Mark Diacono has planted dozens of orchards — he shares his wisdom on how to go about it.
There are few more generous things that you can do than plant an orchard. Whether you have a field or a terrace, to plant fruit trees is to make a better, more beautiful future.
If you hold in your mind their adult form, there is a special pleasure in planting skinny, hip-high whips and picturing fully grown, fruitful pieces on an invisible chequer-board, each with its own personality and character, yet part of the whole.
Planting an orchard is quite a responsibility. Getting it right is easy; sadly, so is getting it wrong. This is not a row of lettuces to be enjoyed over a few months; an orchard will turn land into landscape, a garden into a three-dimensional ecosystem, a terrace into a place of fruitful abundance, and it may do this over decades, generations even.
The moments you spend thinking before you plant guide the pleasure your orchard will give you and those that follow. Having planted dozens at Otter Farm and more for clients, this is one area where I may be able to be uncharacteristically useful.
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What to plant in your own orchard
I am frequently asked: ‘I want to plant an orchard, what should I grow?’ My personal selection is here — starting with six trees for a smaller orchard, and six for a medium to large orchard.
- Mulberry: No fruit is more delicious.
- Quince: For so many reasons, including the trees’ blossom, the smell of the fruit ripening in the house, quince gin, membrillo.
- Medlar: Described perfectly by the food writer Niki Segnit as having a flavour ‘like a date that’s sucked a lemon’.
- Two Asian pears: A pair for pollination, but also because the crisp, aromatic, succulent fruit is such an astonishing upgrade on the impersonations in the supermarkets. Heavy of blossom, generously productive of what look like glittered golden apples and with spectacular autumn foliage.
‘Victoria’ plum: Yes, you can buy them in the shops, but I love plums and what you get from your own tree has superior flavour for eating fresh
or cooked. It’s a reliably productive, self-fertile variety.
- Two apples: A pollination-compatible pair with a staggered harvest; one dual purpose (for eating fresh or cooking) and an astonishing eater, perhaps ‘James Grieve’ and ‘Orleans Reinette’.
- Two pears: A pollination-compatible pair with a staggered harvest; perhaps the early season ‘Beth’ twinned with the later ‘Doyenne du Comice’, which has a homegrown flavour almost unrecognisable from those in the shops.
- One plum-alike: A gage, damson or plumcot (all usually happily pollinated by ‘Victoria’).
- One Morello cherry: Self fertile, delicious to our tastes and usually less appealing to birds.
It may not be the perfect orchard for you, but the thinking behind it will help you get to yours.
Think about what you want, what you can buy and what you can grow
Consider the balance you want to strike between fruit you love and flavours you can only enjoy if you grow them yourself. One of the pleasures of growing some of what I eat is in enjoying flavours it’s almost impossible to buy, so whether it’s a six or 60-tree orchard, quince, medlar and a mulberry are always first on my list. The fruit of each is truly delicious and rarely for sale.
The shape of each tree is beautifully irregular, too. Quince and medlars have striking flowers in spring and wonderful autumn colours. Happily, none of the three suffers many pests and diseases and they are all self fertile, so one of each is fine if your space is limited.
Planting an orchard allows you to grow the fruit you eat most often. This can save you money and, if anything, the pleasure of picking things you love straight from the tree compounds over the years. Even with familiar fruit, variety is crucial.
Think about flavour
It takes no more effort or expense to grow the most perfect apple than a flavourless disappointment; the difference is made now, before you lift a spade. The range of flavours and textures in the shops is guided by reliability, suitability for transport, storage qualities and disease resistance, all admirable qualities, but I’d suggest flavour has to be your highest priority.
In my experience, the joy of a handful of delicious apples vastly outweighs even a skipful of those that taste no better than those you can buy. Life is too short to grow unremarkable fruit.
Keep it local
As well as looking for apples, pears or plums that major on flavour, consider those that were developed in your part of the country. They are likely to suit both the climate and soils of your locality. One of the first orchards
I ever planted was of Devon varieties of apple and each tree has thrived abundantly for two decades.
If at all possible, taste the fruit of a new variety before you plant. Apple days, local nurseries and producers and a visit to Brogdale in Kent, home of the National Fruit Collection, are good opportunities for that. Sometimes, impatience, lack of time or other practicalities prevent this, so do your research and, most importantly, talk to a specialist supplier, who will be able to advise.
Variety is critical
Choice of variety is important for pollination, too; most apples, plums and pears require
a partner with a flowering period that partially overlaps with their own.
If you are planting more than one variety of a particular fruit, decide whether you want a glut — with most of the fruit coming at once — or a steady supply over a longer period, as the difference in your experience of the harvest is enormous.
Dedicating a weekend to turning a sizeable crop to jams, chutneys, cider and juice can be a pleasure — or an unwanted hassle. If it’s the latter, choose varieties that ripen at different times and, as can be the case with pears and apples, have a long storage potential.
Global warming is changing — and that means orchards can too
Bear in mind that it is likely that frosts and cold spells will reduce in frequency and intensity and that temperatures through the growing season will increase: this offers the potential for fruit that has been historically marginal in the UK, notably nectarines, peaches and apricots.
Leaf curl can be an issue with peaches and nectarines (covering them from spring rains helps), but apricots are a good calculated gamble for the sunniest of sheltered spots.
How to take the first steps
- Make a scaled plan on graph paper; a slight change in orientation can increase the number of trees you can accommodate.
- Set out your plan with canes — even slight undulations or slopes can throw out the plan. Views are important,
so finesse the siting by eye.
- Most fruit trees have a root system grafted on to them. Among other qualities, this ensures the productive part of the tree is the variety you want and it helps guide the size and vigour of the tree’s growth, so choose a rootstock to suit your space.
- Most fruit trees prefer a site with a well-drained, moisture retentive soil, with no danger of waterlogging. A relatively neutral soil is usually ideal.
- Prepare a hole at least 30% larger than the tree’s existing root system requires: this will avoid creating a basin in which water collects and ensures the roots have a friable medium to grow into.
- Consider using mycorrhizal fungi — available as a powder or gel — to develop a beneficial network of mycorrhiza that promote root and plant development.
- I favour a low stake; this secures the roots from being pulled over, leaving the upper tree to flex and develop resilience.
- Use a tree guard to prevent rabbits removing the bark around the base.
- A tree is vulnerable early on: mulching for one yard around the base removes grass competition, helps retain water and suppresses weeds.
- Water when you plant and then regularly throughout the first 18 months.
- Once a tree is established, you might want to think about growing plants around the base that will attract early pollinators and the beneficial insects, as well as helping to minimise mowing.
- Buy from a specialist nursery: its staff will advise on everything.
Mark Diacono grows his own everything — see otterfarm.co.uk for more.