cooler, wetter weather allows them to settle in more easily. But they can be planted all year round as long as you keep them well-watered until they get established. Bare-root fruit trees (grown in the soil and then unearthed for sale) are sold later in the year, once the trees have become dormant, and are usually cheaper.

These days, you can expect your trees to become productive very quickly. There are also disease-resistant varieties available that make it easier to grow healthy fruits.

How to choose your tree

When deciding which fruit to grow, one of the most important factors is how much sun your tree will get. On a sunny patio or up against a south-facing wall you can grow exotic fruits such as peaches, nectarines and apricots. If your chosen spot faces east or west, then you can grow fruits that appreciate a slightly cooler climate – try British favourites such as apples, pears, plums, damsons and gages. A north-facing site is slightly trickier, but can be a perfect home for a morello cherry as long as it’s not entirely shaded.

You can make sure your chosen tree won’t get too big by picking the right rootstock. Most fruit trees are made up of two different parts (one above ground and one below) and it’s the roots that determine how large a tree can grow. The choice of rootstock used to be quite a technical decision, but now it’s easy to find plants labelled as ‘dwarf’ that are suitable for small gardens, and ‘patio’ varieties that are both small and happy in containers.

Another important factor to bear in mind is whether your chosen fruit tree is self-fertile or requires a pollination partner. Apple trees are divided into pollination groups, and usually need another tree nearby in flower at the same time. Many other fruits are available as self-fertile varieties that can be grown alone.

Space-saving solutions

Cordon training, credit: Emma Cooper

You can make use of your vertical spaces by buying fruit trees for training on to a wall or fence. Nurseries offer ready-trained plants that make starting out very easy although you will need to do some pruning and training in future years. There are many different styles of trained fruit, but the most common choices are a fan-shape for fruits with large stones and a cordon (a single main stem at an angle) for apples and pears. If you don’t want to use your walls, then you could try columnar ‘minarette’ trees. They are usually formed of a single main stem and any side branches are pruned off to keep the tree neat and narrow, and are excellent choices for containers.

Alternatively, you could go low. ‘Stepover’ apples are trained into a horizontal bar that makes a lovely and productive edging.

If you want lots of apples but you only have room for one tree, then you can buy ‘family’ trees that bear more than one variety – each one helps to pollinate the others, and you get a selection of different apples.

To squeeze more greenery into your space, it’s also possible to underplant a fruit tree, although you have to be careful that your chosen ground cover doesn’t create too much competition. Try delicate alpine strawberries, if you want to continue the fruit theme, or a selection of flower bulbs to provide colour throughout the year at the base of the tree.

Unusual fruit tree choices

If you want something a little more unusual, figs can be grown in pots in a sunny spot, and indeed bear more fruit when their roots are restricted (if you want to grow figs in the garden then the traditional advice is to box the roots in with paving slabs). A popular choice for gardens is ‘Brown Turkey’, but there are also varieties with stunning, striped fruits, such as ‘Panachee’, that will cause a stir when they make an appearance in the fruit bowl.

'Brown Turkey' fig, credit: Emma Cooper

You could also try an elder, as with regular pruning they can be kept to a manageable size and can even be grown in pots. They offer a dual harvest of elderflowers in spring and elderberries in autumn (that need to be cooked thoroughly before you can eat them), and are very ornamental (especially ‘Black Lace’).

Looking after your trees

For plants that are to be grown in containers, check the minimum recommended container size when you order your tree and remember that a larger container means less frequent watering. Use soil-based compost, as the weight anchors the tree more firmly and holds nutrients and water for longer. (Balcony trees may be the exception as a soil-free mix is much lighter where weight is an issue.)

Keep trees well-watered, particularly when they are flowering and when the fruits are ripening, but make sure they don’t sit in water during cold periods. Apply a general purpose, slow-release fertilizer, or a generous layer of compost, in the spring.

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