Choosing the right fruit tree

2003-oct-12-netting-81It’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.

pa-lucy-planting-trees-480x359

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.

autumn fruit bowl
autumn fruit bowl containing 7 different varieties

So an easy way to think about your garden review and start choosing your new varieties is to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. How many months did I have fresh fruit available?
  2. Did I have glut periods where I had more fruit than I needed?
  3. Did I go through periods where I had to buy fruit because there was none ready in the garden?
  4.  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!

 

Create art in your garden with multigraft fruit trees

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.

A multigraft plum tree: the different varieties are showing their autumn colours at different times, making a beautiful display in the garden
A multigraft plum tree: the different varieties are showing their autumn colours at different times, making a beautiful display in the garden

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.

tree-of-40-fruit-sam-aken-www-treeof40fruit-com
The artist’s rendition of a tree from the ‘Tree of 40 Fruit’ series by Sam Aken (from www.treeof40fruit.com”

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.

clare-win-multigraft-353x628If 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.

Benefits (Pros)

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

  • pollination
  • 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

Problems (Cons):

  • 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.

But be warned – it’s addictive!

Remember how good fruit used to taste?

Do you have a childhood memory of eating fruit, ripe from the tree? Maybe at your grandma’s house or a house where you lived as a kid, or somewhere you visited in your summer holidays. Maybe your special fruit memory is a dish your Mum made every summer, or bottled apricots eaten in the middle of winter. After talking to literally thousands of people about fruit, we’ve heard so many of these stories that we know it’s almost a universal shared memory.

But these days, the common lament we hear is that “fruit just doesn’t taste like it used to”, or the variation “you can’t buy good fruit at a supermarket”.  People’s expectations of being able to buy fruit that tastes as good as their childhood memories is almost nil.

Briggs Red May

That’s just one of the reasons why people are starting to grow their own in droves.

And now that they are starting to grow their own fruit, we get lots of questions from people about how do you tell when is the right time to pick fruit.

cherries

Coincidentally, this is one of the biggest challenges of our job, and something we put a lot of energy and thought into. We’re always aiming to get fruit to our customers in absolutely perfect condition, just ready to eat, and ripe and delicious – and truthfully, those things can be very hard to achieve simultaneously.

autumn fruit bowl
Home-picked fruit bowl

When you’re growing your own, you have the huge advantage of not having to get your fruit to market, and can afford to let the balance fall more on the side of ripening the fruit on the tree, and become more flavourful, juicy, sweet and delicious. If it has a few bruises from being over-ripe when you pick, it doesn’t really matter because you have no-one to please but yourself, and anyway, you’re probably going to eat it within a day or two.

But even in your home garden, knowing what you’re planning to do with the fruit you pick will help you decide when to pick it – and actually, this is quite an important part of getting the most out of your fruit trees.

Pick too green (before the fruit has reached maturity) and it won’t ripen off the tree, and may have only reached 50% of its potential size (and, by the way, will never taste very good).

Pick over-ripe and you risk bruising, much shorter storage time, a higher chance of post-harvest rots, and the fruit going floury. Plus over-ripe fruit rapidly starts losing its nutrient value after picking, and often doesn’t preserve as well.

So how do you tell the perfect time to pick each piece of fruit? This is actually quite a science, and there are many specific indicators and even tests you can do to really figure this out, and to further complicate things it can vary wildly between different types of fruit and even between different varieties.

However, there’s lots of simple indicators that will help you to get it right without getting too scientific about it – here’s our top 5 tips:

1. Judge whether a tree’s crop has reached maturity by whether at least one piece of fruit is definitely ripe – either because it’s fallen from the tree from ripeness, or judge by eating it (you need to sacrifice some fruit to make this decision).

apricots-on-ground-2-300x225
Fruit dropping on the ground is a sure sign that your crop is ripe- or soon will be!

2. Fruit colour is actually a very poor guide because fruit will often start to colour weeks or months before it’s ripe, so look instead at the background colour which will be persistently green until it starts to change to yellow, white or cream (depending on the fruit type) as the fruit ripens.

Bebeco2-480x287
Ripeness is not always about colour.

3. If birds are starting to get interested in the fruit, it’s a good sign that it will be ready soon (though annoyingly, some birds will attack fruit even when it’s still completely green, so use caution with this one).

20151221_113200
Bird damage is often a sign that fruit is ripe.

4. Taste! Again, this one involves sacrificing a piece of fruit to test, but is an excellent way to start linking the way a variety tastes with the way it looks at different stages of ripeness.

5. Our last (and most important) tip … start to make a note of when you pick each variety each year, and make a little note of whether you got it right or not!