Friday, 6 February 2009

Cheap Fruit Trees - Good or Bad?

So you've got a nice open sunny space in your garden, and would like to fill it with a fruit tree (for the purposes of this blog entry, an apple or pear). Excellent idea. Planting a tree, any tree, fruiting or otherwise, is always the right thing to do. Even the smallest garden can accomodate a dwarfing variety grown on M27 or M9 rootstock. A dwarfing tree will take up very little space even when mature, and can tolerate being grown in a (quite large) pot. This is of course the ideal time of year to plant a fruit tree, particulalrly if it's 'bare-root' rather than pot grown.

Each year one or two of the budget supermarkets (and until recently, Woolworths!) have seen this as a great opportunity to add a small range of very reasonably priced fruit trees to their range. These budget trees can often be the first step for many into the wide and wonderful world of fruit growing, and I've heard nothing but good reports about the quality and vigour of these fruity bargains. If money is tight (and when is it not these days), they represent great value for the prospective orchardist.

Having said all that, there are to my mind several very real problems with opting for budget fruit trees, and if you can possibly afford it I would always recommend going the extra mile and buying a tree from a specialist nursery instead. Here's why:

For me, perhaps the single biggest problem with buying a budget apple tree is that it limits you to a very small choice of varieties. This wouldn't be such a problem if the varieties on offer were a bit more interesting, but sadly they always seem to be the 'usual suspects'. The fruit from Bramley, Cox, Jonagold, Conference etc. is all readily available to buy from supermarkets and greengrocers, and thanks to cold storage technology, available almost all year round. So why would we want to grow one of these ultra-common varieties? Surley the whole point of growing your own fruit is the opportunity to try something totally different from the norm, perhaps a rare and interesting variety from the literally hundreds available through specialist nurseries. Something that will suit your own taste, and perhaps just as importantly, your own specific soil conditions, microclimate, and skills as a gardener. You may also want to grow a variety which was developed locally to you, providing a little Local Distinctiveness.

It's also worth mentioning that the varieties used for these budget trees are often chosen on the basis of their familiarity to potential purchasers, and not neccesarily because they're the best varieties to grow in the average garden situation. Cox's Orange Pippin, probably our most widely recognised dessert apple, is often one of the varieties on offer, despite the fact that the beloved Cox is a very difficult apple to grow without the use of all manner of sprays and chemical additions. The Cox is prone to Mildew, Scab, Canker, and is absolutely not suitable for cold, wet conditions.

Another problem with these budget trees is the rootstock. Unless things have changed recently, I've never been able to identify the rootstock used for these trees, crucial if you want to know it's eventual size when mature. I suspect that most of these trees are grown on the popular MM106 rootstock, a good all-round stock, but perhaps too vigorous for smaller gardens, and certainly not suitable for a pot grown tree.

On a more technical level, the age of these trees can sometimes be a problem. If you want to train your fruit tree in a particular way, it's always best to start with as young a tree as possible. A one year-old tree (Maiden Whip) is often recommended since you can train the tree exactly to the form you require. A budget tree may be 2 or even 3 years old, and the basic form of the tree may already be too well established to train correctly.

There's no doubt that given the choice between planting a budget fruit tree, and not planting a tree at all, I would always recommend a trip to your 'local' Aldi or Lidl. But an apple tree is something that should thrive in your garden for decades, providing tasty fruit, beautiful blossom, shade and shelter well beyond it's pay-back time. I believe it really is worth spending a little bit extra for a variety which will be just that little bit more special, and is sure to give you pleasure for many years to come.

There is a good listing of specialist nurseries on the ukcider Wiki, including many which supply cider apple varieties: Nurseries for Apple & Pear Trees


Ray said...

Where did you get that purple soil from? It's fab and groovy, man. I want some!

Karen and Mark said...

You need to adjust your monitor Ray, that soil's been a lovely shade of maroon ever since the midsummer sacrifice.

Flowerpot said...

Can we use any apples to make cider with ? Or are they special varieties ?

Karen and Mark said...

Any apple which contains sugar will readily ferment out to produce cider, but some apples are better than others.

The tannin-rich ciders of the West Country, Three Counties and parts of Wales are made from a wide variety of special 'bittersweet' and 'bittersharp' cider apples. You can't really make this style of cider without proper cider apples. Dessert apples make a cleaner, fruitier, but often sharper (acidic) cider which some prefer. Culinary apples can also produce a good cider, but are often far too acidic on their own. Bramley for example produces a mouth puckeringly sharp cider which is definately an aquired taste, one I have yet to aquire...

If you can't get hold of cider apples, the best advice is to stick to apples which are as ripe and sweet as possible, and avoid very bland flavoured apples and those which are very sharp.

Love your blog by the way. I was looking at a pic of a mown labyrinth only this week, and wondering how it was done. Beautiful.