A General Guide to Fruit Growing
There is a wealth of choice of types and varieties of fruit that can be grown in the temperate climes of the UK, though certain of the more 'exotic' varieties may require special treatment or particularly 'mild' regions to be fully successful.
Although there are many classifications of fruit, it is most commonly distinguished into 'soft fruit', or 'summer fruit', and tree fruit, or 'top fruit'.
Soft fruits are comprised of strawberries, the currants, gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries (including hybrid berries). They are distinguished from fruit trees or top fruit, such as apples and pears, in that they mainly grow on fairly low-growing bushes or 'canes' and are ready to harvest from the middle of summer to early autumn. Unlike apples and pears, they are highly perishable, and cannot be stored for any length of time, other than by bottling or more commonly nowadays, by freezing. They can also be kept as sweet preserves, such as jam or jelly. Soft fruit, or summer fruit, provides a convenient way to grow fresh succulent fruit in a small area, a patio tub, a corner of the garden, or on an allotment plot.
Tree fruit requires a longer term investment, and usually, though not always, more space. Tree fruit comprises 'pome fruit', such as apples and pears, and 'stone' fruit, such as plums, damsons, cherries, apricots and peaches. Pome fruits, particularly apples, may be stored, under suitable conditions, for many months, while stone fruits are best eaten fresh though they too may be preserved by bottling, freezing, or as jams and jellies.
Among the more exotic fruits which require rather more 'specialised' treatment or growing conditions are grapes, kiwi fruit, passion fruit, blueberries, cranberries, lingon, goji and citrus fruits. These will not be discussed in detail here.
Fruit growing is easy! It is also dead easy to make a ‘pig’s ear’ of it! It helps if you have a 'sensitivity' for fruit and its needs. If you get the basics right at the start, you will be successful. If you ignore the basics you’re just wasting space and effort! Growing fruit is a long-term project. Get the ‘basics’ wrong and the ill-effects are also long term.
Fruit bushes and plants have a limited life, so don’t hang on to them when they are past their best, replace with fresh stock, either bought-in, or even healthy stock that you have propagated yourself. The following is the approximate life span of the most common fruits: -
Strawberries - 3-5 years
Raspberries - 8-10 years
Blackcurrants -10-12 years
Gooseberries -12-15 years
Top Fruit – many decades
Some plants may achieve a greater age than those given, others may die earlier. The life span will be adversely affected by any one, or more, of the following factors: -
* Attack by pests and diseases, and lack of prompt treatment.
* Competition from weeds, especially perennial weeds like Couch Grass
* Poor soil drainage (waterlogging), poor soil rootability (compaction)
* Simple bad husbandry and neglect!
Carry out the following steps carefully, and don’t be tempted to ‘skip’ or ‘skimp’ any: -
Choose your site - most land or sites will grow fruit but some aspects are better than others. Wherever possible choose a position where that type of fruit has not been grown previously, it could be contaminated with pests and diseases which will attack your young, newly planted bushes or trees when they are at their most vulnerable. Instead of getting away to a good start, they will be handicapped, and fail to thrive.
The most popular areas for commercial fruit growing, particularly top fruit, are in the southern half of the UK (The south east, south west and midlands), but there are commercial orchards in Cheshire and Yorkshire, and raspberries are grown commercially in Scotland.
The reasons southern areas are favoured are because:-
1. they tend to be warmer
2. they have more sunshine hours
3. they have lower annual rainfall levels, which favour dessert fruits and reduced disease levels.
4. There is some very good growing land with deep free-draining fertile soils.
However, for amateur production, fruit can be grown much further north, extending into Scotland
The best and earliest sites face south or southwest - the soil warms quickly in spring and crops grow and mature quickly in response. The warm sun helps ripen fruit earlier and gives maximum sweetness. They are ‘early sites’.
Easterly facing sites can give problems from cold easterly winds, particularly in early spring when growth and flowers are developing - some damage and loss of blossom can often result.
North facing aspects see less sunshine and so the soil remains cold or cooler for longer. This delays crop growth and retards ripening and the crop is also exposed to cold northerly winds. They are ‘late sites’.
West facing sites are shaded in the morning and sunny later in the day. The soil readily warms up in spring and promotes early growth. The early shade gives some protection for blossom after overnight frosts.
Keep the above in mind when choosing a site, but also take into consideration that nearby buildings, hedges and trees may cast too much shade. Aim to get maximum sunlight on your crop
Beware of Frost Pockets - if your site is in a hollow, or on a slope and the lower boundary enclosed by a hedge or fence, then cold freezing air may collect there and damage your crop flowers. Either, make a way out, for the cold air to escape, or erect a barrier uphill to divert it away from your crop plants or bushes.
The altitude of the site also has an affect upon its suitability, most commercial sites would be planted below the 400ft. (130m) contour line. Top fruit will grow at higher altitude, but the results become increasingly variable the higher the growing site. This because of a cooler, shorter growing season, more exposure to winds, giving rise to damage, fewer pollinating insects, causing poorer quality fruit and lower yields.
Check the soil - Waterlogged, wet and poorly drained soils are bad for most crops, especially for fruit. So if it is really heavy wet clay, look for another site, but if it is just badly drained, see if it can be drained or the crop grown on raised beds or mounds. Plums are generally better able to withstand slightly heavier wetter soils than apples.
The ideal soil is a deep free-draining loamy soil with a good depth (2ft, 60cm), but most soils can grow fruit successfully, with improvement, providing they drain freely. Sticky clay soils could be used as a last resort, but only for culinary fruit, cider apples and perry pears.
Commercial growers will take soil samples and send them away for analysis. The soil will be assessed for Potassium, Phosphate, Magnesium contents and pH (acidity/alkalinity) The amateur will usually make do with a pH test and add some fertiliser anyway, although the RHS will carry out tests for amateur growers for modest fee. The ideal pH would be 6.5 but a range from pH 5.5 to pH 6.8 would be tolerated, except for blueberry and cranberry which require a very acid soil. The soil pH may be adjusted to be less acid by the addition of lime, but lime should not be put where ericaceous varieties such as blueberries or cranberries are to be grown.
Prepare the soil - do not skimp this, be thorough, your fruit bushes or trees are going to be in this soil for many years and your future crops will be severely reduced if the soil isn’t in the best condition you can provide. You will already have checked out the pH of the soil and whether it is free draining or not. The next phase is to control weeds, especially perennial weeds such as: - couch grass, creeping buttercup, thistles, dandelions, docks, perennial nettle, bindweed, willow herb etc. Controlling weeds means eradicating them, totally! Your bushes are going to be immovable for years and failure to eradicate couch grass or bindweed, for example, before planting, will become almost impossible after planting, as they will grow through the roots of your fruit bush. Weeds not only compete for space, light, water and nutrients, but they also act as reservoirs and havens for pests and diseases such as aphids and fungal diseases, ready to infect your fruit over and over again. So get rid!
The best, and most effective, way of disposing of persistent weeds is to spray with a translocated herbicide such as glyphosate (Round-Up, Tumbleweed) which is absorbed by the leaves, is then translocated to the roots, where it interferes with the uptake and metabolism of nutrients, so that the plant ‘starves’ to death. Depending on the reserves already in the root, the herbicide will take anything up to eight weeks to take effect, so be prepared to wait a while before giving a second application. Be sure to spray on a still day so that there is no spray drift to affect other plants and always use in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. This herbicide does not poison the soil, and contrary to popular myth does not poison frogs and toads, who will probably have ‘hopped it’ anyway, with all the activity going on!
If, for some reason, you prefer not to use glyphosate or other herbicide, prepare yourself for a lot of hard work and a long war of attrition, for you will have to resort to hand weeding. As you will inevitably leave some weed root behind at each ‘pass’ you will have to repeat the hand weeding over, and over again. It could take up to 12 months, or more, with severe infestations, to gain full control.
Applying black polythene sheeting does not work very well, it merely gets rid of the surface foliage, leaving the roots lying dormant, living on their reserves, ready to spring back into growth when you remove the polythene. Weeds at the edges of the sheet will continue to grow, extending their roots or rhizomes for a considerable distance under the sheet. Similarly, any slits or tears in the sheet will also allow weed growth. The ground will need strimming or skimming before putting down the sheeting, to enable it to lie flat against the surface. It will need pegging or weighting down to prevent lifting in the wind. It can take upwards of 9-12 months for it to be completely effective and roots to finally die off. By which time the ground beneath is left completely stale and sour, and has become a breeding ground for slugs and snails, or worse, for rats and mice. You will still have to fork it over to check if the weeds have really gone. So you may as well have done that earlier, and got a 9 month start on the preparation of your fruit area!
Laying old carpet down does not work either; in fact it is worse than using black polythene! The weeds will grow through the carpet, anchoring it to the ground, making it almost impossible to lift off and equally impossible to dig through! Slugs, snails, rats and mice will love it just as much as polythene sheeting too! Then you’re left with a wet, smelly, heavy, dirty old carpet to get rid of, just the thing for your nice clean car en-route to the tip!
If old carpets were such a good idea, how come no commercial grower or farmer uses them? After all, they’re cheap enough!
Applying a thick layer of organic mulch is sometimes tried, but this doesn’t work either, perennial weeds will grow through it, with renewed vigour! Applying a thick organic mulch such as stable manure over badly weeded ground may look good, and camouflage poor workmanship, for at least a week or two, but all that’s been achieved is that the weeds have enjoyed a good feed! And all your neighbours will smirk at you for trying to be a ‘smart Alec’.
The use of wood chippings, bark chips, or sawdust will suppress annual weeds for a time, but persistent perennial weeds will remain. Additionally, these materials will 'rob' the soil of nitrogen while it rots down over an extended period, and in the process turning the soil increasingly acid.
After you have got rid of the perennial weeds you will need to cultivate your soil deeply. You do not want to cultivate deeply before you have eradicated the weeds, as you will only bury the weed roots more deeply, and make them more difficult to remove. You will need to double dig the planting area incorporating bulky well-rotted organic matter such as well-rotted farmyard manure, or compost, as you go. This is best done in Sept/Oct when the soil is still relatively dry and workable. Always ensure that manure is well-rotted and free of herbicide residues, never apply fresh manure. If the soil tends to the heavy side, a generous helping of coarse grit should also be worked in. Whilst most soft fruit have shallow surface fibrous roots, neither they, nor tree fruit, can tolerate wet or waterlogged soil, or heavy soil which impedes root growth.
In late autumn/early winter you can apply lime to the surface, if needed to correct a low pH, and let the winter rains wash it in. Remember that it can take up to 12 months before the lime will have its full effect, and thereafter its effect will slowly decline, and may need repeating after 3 years. Do not apply lime where you intend to plant blueberries or cranberries. Never put manure on top of freshly limed soil. The manure and lime will react to give off ammonia which will not only harm roots, but waste valuable nitrogen as it escapes to the air.
In late winter or early spring you can correct any shortage of potassium by giving a dressing of sulphate of potash, and of phosphate, by applying superphosphate of lime (where blueberries are to go, use rock phosphate). It would be unusual that there is a magnesium deficiency, but using dolomitic magnesian limestone instead of normal lime should correct this. (Epsom Salts, magnesium sulphate, where blueberries are to go)
As soon as the soil is workable in late winter/spring, it needs to be forked over, or rotavated, to obtain a good planting tilth. It may need firming after rotavating, or if it is a light soil, by treading over the surface to remove large air pockets.
By March you should be ready for planting, though planting may be done earlier if the soil preparation is completed earlier and weather conditions permit.
Only apply a nitrogenous fertiliser at planting time or soon after. Nitrogen is a transient nutrient which is quickly leached out of soil, so applying before the winter rains means that it is washed away before spring. As the plants are dormant until spring, the nitrogen will have been leached away, just when the plants need it.
Provide some protection from winds - All fruits benefit from shelter from strong winds. If there is no natural shelter provided by trees or hedges you can provide artificial shelter around or on the site. Do not confuse shelter with shade, a hedge can provide both, but you only want shelter. Do not erect a solid fence, you only need provide a fence or netting with a minimum of 50% porosity to slow the wind down, not stop it! A solid fence will cause eddies and turbulence which will only give your crop a severe buffeting. A windbreak will provide protection for a distance of 10 times its height; so only go as high as you need (4 ft high will give protection for 40 ft to its leeward side). It is not necessary to provide shelter all round the site, just where the strong winds come from. It need not be permanent; it could be erected only during the growing season. Shelter from strong wind provides a warmer microclimate, encourages pollinating insects such as bees, which will not fly where it is too windy. It also reduces shoot chafing and damage, and reduces fruit bruising and rub.
The choice of fruit bushes or plants - Hopefully you will have resisted the temptation to hang on to any old stock that you inherited, but don’t spoil all your hard preparation work by accepting old, and possibly diseased, stock from your well-meaning neighbour either! Ask him if he remembers the name of the variety, if he doesn’t, he’s probably inherited it too, or had it so long that he’s forgotten. If he does remember the name, inspect it very carefully for age and health. If you have any doubt, politely decline, a ‘white lie’ such as wanting to try a different variety may save any embarrassment.
Whenever possible buy new stock from a reputable supplier. There is in England and Wales a ‘Plant Health Propagation Scheme’, and similar schemes operate in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In England and Wales it is overseen by DEFRA (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) This scheme operates for the propagation of most commercial fruit planting stock and includes most soft fruit crops too. Its aims are to ensure that only the best planting stocks, which are true to type and have a very high health status, are sold. It ensures freedom from the major, and most damaging, pests and diseases and that the quality of the nation’s fruit stocks are prevented from deterioration. So, when buying fruit bushes always request ‘Certified Stock’
DEFRA produce a register of all certified stocks available and grower addresses. A grower of certified stock will be subject to regular inspections by DEFRA to ensure that his stock conforms to their high standards. You are therefore guaranteed to get healthy plants and bushes to give you the best possible start to your fruit growing.
You may need to send away to get your bushes, plants or canes, of the particular variety that you have chosen, by mail order, and they may arrive ‘bare-rooted’. If you are not quite ready to plant out when they arrive, then ‘heel’ them in or temporarily pot them up in fresh multipurpose compost. Keep the roots moist, not waterlogged, and put them somewhere sheltered, cool, not cold, and shady until you are ready to plant in their final positions.
It is also possible to get certified stock from many garden centres, and in this case they will probably be ‘container grown’ and ready potted. The drawback is, that the garden centre may only have a very restricted choice of varieties, usually confined to ‘old favourites’, and they will probably be more expensive, sometimes much more expensive! You also don’t know how long they have had them in stock and how well they have been looked after. They could be severely root bound, which when planted out, will take quite a while for the plant to recover from. If the pot has weeds and, or, moss growing in it, it is usually an indication that it has been there a fair time, and neglected. The advantage of a good specimen of a container grown plant is that it can be planted out at any time of the year, whereas a bare-rooted plant needs planting during its dormant period, usually from late November to early March, when the possibility of poor soil, and weather, conditions are at their highest. Though buying from a garden centre is far more convenient; on balance, buying from a reputable specialist grower of certified stock would be a preferable choice, particularly if seeking specific named varieties.
Aftercare - information on varieties, culture and aftercare of individual fruit types, together with a description of pests, diseases and conditions which may affect them, is included in the individually named sections, which come later. Similarly, many growers supply printed leaflets and booklets on the culture and aftercare of soft fruits, either freely with, when delivering their orders, or at a nominal cost.
However, there is one cardinal rule to follow to obtain the best results from your young plants and trees. As with young children, your plants need to be treated with a firm hand and a caring manner, they need training while they’re still young! You have provided the best conditions you are able, for them to grow and thrive, but if you allow them free rein they will get out of hand and run wild! Do not be afraid to use your secateurs, your pruning knife or your hoe to discipline them. Show them who’s boss, give them some ‘tough love’, and they will become productive members of your fruit society, amply rewarding you with delicious succulent fruit for years to come.
This guide has been prepared with assistance from Harry Delaney M.Hort. NDH (Lecturer in Horticulture - Reaseheath College, Nantwich, Cheshire. CW5 6DF) whose help is gratefully acknowledged.