Back to gardening! And I thought I’d make a list of some of the lessons learned trying to grow fruit trees over the last few years. Your mileage may vary, but here’s the start of my list.
Trees don’t want to grow in pots
I’m not even sure this is tree-specific. In my experience, growing plants permanently in pots is just making working for yourself. Pots heat and cool much more quickly, which means plants can be shocked into doing the wrong thing, or even killed if they’re a bit tender. They dry out quicker too, which means very regular watering. And then of course you’ve got the problem of nutrient depletion, which means feeding with chemical fertilisers or replacing soil.
Almost any plant is easier to grow directly in the ground, and that applies doubly for large shrubs and trees.
Dwarf rootstocks are too much hassle
So if pots aren’t working out, and you’re still determined to not let a tree be a tree, then the next stop is dwarfing rootstocks. There’s just one problem, and that’s that the really dwarfing ones are just as finicky as keeping something in a pot. They mostly work by being really bad at the job of being roots for the tree grafted on to them. They can’t tolerate any competition, they can’t tolerate drought, they can’t anchor the tree and stop it falling over if a stiff wind blows in the wrong direction. The stress they induce also, in my experience, makes the tree much more susceptible to disease.
I lost an apple on M27 and a cherry on Gisela 5, and that was enough for me. I’m not saying that you should always go for the most vigorous rootstock possible, but semi-dwarfing (QA, MM106, …) should be the limit for low maintenance growing.
Quince is fussy
I’ve got pears and a medlar on Quince A rootstock in a well-drained corner of the garden and the pears especially have been less than vigorous. Quince likes moist, fertile, neutral to acidic soils. If your soil is dry or alkaline then you’re better off going for pear rootstocks, especially if you want the tree to go anywhere fast.
No tree ever looks like the pictures in the pruning guides
Books on fruit trees are full of pictures of young trees with nice evenly spaced branches, which can be trained into perfect goblet shaped bushes. At least for me, the world doesn’t work that way. For example, I’ve got:
A Fiesta apple that wants to be a weeping willow. It generates lots of thin, twiggy growth which then sags under the weight of an apple or two. Pruning it into a nice goblet is basically impossible, so in the end I decided to let it be a twiggy mess, since it presumably knows how to be an apple tree better than I do.
A Howgate Wonder which almost is a nice goblet shape, but which completely refuses to grow in one particular direction. Every year I carefully prune it to encourage it to fill the gap, which happens to be towards the south with no obstruction of the light, but the new growth just won’t go there. It will, however, happily grow towards the nearby, light obstructing leylandii hedge.
A Yellow Egg plum that’s almost columnar in growth habit, despite initial attempts to prune to outward facing buds and discourage vertical growth.
I’m sure I’m not unique, and my trees aren’t special in any way. It’s simply that plants have their own ideas about how they want to grow, and sometimes it’s not worth fighting. I personally just forget the pictures from the books and:
- Try to steer branches growing in awkward directions by pruning to buds facing in the right direction
- Remove dead, diseased and crossing branches
- Remove very vertical side-shoots
If the result looks nothing like a bush then that’s fine with me.
Old varieties are often less finicky
New varieties are often low vigour and heavy cropping. A tree that doesn’t grow much and diverts all its energy into fruit production while still very young is going to be a stressed tree. While I have some happy newer varieties (Fiesta), there does seem to be a pattern of older varieties being the happiest to look after themselves. Since most of them are no longer commercially significant, they’re also often more naturally disease resistant than the mass planted varieties like Cox, and they may have interesting flavours (modern varieties tend to be bred for supermarket standards and mass market appeal).
The cost of that is that those varieties often have their own problems, like more variable yields, biennial cropping, and less self-fertility. But for those of us who have to work for a living, low input – medium output may be a better deal with high input – high output.
Sometimes you just have to cut your losses
Trees are a long term investment. They’ll hopefully be going for decades or centuries, so it’s hard to accept when after a few years a serious problem develops. But when it becomes obvious the end is coming, you’re better off accepting it. You have to be realistic – you know in your heart when something’s on its last legs.
There’s at least two reasons not to wait for a recovery that isn’t coming:
- If the cause of the death might be disease, you don’t want it to infect any other trees in the same family
- Given the long lead time to get a tree into production, you want to get the replacement in sooner rather than later if a tree really is doomed. That extra year or two for it to shuffle off this mortal coil could be time for its replacement to settle in and start growing.