The important work of becoming a fruit tree parent

Proud parents picking up new fruit trees

It’s tree pick-up week, and as people have been coming to the farm to collect their fruit trees the days have been full of conversations about their plans for their gardens and orchards, explaining different tree training systems and giving mini-pruning lessons, explaining the merits of different fruit varieties, and providing impromptu planting demos.

When they feel ready and armed with all the right info, we help them load up their trees and wave them off as they go home to get planting. It’s a little like sending new parents home with their babies, and as I imagine midwives must feel when they say goodbye to a young family, I’m simultaneously delighted to see them start their journey together, and slightly nervous about how they’ll manage, particularly if they’re first-time parents.

Trees waiting to be picked up and taken to their new homes

Of course, trees and babies are completely different cases, because babies are the most precious thing in the world and must be kept alive at all cost, but it doesn’t really matter if a tree dies from neglect or mistreatment, it’s just a few bucks down the drain and you start again, right?

Strictly speaking that’s true, but actually, there’s a little more at stake. You see, I know something more…I know what it feels like to nurture a fruit tree all the way through to maturity and harvest, and it’s almost indescribably satisfying.

Rhonda bravely pruning her brand new tree for the first time

It starts with planting it out in the right spot in the garden and giving it the first (terrifying) pruning.

Then you’re responsible for protecting it from pests that might damage it and making sure it has healthy soil and enough water.

You nervously watch it grow and then bloom, are awed by the miracle of pollination and seeing fading flowers falling off to reveal tiny fruit.

You protect the fruit from pests and diseases, and then … finally … harvest the most delicious fruit you’ve ever tasted in your life, because you grew it yourself.

Over years the trees grow, your skill grows, and your confidence that you can protect your precious crop against all the hazards and dangers that threaten it will grow too. And it needs to, because this is important work. You’re providing nutritious organic food for your family for the whole year, not just summer. You’re saving money in the family budget. You’re giving your kids irreplaceable memories of picking fruit straight from the tree. You need to get results every year, not just the years you’re “lucky”.

And when it works and you bring in the harvest, you feel on top of the world because you know you’ve joined the ranks of one of the most important groups in society—the food providers, those salt-of-the earth types who have the seemingly magical ability to coax delicious food from a little dirt, sunshine and hard work. You’re a farmer.

I know all this because this has been my journey over the last 20 years.  Yes, as with raising children, there’s pain along the way as you make mistakes and things go wrong, but I know the joy that lies ahead for you, and while admittedly it’s nowhere near as special as bringing a whole new human into the world, I’ve done that too so can say with the voice of experience that your fruit trees are not going to give you nearly as many sleepless nights!

Are multigraft fruit trees a good idea?

Have you heard of the “Tree of 40 Fruit” project? It’s an art project created by American artist Sam Van Aken, where he creates beautiful mega-multigrafted trees, for example a peach tree with more than 40 different varieties of peach and nectarine, for their aesthetic value. They are absolutely stunning (we can’t show you one here because we didn’t get permission to use his photos, but here’s the link to his website if you want to have a look).

multiple-trunk-different-colours-helena-smallInstead, here’s a photo of a multigraft tree from a recent garden consultation we did, showing the different coloured leaves of the two different varieties on the same tree.

 

Not as spectacular as having 40 different varieties putting on their various autumn colours, but you get the idea! Here’s another one of a multigrafted cherry showing the different coloured blossoms in spring (this photo is from Wikimedia Commons).

A multigraft is, as the name suggests, a tree that has multiple varieties grafted onto a single rootstock. So for example an apple tree with Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Fuji all on the same tree (which coincidentally, is one of the trees we have for sale this year). Multigrafts are always the same type of fruit (e.g., all apples), whereas a tree with different types of fruit on the same rootstock –  say a plum, an apricot and a peach – is called a “fruit salad” tree and is quite a different animal.

The idea of a many-grafted fruit tree is not new – there are a couple of very famous examples around the world, such as this ‘family tree’ that has been grown by Paul Barnett in West Sussex, England, on which he’s grafted 250 different apple varieties (photo from the Daily Mail).

Paul Barnett with apple tree

Multigrafting has been used not only as a repository of genetic material of lots of different varieties, but also as a mark of the skill of the master grafter, proving not only their grafting skills, but also their superior pruning and management skills in keeping each separate variety alive and growing, and keeping the whole tree in balance.

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A multigraft plum tree in the garden of one of our Grow Great Fruit program members

Which  brings us neatly to the question of, should you bother?, because while multigrafts have lots of advantages, they are almost always a harder tree to manage in the garden, if you’re trying to keep the different varieties in balance with each other, and they can be daunting for a new gardener in particular.

Sometimes keeping the tree in balance doesn’t matter, for example if you’ve grafted a piece of wood of the same fruit but a different variety to act as a cross-polliniser on to your tree because it wasn’t setting a good crop of fruit. In trees like that, you’re not aiming to grow both varieties in equal proportion.

But if you’ve planted a multigraft because (for example) you have limited space but still want roughly equal amounts of an early and a late apple, then for sure it matters – there’s not a lot of point of having a multigraft Gala and Pink Lady if you get 10 boxes of Gala early in the season (when you already have plenty of plums and peaches), and then have to wait until the end of the season when you pick 2 Pink Ladys from one weakling branch!

So, how do you manage them?

The trick is to pay a lot of attention to your pruning in the first few years of the tree’s life (which we call the ‘establishment phase’). Monitor closely how well the different varieties are growing, and you may need to prune the more dominant variety back quite hard at the beginning to let the weaker side get equally established.

Of course, one of the pruning principles is that the harder you prune, the harder your tree is likely to grow, so the tree’s most likely response to hard pruning is that the dominant side will respond with even more gusto. You can minimse this bounce-back effect by pruning the tree in late summer, rather than winter.

Another trick that might help if you don’t want to continually prune is to weigh the dominant limbs down more horizontally (e.g., with a brick) so the height of the growth tip is lower than the height of the weaker side of the tree. This physical height confers an advantage onto the weaker side, and the tree is more likely to direct more energy and resources to the weaker (higher tip) limb, allowing it to catch up.

So is it worth it? Absolutely! If you’re interested in gardening and growing fruit, all of this is tremendous fun, both the grafting and pruning management. It can be a quick way to experience the age-old relationship between farmer and nature (“who’s in charge here?”), that often starts as a battle for new growers but can end with a much deeper understanding and respect for how nature works. And remember, the tussle goes on mostly in your mind – the tree will just keep being a tree.

 

How to Grow Pears

We love pears. They’re a much maligned type of fruit, probably because it’s so hard to buy good, ripe pears, but we reckon they’re a top tree in the garden, and pretty easy to grow organically. Here’s our top 10 reasons why you need a pear tree in your garden:

Reason 1: There are at least 15 varieties of pears and nashis easily available, which ripen from mid January right through until early April. This means they can help to extend the fresh fruit season in your garden.

Reason 2: Pears don’t get too many bugs or diseases. The four most common problems experienced by pears are:

  • Black spot, a common fungal disease that is worse in wet years, but very preventable with organic fungicides applied at the right time
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Black spot damage on pears
  • squashed-pear-slug-213x380
    squashing a Pear and cherry slug

    Pear and cherry slug can be a nuisance some years, and if left uncontrolled can severely damage or kill a young tree (but they’re also easy to control on young trees). On mature trees they can make the tree look ugly, but don’t affect the fruit and don’t do too much harm really. They have quite a few predators, and numbers tend to self-regulate as long as you’re not killing the good bugs with indiscriminate pesticide use.

  • pear leaf blister mite1
    Pear leaf blister mite damage

    Pear blister mite. Harder to control because the mites live inside the leaves, but again, they don’t really do too much damage, though they can make the tree look ugly if you’ve got a bad case. Doesn’t affect the fruit.

  • Birds! Like every other fruit tree you grow, if you want to pick fruit, you need to net them to prevent bird damage.

Reason 3: They’re easy to prune. Most pear varieties are ‘spur-bearers’, which means they produce fruit on 2 year old wood (and older), in the form of short fruit-bearing shoots known as spurs. Some varieties (e.g. Josephines) produce fruit on the end of longer shoots, and they are known as ‘tip-bearers’.  Once you’ve figured out which type you have, you’re half way to knowing how to prune them! The difference really is in how you treat the laterals – in spur-bearing varieties, they should be shortened back by about 1/3 to encourage the development of new side shoots and spurs. In tip-bearing varieties, it’s important not to shorten the laterals, because that’s where the fruit grows.

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A perfect pear

Reason 4: Most pears don’t need to be ripened on the tree. In fact, unlike other deciduous fruit, most pear varieties (except some of the early season ones) won’t ripen properly on the tree, but need cold storage for 2–6 weeks, followed by a period of ripening out of the fridge. Pears ripen from the inside, and ripening them on the tree leads to both poor texture—either grainy or mushy—as well as poor keeping qualities. How long do you need to leave them in the fridge before you ripen them on the bench? It’s a bit different for each variety, but here’s some guidelines for the more common varieties:

  1. Beurre Bosc – don’t need cold storage
  2. Packham’s Triumph – need 1 month
  3. Winter Nelis – need 1 month
  4. D’Anjou – need 2 months

Reason 5: Pears can tolerate quite boggy ground, and in fact will often thrive in conditions that would make other fruit trees sulk (or worse – die!) This makes them a handy tree to pop in those difficult, hard-to-drain spots in the garden.

Reason 6: It’s easy to grow your own pear trees. Gather seed in autumn, store it in damp sand over winter and plant out in spring. Most of the seed will grow, so choose the biggest and strongest seedlings and discard the rest. Now you have your rootstocks. In late summer, you can graft a bud of your desired variety onto the rootstock (a technique called ‘budding’). In spring cut back to the bud, and over summer it should grow and form your new tree. Voila! The following winter you’ll have a brand new pear tree to plant in your garden – for free!

Reason 7: It’s easy to grow your own dwarf pear trees! Follow the same process as above, but use quince seed instead of pear to grow your rootstock. Then when you graft your pear variety onto the rootstock it will grow into a much smaller tree – very handy for short gardeners (or if you’re trying to squish a lot of fruit trees into a small space!).

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Frost ring on small pear.

Reason 8: Pears are relatively frost-hardy – not completely, but because they flower so late they are much less likely to succumb to the spring frosts that can be so devastating to apricots and stone fruit, which makes them the best choice for the frosty spots in your garden. Having said that if a really heavy frost is forecast while they’re flowering they may still benefit from throwing some frost cloth (or even an old sheet) over them to prevent this sort of damage.

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Pear trees have stunning white blossom

Reason 9: They are beautiful trees which look great all year, with their stunning white flowers in spring, their large, dark green glossy leaves in summer and a beautiful display of colour in autumn.

Reason 10: Pears are delicious, and once properly ripened are not only great to eat fresh, but lend themselves to a multitude of preserving techniques – bottled, spiced, chutney, dried and pickled, to name a few!

So, that’s we love pears: they’re beautiful, they’re delicious and they’re easy to grow!

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