Growing Quince Trees
Add a touch of the old-fashioned to your garden by planting a quince tree. Its unusual fruit has a delicious aroma and makes first class pies and preserves.
The quince (Cydonia vulgaris) is an old-fashioned, ‘country cousin’ of cultivated apple and pear trees; although not as widely planted as it used to be, its beauty when in flower and the sharp, unusual flavour of its bright yellow, pear-shaped fruit are making it an increasingly popular choice for the home grower. In Victorian times, no well-stocked cottage garden or orchard was complete without a quince tree. The fruit never becomes sufficiently soft or sweet to be eaten raw, but quinces harvested in late autumn used to be highly valued for the jam, jelly, marmalade and confectionery made from the strongly-scented pungent flesh, and can still be used for these purposes. Quinces make particularly good jelly, with a quite individual flavour. One slice of quince added to an apple pie or flan transforms the taste into something special and exotic, and a bowl full of quinces can fill a whole room with their lemony scent.
Although no-one is sure exactly where quinces originated, they have been cultivated in warm, Mediterranean climates for centuries. Today, they are widely grown in Portugal, Italy and the south of France. In cool temperate climates, they are not grown commercially, perhaps because the weather is a touch too harsh, and with apples and pears so abundant and inexpensive, quinces are hard to come by in the shops. However, they are not at all difficult to cultivate, and because they are self-fertile, a single tree will supply you with plentiful crops of its delicious fruit.
Remembering their Mediterranean habitat, try to select a warm, sunny spot for your tree, well out of the way of strong winds and frost pockets. It is a good tree to choose for a courtyard site, and is equally suitable as a specimen tree on the lawn as in the fruit garden. This is because, as the tree grows older, its shape becomes wide-spreading and very picturesque, with an ultimate height of about 5 m (16’); this ‘oriental’ appearance is much more interesting than that of the usual, standard fruit tree. The quince becomes particularly decorative in winter, when its pale grey bark and intricate branching system are easily seen. Its oval leaves, dark green above and white-felted underneath, add to its attractiveness, and the large white or pale pink flowers, typical of the Rosaceae family, are an extra bonus in late spring. In mid- to late autumn, the leaves often turn a rich deep shade of yellow before falling; because of these decorative qualities, as well as its food value, it can truly be considered the perfect choice for a ‘one-tree-garden’.
Quinces prefer awhich is moisture-retentive without being water-logged, and neutral or slightly acid rather than limey. If you are lucky enough to have a stream or pond in your garden, then plant your quince nearby, as the trees seem to do better in moist (but well drained) soils. However, remember that where water collects is often the lowest point, and so cold or frosty air may also build up, and put an end to cropping.
You can grow quinces from seed, but it is a painfully slow way to proceed, as you will have to wait up to twelve years before the seedling tree comes into bearing. It is a much quicker and safer bet to select one of the named varieties available from your nurseryman or garden centre. Champion has large, apple-shaped fruit; both Bereczki (Vranja) and Meech’s Prolific have the more ordinary, pear-shaped fruit, but the latter has a reputation for being slow-growing though a reliable cropper. The variety Portugal has large, oblong fruit which ripen to a deep, orange colour, and is considered by many to be the finest tasting. Although Meech’s Prolific some- times crops earlier, named varieties of quinces generally start cropping when they are about five to eight years old. They are available as half-standard trees, on a stem of 1.4 m (4-1/2’)J and as bushes on short legs, like gooseberries. If your tree is container-grown it can be planted any time of the year, barring extremes of weather; open-grown trees, ie. those which are bare-rooted, are best planted in late autumn. Remember to prepare the station thoroughly beforehand, and give the newly planted quince the support of a strong stake. Allow a 3 m (10’) spacing between bushes, and twice that distance between half-standards. Their general cultivation is very similar to that for other fruit trees. On moist fertile soils, the quince requires little manuring but, like pears, responds well to surface mulches of rotted manure or garden. Weed regularly. Pruning is minimal, and is usually confined to the cutting out of overcrowded, unproductive or damaged branches. Long sideshoots are spurred back as for pears.
In mid-autumn, the fruit begins to change from green to pale yellow. Leave the fruit on the tree right through and into late autumn, to allow a touch of frost to improve the flavour. Try to pick the fruit when the weather is dry, to avoid rotten, unstorable crops; ripe quinces will still be quite hard, though the pips should have turned dark brown to black. In cool temperate climates they can normally be picked any time over a period of several weeks, and will then mature slowly through the winter.
For storing, select only sound, healthy fruit and put them on a shelf in a cool, dry place, such as a cellar or shed. Make sure none of the fruit is touching, and check them regularly for signs of rot. Remember that the ripening fruit gives off a pronounced aroma which can adversely affect apples and pears, so store them away from these fruits.
Quinces are generally trouble-free, although they are sometimes infected with leaf spot. If you have had such trouble in previous years, it is a good idea to spray with a copper fungicide at leaf-bud-burst and again when the fruit has set. Leaf curling aphids, and leaf eating caterpillars may appear, but are normally not of any great trouble.
Common garden names often cause great confusion, and the ‘flowering quince’ or ‘japonica’ of cottage gardens is not a true Cydonia, but a member of a related genus,. These ‘ornamental quinces’ are among the most beautiful and easily cultivated of early flowering shrubs; their large, saucer-shaped flowers often open on the bare branches before the leaves have appeared, in late winter or early spring. There is a wide range of flower colour available, from brick red, through vermillion, crimson, pale salmon, to pink and white. They are undemanding as to site and soil conditions, and will grow happily trained against a north wall or in poor soil. They have a dense, bushy habit of growth, and eventually reach a height of 1.5 m (5’). Treat their yellow, quince-like fruit in exactly the same way as true quinces, cooking them in cakes, pics or preserves. Chaenomeles speciosa is the common ‘japonica’ which, in most years, will set yellow rounded fruits; the much less common C. cathayensis grows long green fruit, up to 15 cm (6”) which make better jelly than japonica fruits. Chaenomeles. ‘Crimson and Gold’ makes an excellent, freely suckering hedge; its bright red flowers with yellow stamens are particularly beautiful. Like cydonias, pruning is minimal; those trained against a wall should be pruned after flowering, in late spring. Cut back the flowered growth to leave two or three leaf clusters.
Alternatively, if you want a more informal looking bush, leave the pruning until early autumn, and cut back the new growth by about half and thin straggling shoots so that about a quarter of the shoot is left.