The Prunus or Stone fruits, plums, cherries, peaches and apricots, are some of the most delectable of tree fruits. Not as commonly grown as they could be probably because most get much bigger than say apples and pears which benefit from more dwarfing rootstocks. The Stone fruits also flower very early making them very prone to frost damage so they’re easier in southern areas. And most limiting of all they need a long period of real winter cold in order to go properly dormant thus they’re much happier in the more eastern counties and relatively difficult in the milder western regions. Even so there are often local varieties or methods making them possible almost anywhere. Growing them in large tubs stood outdoors in winter and brought inside for flowering and kept there till fruiting is over gets round most of the difficulties and ensures a much earlier, and bird damage free, crop. (In the milder regions the tubs which are normally moved back outdoors after fruiting can be stood though winter in a cold shady place such as behind a north wall to get more effective winter chilling.)
Quite often stone fruits have been trained on walls to benefit from the extra warmth for ripening the fruits, however this may mitigate against effective winter chilling. But worse, it means they need to be regularly and skilfully pruned and trained and although apricots are relatively easy the others are more difficult to manage this way. Thus they are all usually best grown as bush trees on as dwarfing a rootstock as available and then can be left effectively unpruned except for remedial work. Any necessary pruning is best done in midsummer to prevent ingress of the dreaded Silverleaf disease which will weaken then kill any of this family (ornamental forms as well). Any storm damaged or broken wood should be removed immediately and the wound cauterised then sealed straight away.
All of these are hungry trees so should be given rich moist but never water-logged soil with copious additions of compost and they benefit from thick mulches. And they all need lime in their soil though they do badly on thin chalky ground. If the stones fail to form properly and remain soft then this is a sure indication of lime deficiency and a heavy dressing (a handful per sq.yd) should be given each winter. They mostly tend to over-crop so ruthless thinning of the fruits promotes better more regular crops and reduces the strain on the trees. Although cherries can be left un-thinned and plums are rarely thinned they both really ought to be –especially the plums as their wood is brittle and prone to break under their heavy crops. Not thinning peaches sufficiently is simply foolish- no doubt you may discover this for yourself- remember you cannot over-thin!
Plums come in a huge range, dessert and culinary, but as they grow into big trees you need to be sure you can use the huge crops they yield. Thus it is not always a good idea to grow Victoria as this superb variety is so widely available anyway, better grow Opal, a self fertile improved form. And as most plums are not self fertile you will need at east a couple. (Severn Cross, Czar (a cooker) and Marjories’ Seedling are self fertile if you can only fit in one.) Some old sorts are delicious but only once cooked, Warwickshire Drooper makes wonderful jams and preserves, as do the Pershore varieties. There is no dessert plum more luscious than the superb Coe’s Golden Drop (though this does need a warm spot to thrive). But for dessert there are other plums known as gages, these are strains with an even finer flavour and such as the Transparents, Cambridge, Reine Claude and Oullins Golden are amongst the finest fruits the world can offer. And in almost any spare space you can have Damsons, these are tougher and more compact than most plums and although almost uneatable raw make the most fantastic jams, preserves and ‘cheeses’ (thick not very sweet conserves for eating with savoury dishes). Damsons also make an alternative ‘sloe gin’ with a much finer flavour. And if you can find them there are old varieties of wilder form known as Bullaces, again uneatable raw these make tart jams rivalling apricot. However I’d not recommend the Myrobalans or cherry plums, often used for hedging these are bland and relatively flavourless.
Cherries are rarely seen nowadays as they have always made huge trees and it’s impossible to stop bird damage on these, well I say damage, total wipe-out is nearer the truth. However although still getting bigger than desirable the more recent dwarfing stocks are keeping cherries down to more nettable proportions, at least for the first decade. And cherries are the first tree fruits to crop (do not believe the optimistically named ‘May Duke’ but June fruiting is likely in most places). Sunburst, Summer Sun, Stella and Merton Glory are all delicious newer more reliable croppers although I still love the old yellow fruited Governor Wood. Most cherries are not self fertile so you need a couple of compatible sorts, or your choice and a Morello or Sour cherry which fertilises most others. The Morello is not sour if left to ripen and is more compact growing, more easily prunable and actually quite tough even cropping on a north wall. Far too often over-looked everyone ought to get a Morello! Other than Morello most cherries are not easy to jam- but there is rarely a surplus after you’ve finished snacking anyway. Cherries are probably easiest grown in tubs brought under cover, or at least nets, for flowering and ripening as this keeps them dwarf and ensures harvests, however they will then be short lived, but they will have well repaid their investment by then.
Peaches seem too good to be true and are one of the most impressive of all tree fruits when cropping. However they are a dessert fruit and do not make a very good jam though surplus fruits can be bottled, dried or juiced. But do not despair, you will find you can easily consume far more ripe peaches than you imagine as when home grown and ripened on the tree they are more akin to a syrup than a fruit. They most resemble a balloon full of nectar. But only if you thinned ruthlessly, and I mean ruthlessly. Never leave any peach within a hands breadth of another, fewer bigger fruits is the aim so you cannot, I repeat cannot, over-thin. Free standing bush peaches of Rochester or Peregrine will crop in much of the UK but intermittently mainly due to late frosts. They do suffer from one major problem though which is Peach Leaf Curl. This disease causes the leaves to distort and discolour and seriously weakens young trees even killing them, though if they grow through it and become older and more mature they usually recover from attacks in future years. A new variety, Avalon Pride, was reckoned resistant though reports do not confirm this. Thus peaches are another ideal candidate for tub culture under cover from New Year till after harvest. The restriction induced also reduces pruning to a minimum. The flattened Chinese varieties known as Peentos are especially dwarfing and very suitable for this. The smooth skinned peaches we know as Nectarines are more difficult and really have to be grown in tubs under cover or on very warm walls- however they can be worth the effort for their firmer more luscious flesh. Please succeed with peaches before embarking on nectarines.
Apricots are the great unknown. Far easier than most imagine there are many newer better varieties than the old, though still very good, Moorpark. This will crop as a bush though does best on a warm wall where it can be fan trained and summer pruned to keep it in place. However the newer varieties (Goldcot, Tomcot, Perle-cot, Flavour-cot et al) are as reliable as plums, more compact and extremely prolific. Thus apricots can now be grown as bushes in the open in much of the UK but they also respond well to tub culture and this ensures freedom from their biggest problem of frost damage. I strongly recommend all readers to get one, if not several And of all the stone fruits the home ripened apricot is so much better than the shop bought by an even greater degree, indeed I would say there are few finer fruits than a ripe apricot- if you have only ever had commercial ones then you cannot imagine the difference. But by far the greatest advantage of apricots over other stone fruits is the quality and ease of making any surplus into their superb jam.