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.
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?