When I ask people to describe fruit trees in a garden, they invariably go on to describe an orchard where fruit trees are growing in meadows of naturalised bulbs in spring and wildflowers and grasses in summer. But many of us do not have space for one standard size fruit tree, let alone an entire orchard!
However, all is not lost. We do not need to banish our dreams of fruit from our own gardens - even for those of us who have small gardens - thanks to the ancient craft of fruit tree training.
The answer is creative pruning of fruit trees
Espaliers, stepovers, fans and cordons are all traditional forms of fruit tree training. But one only need visit some of our national gardens, such as RHS Wisely in Surrey, West Dean in West Sussex, as well as browse the internet to see that the forms of trained fruit tree varies as much as their names: from a Parisian goblet to the lattice design of Belgian Fence. It is clear that your imagination is the limit to the shapes and forms of fruit tree can take - and all are suitable for small gardens!
Trained fruit trees add structure
Cordon apples and pears can create a living pergola; an espaliered or similarly pruned apple tree growing on a decorative metal or wooden support and a fan-trained plum tree grown against a south- or west-facing wall can all add height, interest and structure year round.
As an alternative to a trellis screen, the diamond-shaped gaps of a fruit tree trained as a Belgian fence or the horizontal gaps of a 4-tier espalier let both light and air to freely circulate; perfect for sub-dividing a small garden and giving the illusion of space. Such a living screen could mask a utility area, for example and wall-trained trees could add a focal point or soften the house, connecting it to the garden. And then there is of course in all cases, the seasonal, home-grown fruit to be enjoyed.
Whilst I have focused on top fruit, training is not limited to these trees. Red- and white-currants and gooseberries can also be trained allowing a variety of soft-fruit to be grown in a small space whilst clothing fences and walls. They can also act as lower screens when grown on decorative supports.
Training your own
There are practical reasons for training other than restricting size if space is limited - that is to improve the ease of picking and, techniques that were developed over thousands of years, to provide a maximum yield in the minimium time and/ or to ensure an even yield of fruit season on season. Of course, on the West Coast of Scotland where the season is shorter, exposing fruit to sunlight through training the tree can assist ripening.
Apples, pears, plums, quinces etc. are trained whilst young, called formative pruning, to provide the framework that goes onto bear the fruit for tens if not hundreds of years, if a regenerative pruning routine is maintained after the formative period.
There are a number of good books that describe using images and diagrams how to prune a young fruit tree and soft fruit shrub into espaliers, step overs, fans, and cordons. I have listed one below. (Note that some forms are better for certain fruit tree species than others, such as plum trees are best trained as a fan rather than as an espalier or cordon).
The Royal Horticultural Society Pruning by Christopher Brickell
For more creative forms, you will see that the underlying framework is based on the formative pruning of an espalier or a cordon.
So what are you waiting for..... now is a great time to start your new fruit tree off, so let those creative juices flow and you will be rewarded with structure, interest and an abundance of fruit in years to come!
Rachel Bailey, a garden designer and gardener in Scotland.