photo of the Strathkinnes orchard

Reap the Fruits…Planning for Fruit growing

Fruit tree planting time is coming up in the garden, so what better than some useful information about the success of fruit growing in Scottish community gardens. In the attached article, Bob Bilson, of the Strathkinness Community Garden, draws on his experiences of growing fruit in a variety of sites across Scotland, to provide a wealth of interesting facts, and references for further reading.

The information covers (not least) orchard plantings, soft fruit, pruning and training, growing in small spaces, and in polytunnels/greenhouses. Bob also stresses the advantages of community involvement and effort – a concept close to our hearts!

This blog is a companion piece to the online workshop run in colaboration between PLANT community garden in Tayport, Strathkinness Community Garden, Yellow Wellies Gardening, Edible Campus St Andrews and Ninewells Community Garden,

THE SCOTTISH ORCHARD AND FRUIT GARDEN

Scotland is famous for soft fruit growing and is a world leader for fruit
breeding at the Hutton Institute. Tree fruit has also shown a big revival in the
last twenty years with 174 orchards recorded in Fife alone, 5 listed as
commercial. In the U.K. we import 90% of our fruit. This article aims to show
how we can all grow our own organic fruit from a balcony to a large orchard;
it’s not a “how to grow” manual but tries to draw on my experience of
growing fruit at various locations across Scotland.

SCOTTISH ORCHARDS

The National Orchard Inventory for Scotland (1) lists orchards in Scotland. The photos above show three very different ones where  I have worked  and helped develop. Strathkinness Orchard is part of a 2 acre Community Garden which is developed and maintained under a village Community Trust and has 60 trees consisting of apple, pear, plum, damson, quince and mulberry. They are trained in a wide variety of ways; bush, spindle, dwarf pyramid, stepover, cordon, fan, and espalier. The orchard ground cover is geranium endressii and as part of the 2 acre village Community Garden is open to visitors all year round.

The Old St. Leonard’s School orchard is now the Community  Garden Area for apartments in Abbey Walk, St. Andrews. Apple, plum, damson and cherry were planted in the 1930s and the orchard is maintained by St. Andrew’s University Transition.

The Kilchattan Bay Orchard was planted in 2009 and has apple, pear, plum, damson, cherry, crab apple, hazel, and quince in total 100 trees. Apple trees in both Strathkinness and Kilchattan Bay orchards  have semi dwarfing M26 rootstocks.

The table below compares the three different orchards and can be used to understand more generally fruit tree growing in the Northern U.K.

ORCHARDSTRATHKINNESSST. ANDREWSKILCHATTAN
AGE OF ORCHARD10 years90 years12 years
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENTyesyesyes
EXPOSURE TO WEATHERSheltered south facingSheltered town  centreExposed coastal Salt spray
AVE. ANNUAL RAIN mm/ inches664/26.1664/26.11591/62.6
SOIL  pH 6.7 organic mulch, partly poor drainageGood drainage, Fed by rabbit droppings             Good drainage, Seaweed mulch
TREE, TYPE OF TRAINING7 types as textTall bushModerately Dwarf bush
WILDLIFE THREATRabbit, Roe deer, voleVery large rabbit populationRabbit, Roe deer, Red deer
FRUIT USE  Eat, cook, juice, ciderEat, cook, juiceEat, cook, juice

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT AND FRUIT USE

From the chart you will see each orchard has a large amount of community involvement which includes people of all ages. In Strathkinness the cub pack were involved in a twelve month project whereby they fed the trees with compost in the Autumn, pruned the trees in the Winter, observed blossom in the Spring, picked fruit and used it in cooking, and picked and washed fruit for our annual  apple day. At our Apple Day we asked the children to taste different apples and say which the enjoyed the most. Katy was number one and Discovery next best. Fruit juice and cider make good use of fruit that doesn’t keep so well. If you want to learn more about fruit growing, joining a Community Group is a good way and there are large numbers right across the country. In Dundee for instance there is a project that brings together 25 urban orchards. Reference 2 list the varieties planted and other useful information in two of the orchards. No such information can be found for the much older St. Andrews Orchard despite searching the School records. It is worth planting a crab apple in your fruit garden to help with pollination.

THE NEED FOR A SHELTERED SITE WITH FERTILE SOIL

In Strathkinness the gentle  south facing slope is ideal, with coppiced willow providing a wind break to the west. However the soil in the bottom third drained really poorly and although apples prospered plums  did not and these are now grown further up the slope. Compost over comfrey leaves is a regular feed and the orchard ground cover is geranium endressi which saves mowing and is host to lots of pollinating bees for the five months of flowering.

In St, Andrews very little maintenance occurs and the fertility of the soil seems to be from the hundreds of rabbits that mow the grass.

The island orchard presents the biggest challenge, a mixed hedge to the west planted at the same time as the orchard never really survived competition from coarse grasses and wildlife. However three years ago we planted an alder screen at a three metre spacing and it is growing rapidly in these wet and windy conditions. I would recommend such a shelter belt for any exposed orchard or garden. All the fruit at Kilchattan Bay responds well to a mulch of rain washed seaweed from the top of the beach.

Home gardens often have the advantage of shelter from hedges, walls, buildings and fruit is best located in the sunniest most sheltered spot. Training against a sunny wall can be ideal. Gardens are often easier to protect from rabbits and deer. It’s amazing what is possible to grow in the open but with shelter. At the National Trust for Scotland garden of Castle Fraser in Aberdeenshire I saw ripe peaches and apricots in August grown against a south facing brick wall. Fig trees also ripen well in sheltered positions or fan trained against a sunny wall in the open.

Early May blossom of the jardonelle pear which three months later yields a huge crop

The Jardonelle pear was planted in a sheltered location of the Strathkinness Orchard, established quickly and fruited very early in its life. It has a naturally drooping habit which encourages blossom formation, forms a low tree that children can reach to pick fruit as early as mid August. Unlike Conference pears, Jardonelle pears can be picked and eaten straight from the tree. Because the fruit is so juicy and plentiful, unfortunately wasps find it quickly.

PROTECTING OUR FRUIT TREES

Severe rabbit damage in the St. Andrews orchard on a 90 year old tree.

Note the green leaves that surprisingly showed the tree was still alive for two years after the attack

Apple and pear trees need protecting against rabbit damage for life when there is a severe infestation. The bark of this tree was eaten one winter, produced a good apple crop the following Summer and died two years later after it had been fenced with a netting enclosure. Although all the unprotected apple trees were attacked, none of the plum or cherry were; apparently the rabbits are clever enough to know the bark of stone fruit contains a cyanide compound that would poison them.

Rabbit and deer damage is also a problem in Strathkinness and Kilchattan Bay. On the younger trees in Strathkinness a 1.2 metre tall tree protector is sufficient to deter damage. Roe deer tend to graze on lower branches and leave those above the protection. However as the tree trunk grows in circumference, the tubes can split and may need further protection. It is important to check your trees in the winter particularly with snow on the ground. Branches of my step over apples are only 1.5 ft. above ground and were eaten by rabbits for the past two winters and required netting. Badgers are a problem in Strathkinness as they dig under the perimeter fence and let the rabbits in. In Kilchattan Bay deer, Roe and Red, are more of a problem and young apple trees must be protected with a cage consisting of four posts and wire netting.

TRAINING AND PRUNING

References 3 and 4 are two excellent books that I refer to often. RHS Pruning and Training describes how to achieve the seven forms referred to in the table  above. Cordon, fan, espalier, and step over are particularly useful if you have limited space and wish to try several varieties. Dwarf pyramid and spindle also take up less space than the traditional much used open centred bush. Spindle training is achieved by keeping the central leading shoot and pulling down side branches with flexible tubing tied into a vine eye screwed into the tree stake. This should only be done in the Summer when the sap has risen to the branches and encourages early formation of fruiting buds. Commercially, across the world this is the preferred way of growing apples and pears, the trees being tied into a system of posts and wires. Apart from the central trunk no part of the tree or “scaffold” is more than five years old as sections are removed by renewal pruning. Some of the older varieties in the Strathkinness Orchard Plan of reference 2, such as Tower of Glamis, Bloody Ploughman, and Howgate Wonder produce upright shoots that are slow to produce fruit and would benefit from spindle training at an early age. You can see examples of spindle training at Strathkinness, St.Andrews Botanics, Cupar Fruit and Blossom (FAB), and Scone Palace. Plum trees also benefit from pulling down branches, a technique called festooning by Fife fruit growing  Guru, Willie Duncan.

The books in references 3 and 4 have comprehensive details of pruning from planting and also the renovation of a fruit tree that has been neglected. Here are a few notes of my own:

  • Once the basic shape of the tree has been established much of the pruning is “ regulated” I.e. rather than winter pruning individual shoots, whole sections are removed allowing newer wood to mature and fruit.
  • On a neglected tree only remove a maximum 25% of wood in any single year. Vertical water shoots that form after renovation pruning can be pulled off in the Summer
  • Late Summer pruning can also take place for Spindles, cordons, fans, espalier, and all the stone fruit.
  • Try to  identify the fat fruit buds during winter pruning and go back to the tree in the Spring and Summer and judge what effect your pruning cuts had on subsequent regrowth.

HABITAT PLANTING/FOREST GARDEN

In the Strathkinness Community Garden we have an area of habitant planting of 100 trees supplied by the RHS ten years ago. It comprises sloe, elder, hazel, cherry plum, crab apple and now makes the canopy level of a forest garden area that is home to much wildlife including many bird nests, foxes, badgers, rabbits and deer.

Cherry Plum in the food forest area of Strathkinness Community Garden

          SOFT FRUIT

The combination of cold winters, fertile slightly acid soil and long summer daylight make many parts of Scotland ideal for growing soft fruit.  Most types are  very easy to grow and unlike most commercial fruit can be picked from our gardens when just ripe. Most of the fruit will ripen better and be sweeter in a sunny position, but currants, gooseberries and brambles will tolerate some shade. Most fruit benefits from netting against birds although this is often not needed for brambles, blackcurrents, gooseberries, and Japanese wineberries.

In Strathkinness we have good crops of the Summer raspberry Glen Moy and Glen Ample with Joan J. and Polka cropping from September to a late November. We grow gooseberries and red currants as vertical cordons making them easier to pick and prune and making them less prone to mildew. Rhubarb is excellent and can be forced to give tender stems in early April by covering a crown with a large bucket. Two less common but tasty fruits are Japanese wineberry and Saskatoon, the latter being similar to blueberry but easier to grow. I’ve also had great success with Mulberry             “ Charlotte Russe” which is a shrubby bush rather than a tall tree and fruited  two years after planting in a sunny position.                                                                                                                  All these soft fruits are very easy to propagate from cuttings and runners taken in the period after fruiting until early winter. Lockdown proved to be a good time for plant sharing in Strathkinness and many soft fruit bushes changed hands in the village. Soft fruit bushes are hungry feeders and should be mulched with garden compost, with comfrey leaves and comfrey liquid feed providing a potash boost.

FRUIT IN THE POLYTUNNEL AND GLASSHOUSE

Grape Boscoop Glory fruiting in the Strathkinness  polytunnel from late September to late November

Grapes and Figs crop well in the Strathkinness polytunnel which has a one metre high netted side for good ventilation which is particularly important for the grape in avoiding mildew and produces 30 kilos of fruit per season.

We did try Goji berry without success.

We also have a range of communal glasshouses and these can provide an early  crop of strawberries in May and and Cape Gooseberries ( physalis) in the Autumn.

FRUIT IN SMALL SPACES

If you have very limited garden space you could grow some fruit successfully in raised beds or large containers of approximately 60 cm. diameter in your garden, patio or balcony preferably in a sunny sheltered location. The containers should have a good, preferably soil based, peat free compost that will need to have the top 5 cm renewed each Spring. Containers will need regular watering in the Summer preferably with a liquid comfrey feed or something similar. All the tree fruit described earlier are possible, buying plants with very dwarfing rootstocks and varieties that are self pollinating.

Of the soft fruit I would recommend strawberries, red currants,  and gooseberries. If you have a very small area of open ground you could plant a single family apple with three varieties grafted on to ensure pollination. Alongside  vertical cordon gooseberry and red/white currant would be a good addition.

HELPING THE ENVIRONMENT

As Gardeners more and more of us have stopped using the artificial fertilisers and pesticides that have  been used commercially for many decades. We do that accepting the fruit may not always be of perfect appearance but knowing it doesn’t contain chemical spray residues. We can also pick our fruit when it is at its peak ripeness and grow the best varieties for flavour. Commercial growers often can’t do this as the best don’t always travel so well and for many varieties they pick fruit under ripe.

We could use organically approved fungicides and insecticides but often don’t, relying on good garden practices and natural predators whilst accepting some yield loss.

Soil health is vital and we ensure this by using home made compost, mulches, leafmould, and comfrey. The fruit described is perennial which is a great way to increase the organic matter and carbon in the soil so helping to mitigate against Climate Change. I used the Hutton Institute SOCIT app to measure our Strathkinness Orchard soil organic matter to be 6.4% and carbon 3.7%  both encouragingly high.

KEY POINTS IN GROWING FRUIT, A SUMMARY

  • Try to provide a sunny sheltered site.
  • For new fruit trees decide what form you want them in and train/prune the trees carefully in their early years.
  • For badly neglected fruit trees renovate mainly in the winter but complete  over several years.
  • For stone fruit keep pruning to a minimum and carry out after fruiting, festoon branches.
  • For trained fruit such as cordons do mainly late summer pruning with training.
  • Soft fruit is easy to grow in Scotland. Give cuttings to your friends.
  • Apart from eating fresh ( the best way) fruit can be made into jams, chutneys, juices, cider, sloe gin/vodka, bottled or frozen. The orchard plans of reference 2 show keeping apples that will be good until March after picking in the Autumn.
  • A whole range of wildlife would like to take a share of you plants and fruit.
  • Join a Community group, or if not try growing even on the smallest scale.

REFERENCES

  1. www.orchardrevival.org.uk
  • http://www.tayportgarden.org  blog “Planning for fruit growing workshop” Bob Bilson 29th January 2021 orchard plans for Kilchattan Bay and Strathkinness available.
  • “Pruning and Training” book published by Dorling and Kindersley for the RHS.
  • “Fruit and Vegetables for Scotland” book by Kenneth Cox and Caroline Beaton published by Birlinn Ltd.

Any questions to bilsonrobert@icloud.com

Bob Bilson

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