Well perhaps I am exaggerating a little, if not a hundred there are still a host of good reasons for growing fruits. And if I dare suggest anything as radical, there are even better reasons for growing fruits rather than vegetables. I suggest we all make the same error- when we decide to grow food we rush to create a vegetable patch; which may not actually suit our needs, or resources. And when we consider fruit at all it’s when other space is available rather than as a primary goal. Yet I would argue that we should all establish fruit cages and orchards as a priority. Of course a salad bed, herb bed, and maybe even a vegetable plot, could be included, but as adjuncts not as the main consideration.
First the work load. Many of us possess an apple tree. In most cases it crops every year, for decade after decade, with almost no attention whatsoever. Now this is a manner of husbandry I think we ought to have developed a bit more. Maximum output for the minimum work. Establishing a vegetable plot takes a lot of intense effort over a couple of seasons. And you need to put in further annual amounts of digging or preparation, sowing, thinning, weeding and so on. All concentrated during the rush of spring when every thing else needs doing and as the grass and weeds grow like Topsy. Top or tree fruits can be planted and then almost entirely forgotten except for their harvesting. If you also train and prune correctly they respond with much higher quality crops for just a little more effort, and that mostly during quieter months when more time is available. Soft fruits likewise; these need little annual attention other than pruning and training–which is much lighter work than digging or hoeing. Once planted, preferably through ground cover fabric, soft fruits can be mulched then need almost no weed control or even watering. Year on year a vegetable plot takes an immense amount of physical labour, the orchard and fruit cage far less and that of a lighter nature. True you do need a fruit cage to reduce bird damage. But a few posts, galvanized narrow gauge chicken netting for the sides and a plastic netting roof supported on wires is within most gardeners constructional abilities, and purse.
The next good reason is that of cost. It’s remarkably easy to multiply almost all the soft fruits (berries and currants) and free material can be got from friends. However to be fair the newest and best are better purchased, and from certified virus free stock. Yet few fruit bushes and trees cost more than a handful of seed packets - and generally you only need buy your plants once, not every couple of years as with most vegetable seeds. The tree fruits are harder to propagate at home though it can be done, but they are so long lived you rarely need buy them very often. If you move house you can take most trees and bushes with you though this does entail a little preparation. The soft fruits are even easier as they make new plants from slips and cuttings.
Also annually with fruit you can be downright miserly with such inputs as fertilizer, pest control, mulches. You can even withdraw all labour and expense for a while, even not pruning for several years and yet not cause much loss. Try that with a vegetable plot.
The value of the crops is different. Many basic vegetables are cheap to buy, even organically grown ones. However fruit is generally more expensive to buy and often air freighted in from afar. Surplus vegetables may be sold by the gate, but again do not realize as much or sell as quickly as does fruit. And although vegetables can be given added value by turning them into pickles and so on, fruits more easily convert into higher value goods such as juice and jam and sweets such as fruit leather.
Green credentials. Most fruit plants are reproduced as field grown stock with few inputs needed to create the bushes and trees you buy as bare rooted. Potted plants consume more. Seeds though are raised with many more inputs, though obviously needing less for packing and post. But more importantly the fruit wins as each year passes with few new inputs required, and a far greater value returned to nature. The soil under fruit is usually permanently covered and thus protected whereas a vegetable bed is bare soil most of the year. The fauna on vegetables is mostly unwanted and surplus crops are not much use to most wildlife. But fruit crops can support many critters to little detriment, the flowers providing pollen and nectar to many, whilst petals and leaves add to soil fertility. And of course the fruits themselves feed insects and birds if we don’t use them. Although a row of vegetables looks neat and green it is nowhere near as useful at cleaning the air, deadening noise, absorbing pollutants, or providing wind shelter, perches for birds and aesthetic pleasure as a fully laden fruit tree.
The harvesting is also generally pleasanter (thorny canes an exception); digging roots is not as pleasant as picking fruits- though wasps spoil the fun with early ones! For fruit is clean to handle with no dirt to wash off, or slugs to evict. Fruits can mostly be frozen just as picked, vegetables generally need more preparation and blanching first. The longer term storage of fruit is generally less easy than with some vegetables but their processing is safer. If you dry, make jam, jelly or juice from fruit and get it wrong and it goes off you are likely to get drunken headaches. If you dry, make pickles, preserves and juices from vegetables and get anything wrong you could easily end up dead. Their lower acidity makes vegetables much more risky sources of food poisoning!
Of course vegetables, well some, offer wider nutrition, minerals especially, than do most fruits. But in vitamins and especially in protective anthocyanins the fruits win hands down. However it is in palatability fruits really score. You see eating an additional half pound of iceberg lettuce or cabbage would benefit anyone’s daily diet- but could you stomach it. A glass or two of fruit juice will have more vitamin value and be far easier to consume. And this really is a plus point. It’s much more comfortable improving your diet by adding more fruit in some form than to try and add the equivalent portions of vegetables. (Though the side effects may be similar…) We all want our children to eat healthier diets. I’ve found with mine another bunch of grapes, bowl of raspberries or blueberries or an apple is easier to get down their throats, daily, than additional amounts of the more worthy vegetables. And I suspect the same applies to ‘kids’ of all ages- up to eighty or thereabouts.
Another reason for growing fruit is their portability. More so for the younger gardener who is more than likely to move home again within a few years. It takes three years to get a vegetable plot into good heart, and you really cannot easily take it with you. But fruit trees and bushes can be moved. Indeed it’s remarkably easy for most even after many years only providing you plan ahead a year or so. But an even greater advantage is how many fruits can be grown in tubs for convenience and moved anytime. (This also allows for their temporary housing whilst in flower or fruit to avoid problems and to force earlier crops. (See the Orchard House, KG October 09) As mentioned above many can also be propagated easily so you could start off with new plants in your new home instead. This may be a good opportunity to put into practice the experience of pruning and training you have built up contorting the parent plants.
And that leads me to another fruit advantage. Vegetables require a bit of practice to grow well, and this varies with soil and the weather so initial attempts carry a steep learning curve. The penalty for getting it wrong is lost or at least damaged crops many of which may be barely usable. With fruit unless you get it really badly wrong you still get some usable crop most years. Even pruning is a skill soon discovered. Certainly for the lazy let alone gardener fruit is the perfect productive choice- plant an orchard and a fruit cage, both widely spaced, and get a deck chair.
But which fruits to grow? Now that is a harder decision. For no matter how much deliberation; in the end you have to choose, and plant up, and live with the result over several years or decades. The great advantage a vegetable bed has here is that you can bury your failures each year and try afresh the following spring. Of course you can cut down or dig up an unproductive or unwanted fruit tree or bush. But you then have a lag before the replacement comes into bearing. Although this may be only a year or two it is still time without production. For some such as walnuts there can be a wait of five years or more but with most there is a wait of just less than two years from planting to first harvest. This is could be reduced but it is foolish to allow a full crop the year after planting as this debilitates the plant reducing future harvests considerably. Thus once your first flowering is over all fruitlets should be picked off before they swell and start to divert resources to themselves. Even so, it is a good idea to leave just a couple of fruits on the first year in order to be sure of their identification.
I continually investigate which fruits give the most useful returns to the kitchen gardener. Naturally these will be influenced by my own prejudices, and readers should also consider their geographical position. Generally the south eastern section of the UK is more suited to growing more varieties of fruit than the wetter milder western and colder northern areas. In the milder regions many tree and some soft fruits find the gentler winters do not give them adequate chilling and dormancy -however local varieties may still succeed. Wetter weather aids bigger crops –but then these become more prone to rot. Colder regions can simply have too short a frost free period. Conversely raspberries, their kin, and the acid lovers flourish much better in cooler moister regions and such as Tayberries really do not much like my hot dry East Anglian summers. Basically sensible choices lead to less work and more bountiful harvests more easily. However never forget good gardeners can grow almost anything anywhere if they wish and are prepared to make the efforts.