Intensively Trained Garden Fruit Trees

 In Fruit, Gardening, Grow your own, Pruning

Intensively trained garden fruit trees have a lot to offer.

It’s a good time to consider planting more.

Now before you say ‘I’ve no room left’ I want you to just consider how useful and productive intensively trained garden fruit trees can be!

What are intensively trained garden fruit trees?

I’m thinking of those trained as cordons, espalier, fan and all the variations on these.

The beauty of these intensive training methods are that a very high quality crop of tree fruits can be produced. And this from a very small area too!

Indeed, many of these training systems lend themselves to training onto the walls of your home, garden shed and boundary fence. These are areas which are often underutilized.

To look at a well maintained row of cordon or espalier trained apples might fill you with foreboding.

You might be thinking that you wouldn’t know how to care for them.

But in many ways this method of is actually easier to train, prune and keep healthy than growing the same variety as a normally shaped tree.

But let’s put that on one side a moment and look at the intensively trained tree fruit options.



Main forms of intensively trained garden fruit trees

[See title image of cordon fruit at National Trust Tyntesfield]
Intensively Trained Garden Fruit Trees on a wall

Vertical & cross-over cordons

Can be planted to grow vertically or at 45 degrees from vertical.

When trained at an angle the shoot growth is naturally depressed and energy is diverted to producing fruits.

Angled cordons can be planted so that one tree overlaps another and the effect can, especially in winter, be very decorative.

All cordons can be planted very close together [60-90 cms] so that many different varieties can be grown against a fence or wall.





Step-over cordons
step over apple trees in a garden

Step-Over apple trees

These are cordons that after 25-30 cms or so are trained horizontally.

They are perfect for surrounding and utilizing the edge of vegetable patches.

They are a productive alternative to having a low hedge instead. Just like that low hedge, you can step over the trees to get to the vegetables!

This low growing method of training fruit trees is especially popular where space is limited and an edge is needed to a border.

They are often planted alongside the path that borders a vegetable patch, a herb garden or perhaps a flower border.

Apples and pears can be trained this way with the tree having a very short [perhaps 30 cm] vertical trunk before it is bent at right angles to grow on supports parallel with the ground.

This way fruit can be grown at this low level but it is perfectly possible to step over the tree to the main plant border beyond – hence the name!



Double ‘U’ cordons
Intensively trained garden fruit trees on a wall

Double ‘U’ pear tree

Imagine a tree trunk that at 30 cms or so from the ground divides into two trunks and you are on the way to seeing a double U cordon tree!

Those two trunks are then trained vertically and evenly spaced with fruits developing all the way up the stem.

Fanciful you might say, but then imagine this with two trunks that divide again into a further two trunks each and you are edging towards art more than horticulture!

These double-double cordons do exist and look tremendous!

There are lots of these at The Newt in Somerset.






Fan Trained
Gage tree fan trained on a wall

Fan trained Gage tree

Hold your hand out in front of you and spread your fingers out. That is what a fan trained fruit tree looks like!

Apples and pears can be trained this way.

However the fan training method is normally used for stone fruits. Stone fruits include plums, damsons, cherries, peach and nectarine.

This is because stone fruits resent lots of pruning.  There is less pruning with fan trained than with both cordon and espalier trained trees.

Excessive pruning of stone fruits [especially in winter] can lead to tree loss through silver leaf infection.

The spores of this fungal disease are floating in the air throughout the year and can enter pruning cuts to infect trees.

In summer, stone fruit trees are able to heal these wounds more rapidly than in winter and it is also thought that there are less aerial spores during summer.

This is especially important since there is no cure for silver leaf if the infection gets a hold except to remove and burn the tree.

Growing trained fruit trees as fan shaped trees leaves more wood un-pruned in the tree and growth control can be achieved by tying branches into gaps in the fan shaped structure.

There’s more information on silver leaf here.

Often fan trained fruits are planted on the warm south or west facing wall of a garden. Here they benefit from all the sun and radiated heat.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that plums, damson and ‘Morello’ cherry do really well on the cooler walls.



espalier trained pear tree on a wall

Espalier pear

The espalier tree form has a central trunk from which radiate horizontal branches.

There may be several tiers of these horizontal branches.

Branches are general spaced about 40 cms apart.

The tiers are formed by a pair of branches directly opposite each other.

Just like the cordon, espaliers are also very decorative.

Espalier trained trees can be grown either on walls or trained on post and wires [as can of course cordons].

When trained on a free standing post and wire support system, espalier trees can make an attractive screen within a garden.

What’s better than a productive screen?



Where to see intensively trained garden fruit trees

Intensively Trained Garden Fruit Trees on a wall

Cross-over fruit trees at The Newt in Somerset

There are many other variations on these intensive tree fruit training methods.

Some of these can still be seen in fine gardens up and down the country.

Some good examples of growing trained fruit trees can be seen by visiting RHS Wisley Gardens or RHS Rosemoor Gardens for those who live in the West Country.

I haven’t visited for many years but I believe that there are excellent examples too at West Dean Gardens and the National Trust Garden of Westbury Court near Gloucester.

But a lot of these methods have come from Europe and are still practiced there.

You’ll see them particular in France.

However, where I recently discovered the finest collection of intensively trained fruits was much further afield in South Africa!

It’s a long way to go see such fine skilled horticulture in practice.

At the fabulous Babylonstoren Garden near Paarl you can see every training method imaginable on show.

But these methods are also widely used in commercial orchards throughout the Cape!

Recently a famous old garden near Castle Cary in Somerset [UK] has undergone a tremendous change.

At The Newt in Somerset you can now see many of these intensively trained fruit trees growing within a walled garden.


Key points to success

There are several key points that lead to success with these intensive training methods.

One needs to have good soil that is well drained.

However if your soil is less than ideal you can compensate by planting fruits grafted onto dwarfing rather than truly dwarf rootstocks.

Fruit trees are budded or grafted onto rootstocks to control their vigour.

So for apples this means using M 26 rather than M 9 or even M 27 rootstocks.

For pears Quince C rather than Quince A.

This is where you should seek the advice of knowledgeable garden centre and nursery staff.

However, you can do some research on this fascinating subject here first.

Dwarfing rootstocks for growth control

A tree in a marquee showing branches and roots

A demonstration of the extent of tree roots

Regular summer pruning is vital to success and to control of growth.

The actual pruning itself could not be easier with few decisions to be made along the way!

In a nutshell you are looking to shorten back all of the current season’s new shoots. Aim to leave just 3 or less buds above the basal cluster of leaves that form at the beginning of each year’s growth.

This means that you are cutting almost all of the new growth off.

Do this during the period of late July to early September!

This gives the tree a bit of a shock and exposes the buds left to the late summer sunshine. As a result those buds are more likely to turn into fruit buds.

Eventually you will end up with masses of short knobbly looking shoots that are covered in fruit buds. These are called fruiting spurs.

Since with all these intensively trained tree forms the light and air can penetrate right into the tree.

As a consequence you will end up with a very much higher percentage of well coloured, good sized and healthy fruits!



When to plant

Intensively Trained Garden Fruit Trees, plums

Plum trees trained on frames in South Africa

Winter is an excellent time to plant fruit trees and so I hope that you will give these intensively trained fruit trees a go!

If you’ve missed the ideal time to plant, you can plant it any month of the year. That is if the tree is already established in a pot.

Make sure that the soil conditions are good and that you can water the tree until established.






Further Reading

Most pruning of these intensively trained garden fruit trees is done in summer but here I explain winter pruning.

Sometimes trees try to produce too many fruits and if left fruit size and fruit quality suffers. Here I explain how to set about fruit thinning.



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