Growing and Pruning Fruit
The rewards of cultivating a fruit garden are well worth the modest effort involved. The main operations consist of pruning, spraying and feeding.
Pruning, of both soft and tree fruits, is a relatively simple job, once the basic rules have been mastered, and becomes progressively less time-consuming as the trees come to maturity.
Spraying techniques have been greatly simplified, with the numerous multi-purpose sprays now available cutting down on the work involved. If you buy only healthy, disease-free plants and look after them well, with luck you should not need to spend much time on spraying.
Enriching the soil well with garden compost, manure or other sources of humus at planting time will cut down on the need for feeding later. Mulching with humus-rich materials, plus annual applications of fertilizer, will take care of subsequent feeding.
To cut down on labour further, soft fruits should be grown in a cage. This is the easiest and most effective way of protecting crops from birds.
If you haven’t enough space for a proper fruit plot, you could grow some fruit trees in the ornamental garden. An apple or pear tree in blossom is just as beautiful as the flowering crab-apples, Japanese cherries and other trees chosen solely for their appearance.
With the older kinds of fruit tree, pruning could be a long and arduous job, necessitating the use of ladders, long-handled pruners and so on. The average present-day garden is not large enough to accommodate this type of tree, so that nowadays most gardeners grow varieties that are grafted on to special dwarfing root-stocks.
This makes pruning simpler and an added advantage with this type of tree is that it fruits much sooner. Growing apples and pears in espalier and cordon form has already been mentioned under Hedging, but there are other types of dwarf tree that can be just as useful in the small garden.
The most prolific cropper and the easiest to manage of these is the bush form. Apples and pears in this form should be planted 3-4.5m (10-15 ft) apart, in rows 2.5-3 m (8-10 ft) apart. Plums and cherries will need rather more space than this.
Pyramid trees, which are only slightly less labour-saving than the bush type, consist of a central main stem with progressively shortened side branches that give the tree its tapering pyramidal shape. These would be a good choice where a number of different varieties are to be grown. They can be planted as little as 1-1.2 m (3-4ft) apart, in rows 2.5-3 m (8-10 ft) apart. Pruning to maintain the shape is not quite such a simple operation as it is with bush trees, because the side branches must be shortened annually to maintain the tapering outline. Apart from certain varieties of plums and greengages, this form is suited mainly to apples and pears, which, as mentioned above, can also be obtained in cordon form (the most space-saving type of all).
All the types of tree mentioned are obtainable in bush form, as are cherries. Generally speaking, however, sweet cherries are not worth the labour involved, owing to the difficulty in protecting the fruit from birds. Morello cherry trees in fan-trained form are a better proposition. They crop well against a north wall and the fruit can be easily netted. Maintaining the fan structure, however, calls for a fair amount of pruning.
Where fruit is concerned, the choice of suitable varieties is of great importance. Most apples and pears need another variety to fertilize them properly, although some of the so-called ‘self-fertile’ ones will produce quite good crops on their own. To overcome the difficulties of cross- fertilization in a very small garden, a ‘family tree’ can be grown. On such trees, several different varieties are grafted on to a single rootstock.
The drawback with these trees, however, lies in the difficulty in pruning. The different varieties will need varying treatments if the balance of the tree is to be maintained, and if a takeover by the most vigorous variety is to be avoided.
When fruit trees are first planted, the only pruning needed is the cutting out of any obviously dead wood and stems that are crossing or growing into the centre. After that, until growth starts to slow down as the trees reach maturity, annual pruning will consist, in general, of shortening main shoots by one third and cutting back laterals (side shoots) to two or three buds to encourage the development of fruiting spurs.
Plums and cherries are pruned in late summer, as soon as the fruit has been gathered. Winter pruning of plums is not advisable, owing to their susceptibility to silver leaf disease.
All the various pruning procedures for soft fruits are easy to carry out and none of them involves much time or labour.
Blackcurrants bear all their fruit on stems which were formed during the previous year. Because of this, they should be pruned immediately after the fruit has been gathered or during the following autumn and winter. Old growths should either be cut out altogether or shortened by one third, depending on the number of new young replacement shoots available.
In contrast to blackcurrants, red and white currants bear their fruit on short ‘fruiting spurs’ which develop on the older wood as well as on the new, young wood. Pruning, therefore, consists of cutting back all side shoots each winter to within 2.5 cm (1 in) of the main stems. This will encourage the formation of fruiting spurs. The main branches can be allowed to grow until the desired height is reached – usually about 1.2-1.5m (4-5 ft).
Both red and white currants can also be grown as cordons. To prune cordon red and white currants, shorten the laterals (the side shoots that grow out at an angle from the main shoots, or ‘leaders’) to five or six leaves from the base during summer. In late autumn of the same year, prune these back further to two or three buds from the base. Leave the leaders unpruned until they have reached the top wire.
Gooseberries are also easy to prune. The method is similar to that for bush apples, and entails the removal of old and dead growths and pruning to keep the centre of the bush open; this will admit light and air and allow you to pick the fruit without being pricked by the sharp thorns. Gooseberries can also be grown as cordons; prune these by shortening all the laterals to three buds from the base and cutting back the leaders when they have reached the desired height.
With both bush and cordon forms, prune your gooseberries in early winter, unless birds are a problem, when you should wait until the buds break.
Raspberries, loganberries and blackberries fruit on canes of the previous year’s growth. Once they have fruited, the current season’s canes die off and these should be cut out as soon as possible. The best of the new young canes – about six to each plant – can then be tied in as replacements and the rest pruned out.
Blackberries and loganberries will need tying in to wires, strained horizontally to stout posts at 60 cm (2 ft) intervals. The busy gardener may prefer to concentrate on raspberries. By stretching the horizontal wires in pairs, about 5 cm (2 in) apart, tying can be avoided since the raspberry canes can be trained through the two wires without any other support.
Although it does not strictly fall under the heading of pruning, the removal of runners from strawberries is an operation which it seems appropriate to deal with here. A runner is an aerial stem that roots at its tip when it touches moist soil, and forms a new plant. Strawberries produce masses of runners each summer-, when the crop will be covered by netting to prevent birds taking the ripening fruit. Although it may be a little tedious lifting off and replacing the netting, you should remove any runners as soon as they appear (because they use food that would otherwise go towards swelling the fruit) – unless of course you want to increase your stock. Take care to propagate only from strong healthy plants.