Fruit Trees

Planting Distances Between Fruit Trees

How far apart should fruit trees be planted? This is one of the most commonly asked questions when someone sets out to plant an orchard, or a row of cordons, espaliers or fan trained fruit trees.

The short answer is that free standing fruit trees should be planted one metre further apart in the row and two metres further apart between rows than the total mature width of the tree. So if an apple tree will end up 3 metres across (diameter) then plant it 4 metres away from its neighbour in the same row and 5 metres away from the corresponding tree in the next row.

Cordon fruit trees, espaliers and fan trained trees should be planted so they do not touch when fully grown.

The answers are simple, but because fruit trees vary, they may need a little explanation.

Fruit tree orchards first.

An orchard is simply a collection of free standing fruit trees.  Emphasis here in the phrases “free standing” and “fruit trees”.

Orchards are free standing – the last thing you want is to have to renew stakes and ties used to support trees because their own roots are not strong enough to do the job.  Inevitably the stake breaks when the tree is in full fruit (at its heaviest) and tree and crop are both lost.

Orchards are collections of fruit trees. It is rare in domestic gardens and smallholdings to have single variety orchards.  Most commercial orchards are multi-variety as well although they tend to be single species (i.e apple trees only). In smaller orchards, it is perfectly usual to have a mix of species as well, so apples can grow with cherries, plums and pears.

For a free standing form such as an apple tree to be self supporting it needs to be growing on a rootstock of sufficient vigour to produce the root system large enough to anchor the tree in winds and when laden with fruit. For apples the rootstocks required would be M111,  MM106 or M25. Try to make sure these are grown in the UK as we advise on our homepage. The rootstock you choose determines the eventual size of the tree. So MM106 and M111 trees should be planted between 4-5 metres apart, while M25 trees will need at least 6 metres.

Apples are the most widely grown fruit tree in the UK; an orchard survey in the West Country a couple of years ago revealed that over 4 out of 5 fruit trees grown in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire were apples.  Over half of the remainder were pears with cherries coming a poor third.



Frost Affects Fruit Tree Pollination

We tend to take fruit tree pollination for granted. But it need not be so…. Apple trees with no apples? Pear trees without even a pair of pears?  Was 2012 a fruitless summer for you? Probably and the proof of this article was in the prices and origin of the fruit on the supermarket shelves.  This was a miserable year for fruit that grows on trees.  Great for soft fruits like redcurrants, but dire for topfruit like apples, pears and plums. At times it felt as if this site was pointless….

As in REALLY, TRULY, DESPERATELY bad.  Our orchard of 37 apple trees actually had 5 trees that had no fruit at all – as in none. I have never seen a season as bad as 2012.

The reasons were mainly in the weather.  We had a lovely warm February; unseasonably warm.  Plants all over the UK broke into growth as a result. The buds on the early flowering trees and plants (generally those that flower before they produce their leaves), started to swell as root systems began to pump sap in response to the warmth.  As sap rises, so flower buds force open their protective casings and the water content of soft flowering material increases.

Early March was pretty much the same and then the cold weather came. Once a plant has started into growth it cannot be reversed.  So the second half of March brought bitter cold all over Europe. Here in sunny Somerset we recorded -14C in mid-March.  Temperatures stayed low and the weather stayed dry (you will remember that there was much talk of hosepipe bans). Flower buds were mashed by the freeze and there was not enough moisture around for fruit trees to even try to repair the damage. So flowers were deformed and pollen, such as there was, sterile.

Not all of it of course, just most of it.

The weather also did terrible damage to bumble and mason bee populations – these are the pollinating workhorses of our ecosystem doing far more work than the average honeybee, but without warm hives and friendly beekeepers to feed them on unseasonable days. They emerged too early and then were frozen out.  If you think of honey bees as “busy” you should talk to a mason bee which does in a day what a honey bee can only manage in a week.

So no flowers, no pollen and no pollinators. A fruitless summer. Yuck. The blessing such as it was lay in rising water levels that were clearly critically low in March 2012. Hosepipe bans were averted and those plants that rejoice in plentiful water really partied. Watermelons anyone?


A crab apple tree helps the pollen go down
John Downie Crab Apples

Ripe John Downie Crab Apples

Crab apple trees improve apple yields and if you have the space in your orchard, you might like to plant a variety such as Malus John Downie or Malus Evereste in November. These are both crab apples that flower pretty much all the way through the fruiting apple flowering season and are sufficiently related to domestic apples to be perfect pollination partners. Because of their long flowering period and viable pollen, you will never have to worry about apple pollination groups again which makes growing fruit trees even more fun….

One John Downie or Evereste crab apple will permit the pollination of an orchard of anything up to 40-50 trees. What is better is that both these varieties also carry masses of crabs that will enable you to make enough crab apple jelly to keep you family going all year. Evereste is probably the heavier cropper of the two, has a semi-weeping habit when laden with fruit which look like perfect miniature apples.  John Downie’s crabs, on the other hand, are probably more decorative.

When planting a crab apple as a pollinating tree, try to get it as close to the centre of the orchard as possible. Obviously, if you have a large orchard and need more than on pollinator, you will want to “sprinkle” them around a bit.  However, (subject to our advice below) it is a bad idea to plant in the hole left by an apple tree that has died or been grubbed out as apples, being members of the rose family, suffer from replant disease.

Our (non guaranteed opinion) based on testing in our own orchard is that replant disease can be overcome with the use of Rootgrow. This is a natural preparation that contains mycorrhizal fungi. These are fungi that occur naturally and that form a beneficial association with plant root systems. They provide water the the plant in exchange of receiving its waste starches.  The fungi grow incredibly fast and can effectively increase a tree’s root system several hundred times in the months following planting.  By the way, whether you are worried about replant disease or not, all fruit trees will establish faster and crop more heavily if you plant them with Rootgrow.  At the time of writing it is the only planting aid of its type that is recommended by the Royal Horticultural Society. We think it is a remarkable product and a real boon to gardeners of all types, not just those who grow fruit trees.

Pineapple Apples in England in October

Ripe Pitmaston Apples straight from the treePitmaston pineapples are not what it “says on the tin”. But they are next best thing. If you have never tried a Pitmaston Pineapple apple then you are missing out; it is typical of the type of fruit this site is trying to promote.

It is a funny little thing, small at maybe only three inches long, conical in shape and golden yellow with slight russeting when ripe. It is a child sized apple but don’t let the kids eat them all (my grandaughter loves them and is therefore an exception to the rule…) as these little apples pack a punch well above their weight.

The flesh is creamy and the texture is crunchy – a really ripe Pitmaston Pineapple cracks when you bite it. It had better because they are so small that you will only get 2 or 3 bites; BUT the taste is sensational. No other apple tastes quite like it.   Lightly acid with masses of sugar and a flowery scent. Deliciously sweet for the first 5-10 seconds and then an absolutely unmistakable after-taste of pineapple rushes in and a grey, chilly, windswept Somerset (as it often is in October) suddenly becomes Jamaica.

And it does not do this just in Somerset actually, I just live here. The Pitmaston Pineapple was bred in Worcestershire as so many good apples have been. It was bred  (by a Mr White who managed the orchards of Lord Foley of Whitley) in the town of Pitsmaston, near Worcester. Lord Foley sold it to Mr Williams a losal nurseryman who introduced it to a wider market towards the end of the eighteenth century. It was a seedling of Golden Pippin but neither Mr White nor Mr Williams ever revealed the other parent (if either ever knew).

Pitmaston Pineapple trees are heavy cropping, have excellent disease resistance (they are especially resistant to apple scab) and are as tough as old boots. They are self sterile, which means that they cannot pollinate themselves but they will pollinate and be pollinated by fertile and self sterile apples in apple pollination groups C,D and E. They will grow pretty much anywhere that apples can in the UK so they work well in frost pockets, higher locations and in the North and Scotland. As a spur fruiting apple, it is suitable for training against a wall as a cordon or espalier.

Which is a good thing because Pitmaston Pineapple is one of those apples that get children (and adults) interested in fruit. Every orchard or garden should have one.

Scotts Nursery – Scotts of Merriott – goes into liquidation

Scott’s of Merriott was, as my father (who was born in the reign of the Great Queen) used to say, a name to conjure with.  In their day they were unquestionably the premier fruit tree nursery in the country. He and I (from the age of about 10 onwards) used to make an annual pilgrimage in our 1955 Ford Zephyr Zodiac from Wrotham in Kent to Merriott in Somerset to buy bareroot fruit and roses. Dad would not have gone anywhere else (except perhaps to buy from me now I have a nursery of my own) so he would have been very sad indeed to see a great name slip away. And as a published author he would have had a few better chosen words to say about it on this site than I can muster.

Scott’s have been around a long time – so long in fact that there is considerable evidence to support the claim that the use of the word “nursery” as applied to plants originated with them. They grew roses in considerable number (and well) but fruit trees and apple trees in particular were their speciality.  Holders of a national collection of apple trees, one of the biggest trainers of skilled grafters with (in the 60’s) the largest apprenticeship scheme in the UK fruit industry, tragically Scott’s are no more.

They lost their way perhaps 15 years ago as they tried to “modernise” and become a garden centre. Merriott is a lovely town in Somerset, but passing trade is not its strong suit.  Marketing was weak – the last Scott’s catalogue was produced in either 2004 or 2005, they came late to the internet and customer service which had once been the best, declined.

The death throes lasted for about three years – Scotts accounts show it lost money consistently over that time and it went though an administration (reflecting an inability to continue trading solvently) and settlement with its creditors in 2007.  However all that came to an end when the liquidators were appointed in September 2009. Sadly, no one is interested in the business any more – sales are perhaps 10% (in real terms) of what they were even 5 or 6 years ago, the site is off the beaten track, the trained staff have gone to other specialist fruit tree nurseries such as Ashridge Trees, Keepers, Bernwode and others. And as a result the customers have gone too.  The liquidators have a closing down sale in the second week of November.

The sad moral of the story is that fruit tree nurseries, like any other business need to stick to their knitting.  Be clear about what you are doing, be good at it and  never stop trying to be better than you were.

Given the way the industry has moved on, we are unlikely to see the like of Scotts again – Sic transit gloria…..

Orchard Hygiene – A Woman’s Work is Never done

Having  healthy fruit trees is a necessary precursor to maximising their crops. The debris under trees becomes increasingly unhealthy as the year wears on so it is a sad fact of life, in orchards as in the home, that clearing up is a necessary evil…. the fruit trees site does not seek to cause you work, but sometimes it is unavoidable.

In the fruit orchard this is never more true than in late autumn in October and November. When you are not picking apples and we generally have plenty to pick in an orchard of nearly 50 trees (our record for harvesting, storing, juicing, cidering, drying and simply eating is now just over 850 Kgs of apples) you are picking them up. Windfalls make good cider, but they encourage slugs and provide shelter and late season food for a range of pests. So pick them up and use them, compost them, feed them to the chickens or lose them; but don’t leave them on the ground.

The same thing goes for leaves. Rake them up and burn them or take them to the dump. For the sake of your orchard and garden please DO NOT PUT THEM ON THE COMPOST HEAP.  Fruit tree leaves almost invariably carry some disease or another by the end of the season – they have a wide range of scabs, rusts and blights to choose from and the only safe place for a diseased leaf is on the fire (or down at the council dump). Any organic grower will tell you that you can eradicate a number of fungal infections just by being scrupulous about getting rid of fruit tree leaves – most notably scab part of the lifecycle of which involves the migration from tree to ground (where it overwinters on organic detritus) before rising up into the tree the following spring to reinfect its foliage.

And ditto for prunings.  They smell sweet when burned and you can spread the bonfire ash on the ground around your trees as it is rich in potash or just put it in the compost.

And finally, clear grass and weeds away from the trunks of the fruit  trees in your orchard. Leave a circle of bare earth around the base of each tree ideally 1 metre in diameter.  There are several benefits to this. First it means that you do not damage the bark when you mow the orchard. Second it means that rodents that like eating bark have to do so in plain sight of predators such as cats, owls, kestrels and the like (which means they stay away). Third it removes habitat and cover for insect pests that hibernate on the ground.  Finally it allows you to spread some well rotted organic matter on the bare earth beneath the tree which will feed it and improve soil texture and moisture retention. All of which will hugely increase your crop quality and size next year.