Monty grows fruit in small spaces
Fruit in pots is the perfect way to grow your own orchard, whatever the size of your plot. Monty explains how
There was a brief time when we were a two-dishwasher family. I think my ears would bleed if I aspired to such dizzy heights of affluence now, but I have not escaped the aspirational, consumer- hungry world completely because we are now a two- orchard household. Look on and dream, ye lesser mortals, for of such abundance Eden is made. Well, sort of. One orchard was planted 20 years ago and is reaching a kind of maturity dominated by apple trees on standard and semi-standard rootstocks – MM111 and MM106 – set in grass filled with narcissi bulbs in spring, then allowed to grow long and float with cow parsley and lesser hemlock before having a weekly trim until autumn. From time to time we have had lambs grazing beneath the trees and once, rather destructively, three splendid pigs. There are also flower beds, a soft fruit area, bee hives, a chicken run (alas, no chickens at the moment) and a couple of sheds. It is a ‘proper place’, complete unto itself, bounded by tall hedges that lead to fields beyond. It is lovely, luxurious and takes up the kind of space that only a generous country garden can afford to spare. The other orchard is a little different. It is a gloriously mixed array, including plums, lemons, oranges, blueberries, a walnut, an apricot, mulberries, apples and a couple of olive trees. The biggest of these is 1.5m (5ft) tall and the average size a lot less than that. Every tree and bush is growing in a pot, and these are all sitting on paving slabs. It is a moveable, dwarf, adaptable and completely entrancing little orchard, as different from the other as might be imagined. The fruit that it produces, however, is real enough and, in its fully formed maturity, as good as that of any full-sized tree. We often sing the praises of home-grown veg but do not, in my opinion, do enough to celebrate the joys of fruit grown at home and eaten absolutely ripe and in its true season. It is
life-enhancing and these dwarf trees make it possible for anyone with a backyard, balcony, or even a front doorstep wide enough to accommodate a couple of medium-sized pots to grow fruit on real trees, albeit miniature ones. The techniques that make this possible are based on choice of rootstocks and plant breeding rather than any cultivation or pruning secrets. You can, of course, train fruit trees in lots of very restricted ways such as cordons, espaliers, step-overs and fans, which are ideal when space is at a premium. But they need soil to grow in and permanent support, as well as regular and knowledgeable pruning. The dwarf fruit trees that are increasingly available are designed to be grown in containers and pruning can be kept to a minimum.
For a long time, apples have been available grown on very dwarfing rootstocks, such as M27, that will reach a maximum height fully grown of no more than 1.8m (6ft). Pears are slightly larger, but on Quince ‘C’ rootstock can be restricted to about 2.5m ( 8ft) – though pears are traditionally restricted by training rather than cultivation. I have them growing as espaliers and single cordons and both carry good fruit. The dwarf walnut ‘Karlik’ that I am now growing has been bred from dwarfing varieties, such as ‘Lara’ and ‘Europa’, to grow little more than 1.8m ( 6ft) after 20 years. However, the nuts are full sized and, by all accounts, indistinguishable in taste from the largest walnut tree. They are self-pollinating, so a solo tree should produce fruit in the second or third year. Growing walnuts in a pot has another great advantage for the small garden because walnuts, and especially their roots, give off juglone, a toxin that restricts the growth of other nearby plants, with apples particularly susceptible. It is an evolutionary trick that allows a walnut the light and space it craves but does little for your fruit collection. Grow the walnut in a container and those toxins are contained too, so it can sit in the same small space with an apple. Last year, I tried growing apricots in pots and these were killed by canker as a result of one very cold night last December. I have now pot ted up a dwarf apr icot ‘Apricompakt’, a cultivar that is self-fertile and hardy. Nevertheless, because it is currently so small, at barely 1m (3ft), bushy and ready to bear fruit next year, I shall be able to bring it indoors along with the citrus when the weather turns spiteful this winter. The mulberry ‘Charlotte Russe’ was the 2017 Chelsea Plant of the Year and has the distinction of being no more than 1.5m (5ft) tall when fully grown. Mulberries (and figs) are unusual in that they are not grafted onto rootstocks but grown from
backyard, “Anyone with a a front balcony, or even w fruit doorstep can gro on real trees ”
cuttings, so ‘Charlotte Russe’ is naturally dwarfing. It claims to fruit in its second year, although I got mine last autumn and haven’t yet seen a hint of fruit. It was so alarmingly late into any signs of growth this year that I was all but ready to shred what seemed to be a straggle of dry sticks in May, but finally it burst into life in June. I have read negative reports about the flavour of the fruit but will wait to make my own judgement when it finally decides to produce some. Coincidentally, I planted a full-size black mulberry last year too, in the orchard among the apples, so it will be interesting to compare and contrast the fruit of the two.
The acidity test
I grow blueberries in pots, both as shrubs and as standard trees or ‘lollipops’, because that is the only option for me. Down the road from Longmeadow is a soft fruit factory farm raising strawberries under vast acres of polythene, as wel l as blueberries in pots in the open air. Apparently, it is big business but the blueberries all have to be in pots even on that huge scale because they need acidic soil to survive, let alone thrive, and provide their delicious berries for breakfast. If your soil is alkaline or neutral, as mine is, then you can use a peat-free ericaceous compost (there is absolutely no justification or need to use peat for this). A compost made from pine bark or bracken does equally well. This, then, is one of the greatest advantages of growing a fruit permanently in a container – raising something that would otherwise be unavailable to you.
A straggle of dry sticks in May, it finally burst into life in June
Monty’s Mulberry ‘Charlotte Russe’ is naturally dwarfing and is grown from cuttings rather than on grafted rootstock
Fruit grown in pots needs regular feeding with a high-potash feed such as seaweed, tomato or home-made comfrey feed