In my last garden I had a little orchard of four fruit trees, which lived in the chicken run. There was an apple, a pear, a cherry and a plum. They were all grown on dwarfing rootstocks, sold as ideal for small gardens, naturally small trees. They came with the instructions I would need to follow to keep them pruned, which I dutifully tried to follow.
I largely failed. The birds ate any cherries before they were even ripe. The plum tree became infested with wasps (even though it had no fruit). The apple tree, Saturn, was lovely – it produced a good crop and the apples were lovely, but there were so many that they had to be stored, and I had nowhere to store them. The pear tree grew like topsy, I was forever trying to take the top out of it. It grew hard pears; no one ate them.
Now I have a smaller garden, and although I would like to include some fruit I would like it to be more manageable and suitably productive. I may have found the answer in “Grow a little fruit tree”, a book written by Ann Ralph that extolls the virtues of small trees.
Rather controversially, Ralph doesn’t believe in growing trees on dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstocks – she is convinced that a larger rootstock leads to a healthier and more stable tree, and that any fruit tree can be kept small simply by pruning it twice a year. There is a key step early on, which I won’t reveal here, but her focus is on summer pruning, which reduces the vigour of the tree and keeps it manageable. Combined with ruthless fruit thinning, you’ll have small, healthy trees that produce a suitable quantity of fresh fruit for much of the year. By keeping your fruit trees smaller, you’ll have space for more varieties, to spread your harvests, or try new things.
And because the trees are kept manageably small, pruning them remains a simple and manageable task that you can complete with your feet firmly on the ground. There’s no need for ladders or unwieldy long loppers.
But you do have to prune the tree twice a year – fruit trees are domesticated species, and they can’t thrive without human intervention. Let them go feral and they’ll give you poor crops, suffers from pests and diseases and rapidly spread out of control.
“One sure way to disenchantment with fruit growing specifically or gardening generally”, she writes, “is to relinquish attentive participation”. But the benefit of regular interaction with your tree is that you get to know it well, and can appreciate and enjoy its seasonal rhythms.
“Grow a little fruit tree” is partly a manifesto for a small tree mentality, and the simple pruning methods Ralph promotes, but it’s also a manual for looking after your trees. It discusses soil and compost, pests and diseases, rootstocks and the importance of selecting the right varieties for your tastes and climate. As Ralph points out, if you stop looking simply for varieties that will be the right size for your garden and instead look for varieties that meet your personal requirements, you’ll be on route for a much tastier harvest.
And it’s a technique that fits in well with my Small Harvest idea – “Home gardeners typically do better with reasonable amounts of fruit”, Ralph says. Rather than a glut of apples or other fruits that fall to the ground and rot because you can’t harvest them or eat them, you could have a garden of edible delights in manageable quantities – whether you have a big family and enjoy preserving, or are in a household of one with no storage space.
The book has a brief glossary, and there are colour photos throughout, together with some lovely botanical illustrations. It is written in a friendly, conversational style, and is never patronising or confusing. So if you’re thinking of adding a fruit tree or two to your garden, and would be interested in knowing more about keeping them small and productive, this could well be the book for you. Small is beautiful, they say 🙂
Grow a little fruit tree
by Ann Ralph
Kindle edition, £9.86, published 10 Jan 2015.
Paperback, 168 pages, £10.38, published 1 Feb 2015.
Publisher: Storey Publishing
Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of the ebook by the publisher, but these words are my own.