It’s that time of year again, when our minds turn to planting some new fruit trees. Winter is the right time for planting, when the trees are dormant and their roots are inactive, so they’re at less risk of being damaged by being lifted from the soil in the nursery where they grew, transported (bare-rooted), and then planted in their new home.
Choosing the right variety is exciting, but always seems to be a challenge, both for first timers and experienced gardeners. And it is tricky, because you’re (usually) choosing varieties you’re not really familiar with, so you’re not sure of when they’ll ripen, whether they’ll suit your climate, if they’re going to ripen at the same time as a similar fruit you already have in the garden, or even whether you’ll like them.
Which is one of the reasons that fruit tree gardens are such a pleasure, because each autumn you get to review how they performed during summer, whether you’re getting enough – and the right types – of fruit, and make new decisions to keep improving the garden every year. It’s a constant work in progress, and an endless source of delight. It’s easy to see why it becomes a life-long passion for lots of people.
We reckon the keys to creating food security in your own backyard come from creating a regular supply of fruit over the whole growing season (as opposed to periods of glut and scarcity), extending the harvest period as long as possible, and having as big a variety of fruit as possible.
So an easy way to think about your garden review and start choosing your new varieties is to ask yourself a few questions:
How many months did I have fresh fruit available?
Did I have glut periods where I had more fruit than I needed?
Did I go through periods where I had to buy fruit because there was none ready in the garden?
Am I growing all my favourites?
Your answers will give you a great starting point for making some choices for this year’s trees – look for varieties that will extend the season either at the beginning or end, ripen at the times when you are having to buy fruit, or provide you with some of your favourites. You might have to do some clever thinking around creating microclimates if your climate doesn’t quite suit the ‘favourites’ that you’d like to plant.
Of course, planting more trees is not the only solution – a lot of problems can also be resolved by grafting to make an overproductive tree into a multigraft, for example. But that’s a story for another blog!
I feel like I start every blog with ‘it’s been a big week at the patch…’ but really, it has been a monumental one. Over the past few weeks we’ve been preparing for our next upscaling of production at the patch. Kenny (Sas’ dad) has generously spent a couple of days with us putting FiFi (the red Massey Ferguson tractor) to good use loosening the soil and spreading out a massive pile of old top soil that was in the middle of our new patch. We found (and successfully avoided) all the irrigation pipes and thanks to our recent soil test results were able to thoughtfully apply some organic inputs (dolomite and lime) to start to balance our pH and amend our specific nutrient deficiencies.
A little while ago Darren, our lovely friend who spontaneously pops in from time to time, usually when we’re in the throes of a task that we would really love some extra hands to help with, said to us “Why don’t you get Dave Griffiths to form your new garden beds for you?”. Dave had recently formed up all the beds at Darren’s upcoming market garden and the pictures he showed us made our backs sing with joy. Why hadn’t we thought of that before?
We are so used to just knuckling down and grunting through the massive task of upscaling, and have spent (alongside many of our uncomplaining and wonderful friends) the last 2 years physically digging over and creating each new garden bed. The thought of doing this all over again to make our newest patch was daunting to say the least and it was like a lightbulb, no…fireworks, went off when Darren made that suggestion. Of course! When we started we had no cash to pay anyone to do the brawn with a machine, but now after a successful crowd funding campaign and productive summer, we can actually afford to pay someone for a few hours to do what would take us at least 12 months to do by hand!
Meeting Dave has been wonderful. He’s a rare human who not only gets it, he does it! He understands deeply the lay of the land and the movements of moisture and nutrient through the soil. He knows how to treat soil gently and thoughtfully over time in order to increase its health and productivity rather than just going for the short-term fixes…and he has a Yeoman’s plough!
Yeoman’s ploughs are rare as hens teeth and, as opposed to most ploughs and rippers which turn the soil over exposing and killing the fragile soil microbes whilst also creating compaction layers beneath the tines, Yeoman’s ploughs loosen and fluff up the soil at a much greater depth without turning it over whilst also breaking through the compaction layers that have been created within the soil in the past. They get oxygen into the soil and create a spaces within the soil that can absorb moisture much better.
In a few hours Dave managed to rip our whole new patch with the plough and form up all our new beds! Wow! Walking over the soil after he had ploughed I could really feel the difference. The soil under foot felt like a soft, fluffy, sponge…it was just like walking on clouds! The beds are long and gorgeous and run mostly on contour to slow the movement of water through the patch and hopefully increase the ability of the soil to absorb that water as it moves through the landscape.
At the end of those few hours we all stood looking at a transformed space the same size as our existing patch, bare and ready for planning and planting. Its so exciting, and also quite overwhelming. Phew. Onwards.
Multigrafts, double-grafts, ‘family’ trees, fruit salad trees, cocktail trees – there’s lots of different names for them, but they’re essentially all the same thing. Fruit trees with different varieties or cultivars grafted onto the same rootstock.
If the different grafts are all the same variety (e.g., all apples), they will normally be sold as multigrafts, whereas a ‘fruit salad tree’ describes a tree that has different types of fruit from the same family, e.g., apricots and plums.
Generally speaking, fruits from the same family can be grafted onto the same rootstock, e.g., plums and apricots are compatible, peaches and nectarines, and pears and quinces. However, due to the magic of grafting, other combinations may also be compatible, e.g., some varieties of peaches and nectarines are compatible with plum rootstocks, allowing for glorious combinations of 4 fruit types on the same tree. While it’s safer to stick to known compatibilities, it’s always worth experimenting with odd and unusual combinations, because apart from your time, there’s absolutely minimal cost involved.
One of the best ways to think about a multigraft is as a work of art that you are constantly reviewing and improving. A famous examples of this is the ‘Tree of 40 Fruits’ Series by New York artist Sam Aken.
Many of the problems that can happen with multigrafts (see the list below) are avoidable or fixable by paying careful attention to graft placement and detailed pruning, and then by reviewing and responding to how the tree has actually grown and performed each season.
If you think of your tree as a living work of art (rather than the ‘plant and forget’ model that most gardeners use), and have high expectations of what you want to achieve with the tree, it’s possible to make them incredibly productive.
If you’re prepared to put the work into them, there are lots of benefits of having these trees in your garden, one of the most important being that they allow you to increase your food security in a small space.
How does that work? The more biodiversity that you can stack into your garden, the more you’ll be protecting your food supply from the many disasters and natural events that can ruin a crop. If you’re growing 10 varieties of apple, rather than just one, then if a hail storm comes along or you get a particular disease outbreak, chances are that some varieties will fare better than others, which reduces your chances of total wipeout.
The more varieties you can play with in the garden, the more you can work towards a consistent, even harvest throughout the entire growing season, rather than the normal cycle of glut and scarcity that most home fruit growers have to deal with.
Other benefits of growing multigrafts include
increasing food production in a small space
practising your grafting skills
making the most of an existing tree with an established root system, rather than having to get a new tree established
Inappropriate varieties – not all varieties grow as well as each other in a given locations, so there’s a risk that some varieties you choose to graft won’t thrive, but, so what? Just regraft with another variety.
Pruning. It’s a very common scenario that some varieties will be more dominant than others, either because they are more compatible with the rootstock, the graft was better quality, or the variety is happier in the location. This can make it more difficult to train the tree into a balanced shape and the dominant branches can end up being bigger and more vigorous. This needs careful management with pruning to prevent the problem becoming worse by allowing the dominant side to crowd out or shade the slower-growing varieties.
Branch positioning. It is important that the grafted branches are evenly spaced along the main trunk to produce a balanced form in the mature tree and to avoid undesirable crowding. On a single-variety tree, a misplaced branch can simply be pruned off to allow well-placed branches to grow. However, pruning off any of the first branches of a multigraft tree means sacrificing one of the varieties.
Providing pollination partners is one of the main reasons for creating multigrafts, but unless varieties are carefully chosen with this goal specifically in mind, it doesn’t always work. The varieties need to not only be compatible, but also flower simultaneously. In order for all varieties on a multigrafted tree to be pollinated, they must be carefully selected for flowering times to overlap sufficiently. Again, this problem, should it occur, is very fixable by regrafting with a more suitable variety.
Different varieties can be vulnerable to different pests and diseases. In the worst-case scenario, the introduction of disease by one variety on a multigrafted tree can compromise the health of the entire tree, particularly if you accidentally introduce a virus to the tree by using infected grafting wood. This is offset to a large degree by the advantages of increasing biodiversity (see above), but it’s good practise to only ever use grafting wood from trees with no visible signs of ill-health, and ideally a good record of productivity as well.
Labelling. This almost seems too frivolous to include in this list, but it’s probably one of the problems we hear about most regularly, for all fruit trees, not just multigrafts. It is hard to find a good labelling system that can easily withstand the ravages of time and the weather and remain not only in place but also readable! Our solution is to take a four-pronged approach:
make effective, permanent, low-cost labels by cutting up aluminium cans into labels, and using a nail to etch the name into the metal. Punch a hole in the label and use a piece of wire to attach it to the tree. Don’t attach it too tightly around the branch or it’s easy to strangle the branch as it grows.
Check the labels at least once a year. Make sure they’re still in place and still readable, and loosen the wire if necessary.
Keep a paper (or computerised) record of the location of each tree, its variety, and any varieties you add by grafting.
Take photos to back up the computerised record.
Multigraft fruit trees take a bit more work and diligence than single-variety trees, but the benefits are huge, not just in terms of increased production, but through providing other environmental services to your garden, providing beautiful sculptural trees, and providing a life-long interest and passion.