It’s great to let things go. Free-flowing and unfettered – it feels great and is what nature intended after all. But when it comes to tree fruits such as apples, pears and cherries this isn’t the case. Or rather, it’s fine for the trees but not so great for us.
Why We Train Fruit Trees
But why? Nature’s way is usually the best way, but trees growing in the wild don’t swell their fruits for us. They grow them for the many climbing, scurrying and flying creatures that help to disperse them. Animals such as squirrels and birds eat the fruits then ‘sow’ the seeds in their poo. The issue with this for us humans is that many of the common fruit trees we take for granted were originally woodland species. Left alone, their natural tendency is to grow taller to outcompete their neighbours in order to make it easy for the wildlife that will disperse their seeds to find them.
Leave a tree to its own devices and the majority of its fruits will appear way up in the branches, necessitating a stepladder and/or very long arms to gather them! So gardeners and farmers alike combine judicious pruning with grafting varieties onto rootstocks that moderate tree size and bring the fruits down to a more practical height for harvesting, thereby maximising the useable crop.
Trained tree forms are also essential for smaller spaces. Today everyone, from balcony gardeners upwards, can grow delicious fruits quickly and reliably.
Types of Trained Fruit Trees
Trained forms of fruit tree are usually grown against garden walls and fences, making the most of space and taking advantage of the shelter and relative warmth they afford. And it has to be said that trained fruits look deliciously handsome too. Who wouldn’t want a fan-trained peach to wow garden visitors?
So let’s look at each of the three major trained tree forms in turn, considering their advantages and implications in terms of space required, growth habit and ease of maintenance.
1. Cordon Apples and Pears
This is the most compact form with trees planted as close as 75cm (30in) apart. It means that for the same space that a single fan-trained tree might occupy, you could grow several different varieties as cordons.
Cordons are restricted to just one main stem, so are only suitable for varieties that form fruits on spurs, all the way along the length of the stem, rather than just at the tip. They are normally trained at a 45° angle but they can also be grown vertically, or even horizontally to form a stepover cordon.
It is possible to grow a cordon so that it branches into two or more stems, known as a double or multiple cordon. When grown like this the stems are usually trained vertically for ease of pruning.
Apples and pears are the most common fruit trees grown as cordons, but soft fruit bushes such as whitecurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries can also be trained in this way.
2. Fan-trained Fruits
Most tree fruits can be trained so that their branches radiate from a short, central trunk of up to one foot (30cm) tall. Fan-training helps to maximise the amount of light hitting the tree, which makes them a great choice for training sun or heat-loving fruits such as peaches and nectarines. There’s nothing more attractive than a sun-facing brick wall cloaked with lush green branches and their sweet, aromatic fruits!
By their very nature fans spread wide, so you’ll need to leave 3m (10ft) or more between trees. This makes fans very effective at covering a lengthy expanse of wall.
3. Espalier Apples and Pears
If you like neat rows and have a penchant for detail, then espaliers are your bag! Consisting of a series of regularly spaced horizontal branches trained either side of a central trunk, espaliers are without a doubt an art form in their own right. How many branches you train out will depend on the type of fruit and the vigour of the variety you’re growing.
Espaliers are best reserved for apples and pears, which will need to be spaced at least 3m (10ft) apart. They look great against walls – to appreciate the fine craftsmanship involved in precision-training their horizontal branches – but also work well as freestanding living screens to visually divide areas of garden. They’ll still need posts and wires to help support the ‘arms’ of the tree even when freestanding.
Palmettes are a slightly less formal alternative to espaliers. They are very similar but in palmettes the branches are staggered and trained slightly upwards instead of horizontal.
Training fruit trees requires diligence and a little time on the part of the gardener, but the rewards are undeniably motivating: sweet, succulent fruits that bring the garden and mealtimes to life.