Fruit trees and bushes workshop – a whirlwind tour

18 October 2015, Scout Hall

Our third workshop opened with an intriguing competition prepared by Teresa Widd, one of our Growing Coordinators. On entry we were directed to a table with a range of fruit laid out on it – most of it purchased at a local supermarket, with some sneaky garden-grown additions. Our task – to guess where in the world they came from. There was much debate over the display table and much suspense in waiting for Teresa’s big reveal…

As you can see from the image below, it turned out that only 2 out of 9 of the supermarket fruit came from the UK – pears and strawberries! And only the latter were grown in Scotland.

It is perhaps not surprising in case of bananas, oranges and grapes – they are unlikely to make for viable local crops. Although, as our horticultural expert Andrew Widd assured us, with some effort and a glasshouse at your disposal you can probably get a snack-sized crop of grapes, and a couple of oranges. The real surprise were the eating apples which came all the way from New Zealand! Because they travelled so far and would have been stored for a long time (bear in mind that it is spring in New Zealand at the moment – not an apple season), they cannot possibly compete on freshness and taste with those ripening on the Tayport trees at this time!

Taste and freshness aside, this fruitbowl travelled over 32845 miles from the growers to our plate. Those ‘food miles’, or shall we say – fruit miles;), are bound to have a significant carbon footprint.  If you are interested in particulars, we found that Lindsay Wilson explains the complex relationship between food miles and carbon footprint very clearly on his  Shrinkthatfootprint website.

And so not only was our desire to grow more fruit in our gardens reinforced – we also felt a warm glow of doing something good for the environment… From now on perhaps we will also buy bananas less often, and definitely check the food labels for the place of origin!

A graph illustrating distance travelled by fruit
Estimate of the distances travelled by a selection of fruit from the local Tayport supermarket and gardens

Then it was time for Andrew Widd to give us a basic introduction to the vast and complex topic of fruit growing.

Andrew started with general advice on buying, planting and care.

The good news is that you can start planting your trees and bushes right now! Bare-root stocks become available from November and they are also the cheapest to buy. Root-balled stocks are a bit more expensive and are available at the same time. Both can be planted from autumn to early spring – unless your ground is frozen. If you need more time to think, and have a bit more money to spend, you can get and plant a potted specimen at any time of the year.

Where do you get your plants? We found three fairly local suppliers, specialising in fruit trees and shrubs suitable for local growing conditions and heritage Scottish varieties. All of them have bare-root stock for sale now:

Before you go ahead with your shopping spree it’s important to make sure you have a good space to put your plants. Andrew advised that generally they will need a sunny aspect with well drained and slightly acidic soil (apart from blueberries – they are happiest in very acidic, peaty ground so are best grown in containers). Your garden’s microclimate may also be important to consider – you will be able to get away with growing more ‘delicate’ varieties against south-facing walls and positions sheltered from the wind. The amount of space will also influence your options but you may be surprised how much you can grow in fairly small gardens and containers, for example by chosing trees with dwarfing rootstock and applying some fancy pruning and training techniques.

Many of the fruit trees and bushes are not self-fertile and require specific ‘pollination partners’ to set fruit (e.g. apples may need a crab-apple tree nearby) so you may need to grow more than just one plant unless your neighbour already has an appropriate partner for your particular favourite. Look out for this information on the sellers’ websites.

Andrew also gave us some tips on care for specific fuit varieties. Rather than trying to summarise the information here, it’s probably best to refer you to the grow-your-own factsheets on the Royal Horticultural Society website.  Bear in mind that the RHS advice may be biased towards southern growing conditions, so looking over the fence to check what’s worked well with your neighbours may be a good idea too;).

From Andrew’s account it seems that trees and bushes are quite easy to care for, but you will need to think of protecting the fruit from birds. You’ll also have to come to grips with some basic pruning techniques to keep your trees and bushes healthy, cropping well, and to fit them to your space and physical requirements. For example, pruning gooseberry bushes into a standard (a single stem supporting a ball of branches at waist or chest height) or a rod (a single long stem with small side branches) means that you can reach the fruit without having to bend down. A rod shape also allows you to fit the ‘bush’ into much smaller space. Variety-specific pruning guidance is also given in the RHS’s growing factsheets. Future hands-on workshops are planned to cover this as well, focusing on specific types of fruit bushes or trees as identified by the workshop participants.

With the nearby Blairgowrie being dubbed the Berry Town in the early 20th century due to its flourishing raspberry and strawberry growing industry, and the region still going strong on its, much more diverse now, berry production, including berry breeding research at James Hutton Institute, it is not really a surprise to most of us that our local climate is quite favourable to growing the soft fruit, even at an industrial scale. For history of berry growing near Blairgowrie – see Blairgowrie, Rattray and District Historical Trust page.

The favourable climate means that starting with fruit bushes or soft fruit may be the best first choice for a novice in a Tayport garden. These are more compact than trees and will fruit quicker after planting. The blackberries and gooseberries we planted at the Garvie Brae playpark in spring 2014 fruited profusely this summer, even in an exposed position and in the horrible clay soil of the site.

You should be safe with strawberries, raspberries (Andrew recommended autumn varieties over the summer ones), blackberries (and the closely related loganberries and tayberries), gooseberries (try jostaberries for a thornless experience), red and white currants, blackcurrants and even blueberries. Rhubarb – not strictly a soft fruit but seems to be lumped with them – is a great performer too, and a handy weed-surpressing crop for a tatty corner near a shed or a compost heap. Judging by what Andrew said, grapevines may be a bit too much hassle, given they require a glasshouse (or at least a south-facing wall) and fiddly truss-thinning for proper fruiting.

Fruit trees are considered a bit more tricky to grow in Scotland, and indeeed they are not grown locally at a commercial scale these days, with most of UK’s production happening in a much more clement Kent in England. So it may be a surprise to some that the top fruit production used to be a flourishing local industry in the past – indeed ‘one of Scotland’s premier apple growing areas, dating back 800 years, was the Carse of Gowrie between Perth and Dundee on the north bank of the River Tay‘. That’s just up the road! If you are interested, Crispin W Hayes Associates Eco-Consulting have been doing lots of work documenting local orchard history and cataloguing their remnants, including those in Tayport – here are the full set of their reports. In fact, Crispin has just contacted us as they are looking for local ‘orchard scouts’ to help with the work around Tayport. Please get in touch with us if you’d like to help out!

So with careful variety selection and a bit of shelter, there should be nothing to stop you from succeeding with apples, pears, plums (Andrew recommended gages over plums as they are much sweeter) and cherries. We found that Caley (Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society) recommends the following varieties as foolproof for the climate zone in Tayport:

  • Apples:  ‘Bramley’s seedling’, ‘Discovery’, ‘Egremont Russet’, ‘Fiesta’, ‘Howgate Wonder’, ‘James Grieve’, ‘Katy’ (Katja), ‘Worcester Permain’
  • Cherry: ‘Morello’ and ‘Stella’
  • Pear: ‘Concorde’ and ‘Conference’
  • Plum: ‘Czar’

Crispin W Hayes Associates have a more extensive selection of tree varieties suitable for growing in our area and their performance. A visit to the Newburgh Community Orchard whose trees are now quite mature could give you a good idea which trees may do well too:)

Andrew pointed out that hazelnuts, medlars, and figs can add variety to your orchard. And if you’d like a challenge and don’t expect massive crops you could have a go at nectarines, peaches, and apricots trained against south-facing, sunny and sheltered wall.

And finally there is the quince controversy. It is not really fit for British orchards and never really ripens fully, even in the South, so don’t expect to be able to eat them raw, but in theory they may be worth it if you are particularly fond of home-made quince jelly. However, judging by the comments from the workshop audience, they do not fruit well locally, so perhaps give them a miss.

For more comprehensive local fruit growing info, you may want to check out Fruit And Vegetables for Scotland by Kenneth Cox and Caroline Beaton – available from the PLANT Gardening Library.

After the lecture there was time to explore the detailed information boards, chat to Andrew about specialist tips, and PLANT members about the Community Growing Space project. There were also some fabulous cakes withPoster for planning a plot workshop local fruity ingredients (follow links for the recipes): Kaska’s dairy-free elderberry muffins with a sneaky dash of blackcurrants, Linda’s gluten- and dairy-free apple windfall cake, Margaret’s meringue and, finally, Teresa’s fruit salad based on the fruit-miles exercise ‘exhibits’.

The next workshop is on Sunday, 15th of November, 2:30-4:30pm at the Scout Hall. It will be a great one for anyone intending to start or improve growing their own fruit and veg.

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