The news that B&Q has seen sales of fruit plants grow by more than a quarter this year suggests that the sector still has considerable growth potential, even as the grow you own trend starts to level off.
Hampshire-based fruit-tree grower Blackmoor Nursery diversified four years ago into mail order and has seen this element rise to represent 40 per cent of its business. In the past season it has seen sales of its bare-rooted trees increase by 20 per cent.
"Grow your own has been good for us over the past two or three years," says nursery manager Jon Munday. "If you have success with one fruit, you might want to try another."
More exotic fruit such as peaches and apricots have been particularly good performers. "New varieties are much better - they come into fruit earlier and have better resistance to peach leaf curl. 'Tomcot' and 'Flavourcot' are far superior to older varieties such as 'Moorpark'. New rootstock is bringing fruit trees into production earlier while keeping them small."
Stone fruits have benefited from the introduction of the Krymsk 1 (VVA-1) rootstock developed at the breeding station of the same name in southern Russia, says Munday. This combines the early production of standard-sized fruit on trees that grow not much taller than head height.
"There are also more trained trees, such as espaliers and cordons, which you can keep in a small space. There is a large range of dwarf standards for patios and containers, too," he adds. "Ten or 15 years ago, having an apple tree in your garden meant a tree 25-foot (8m) tall and wide. No-one with a small modern garden will want something that takes up that kind of space."
It is not all about innovation though. "Older varieties that people can't get in the supermarkets are always popular. They may not be grown as much commercially because they might not crop heavily enough or look pretty. Taste is not usually top of the list of what supermarkets are looking for."
But a redesigned website has made buying easier for customers, he adds. "It's slick, and has plenty of images. Customers buy with their eyes - they don't want to wade through lots of text."
Tried and tested strategies
Rather than selling direct to the consumer, Frank P Matthews' long-established 200ha nursery in Worcestershire concentrates on supplying container-grown trees to garden centres and to mail-order suppliers, which are able to dispatch such trees using 2m-long "coffin boxes". It also supplies larger planting jobs on country estates and for local authorities and sells bare-rooted fruit trees to commercial growers.
"Fruit trees have been growing at about 10-15 per cent for the past five years, though I don't think it will continue increasing hugely," says sales manager Matthew Thomas.
Partly this is down to a regular launch of new customer-friendly varieties that the company has brought to market after extensive trialling in its test plots. These have included the self-fertile apple 'Scrumptious', the red-fleshed 'Rosette' and the new 'Christmas Pippin' (see box opposite) as well as the striped 'Humbug' pear and the heavy-cropping 'Guinevere' plum.
"We have worked with breeders for 20 years," says managing director Nick Dunn. "It takes 10 years to thoroughly trial a variety before you can introduce it, knowing it won't give people trouble. But if you keep at it, you have one or two new ones each year."
Thomas adds: "There are already so many varieties so you have to offer something new. Flavour is important, of course, but disease resistance matters for practical reasons - people don't want to be spraying all the time. It could also be a new rootstock or new trained form, such as a double cordon."
The M27 rootstock, for example, is ideal for "patio apples" and also stepovers for allotments, he says, adding that more unusual fruits such as quinces, medlars and apricots are still showing promise. "Walnuts such as the compact 'Broadview' were among our top ten fruit last year."
Dunn sees such interest continuing, along with trained forms. "But with fewer and fewer chemicals on garden centre shelves, disease resistance is more important than ever."
Keeping up with organic growth
Picking up on this, Walcot Organic Nursery, also in Worcestershire, is unusual in growing solely organically. According to its owner Kevin O'Neill: "It can be quite time-consuming and although customers will come to us looking for an organic tree, we can't limit ourselves to that market, so we have to be competitive."
A relative newcomer to the market, it has increased production steadily over the past ten years and has also benefited from the rise of e-commerce. "It's the way things are going, and what people expect," says O'Neill. "You need a good ranking in the search engine results. But it's certainly increased our audience."
Nor does he fear a saturation in the market for these relatively infrequent purchases. "People are always moving or their circumstances change," he says. "They also want fruit trees for allotments, and we are growing more on dwarf stock for those sorts of situations, particularly apples on M26."
The nursery is also a champion of recent varietal breeding. "Older varieties are always popular but we try to encourage people to consider some of the less well-known modern varieties such as 'Rajka', 'Red Falstaff', 'Saturn' or 'Resi'." Their disease resistance fits with the organic approach, he adds.
Devon's Thornhayes Nursery, on the other hand, makes a virtue of the local heritage of many of its varieties, says managing director Kevin Croucher. "They need to be able to cope with the wet and windy conditions down here. Many of the commercial apple varieties such as 'Discovery' will have problems with scab and canker. A heritage variety from Kent won't grow well here either." There is rarity value, too, he adds. "Some varieties we sell have never gone beyond the parish."
The nursery has introduced two recent local finds - the sweet 'Tidicombe Seedling' and the cooker 'Don's Delight', both of which have naturally high disease resistance. It also grows Devon varieties of plums and cherries (known as mazzards), some of which have been in cultivation in the area for more than four centuries.
"Fruit tree sales are strong," says Croucher. "We produce for different markets - full-sized for orchards (see box above) and for the home market. As grow your own has expanded, we have introduced a range of M9 trees for stepovers and other trained forms."
The nursery also runs courses for gardeners on summer pruning and winter training of fruit trees and hosts apple-tasting days. "We get lots of enquiries from the website but also deal with garden designers, landscape architects and local authorities who, with the shortage of allotments, are putting in more community orchards," he says.
Production ranges from maidens to full standards. "Over the past 20 years there has been a decline in the growing of commercial standard trees - many were grown by cider companies that have since been bought up," he says.
"We started up doing ornamental trees but within five years fruit trees became half our business. We have carved a niche doing heritage varieties, though one or two others have come along since. That's not a problem - there's plenty for all of us."
New varieties showing promise
A selection from East Malling's HortLINK project, 'Resi' is a sweet, scarlet-skinned German variety bred for high disease-resistance, hence the name. Available from Walcot Organic Nursery, it is particularly suited to organic cultivation.
Found on the edge of a motorway, 'Christmas Pippin' is said to rival 'Cox's Orange Pippin' for flavour, but will store until Christmas. It can cope with the full range of British climates and has high disease resistance.
A self-fertile peach tree with high resistance to peach leaf curl, 'Avalon Pride' bears large fruits with juicy yellow flesh from early August. The Montclare rootstock is said to make trees less susceptible to frost damage.
In recent years, Frank P Matthews has sold out of its currant and gooseberry quarter-standards grafted onto a 1m clear stem.
This year it has increased production by 20 per cent, according to sales manager Matthew Thomas.
Breathing new life into old orchards
Devon has lost around 90 per cent of its old orchards since the end of World War Two. But Thornhayes Nursery has benefited from demand from the county's farmers and landowners restocking or recreating under the Government-funded Higher-Level Stewardship farm management scheme, which began in 2006.
"We have grown with that market and are one of its major suppliers," says managing director Kevin Croucher. "In this part of the world there are a lot of hobby farmers and good-lifers and an expanding quality food market. We are supplying people making jams, juices and ciders.
"They may be gapping up existing orchards or replacing ones that have gone entirely. They want traditional varieties on vigorous rootstocks that will have an impact on the landscape. But they have to be managed.
For those not inclined to such work, there are alternatives. One Devon firm, Sandford Orchards of Crediton, has created award-winning cider from apples grown in orchards that it manages on their owners' behalf.
"It's a lot better than it was 20 years ago," says Croucher. "But it's going to be a long way back to return to where it was."