Growing Apples and Pears
It can be argued that the apple is the most popular fruit, for it certainly occupies the biggest acreage in the United Kingdom. In discussing the cultivation of this major fruit, those aspects of growing which it has in common with others are dealt with once in detail and referred to again only for the sake of necessary emphasis or where there are important variations.
Although attempts to produce apples in gardens are usually not really successful, there is no good reason, apart from lack of space, why a constant supply should not be available from August to March, and even beyond. To ensure a proper continuity of supply a range of varieties is necessary, which—so called family-trees apart—calls for at least 12 trees. This in turn suggests either a very large garden or trees that remain small, under control, but are consistently fruitful. This latter state calls for skill and presents the gardener with special problems, but there is no more rewarding aspect of horticulture than directing the growth of trees to fruitful ends. And it can be done, if the right approach is made. The key factors are the choice of rootstocks and varieties, proper pruning and nutrition and the sensible control of the more serious. The keen gardener can see immediately that none of this is insuperable, and the rewards are great.
There is little to be gained by telling the gardener that he must choose a site free from spring frosts, and select a well-drained medium loam for his fruit growing. To the commercial grower these matters are vital, but the gardener has to do his best with the site and soil attached to his house. Within these limits apple trees should be planted in a reasonably sheltered part of the garden, well away from the shade and competition of trees and, assuming the trees are kept in compact form, some added protection from severe frost during the crucial blossoming period should be provided. And, take heart, the heat gained during a sunny spring day in a built-up area is radiated back during the hours of darkness, so urban gardens are much less likely to suffer spring frost damage than are the open fields of the commercial grower.
The soil in gardens, and especially in new gardens, is often in poor condition, largely because the builders seldom have any respect for the precious top soil.
In summary, soils for really good apple growing have three essential requirements, based upon depth, drainage and texture. Some 45cm (18in) of rooting depth are needed; the trees will not prosper if waterlogged in winter, and the roots—which have to occupy the soil all the year round and cannot run away from unpleasant conditions —must have a proper balance of air and water in their environment. To promote these highly desirable conditions it is a good plan to dig the site thoroughly, breaking up the sub-soil with a fork, and to work in any rottedor farmyard manure or peat which can be obtained, in order to increase rooting depth, assist drainage and improve the structure of the soil. Avoid both shallow, thin soils and stiff waterlogged clays. Between these two extremes much can be done by initial and continuing good husbandry, in other words by toil and sweat, both very good for the majority of us. Do not overlook the question of lime, discussed at length elsewhere. Fortunately apples, and other fruits, do best in a slightly acid soil. In technical terms, if the pH reaction is between 6.2 and 7.2—and most soils come in this category—you have little cause for concern. If it lies markedly below 6.2 or well above 7.2 adjustments will be necessary.
There are in theory some 28 named or numbered apple rootstocks to choose from. Most of these bear the prefix M, which stands for Mailing (pronounced Mawling) the Kentish home of the best-known fruit research station in the world, where most of the investigations into the behaviour of rootstocks has been carried out. Other root-stocks are distinguished by the letters MM, meaning Malling-Merton, signifying joint research work between two bodies. To complicate matters somewhat a further grouping of initials is now with us—EMLA— which means East Mailing Long Ashton. Long Ashton is a famous research station near Bristol, and the whole phrase commemorates a most useful piece of joint research work. Briefly, the EMLA rootstocks are reselected and healthy strains of the earlier M and MM rootstocks. So when a nurseryman offers EMLA M9, for example, he is selling the very best type of MO, root-stock, which is exactly what you want.
Some of the apple rootstocks produce large trees, others produce small trees, and there are all stages in between. For obvious reasons the more vigorous rootstocks, excellent though they are for the commercial grower, are not suitable for the needs of the gardener who has only limited space. Accordingly, the selection for gardeners is, at present, on the following lines. Mailing 9 is the most generally suitable. It makes a compact tree, which comes into bearing quickly, but it needs good soil and good treatment if it is to give of the best of which it is capable. It also must be kept staked and securely tied, for even in gardens the tree may blow over or at least be weakened by rocking in the wind.
On either side of M9, in terms of vigour, come M26 and M27. M26 makes a larger tree and should be chosen if the soil is not quite as deep or as fertile as is desirable. On some soils M26 produces trees which lack the normal number of side-shoots and this bare wood effect is a little alarming in young trees, although in later years it may not be noticeable. Even smaller than M9 are the trees grown on M27, the latest in the Mailing series. This is a rootstock for the really fertile soils, on which it can be closely planted and still remain compact and fruitful. For my part, I choose EMLA M9 for most gardens and EMLA MMIII for really large gardens, knowing that, properly grown, both are excellent.
Pollination and Thinning
The otherwise complicated matter of pollination and fertilization would be self-resolving with all these varieties growing in close proximity. The pollen has still to be transferred by flying insects, but it is a safe assumption that bees will be buzzing around in most gardens, carrying the pollen from one compatible variety to another. Good pollination leads to the possibility of oversetting, with the risks of small fruits and the strain of over-cropping and exhaustion. Remove surplus fruits in late June and early July, the early varieties being thinned first. The golden rule is to remove the small fruits, and all distorted, diseased, cracked and similar undesirables. Some authorities recommend the removal of the centre fruit in the cluster—the king fruit—but this is not good advice unless you are growing for the show bench.
Space the fruits out so that, roughly, they stand at 10cm to 12cm (4.in-5in) apart for eating varieties, and 12cm to 22cm (5in-8in) for Bramley.
Having prepared the soil, plant the trees in the dormant season, the earlier the better. Ensure that you get the best quality trees by going, if you can, to a specialist nurseryman who grows his own trees. Ordering well in advance is obviously better than hoping for the best in March.
Trees up to three years of age will transplant satisfactorily but one year trees, known as maidens, move most readily. Drive a stout stake in each place beforehand. There is quite a wide specification to choose from, but sweet chestnut posts 1.2m (4ft) long, pointed, with a top diameter of around 5-7cms (2-1/2ins) are about right. Other types of timber can be used satisfactorily but all except sweet chestnut, larch and heart-wood of oak should be treated with preservative, preferably creosote applied under pressure.
Drive each stake in to leave about 75cm (2-1/2ft) still out of the ground. This will be enough to provide support for bush trees and dwarf pyramids, but if you wish to grow the trees as tall pyramids or spindle bushes a taller stake is desirable. Commercial growers of spindle bushes use posts about 2.5m (8ft), leaving 2m (6ft) out of the ground, so that the central leader can be more easily trained.
Space bush apple trees on MO. rootstock three metres (10ft) apart; dwarf pyramids two metres (6ft 6in), spindle bushes one and a half metres (5ft), while cordons can go as close as 75cm (about 3ft) apart. If, lucky you, you can manage more than one row, then space the rows to give 3 metres (10ft) for all the forms mentioned, both to reduce shading and allow you to attend to spraying, pruning and picking.
Choose a day when the soil is reasonably dry, as far as it ever is in winter, and plant each tree close to its stake. Take out a wide, shallow hole, without loosening the stake, and spread out the roots so that they can make the quickest possible use of the largest amount of ground. Take care to keep the union, the swollen piece on the stem which marks the junction between root stock and variety, at least 10cm (4in) above ground. If you plant the tree deeply with the idea of saving the cost of a stake you will succeed in your intention, but you will grow a very large unfruitful tree instead of the neat compact one you dreamed about, so—take care not to bury the union, because if you do the inherently vigorous scion will root and the weak system of the rootstock be overpowered.
Firm the soil over the roots so that the two are in close contact. If you can lay hands on used potting-soil then a large bucketful to each planting hole will make a world of difference to the growth and establishment of the young tree. Failing that, a shovelful or two of moist peat, worked into the soil, will help. Tie each tree to the stake, taking care to needs by the response of the tree. As a generalization a compound fertilizer of the Growmore type with the analysis Nitrogen 7%, Phosphorus 7% and Potassium 7% should be applied each March as an even sprinkling over the surface of the rooting area—which may cover half as much again as the branch spread—at the rate of about half a kilo (1lb) to 8 square metres (10sq yds).
If, for any reason, the trees do not respond by growing freely, measured by 50cm (20in) of annual leader extension, then supplement the soil applications with a foliar. As the trees come into bearing, switch the manuring to a dressing in early September at the same rate, substituting a quick acting nitrate fertilizer. This will, in most cases, assist the tree to lay down blossom buds and thereby increase fruiting productivity and reduce the vegetative growth.
One often sees apple trees growing in use a broad tie which will not bite into the stem, and allow room for the tree trunk to expand rapidly without being choked. The patent plastic ties on offer are excellent, though not cheap—a little ingenuity with strips cut from plastic bags, or with bicycle tyre inner tubing, may meet the need. Place the tie as high on the stake as possible, for obvious reasons. If you are planting on a really windy site position tree and stake so that the latter is on the side from which the strongest wind is likely, to avoid chafing.
Finish off the job by pruning the maiden tree back to the appropriate height, and between planting time and the arrival of spring cover the surface of the ground above the root area with some 5cm (2in) of composted material or farmyard manure to keep in moisture and choke annual weed growth.
Thereafter all you have to do to ensure good crops of crisp and delectable fruits is to prune sensibly, feed properly and spray appropriately. If in doubt either leave the tree alone, or carry out the minimum pruning consistent with a common-sense removal of diseased, overcrowded and over-vigorous shoots going in the wrong direction. But pruning is a very satisfactory operation, done properly, and gives the gardener a sense of working with the tree rather than against it, so persevere.
Most fruit trees in gardens are starved, poor things. Basically they should receive not only the annual mulches of manure or compost which all authorities recommend, but also a dressing of a complete fertilizer on all but the most fertile of soils. Fertilizer should never be wasted, and it is easy to apply too much. Gardeners should endeavour by a rough process of trial and error to establish the optimum, which is a pleasant sight but is not good practice for trees on M9, because the grass competes seriously with the trees for water and nutrients. If you feel you must grow the trees in the lawn then choose a stronger rootstock, such as MMIII, and increase the manuring levels to compensate for the competition. To repeat, if your soil is very rich, reduce the level of fertilizer application, but since very fertile soils are only occasionally found the chances are that for good results you will have to maintain or exceed the dressings mentioned. But do experiment.
Pests and diseases
The amateur gardener may well have to put up with some pests and some diseases in some years, since it would be expensive and tiresome to spray enough to obtain perfect control.
The major pests, those that occur each year in most areas, include aphids and other sap-sucking plant lice of the same group; leaf-eating caterpillars and codling moth caterpillars, which cause the maggoty fruits around July time.
The most likely diseases are scab and mildew, both caused by microscopic fungi. Scab affects the leaves but the worst damage is to the fruits in the form of unsightly and distorting blackish spots and blotches. Mildew, which is very common, is to be found for the most part on the leaves and shoots, which are crippled by the grey felted fungus. Preventive action can and should be taken against these troubles annually.
If you would prefer to follow a less demanding programme, but still control aphids, then use a spray of Rogor immediately flowering has finished; trap the codling moth larvae by means of bands of corrugated cardboard placed around the trunks each July; put up philosophically with leaf-eating caterpillars, scab and mildew, and trust to predators to keep the red spider mites in reasonable bounds.
The varieties recommended will provide a picking sequence, in the order given, starting about 15 August with Discovery (earlier with George Cave and Scarlet Pimpernel), working on steadily to Cox picking around 26 September and finishing with Idared on 15 October. How’s that for precision?
Naturally, seasons and districts will vary, but the dates given are not likely to be far out. The tree itself signals when picking is due because cutting-off cells begin to form at the junction of the stalk of the fruit and the permanent parts of the tree. If the fruits part readily when raised gently beyond the horizontal, then the time has come. In heavy cropping years it pays to pick over twice or thrice, taking first the outermost fruits with the brightest colour, leaving the remainder to flush and to put on more weight. Always pick ripe fruit with gentleness. The old gardeners used to enjoin the young ‘treat ‘em as though they were eggs’. Bruised fruit does not keep well.
Storing apples is always a problem. The ‘Egremont Russet’ have a special flavour key factors for good storage life are:
a) grow the fruits well,
b) pick them with care at the right time
c) keep them in a cool, moist, vermin-free place, away from taint.
It is this last requirement which creates most problems. Fortunately polythene is a great help. Apples in polythene bags are kept moist and store very well in most years. Try some in bags, but keep an eye on them, especially if they were on the ripe side when picked. This advice applies to all other methods of storing. Many gardeners have of necessity to use the garage for storing fruit, in which case do not hesitate to water the boxes or trays of fruits occasionally with a watering can fitted with a fine rose. Once a picked apple loses moisture it cannot replace it, so keep the fruits in a humid atmosphere to avoid loss of both weight and flavour.
Look through the stored fruits at regular intervals and bring them out for eating as they ripen.
If mice are troublesome use one of the proprietary baits based on Warfarin or Alphakil at the first sign of their presence, before the mice become addicted to apples in preference to bait.
All being well your household will enjoy home grown apples from August to April. What more can you possibly want?
It is surprising that pears are not grown more often by amateur gardeners. True, these glorious fruits require warmer and more sheltered conditions than apples, to give of their best, but suitable sites can be found in most gardens. Their lack of popularity may be attributed to the quite mistaken idea that pears make enormous trees which are impossible to tend and pick properly and are slow to come into bearing, to boot. All of which is true of pears on pear rootstocks, but is not true of pears grown on quince.
So let us start with a healthy generalization—a garden without at least one pear tree is incomplete.
Site and soil
Choose the most sheltered site in the garden for growing pear trees, but shade and in particular competition from other trees must be avoided. If necessary, provide the site with addedfrom strong winds by appropriate plantings of, say, flowering shrubs, which will filter the onslaught of the wind without competing with the pears for light and moisture.
The worst effects of the lack of shelter are felt in the spring and autumn. The tender young leaves can be adversely affected by high winds, and pollinating insects do not function well in these conditions. Autumn gales bring the risk of premature dropping, particularly of the large well-grown fruits. Equally, pears should be given the deepest soil available, one which is also well-drained and slightly acid, following the general precepts laid down in the section on apples.
But if the soil falls short of the ideal, and most do, then the gardener can take comfort because pears are very accommodating, and will not fail unless the soil is waterlogged in winter or dries out in summer. They may not give of their magnificent best, but they will not fail. Shallow chalky soils present special difficulties because pears do not like a high lime content and on such soils tend to lack both iron and manganese, producing pale yellow foliage. Pears can be trained as multiple cordons, fans or espaliers on walls and particularly on those facing south, where the extra warmth and shelter to which the choicer varieties respond is available.