SWEET REWARDS Growing fruit can be easier than growing vegetables, although it requires a bit more preparation and planning.
Ok, fellow gardeners and budding gardeners, here we go again: Every year I urge people to grow more fruit in Ireland, because we are importing way to many apples, pears, plums and soft fruit. Even grapes, kiwis, figs, apricots and peaches can be grown here in a polytunnel. I have seen fruit trees growing on tower block balconies and on roofs. The good news?
Growing fruit is in many ways easier than growing vegetables, although it requires a bit more preparation and planning. Here are a few tips to consider when taking the plunge.
Your choice of site is vital. It is the foundation of your enterprise. You are preparing the ground for plants to grow for decades. Get your site right before going further. All fruit trees need a sunny, sheltered site to thrive with well-draining soil. Avoid overly limey or acidic soils; aim for a pH of 6 to 7.
Fruit areas of any size need protection from storms and cold winds for growth and to ensure good pollination. Use either tall windbreak netting and/or plant a hedge to protect from all prevailing and cold wind directions and create a sun trap on your site. The hedge itself can be a low-cost/low-maintenance productive feature if you include species such as elders, hazel and cobnuts. Plant at least a year ahead of fruit plants if you’re starting from scratch. Drainage is important too – no fruit trees like their roots sitting in water. To test, dig a hole 30cm wide by 30cm deep and fill with water. If the hole doesn’t empty by at least 3cm an hour, drainage improvement will be required. It may be that soil compaction is an issue, but if the problem is caused because of a very heavy soil type or impermeable subsoil, then you can arrange to have land drains installed and/or contour your site into a series of gentle sloping mounds, then plant and stake your trees well on the tops.
Ideally, fruit trees like a brown loam with an underlying permeable sub soil, but we know we don’t always have that. I highly recommend getting a full soil test done before planting, so any required nutrients get added, pH adjusted and the soil structure improved with compost, manures and fertilisers before planting takes place. FAB Labs in Waterford and Southern Scientific in Kerry both operate a very good value service by post. Check online.
Now to rootstocks. Rootstocks control the size of the tree, its suitability for soil types, its yield and its disease resistance. Apple trees are grafted onto rootstocks with an M or MM prefix. Varieties grafted onto M27 or M9 dwarf rootstock will typically have a height and spread of 2 to 3 metres. Those on M26 or MM106 between 3.5 and 6 metres, and those on MM111, are 5.5metres and higher. Trees on M27 or M9 require permanent staking, and M9 has become the rootstock of choice for commercial production
Trees on M26 and MM106 are the all-rounders, living 50-plus years, suitable for a range of soils, tolerating grass and weeds after four to five years, and only needing stakes for two to three years. It will be three or four years before you see much fruit, but they yield 50kg or more at maturity.
MM111 is the rootstock for poor drainage/low-fertility land; although it may not attain its full size on poor ground it will produce reasonable results. Stake for just two years, but it will be six years before you’ll see significant fruit.
‘The Fruit Tree Handbook’, by Ben Pike, is recommended for would-be growers. The Organic Centre is running a fruit-growing course with Phil Wheal on Saturday, March 19. More information on www.theorganiccentre.ie.
Hans Wieland is training manager at The Organic Centre, Rossinver, Co Leitrim, which offers courses, training and information on organic growing and cooking, and runs an Eco Shop and an online gardening store. For more information, visit www.theorganiccentre.ie. Gardening questions or comments? Contact Hans at firstname.lastname@example.org.