Fruit tree species
Apple trees are generally easy to grow, and because there are so many apple varieties there is invariably a good choice for almost any growing situation, from cool temperate to subtropical.
Apples are perhaps the most versatile of all temperate fruits, and one of the most widely cultivated tree fruits. Almost all cultivated apple varieties belong to the species Malus domestica, and are botanically part of the Rose family - apple blossom has an obvious resemblance to wild rose flowers. Apples trees were one of the earliest fruit trees to be cultivated, and originate from central Asia. There are now thousands of different apple cultivars or varieties.
Apples display perhaps a greater range of flavours, appearance, and texture than any other tree fruits. This diversity makes apples a particularly satisifying fruit for home cultivation. Without much difficulty (or space) one can grow a number of different apple trees which will keep a family supplied with fresh apples from mid-summer to late autumn, and with a good spread of flavours and uses.
Many countries have a tradition of apple varieties grown specifically for the production of cider (hard cider in North America). These varieties are generally not edible, but are grown for the qualities of their juice.
Cider production usually relies on a blend of different cider apples, and cider varieties are divided into four groups on the characteristics of the juice they produce:
|Higher tannin||Bitter sweet||Bitter sharp|
Some mainstream apple varieties can also be used for cider production or in cider blends, and a number of Crab apples are also useful for cider blends.
Crab apples (Ornamental malus) are very closely related to apples, being part of the same genus Malus. The only difference between an apple and a crabapple is the size of the fruit, and it is usually considered that any apple variety with a fruit size of less than 2" is a crabapple.
Crab apple trees are grown primarily for their ornamental value. This starts in spring with a profusion of attractive blossom, which is often scented. The brightly coloured ornamental fruits hang attractively on the tree throughout autumn, providing colour in the garden and a source of food for birds. Some varieties also have attractive bronze leaves.
Most crab apples are edible - although rather unpalatable for eating fresh. However many varieties are valuable for cooking - crab apples contain large amounts of pectin, and are useful in the kitchen for making fruit jellies. Several varieties are also useful for cider blends.
The prolific blossom also makes most crab apples excellent pollinators for all other apple and cider-apple varieties - they typically produce five to ten times more pollen than a typical apple tree. The blossom is also usually more long-lasting than that of normal apples, and spans several of the mainstream apple flowering groups. Crab apples are naturally precocious and will often start producing blossom and fruit in their 2nd or 3rd years.
If you are new to growing fruit trees, plum trees make an excellent choice. Plum trees are easy to grow - usually easier than apples and pears - and require very little training or pruning. The only horticultural challenge is that plums flower quite early in spring, so locations that are prone to frosts are best avoided (or choose a late-flowering or frost-resistant variety). They thrive in most conditions, but they prefer water-retentive soils, and mulching is therefore particularly important for plum trees - farmyard manure is ideal.
Unlike most apples and pears, many plum varieties are self-fertile or partially self-fertile and do not need a pollination partner. For plum varieties that are not self-fertile, another plum tree of a different variety flowering at the same time is usually all that is necessary to ensure good pollination and heavy crops - there are few of the pollination incompatibilities found with apples, pears and cherries.
Plums are also more nutrient-rich than apples or pears, and comparable to some other "superfoods" such as blueberries. Although plum trees do suffer from a range of diseases, they seem to catch them less often than other fruit varieties. Most important of all, the flavour of ripe home-grown plums is vastly superior to shop-bought fruit. Indeed in our opinion freshly-picked dessert plums can offer the most exquisite sweet flavours of any fruit available from the temperate garden.
We offer mostly 'European' plum trees - from the species Prunus domestica. European plums have a much better and more interesting range of flavours than the 'Japanese' plums usually found in supermarkets. Most garden plum trees in Northern Europe are of this species, and they are well suited to temperate climates, being hardier than the Japanese varieties and flowering later. Whilst European plums do not store particularly well, the fruit usually ripens over a 1-2 week period, during which time the tree can be picked daily to ensure a steady supply of fruit.
There is also a sub-group of European plums known as Gages, usually ranked within the species Prunus domestica, but sometimes sub-categorised as the "Reine Claude" group. Gage trees look similar to plum trees but the fruits are smaller and rounder than European plums, and either green or golden/yellow in colour. Gage trees prefer slightly warmer growing conditions than other European plums to bring out their full flavour, and their natural home is France - but they can be grown in any temperate climate. Gages are renowned for their unique distinctive rich-sweet flavour, .
Pears are related to apples, and most of the horticultural requirements and challenges of apples apply also to growing pear trees. However pear trees are a bit more demanding than apple trees - they prefer slightly warmer conditions and are a bit less tolerant of soil and situation, and crop yields are lower.
On the plus side, pear trees are less susceptible to the various pests and diseases commonly experienced with apples.
When it comes to flavour, pears have an aura of exclusivity which you don't tend to find in apples.
Although there are some culinary pear varieties, all the ones we offer are dessert pears - good for eating fresh, but also useful for culinary purposes too.
Pears are fundamentally self-sterile so will require a pollination partner, in other words a compatible pear tree of a different variety growing nearby. Even the varieties we list as self-fertile will be far more productive with a pollination partner. Conference is probably the only pear variety that is reliably self-fertile.
Most European and Asian pears are genetically compatible, but most Asian pears flower ahead of European ones so in practice cross-pollination is not usually reliable.
Perry is a traditional drink made from fermented pear juice, and in recent years has enjoyed a resurgence in interest, along with its cousin cider. Perry is now sometimes called pear cider and although this is incorrect, the term seems to have made it more accessible to consumers.
As with cider apples, perry pears are used specifically for the qualities of their juice and cannot be eaten.
Perry pears are closely related to mainstream pears, and will cross-polinate with them, and both are classified in the species Pyrus communis. However it is likely that perry pears are a distinct sub-species.
If grown on seedling rootstocks perry pears can be very long-lived, as well as growing to a considerable height and spread.
Perry production has a very long history in England, but has tended to be less widespread than cider production, and until recently the vast majority of perry orchards were to be found in a small area of western England, mainly in Gloucestershire. Perry pears are also grown in the traditional French cider growing areas, but the French drink is produced in a different way to English perry.
Cherries are perhaps the most diverse member of the genus Prunus, which includes other popular stone fruits such as plums, peaches, and apricots. There are two main types, the sweet cherry Prunus avium (best for eating fresh) and the acid or sour cherry Prunus cerasus (best for culinary use).
Cherry trees are generally easy to grow, but sweet cherries like sun, so choose a sunny aspect when planting. All cherries prefer well-drained soil, so avoid areas that are prone to water-logging. The most serious disease affecting cherry trees is bacterial canker, and this tends to be more aggressive in wet soils.
The other main horticultural challenge is bird protection. It's a foregone conclusion that birds will get your cherry crop before you do, because they are prepared to eat slightly un-ripe cherries whereas humans are not. However the simple precaution of netting the trees just before the harvest will solve this problem - on very large and inaccessible trees drape a net over some of the lower branches, allowing the birds to take their share from the higher branches.
Cherry trees do not need much attention as they grow, a simple mulch to keep the area free of weeds is sufficient. Once fruiting begins the mulch remains important, and should be extended to match the spread of the branches, because it acts as a sponge and therefore helps prevent fruit-splitting after heavy downpours. You should also apply compost and/or manure during the winter to supply the tree with the nutrients it needs for growth and fruiting.
Provided you can keep the birds off, cherry trees make a good choice for the garden because cherries are a fruit that is best eaten straight from the tree - sweet cherries do not keep more than a day or so and the flavour fades very rapidly. Shop-bought cherries are often quite expensive, and can never be as fresh as those you pick from your own tree.
Sweet cherry varieties can be crudely classified into two groups: traditional English, and modern. The traditional English varieties are in fact mostly of central European origin (and have very un-English names) but were the mainstay of cherry orchards in Kent for the first half of the 20th century or earlier. These varieties are typified by good traditional cherry flavours, but are not particularly easy to grow and often have complicated pollination requirements.
Modern cherry development is now an international affair but was started by the Summerland research station in British Columbia, Canada in the 1940s. The original objective was to tackle the horticultural problems associated with commercial cherry production, particularly fruit-splitting and pollination. The most famous of these new varieties is Stella but there are many others (often starting with an "S"-sound, such as Sweetheart, Sunburst, and Celeste). Whilst they lack the tradition and romance associated with the older English varieties, the flavours are still excellent and their self-fertility and easier horticultural characteristics make them a much better choice for the gardener with space for only one or two cherry trees.
Some other terms that often arise with cherries:
- Bigarreau. This means a firm-fleshed variety (as opposed to a soft flesh).
- Heart. Whilst most cherries are spherical, many have a distinct heart-like shape.
- White cherries. This refers to the flesh rather than the skin colour. Whilst most cherries have a dark flesh, white cherries have a white or pale yellow flesh. Most white cherries are old traditional varieties.
There is not such a great variation in the flavour of cherries as there is with, say, apples, so when choosing which varieties to grow, it is perhaps more important to think about the ripening season and other horticultural attributes. All cherries are superb if eaten straight from the tree on the day they
You might also want to browse our fruit tree collections.