Spending a little time and effort planning and preparing a fruit garden is well worthwhile, as it can result in maximum harvest with minimum time and effort each year.
Preparing Your Garden For Fruit
When choosing the perfect spot in your garden to grow fruit, the most important consideration is your soil. Most average garden soils are adequate for successful fruit growing, but all soil types benefit from the addition of organic matter such as compost.
Avoid any very wet areas in your garden or consider installing drainage, as waterlogged soils are rarely good for growing fruit, although cranberries will tolerate more boggy conditions. Likewise, a very dry part of your garden is best avoided unless you’re willing to install irrigation – for low maintenance, you don’t want to spend half your summer watering plants! Drip irrigation looped around the root zone of your plants is very effective.
Most fruit grows best in a sunny, sheltered spot, although some bushes such as currants are quite happy with some shade. Whatever you do, avoid frost pockets which can result in buds or flowers being damaged by the cold early in the year.
A sheltered environment away from cold winds is essential to ensure that your plants flower well, are pollinated by insects and set fruit successfully. For windy areas, growing a hedge as a screen or boundary alongside your fruit, or taking advantage of the protection given by walls or fences will make a big difference.
Creating a Plan
It's tempting to cram as many fruit bushes and trees into your garden as possible, but overcrowding will result in none of them growing well. That's why a plan is essential. You can use our Garden Planner to mark out boundaries and fences, and work out how many plants will fit – as trees and bushes are added, the grey circle around them shows how much space their roots require.
Protecting Your Harvest
It's easy to grow a wonderful fruit garden, only to find that the local wildlife enjoys all your harvest before you get a chance to, so considering how you will protect your fruit garden from them is essential.
Rabbits can usually be kept at bay with two-foot high chicken wire, optionally also extending one foot down into the ground to stop them burrowing underneath, but to exclude deer you’ll need a higher fence – at least 6 feet, or 1.8m, high. If you only have a few fruit trees it might be easier and cheaper to fence off the trees individually rather than the whole garden. For the ultimate in deer protection, consider twin fences around your garden.
Birds are a major pest of soft fruit, so in many areas it will be essential to net against them. A fruit cage is the easiest option. Use metal or wooden posts for the frame, and netting or wire mesh for the sides. The top is best made out of light netting that can be rolled back for winter, as the weight of snow on top can collapse even very sturdy fruit cages. This will also give birds access during the cold months to root out the larvae of pests.
If you don’t want to put up a fruit cage, many people find that choosing different coloured varieties helps to reduce bird predation. White, black, green and yellow varieties tend to be less desirable to birds than red or blue ones. Late-ripening fruits are also less likely to be eaten as there are usually other food sources available at the same time.
Weed Control and Soil Fertility
Bare earth is an open invitation for weeds, and young fruit trees and bushes are particularly vulnerable to competition for moisture, so to avoid having to spend hours weeding, make sure you cover the soil. Remove all perennial weeds before you start, then keep the soil covered with mulches such as home-made compost, composted bark, straw, leafmold or grass clippings. Compared to weeding on your hands and knees, mulching is easy work! It's a good idea to site your compost and leafmold bins close to your fruit garden to make mulching a quick and simple task.
Fertilising with liquid feeds is not usually necessary with perennial fruits grown in the open ground – mulching with organic matter is a much better way to provide long-term nourishment.
After a few years, grass or clover can be allowed to grow up to the trunks of fruit trees as a living mulch. Grass will need to be cut every week or two if you want to keep it short, but if you use a mulching mower you won’t have to keep stopping to empty the bag – plus leaving the grass lying will enhance moisture-retention and fertility in the soil.
Rhubarb also has a place in the fruit garden. While technically a vegetable, it is often used as a fruit and is perennial, low maintenance, and a fantastic weed suppressor.
Choose the Right Varieties For Your Garden
Choose your fruit varieties carefully. In the Garden Planner, you can use the Filter function to narrow down your selection. Make sure they are hardy enough to be grown outside all year round in your area without protection, and are not prone to particular diseases – look around for mildew-resistant gooseberries, for instance. Select high-yielding types to make sure that the work you put in is amply rewarded, or choose one plant that can do two jobs – for instance some apple varieties are just as good used for cooking as for eating fresh.
Apples, plums and pears are best grown as free-standing bushes, which are much lower maintenance and require less complicated pruning than trained forms such as espaliers or cordons. While dwarfing rootstocks have made growing many tree fruits much easier in smaller spaces, avoid the smallest ones as these are generally more finicky than their larger relatives, require permanent staking, and have low branches that can be difficult to mow beneath.
Finally, choose varieties to stagger your harvests so there is not too much harvesting to do all at once – most fruits are available in early-, mid- and late-season varieties.
When your plan is finished, you'll be ready to prepare the soil and order your plants.
Once established, fruits are some the easiest and most rewarding crops to grow. With careful planning, and a little work at the beginning, you’re sure to enjoy great harvests for many years to come.