Fruit Tree FAQs

Table of Contents

The gardening experts tell us to spread the roots out when we plant fruit trees. Last spring we bought two apple trees in containers and did just that—and yet a little while later they both died. Why?

The advice you mention applies to trees lifted directly from the nursery and planted during the dormant season (November to March). Container-grown trees can be planted at any time during the year, but by spreading out the roots and thereby removing the nutrient-rich compost in which they had been grown, you gave the trees little chance of surviving at a time when they should have been in full growth.

I have tried growing a ‘Brown Turkey’ fig outdoors without much success. The plant produces plenty of growth but few ripe figs. Now I have a plant in its third year in a 300 mm (12 in) pot. Its growth is controlled, but the figs drop before they are full size. Why?

After three years in a 300 mm (12 in) pot it must be well and truly pot-bound. To a certain extent this is desirable, but now it should be put into a somewhat larger container so that you can feed and water it adequately. Lacking sufficient water means that the compost has dried out, and that has caused the figs to drop before they were mature.

Fertilisers are expensive and we want to get the fullest value from them. What is the best time of year to apply them to apple and pear trees?

Late February or early March is undoubtedly the best time. By then the fruit buds are beginning to swell; the soil is still moist, and so the first rain carries the fertilisers down to within reach of the roots, and the response within the tree is immediate. If applied later in the season, unless they were thoroughly watered in, the fertilisers might well stay above the reach of the roots for a long time.

Four years ago we planted a ‘Black Hamburgh’ grapevine in our 3.7 x 2.4 m (12 x 8 ft) greenhouse. We managed all right at the start and had some fruit last year, but now we are faced with masses of growth and practically no sign of fruit. How do we tame it?

Most crucially, do not cut into any old wood: if you do the wound may bleed for the whole of the season. Thin out the new growth by taking out all the sub-laterals (subsidiary

Autumn pruning sideshoots) and shortening the laterals somewhat. During the growing season take off all the sub-laterals regularly. In the autumn, when the vine is completely dormant, prune all the laterals back to within two buds of the main stem (the rod). In the spring select the laterals with flower trusses and stop these laterals at two leaves beyond the blooms; and subsequently rub out all secondary lateral growth.

We are advised to plant cordon fruits at an angle of 45 degrees. This seems strange as trees and bushes grow naturally upright. What is the reason?

By planting cordon fruits with their stems sloping at an angle of 45 degrees the upward sap flow slows down. This results in a higher ratio of fruit buds, with less emphasis on wood growth.

I have always had a desire to grow my own walnuts. Could you suggest a relatively quick-growing and cropping variety?

All walnuts are slow growers, and they usually take several years to establish themselves, especially in areas subject to spring frosts, which do a lot of damage to the young growth. Varieties such as ‘Leeds Castle’, ‘Lady Irene’, or ‘Northdown Clawnut’ are worth considering, but do not expect walnuts for at least 15 years.

It is all very well for the experts to talk about the risk of ‘soil sickness’ if you replant strawberries or raspberries in the same ground—but what else can one do in a fruit cage which cannot be moved?

Soil sickness is a real problem and crop rotation is the obvious answer, but you are right to say that this is difficult to arrange in a small fruit cage or when space is very limited. A compromise which can work is to site the replanting between the previous rows. During the preparations dig in a liberal amount of well-rotted compost or manure, and just prior to planting apply a dressing of fish, blood, and bone fertiliser.

Would you recommend foliar feeding for fruit as a complete alternative to soil-applied fertilisers?

No. Foliar feeding is useful and can greatly help plants under stress during the growing season; but it should be regarded as a first-aid treatment rather than the complete nutritional answer. It is mainly nitrogen which is easily absorbed by the leaves: potash and phosphates are not. Start with a balanced fertiliser such as Growmore in the spring, which you will find is not only better but also cheaper than a foliar feed.

When I was young my mother used to make quince jelly, which had a wonderful flavour. Is it possible to buy a quince tree, and if so how long would I have to wait for a crop large enough for making jelly?

Much depends on where you live. Quinces do best in the southern half of the country, and they dislike cold winds during the growing season. On a well-drained soil a one- or two-year-old tree would take about three years to settle down before fruiting. The secret of making good jelly is to use fully ripe fruit, so do not start picking until late October. ‘Vranja’ is a good self-fertile variety.

I have just moved into a house with a very neglected garden full of couch-grass and other vigorous weeds. I want to grow strawberries and other soft fruits, but can the site be cleared without resorting to weedkillers?

Yes, but it would be advisable to devote a whole season to the job. The most effective method would be winter-digging one spade deep before Christmas, turning the whole lot in in order to deny the couch-grass above-ground growth. Follow this with regular and persistant surface cultivations from early spring onwards, so that at no time are the weeds allowed to grow above ground level. Denied their normal growth the weed roots will soon die.

If you must use a chemical weedkiller, a dalapon-based herbicide should be effective. Apply it in diluted form over the whole affected area, and then dig in the couch-grass. 172

Although our garden is not shaded by trees, it gets very little sunshine. Would it be possible for us to plant fruit trees with any chance of success?

It would not be wise to plant either apples or pears: they would grow but the cropping prospects would be poor. However, a ‘Victoria’ plum or a ‘Morello’ cherry would tolerate the conditions. Both these varieties are self-fertile, so will fruit without the need for another pollinator. In addition, both are suitable for training as fan trees on a wall or fence.

We have just finished building a new house on a sloping site and are planning a terraced garden, including a site for a fruit cage to house strawberries and raspberries. The most convenient spot for the fruit cage would be at the bottom end but a friend has advised us against it. Why?

Cold air, like water, flows downhill; consequently, when a spring frost did occur, the blossom on your strawberries would be at great risk at the lower end of the garden. Take your friend’s advice, and site the fruit cage on the high ground.

I have been in the habit of summer-pruning our apples and pears in July, after which we get a lot of soft growth. Why?

July is usually too early for summer pruning. If done at that time there is a risk of some of the dormant fruit buds breaking into growth. When this happens the prospects for the following years crop are reduced. If you do your summer pruning in August it has the desired effect of swelling the fruit and leaf buds without causing them to break into growth.

We are very pleased with the design of our soft-fruit cage, but we have come up against two problems: first, how do we get rid of weeds at the base of the netting; and second, how do we eliminate the risk of snow damage?

Unless dealt with, weeds soon build up; but to avoid the job of lifting up the netting to get them all through the growing season, apply one of the herbicides containing glyphosate. This is a simple, effective, once-a-season operation.

As far as snow damage is concerned, your best bet is, at the end of October, to roll the top netting from both ends of the cage to the centre rod and tie it firmly; leave it there until May, when the risk of snow has past.