Cordon Fruit Trees: How to Get the Best Harvest From a Small Garden

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Cordon apple trees

The most frequently cited reason for not growing fruit trees is 'I don't have the space'. Well, my green-fingered friends, this excuse no longer passes! Modern dwarfing and semi-dwarfing rootstocks have helped to limit the final size of fruit trees, and when these rootstocks are combined with training the trees as cordons the outcome is an impeccably behaved orchard that packs flavoursome variety into a remarkably tight space.

Cordon fruit trees are simply trees grown as a single stem, with all the fruit swelling on short laterals immediately off this central stem. Cordons are normally grown at a 45-degree angle for the simple reason that this increases the length of the stem, and hence fruits, at picking height. Of course, cordons may also be grown straight up – it's entirely up to you.

Cordon fruit trees in containers

Because of their compact size a cordon's final yield will never be as weighty as that of a traditional tree. However, the fact they can be planted just 60-90cm (2-3ft) apart more than makes up for this and an established tree should still produce up to 10kg (22lbs) of fruit. Now let's assume that the average small garden is a very modest 5m (17ft) long and that cordons are planted along just one side of the garden boundary. Crunch the numbers on this and you'll find a row this long works out at a none-too-shabby 80kg (176lbs) of home-grown goodness per season – and all within a strip of ground no more than a couple of feet wide.

Apples and pears make the most successful cordons, although cherries and plums can also be grown like this. Select spur-fruiting varieties over tip-bearers to guarantee plenty of fruits along the entire length of the stem, and make sure you plant varieties that flower at the same time for successful initiation of fruit on those trees that require a pollination partner and heavier yields from those that don't.

Where to Grow Cordons

Cordon fruit trees

The real beauty of growing cordon fruit trees is their easy-care, easy-access habit. Trees are best grown against a wall or fence to capture reflected warmth, which will help to ripen the fruit. The happy by-product of this is that wall-growing makes them a doddle to protect, a cinch to pick and the trees' maintenance a total breeze.

Cordons can also be grown free-standing against horizontal wires tied to stout upright posts that are at least 10cm (4in) across. Growing them in this way opens up the possibility of using your cordons as a living wall to divide up areas of the garden – what better way of marking the limits of your vegetable patch?

All cordons trained against a wall or within a free-standing row will need a system of taut, horizontal wires into which the stems can be tied. Three wires spaced about 60cm (2ft) apart will do the trick. Opt for quality wire of a decent thickness that will last as long as the trees. Use thick vine eyes to strain the wires into the upright posts or your wall. Don't scrimp on your supporting infrastructure – it's not worth it.

Planting Cordon Fruit Trees

Growing cordon pears

Prepare the ground for each tree by removing all weeds then digging in at least a bucket full (preferably two) of well-rotted manure or compost into the immediate area. Add a handful of bonemeal to help the root system find its feet. Tie a tall bamboo cane into the wire supports where each tree's stem will eventually grow, angling the cane as appropriate. The cane offers the stem further support and gives you something to tie the growing point of the stem to as it reaches out.

Plant each cordon 60-90cm (2-3ft) apart, angling the tree at a 45-degrees to meet its cane. Make sure that the union, where the stem (known as the scion) meets the rootstock, sits above ground level. The union is identifiable as a bulge at the base of the stem. The scion usually emerges from one side of the rootstock. If this is the case, position the tree so that the scion is uppermost as this will dramatically reduce the chances of it snapping at the point of the union in the future.

Tie the stem to its bamboo cane and firm the soil around the roots by pushing it down gently with your feet. Water in well and continue to water during any dry periods.

Pruning Cordon Fruit Trees

A cordon fruit tree won't remain a cordon if it isn't pruned correctly. Thankfully this is a very simple process! As well as helping to shape the tree, pruning will help to stunt the tree's growth – think of it as a less extreme form of bonsai.

Growing cordon pears

The crucial prune comes in late summer, when new sideshoots emerging from the main stem are cut back to three leaves. Shoots produced from the laterals – those existing short stems on which the fruit is carried – are cut back to one leaf beyond the basal cluster. This pruning is often carried out with fruits still on the tree, and will force the tree to concentrate on producing flower buds the following spring, which is obviously good news come picking time.

Winter pruning when the tree is dormant involves thinning out congested laterals and cutting out any really old ones that are failing to produce fruit. This will allow more air to circulate, thereby improving the general health of the tree, and encourage new, productive growth to pick up where old growth has left off. The only other pruning to consider is when the main stem has reached the desired height. At this point the new growth at the end of the stem is cut back to just one leaf each spring.

Cordons are pretty forgiving fruit trees and are the very best way of enjoying a wide variety of fruits without giving over your entire garden to an orchard. Once you realise how prolific these dainty trees can be you'll have well and truly cottoned on to cordons.

Photographs courtesy of: Stephen Shirley, Pomona Fruits.

By Benedict Vanheems.

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Comments

 
"Hi, I planted five cordon Apple trees two years ago they have all nearly reached the top of the alloy pole at 45 degrees but have yet to bear any fruit, the side shoots are about six to eight inches long from the main stem, it says to cut back to three leaves from the basal cluster this is three leaves. Am I doing something wrong---? , no fruit though in spring there are some flowers though not a great deal. I have fed them and water them. Does it take time to establish before fruiting or have I not done something obvious. Pleas can you give me a giding hand as I would like to at least have a appl or two this year. They are grown against a 7 foot wall on taught wires on 6 foot poles. HELP. Thanks. Bob."
Bob Wyatt on Thursday 15 January 2015
"Hi Bob, flowers on the trees would normally mean they produce fruit, as long as the flowers are pollinated, so it's strange that you haven't had any. Often cordons do take a year or two to establish and it's often advised to pick off flowers in the first year so the tree strengthens itself rather than puts energy into fruit production, so that will have been good for your trees. As for pruning, it's the wrong time of year now so I advise you look up diagrams of how to prune them in summer."
Jeremy Dore on Tuesday 3 February 2015
"I am planning to enlarge my veg garden by adding a small orchard. I have problems with deer so the garden will have 2 perimeter fences 5 ft apart. I hope to use some of the inside fences to espalier pear and apple trees. I know 3 wires 16 in apart is the standard support but my fences will be made of galvanized wire cattle panels. If I use 4in square posts at each corner and every 16 ft (the length of the cattle panels) will T bar metal stakes be sufficient to support each tree? And is the fencing ok for training the laterals on?"
Lois on Friday 6 February 2015
"Hi Lois. Sounds like you'll be well protected from the deer after your double-fence setup. And I thought I had enough problems with slugs! I think T bar metal stakes will be more than sturdy enough to support the vertical main stem of your espalier trees. The laterals should be fine on the cattle panels. I suppose there is a risk that if the laterals get very heavy with age then there the panels could sag under the weight - you may need to judge this one as time progresses and add more panel supports if necessary, but I think you'd be fine. The 16in spacing for laterals is more of a guide - the laterals can be wider spaced than this if it helps with your particular situation. You could go a little closer - perhaps to 12in - but I wouldn't go closer than that otherwise they will start to get a little overcrowded and you could have issues with air circulation and hence disease and ripening. Good luck with your venture. Let us know how you get on."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 9 February 2015
"Hi, I planted five cordon Apple trees two years ago they have all nearly reached the top of the alloy pole at 45 degrees but have yet to bear any fruit, the side shoots are about six to eight inches long from the main stem, it says to cut back to three leaves from the basal cluster this is three leaves. Am I doing something wrong---? , no fruit though in spring there are some flowers though not a great deal. I have fed them and water them. Does it take time to establish before fruiting or have I not done something obvious. Pleas can you give me a giding hand as I would like to at least have a appl or two this year. They are grown against a 7 foot wall on taught wires on 6 foot poles. HELP. Thanks. Bob. Comment by Bob Wyatt on 15 January 2015 Bob- you don't say what type of apple trees you have planted- could this have had an influence? there are 3 families of apple trees for pollenation, and not all are self-fertile."
Lazymike on Saturday 14 February 2015
"Hi Lazymike. Your lack of fruit could be down to any number of things. Are the trees you are growing compatible or self-fertile to allow for successful pollination? Are the cordons getting enough sunlight? It could well be that the trees have been too young up to this point to bear any fruit - they can take a few years before they do so, so it may simply be a matter of patience. "
Ben Vanheems on Monday 16 February 2015
"Hi, I plan on growing apples this year so your article is really useful. But before I even get to the pruning I need to plant the tree, right? :D Anyways, thanks for the great information! Maybe you'd like to read another interesting post about pruning mistakes, which I stumbled upon while I wa browsing :http://tinyurl.com/kulfbps"
Lisa on Monday 16 February 2015
"Hi Lisa. Thanks for the link. Congratulations on taking the step to grow apples. They are so worth it - you'll get so much fruit for so little effort! Good luck with it."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 16 February 2015
"Hi, I would like to plant a row of cordons along a solid NW facing fence. Would this be a waste of time due to the northerly aspect? Thanks Steve "
Steve on Friday 3 July 2015
"Hi Steve. You could give it a try - it depends where in the world you are. If you have fairly warm, sunny summers then you'll likely do fine. Alternatively, you could try a more shade-tolerant fruit tree, such as an acid cherry."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 6 July 2015
"Evening, I am looking to plant 3 fruit cordon trees against my South facing garden fence. The fence panels are supported by concrete posts and I am looking to construct the supporting frame with Vine Eye Bolts but am unsure of how long they should be to ensure there is enough space between the growing trees and the fence. There are a number of different lengths available and any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks Chris"
Chris on Sunday 3 January 2016
"Hi Chris. Cordons are generally spaced about 75cm (30in) apart. So if you want to plant three of them I'd suggest ensuring enough wire to stretch at least 225cm (90in). You will need more than this, though, to allow for the wrapping around the vine eye bolts, so maybe go for a length of wire 3m (10ft) long, which will give you plenty of margin for error."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 4 January 2016
"Ben, Thank you for the information. I would also like to know how far off the fence the trees should be and therefore influence the length of vine eye bolts bought. Thanks again. Chrs"
Chris on Monday 4 January 2016
"Hi Chris. Apologies - I never replied to your query. Essentially the base of the trunk should be about 30-45cm (12-18in) from the fence and then lean in to meet it. This is so the roots do not sit in a rain shadow. The main trunk would then lie flush with the fence, so the wires can be right next to it."
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 21 January 2016
"Great, many thanks"
Chris on Thursday 21 January 2016
"I have six apple cordons with lots of fruit coming. Do I need to thin out the fruit or leave them alone . They are two years old last year I took the fruit off to rest the trees."
Corinne Abraham-Wallace on Friday 27 May 2016
"Hi Corinne. I would let the cordons produce, say, three or four apples each this year. Then you should be able to let them fully fruit next year. This would let them concentrate more on establishment for a second year. At this stage you want the plant to get going and put on plenty of growth so it can fruit stronger in future years."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 31 May 2016
"Hello Ben, www are planning to grow fuit trees in our small garden and I would like to plant about 5 cordon fruit trees in front of the poles partly to screen us fro m a neighbouring 2 storeyed house .. Yu talk of growing spur fruiting varieties and have them flower ring at the same time.. I would be grateful if you would give me an indication of which trees fi unfiltered this criteria .. we live in NZ so maybe the varieties a have different names .. Hope you can help .. Not only apples also pears plums cherries etc to provide a bit of variety .. Many thanks Liz "
Elizabeth van Kesteren on Wednesday 15 June 2016
"Hi Liz. I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with NZ varieties. My advice would be to consult a trustworthy local fruit nursery who should be able to advise. There are hundreds of varieties available, so I'm sure there would be a good choice in NZ also. Sorry I can't be more specific!"
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 16 June 2016
"Hi, Thanks for your info. I too am in New Zealand but this isn't a NZ question. I would like to grow a single plum as a cordon. I have a narrow piece of land about 3m (12')wide but plenty of depth. I want to grow 3 rows across it with single plants. Rows run North/South. 2 passionfruit (1 every 3 years) and the plum in the 3rd. What would you recommend the distance between the rows with single plants in it. It is a North East facing so gets the NZ sun all day. Thanks, Alan"
Alan on Friday 23 September 2016
"Hi Alan. I would allow about 2m between rows, which should give plenty of space and allow enough light in between the rows. Good luck with this project - you should have a super productive fruit garden by the end of it."
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 6 October 2016
"Hi I have 3 small fruit trees 1 pear, 1 red Delicious apple and 1 golden Delicious apple that sit in pots and a large pear tree that's into the ground, other than water them I don't do anything else but this year i have had lots of fruit on them that are tasty and sweet, my only problem is, is that they are small what can I do to increase the size of all the apples and pears?"
Sylvia Adamson on Thursday 20 October 2016
"Hi Sylvia. If they are producing lots of fruits then the average size of each fruit may be compromised as a result. By thinning the clusters of fruits in June, you will have fewer fruits but as a result they will be larger. Apples and pears naturally drop fruits in June, but a little extra thinning can help with final fruit size. There is an article on this topic in this blog: https://www.growveg.com/guides/how-to-thin-fruit-for-a-better-harvest/ "
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 20 October 2016
"Good day.I am looking for dwarf fruit trees.What have you in stock and where are you located."
Alan on Wednesday 25 January 2017
"Hi Alan. Thanks for getting in touch. Unfortunately we don't sell any fruit trees - we just write about them! Hopefully you'll be able to find a supplier in your area."
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 25 January 2017
"I have planted apple, pear, peach and plum trees. The only ones that are producing are the plum trees. They have been planted about 6 years. Any idea what I can do. I have a least two of each. Thanks for any help you can give me."
Darlene on Saturday 28 January 2017
"Hi Darlene. Have you made sure that you have the appropriate pollinating companions for each tree you planted? Some trees are self-fertile (you don't need another to help the flowers set), but other need a separate tree to help the flowers set - the pollen from one tree fertilises another. To do this they need to be in flower at the same time. We have an article on choosing compatible trees here: https://www.growveg.com/guides/apple-pollination-groups-choosing-compatible-trees/ It may just be that the trees need another year to establish, though they should really have started producing by now, particularly if they've already started to blossom. It's also important to make sure the trees are getting enough sunshine and moisture at the roots, to help the fruits set and swell."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 30 January 2017
"Greetings Ben, We have a real problem with squirrels! We currently have 2 different types of apple and one plum tree. Last year the fruits were growing wonderfully and one morning when we looked out, not a trace of unripe plum fruit was to be found (there were about 30 on the tree). A few weeks later when the apples were growing to a nice size but still not ripe, the same demise occurred with both trees! Not a trace!! We have electric fencing around our veggie garden and it works well. It would be difficult to do the same where the dwarf fruit trees are. Any other suggestions would be very welcomed."
Joy on Saturday 25 March 2017
"Wow Joy - I've never known squirrels to have such a voracious appetite for fruits. Unfortunately, short of physically excluding them, there isn't much you can do. If you had lots and lots of fruit trees then they'd have their share and there'd likely be plenty for you too. But that doesn't help much in the near term. Sorry I can't be of more help. It will be interesting to see if anyone else has any (humane!) suggestions."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 28 March 2017
"I planted 2 cordon pear trees end of 2016. The one is growing well with a strong leader and sideshoots, but the other has sideshoots but only a very small leading shoot about 2 -3 inches long. Is there anything I should do to encourage the leader ?"
Terry on Monday 26 June 2017
"Hello community. Quick question. I have a small productive apple tree - about 3m tall, maybe a bit more in circumference. Always prune it back late autumn (live in Rhone Alpes region of France). Last year no apples, this year, big year so every other year cycle working fine. Q is: this year's crop have a LOT of clusters, maybe up to 5 per cluster. Is it recommended to actually remove a few from each cluster so the others can develop properly? (already now quite big size differences developing both in and between clusters). Thanks for advice! Jesper "
Jesper Wiegandt on Sunday 2 July 2017
"Hi Terry. As the cordons were only planted half a year ago, it may simply be that one of the cordon varieties has settled in quicker/grows quicker than the other. Give it time and I'm sure the other will catch up. Make sure you water in very dry weather. "
Ben Vanheems on Monday 3 July 2017
"Hi Jesper. Yes, when trees produce lots of fruits on each cluster it is customary to thin the fruitlets to leave fewer per cluster. This ensures each fruit grows to a bigger size. The tree will have done some of it's own fruitlet 'pruning' during the June drop, when trees naturally shed excess fruits. But you can certainly go a step further in thinning them. There's a really good introductory article to thinning fruit, including apples, on this site. Just type 'how to thin fruit' into the search box in the top-right of the page."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 3 July 2017

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