Fruit Trees & Bushes: Goodwill harvesting

Suppliers are working to meet the untapped potential of gardeners turning to fruit trees and bushes, reports Gavin McEwan.

Grow your own has rapidly gone from being a minority interest to a majority pursuit among Britain's gardeners. HTA figures show the proportion of gardeners growing food crops has shot up from 22 per cent two years ago to 54 per cent now.

But only 36 per cent of gardeners — two crop growers in three — grow fruit trees and shrubs. Yet a far greater share — 62 per cent — say they would like to. Among the reasons respondents gave for not doing so are lack of space, lack of knowledge and simply not having considered the option.

"Despite the surge in grow-your-own gardening, many people still overlook the possibilities of home-grown fruits and berries," claims HTA business improvement consultant David Gilchrist.

"But there is an increasing number of tasty, unusual fruit such as gooseberries and loganberries that will happily grow in the UK climate. Growing your own fruit can be very rewarding. Not only does it taste better but it is friendly to the environment and, more importantly, you know where it has come from."

The HTA's Plant For Life campaign is doing its bit to push forward what it calls "the next phase of grow-your-own", recruiting TV gardener Chris Collins to give planting and growing tips to wary gardeners.

Bransford Webbs Plant Company managing director Geoff Caesar gives the campaign a cautious welcome. "It has been picked up well by retailers but it will be interesting to see whether the public's enthusiasm is maintained," he says.

"We have offered top fruit for nearly 30 years and have seen it come and go. It tends to follow the housing market because people are more likely to plant a tree when they move into a new house."

However, more recently the Worcestershire-based nursery has come up with a soft fruit offer too. "People are unsure about growing soft fruit but we try to address that with point-of-sale material," says Caesar.

"There are attractions to it - you don't need so much room and there are many more types of soft fruit that you don't see in the supermarket, such as blackcurrants and gooseberries. And soft fruit grows well in Britain. We selected varieties that the soft fruit industry had already proven would crop well here."

Customers may have a preconceived idea of the variety they want in other fruits, such as James Grieve apples or Tumbling Tom tomatoes, says Caesar. "But if you have a nice variety of say, a gooseberry, people don't refer back to one they already know."

Also based in Worcestershire, Frank P Matthews supplies more than 230 garden centres with fruit trees and bushes under its Trees for Life brand.

Managing director Nick Dunn is concerned that any public campaign should be in step with the latest advances in breeding. "We have our own breeding programme to enhance precocity, self-fruiting, ease of growing and flavour," he explains.

"There is also tremendous breeding going on elsewhere in things such as vines and blueberries. Hundreds of varieties are coming through that are hardier, easier to grow or have bigger fruit. We also trial plants here and are cautious not to introduce any that have false promise.

"It's important to give garden centres a good choice. We provide a range of both varieties and forms of fruit trees that will suit small gardens and even patios."

As well as the established grow-your-own fruits such as apples and pears, ambitious gardeners are trying their hand at more unusual fruits, notes Dunn. "Sales of things like nectarines have gone up as a proportion of what we sell. A commercial grower is limited by having to make a living, but in a garden you can push the boundaries a bit more.

"There is a natural progression gardeners should go through. The first fruit tree you buy should be an apple, then move on to pears and stone fruit, with apricots being the most challenging. Then if you have some glass or a polytunnel you can consider citrus trees."

He adds that the traditional early winter peak for tree sales is a thing of the past now that container-grown trees dominate garden centre sales. "September is our biggest month and October is still busy, but by November garden centres are gearing up for Christmas, so trees other than Christmas trees aren't a priority. But there is another peak between February and April."

The market for bareroot trees survives in direct sales to the customer by mail-order and, increasingly, via the internet.

Also in the Worcestershire area, Walcot Organic Nursery supplies bareroot trees direct to gardeners around the British Isles as well as to garden centres.

Nursery representative Koje Freemantle remarks: "More customers are looking for varieties that are local to their area, which is something we specialise in. Sometimes they want an old variety their father had, or to replace a particular tree. Being organic is a selling point too. I think we're the only one in England, though there is one other in Scotland."

The recession may have had a hand in the rise of grow your own, so it is no surprise that customers are shopping around before buying fruit trees, according to Beechwood Nurseries owner Robert Calvert. The County Down-based company sells barerooted Dutch-grown fruit trees by mail order and via the internet.

"So far this season has been crazy," he reports. "The Dutch grow on a big scale, so we can sell them at half the price of some British growers."


Varieties for Novices

There is a wide range of both new and established varieties that novice fruit growers can plant with confidence, for example:

APPLE - Bright Future Launched last year to mark the 50th anniversary of Garden Organic, which describes it as "disease-resistant, hardy and delicious". Proceeds from the sale of apple trees will help fund the charity's education programme.

PEAR - Conference Perhaps the best-known pear in the supermarket, the long, elegant, brownish-green Conference is also the most popular for home growing. Hardy and adaptable to a range of sites, though they prefer full sun, they are partially self-pollinating but will benefit from the presence of another pollinator.

PLUM - Victoria Another long-established variety leads the market in home plum growing. It is reliable, self-fertile, heavy-cropping and a pleasant change to the harder-skinned imported varieties that predominate in shops. Victoria may cause branches to snap under the weight of fruit.

CHERRY - Stella This self-fertile, mid-to-late dessert cherry tree is a dependable producer of large, dark, sweet fruit.

RASPBERRY - Polka A recent variety that is widely grown commercially and has large, sweet fruit.

BLACKBERRY - Arapaho and Navaho Early and mid-season varieties respectively, both long-cropping and thornless for easy, child-friendly picking.

BLACKCURRANT - Ben Lomond High-yielding and flavoursome, these bushes require minimal pruning.

GOOSEBERRY - Careless Heavy-cropping with crisp fruit and ideal for smaller gardens.


Amenity market

Local authorities are also emerging as significant customers of fruit trees and bushes. According to Koje Freemantle of Walcot Organic Nursery, several councils across the West Midlands area and London have recently invested in amenity fruit trees.

"I asked them what would happen to the fruit and they said that people can pick them if they want," she reveals.

Nick Dunn of Frank P Matthews comments: "Fruit trees are beginning to take off with local authorities, but we do more with environmental stewardship schemes.

"Many schools now also have mini-orchards and we advise and select for them. Timing is important because you don't want trees that are in fruit when the children are all away."


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