The Pomeor apple related fruitsAlmost every garden of any size has an apple tree or two. These crop on year after year with barely anything ever done for them. We really do not appreciate how valuable such low maintenance and reliable fruits these and the other pomes, as this group are known, are. Closely related to apples with similar needs and few problems are the pears, less closely related but still similar are quinces, and the medlar.
Quinces are now almost redundant as kitchen garden fruits. These are not the shrubby japonica quinces with red flowers from the ornamental garden but small trees with pink striped buds opening to large white flowers and carrying hard yellow fruits. Although they are very tough these only yield well in moist soils- and then their crop is far too big for most families. Their fruits cannot be eaten as dessert but can be made into delicious jellies, cheeses and pomanders, slices can be added to apple pies and tarts but you can’t do much else with them. Thus these are more a curiosity for the larger kitchen garden. It would be better if there was a seriously dwarfing stock which would enable them to be grown as cordons which would be space saving and give smaller more practical crops, unfortunately such is not available.
This is even more the case with the medlar. These are no longer considered desirable fruits by most though they were once popular. The fruits arfe bletted or allowed to soften and brown like over-ripened pears before eating as dessert or made into sweet dishes. Admittedly some like them but to most their fruit is rather disappointing if not disgusting however the small trees are architectural with large leaves which turn lovely colours in autumn, and big apple like blossoms make them interesting subjects where space is available.
Thus the choice of pomes for most of us is narrowed down to apples or pears. Still there are thousands of varieties of either available though care should be taken to get those suitable for your location as some are only happy in the warmer drier south east of the UK, especially most pears. In wetter milder regions you are best choosing locally suitable sorts such as the apple Irish Peach which is adapted to such damp climates.
Pears can be one of the finest of fruits but require better conditions than apples- most were bred in Belgium and Northern France so prefer a more continental climate and are often best grown on a wall. They can be had on dwarfing stock, form spurs easily and are not difficult to train so are often set on walls as espaliers though other shapes can be formed. The main drawback to this is they also need a moist soil which is not often found against a wall where they should be well mulched and watered or crops will be small and not the most delectable. Pears like warmth and soil moisture, a mulch of compost or well rotted manure benefits them but do not give them fertiliser or they will tend to growth not cropping. Surprisingly the earlier ripening pears can be grown on a north wall though they are never as early or as sweet. However given the best conditions you can grow such wonderful fruits as Doyenne du Comice which is a supreme dessert fruit. Like most pears it needs a pollinator and such as Beurre Hardy, another very good pear, serves well. It is always best to plant compatible pears as there are few pears in neighbour’s gardens to help out, and although wild pears could pollinate others these are scarce. Be careful to choose compatible pears that flower at the same time as some are much later to bloom than others. There are some self fertile pears (or at least effectively so- these pears are not actually self fertile but bear fruits parthenocarpically, which means they are distinctly lop sided when selfed) are Conference, Concorde and Williams/Bartlett.
Pears do not generally store well and need to be picked just under-ripe then carefully matured till perfect in a warm not very dry place. This part is as important as the growing. And daily inspections are necessary as a pear will be hard today, perfect tomorrow and gone over the day after. (If they go soft and brown in the middle they were probably picked too late.) As pears can be so tricky to bring to the table in perfection large crops are usually not wanted so cordons or espaliers are preferable to bigger trees and allow more variety to be squeezed into a small place. Fortunately dwarfing stocks for pears are very effective and you could grow them instead as small bush trees on short trunks and this reduces pruning to a minimum. Do not grass down underneath though as this seriously competes with them (though in orchards with standard trees this is not a problem). Pears can be grown in tubs but are not awfully happy there and short lived. Pears can suffer from several pests and diseases but generally they are problem free other than bird damage- and of course the birds have their preferences so Conference suffers four or five times as badly as Williams- worth noting if you have many birds in your garden.
One little known pear that just ought to be on everybody’s shopping list is the Chinese pear, Nashi or Kumoi. This looks just like a russet apple and fresh has an interesting perfumed juiciness offset by a somewhat gritty texture. The trees are self fertile, prolific, not huge and incredibly free from pests and diseases. They tend to seriously over-crop and benefit from thinning the fruits especially as the branches are a tad brittle and may break if over-laden. Their greatest advantage is these dry into the most delicious of all dried fruits. Sweeter and moister than dried apple rings and of better texture then ordinary dried pears these rival raisins and make this fruit one of great if unknown value.
Apples are the obvious tree fruit for most gardens. As mentioned above they can be almost work free and crop almost for ever. Certainly an orchard of tiny bushes on really dwarfing stocks can be fitted into small gardens and even more varieties crammed in if they’re grown as cordons. Sadly the earliest apples are often tip bearers and as these cannot be pruned and trained easily so do not make good cordons and are better as bushes. Discovery is one of the best earlies and does make enough spurs to be trained. Apples are quite forgiving and most varieties other than the tip bearers can be formed as espaliers, or any other shape, however it is probably best to stick to cordons or dwarf bushes. A common mistake with apples is growing too many varieties of early or mid season sorts on strong stocks making big bush trees. You cannot use the quantities of fruit produced when fresh and they mostly do not store for long. If you want them for juicing, processing or cider then this is not so much of a problem. In very small gardens you could grow apples in tubs though the watering is arduous and they will not be so happy. Only ever plant bigger growing trees such as large bushes or standards of the latest keepers- such as Winston, Wagener, Tydeman’s late Orange, Granny Smith. These can be picked carefully laid in trays and boxes and if kept somewhere cool and dark will keep till the following spring with little trouble. (I recommend a dead freezer or refrigerator body as these make perfect rodent proof constant temperature stores.) Indeed although there are many delicious mid-season apples such as Blenheim Orange or the gorgeous russets it makes a lot of sense to concentrate on an early or two and the bulk of your stock as lates as these will be useful when everything else has long gone. Indeed it is easily possible to have fresh dessert apples for about nine months of the year.
Although few nowadays would plant culinary pears there is still a demand for culinary apples, even so, a rather limited one. Certainly where space is available then a Rev’d Wilkes or a Lord Derby may be useful, however Bramley’s Seedling, as good as it is, is ubiquitous and easily found for the asking so I’d avoid planting it- especially as it is a strong grower and inevitably dominates those around it. Cider apples are a dubious crop only worth planting if you specifically want some. Crabs are another mixed blessing though handy for pollination where only a few apples are grown. Actually though pollination is rarely a problem with apples as often there are many others somewhere in the neighbourhood.
Like pears apples do not need much feeding only the occasional mulch of compost or well rotted manure. The exceptions to this are the cookers which have a much higher demand for potassium than the desserts and really need a dressing of wood ashes every few years. Likewise if you have an old apple tree that is bearing poorly and with poor quality fruits then try giving it a thick mulch and some wood ashes- you may be surprised how good the next year’s crop becomes.
And one final note- most apples and pears tend to over-crop, sometimes so badly they go into biennial bearing and then take a year off. In every case it is worth thinning the fruits about the beginning of July and again a few weeks later. Thin ruthlessly and those that are left will be of better quality and strain the tree less, and by removing the infected and infested you ensure even better cleaner crops the following years.