Country Life’s guide to the best fruiting trees to plant in your garden.
This year has been both interesting and unusual for fruiting trees. In 2012, copious rain created a lot of strong summer growth, but the long, cold winter that followed saw temperatures down to about -10˚C for long periods. It induced a deep dormancy in many trees, lasting into spring and delaying bud burst by as much as four or five weeks.
Time lost in a growing season isn’t often regained; it either moves the cycle forwards, creating a later harvest season, or sometimes shortens it. Discovery apples, for example, are being picked four weeks late, together with the not-so-early Early Rivers plums, yet medlars, in contrast, are large and round already.
The quality of this year’s crop is, however, much higher than last year. Many trees have produced large fruit, having enjoyed a long hot summer to boost the sugar content and, with little rain recently, diseases such as mildew and blight haven’t been a problem.
September is our favourite month for assessing new varieties in our trial orchard and, among those proving themselves worthy, is the Black Jack fig. Grown as a free-standing tree, it ripened in late August with large, dark-purple fruits. We’ve trialled this variety for nine years-starting in the greenhouse and gradually moving it out to tougher climes and it passed the ultimate test last winter, thriving in the open ground despite the snow and ice.
Late September is also a really good time for planting trees, as the soil is still warm enough for new root growth and those trees that were raised in containers can get established very easily before they go dormant. We always recommend adding a dose of mycorrhizal fungi when planting new trees, as the beneficial effects of the fungi on tree roots is now well proven, helping to get them established and ‘feeding’ the roots.
Many of our fan-trained trees head off to their new homes for planting while the weather is still warm and the autumn rains can settle the roots before winter. Fan-trained apples and espalier pears as well as cordon-trained trees are very versatile, and not just for planting against walls; it’s as well to remember they can be very effectively used to line a path, to divide one section of garden off from another or even to just screen off the compost heap. Quinces also suit this treat-
ment, as do plums and gages.
The fruiting performance of fans and cordons is usually excellent, albeit achieving lower quantities than perhaps you would pick from a free-standing tree, but the quality and flavour is superb, as the open nature of trees grown in this way means the fruits get more sunshine and ripen well.
The bare-root planting season is also just around the corner and, as leaves begin to take on their autumn colour, this is an ideal time to plan new planting, looking through nursery catalogues for the more unusual and interesting varieties; we’ve been particularly impressed by a new mulberry, Morus rubra San Martin.
Although it’s a rubra, San Martin doesn’t bear the expected red fruits, but has white ones, even when fully ripe, yet it retains the wonderful, delicate and aromatic mulberry flavour. The white fruits don’t attract the birds and, helpfully, this also means no stains on hands or clothes when picking them-especially useful when young pickers are involved.
San Martin crops from an early age and can be constrained in a large container where it will grow, with sufficient water, to about 8ft. When planted in the ground, it can rapidly establish, with its moderate growth rate reaching 20ft-30ft in 10-12 years. The large, heart-shaped leaves and gnarled bark on established specimens make this a many-featured tree and, as it has no real pest problems, it’s easy to manage.
There are several cultivars of white-fruited mulberry, originating in East Asia. San Martin was selected from a batch of seed in California and is our favourite so far.
Stephen Read is the sixth-generation proprietor of Reads Nursery, a fruit specialist in Suffolk.
Next week: The best gardens for autumnal visits
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