• Mark

Mark’s guide to buying and planting fruit trees

It looks like this is going to be the decade of trees – so let’s make sure that what we buy is fit for purpose


Buying trees and plants

From my own experience I’ve come to the conclusion that we, the gardening public, are regularly being fobbed off with poor quality trees and plants which are commonly not the variety asked for.

Nothing quite beats collecting fruit that you've grown youself.

I find that the online descriptions are just too generic and miss out important information. Of course there are good nurserymen out there and their efforts should be applauded – It is up to us to seek them out – a good place to start is the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS). Type in what you are looking for and they’ll show you all of the suppliers in the country (as well as try and sell you plants from their own nursery). My advice is not to just search on Google, because you’ll inevitably end up at organisations with the largest marketing budget and not necessarily the best plants.

When buying plants or trees we need to know things like; are they potted or bare rooted, grafted or own rooted, what’s the age and size. We should also be told what material is used as growing media, because none of us should be buying plants potted in peat.

So with that challenge thrown down to the nursery industry, I also think that we the customers should be clearer about what we want. When it comes to fruit trees there is a lot of confusion out there. If we knew and understood more, then we can start to hold the plant suppliers to account.

Three key elements for selecting a fruit tree

1. Pollination: Some varieties pollinate themselves (self fertile) while others need partners (self sterile). You should ask if the variety you are buying is self fertile or needs partners. If a partner is needed then which one is compatible. Note that you might already have enough pollination partners if you have fruit trees in your area. Quite frankly, unless you’re in the middle of nowhere with no fruit trees at all or quite far north, you won’t need extra pollination.

2. Rootstocks:

Apple trees in full bloom grown on M9 rootstock at Woolton Farm

The growth habit of fruit trees is controlled firstly by the genetic characteristics of each variety, same as in us humans! However unlike us; we can get even more control over the growth habit of fruit trees by grafting them onto a range of rootstocks. Here are just some of them…

Rootstocks for apples and crab apples

Dwarfing rootstocks: M27 (2m width x 2m height) and M9 (3m x 3m)

Medium growing rootstocks: M26 (4m x 4m)

Medium to strong growing rootstocks: MM116 & MM106 4m x 5m)

Strong growing rootstocks: MM111 and M25 (6/8m x 8/12m)

Plum rootstocks:

Dwarf to medium: VVA-1 (also called Krymsk 1) or Pixy (3m x 3m)

Medium: St Julian A (4/5m x 4/5m)

Strong: Brompton & Myrobalan (5/6m x 7/8m)

Apricots & peach rootstocks

Medium: Torinel & Montclare (3/4m x 3/4m)

Medium to strong: St Julian A (4/5m x 4/5m)

Strong: Myrobalan (5/6m x 7/8m)

3. Disease resistance: If you don’t want to spray chemicals it is very important to try and find varieties resistant to diseases such as mildew and scab in apples, and leaf curl in peaches. Plums, nectarines, apricots and peaches all suffer badly from bacterial canker which can come in with the nursery tree – so check very carefully for dead looking dark patches and any oozing on the stems and branches. The only place for tree with those symptoms is on the bonfire.

Common terms explained

Bare rooted: The best value for money and the best way to plant. The trees are lifted out of bare soil in the nursery during the dormant season (Late November to end of February). They must be planted in the dormant season – ideally before Christmas, but fine by the end of Feb. The roots must never be allowed to dry out. If you receive bare root trees with dried out roots, complain and send them back!

Root balled: A method where the tree is lifted with a ball of soil still attached to the roots which has been wrapped with hessian or some other woven fabric that can degrade and break down in the soil. The trees are planted with the roots still wrapped in a ball. Some plant species are more suited to being sold root balled as opposed to bare rooted, and it is a method used for larger specimens.

Potted: Yes it is obvious – but know what size of pot and size/age of tree. For a one-year-old tree the minimum size would be a 5 ltr pot, a two-year-old tree you’ll want a 7.5 to 10 ltr pot. Potted trees will be much more expensive than bare root, but the advantage is they can be planted at any time of year as long as they are kept moist.

Don’t buy black pots – they are not recyclable – the coloured ones are recyclable.

Whips: Not what you think! These are one-year-old trees that do not have any side branches. Check the height before you buy. Again I’ve ended up with whips that are only 250mm high – these shouldn’t be sold, unless at a special low price.

Feathered: Believe it or not, feathers are side branches! Trees with side branches are great, but not if there are only one or two or if they are really low down. All you’ll end up doing is cutting them off.

When you take delivery of a bare root tree…..

Unwrap it, check it’s not damaged, and that the roots are moist.

Between December and February you can store the tree prior to planting for up to 4 weeks.

Keep the roots moist and wrapped in the plastic bag. Keep it in a cold/cool dark place. Not in the warm house, greenhouse or in direct sunlight. Try to plant at the very latest by mid-March. The sooner the better!



Planting & establishment

This is the only chance to give the tree a head start. Don’t go and put it in a water logged sludgy hole!

I know this is probably information overload but even if you do a few of these things it’ll help enormously…

a. Look at the roots. Prune off any damage.

b. Visually size up the area & depth needed to get the roots into.

c. Remove grass & weeds

d. Use spade to dig out the soil. Check the size by putting the tree into the hole. The soil surface should be about 2” up the tree’s stem when finished.

e. Remove the tree & sprinkle in a handful of bone meal (use gloves & avoid breathing in the dust), and some slow release fertiliser to give them a start over the first year.

f. Use a garden fork to loo

sen up the bottom and sides.

g. Put the tree back in. Make sure it fits and the roots are not crammed in too tightly.

h. Cover the roots with soil and then use your heel to firmly press the soil down so the tree is steady, and then use some loose soil or compost to finish off to the right level.i. Bang in a stake and tie the tree firmly to it in at least two places (use proper tree ties that won’t strangle the tree later. Make sure the stake is close to the stem or you will end up with the tree leaning over! Please note that apples on very weak rootstocks such as M9 or M27 will need a full height stake (8’) and tying in at least two places, whereas most other trees are OK with a 5’ stake. Make sure that at least 18” of the stake is in the ground.

j. I always cut a metre square of ground cover and slot it under the tree. Press in the edges with the spade to keep it in place. This will preserve moisture and keep the weeds down.

k. Look after your tree and it will reward you with lots of fruit. Remove weeds, water if dry and check the ties.

The author in his cider tree nursery



I hope this has been a useful guide.

If you have any questions about planting or growing fruit trees, just send me a message.



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