Planting of Fruit Trees

Natural England has published a series of Technical Information Notes dealing with tree planting. They recommend the planting of bare-rooted fruit trees from November to March before they come into leaf. Planting should be avoided during droughts, hard frosts or particularly cold, windy periods. The correct planting of a tree is crucial to its long-term survival. The following steps should be followed:

  1. Site preparation. The site needs clearing before any orchard can be created. Brambles, nettles, thistles and other weed species must be controlled by regular mowing, hand pulling or digging; herbicides should be used sparingly in this area. The grassland needs careful attention; sward height should be kept between 5 and 15cm. Hedges can provide good windbreaks.
  2. Planting pattern. Mark out with canes should be done carefully as trees cannot be moved easily once they are planted. Spacing depends on the species of trees and the rootstock. All the selected apple, plum, gage and pear trees grown on MM106, St. Julian 'A' and Quince 'A' rootstocks can be grown as free-standing trees at 4-5m spacing or trained into other more compact forms such as fans, espaliers or cordons. All grass and weeds should be removed in a 1m diameter circle around each tree station prior to planting, either by physical stripping or spraying with a suitable, non-residual herbicide.
  3. Digging the hole. A hole should be dug as soon before planting as possible. It should be no more than 50cm deep and just wide enough to accommodate the roots without bending them. It can be dug mechanically but back-filling should be done by hand. The removed soil should be put in separate piles: one for the turf, one for the topsoil and one for any subsoil. Removing large stones and breaking up the bottom and sides of the hole will allow better drainage and root penetration.
  4. Staking the hole. A stake should be driven into the bottom of the hole before planting so that the tree's roots can be arranged around it. This will protect the root collar and graft union until the root system becomes established. The stake should be on the upwind side of the tree and extend at least 30cm above the ground level and allow for the stem of the tree to be about 10-15cm away from it.
  5. Priming the hole. Some topsoil should be placed in the bottom of the hole to bed the roots on. Organic matter and fertilisers should not be added as these can damage soil structure, create drainage sumps, discourage the roots from spreading and impede relationships with beneficial mycorrhizal fungi in the soil.
  6. Planting the tree. The tree should be placed in the hole so that the graft union is at least 7cm above the ground level and clear of any mulching material to avoid disease and prevent the scion from rooting. The tree should be rotated to obtain the best fit ensuring the roots are spread out and not pointing upwards. Excessively long roots should be trimmed to fit the hole rather than twirled round the sides. The hole can then be backfilled with the remaining topsoil, whilst shaking the the tree gently and ensuring it stays vertical. Fertilisers should not be used. The soil needs to be gently firmed in to remove any air pockets, taking care not to compact it. The tree should be fastened to the stake above the graft union with a suitably flexible tie that holds the tree firmly upright but allows some movement. Any formative pruning should be carried out.
  7. Grass and weed control. The 1m diameter circle around the tree should be kept clear of all vegetation for 3-4 years to reduce competition for water and nutrients. This can be achieved by hoeing, using weed-suppressing mats or by mulching. Mulching is preferable because it helps retain soil moisture, raises soil temperature in the spring and breaks down to provide a slow release of nutrients but it can draw nitrogen out of the soil. Any wood chippings must be free of honey fungus.
  8. Guards. Roaming dogs, cats and other livestock can damage young trees. Guards give some protection but should not be fastened to the tree or rub against, constrict or damage it in any way.

These 8 steps were followed in the planting of trees in the Midsummer Common Community Orchard. A team of volunteers turned out to do the hard work under expert guidance by the City Council's Arboricultural Officers. Many thanks are given to the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation, the Cambridge City Council, FoMC members and other individuals who helped fund the purchase of trees, plants and associated tools and equipment.

As in the project proposal, the main plantings were organised into 3 distinct phases which took place over the year. It didn't stop there FoMC added other trees to its project list and individuals donated further fruit trees for planting. This expansion will probably continue until spare space is exhausted.

Phase 1 plantings

The first phase involved the buying and planting of 15 apple trees in January 2010. Their ease of cultivation, climatic tolerance, and the range of flavours and uses have made apples the world's most cultivated fruit. Over 2,300 varieties are grown at the Brogdale National Fruit Tree Collection. Cambridgeshire is home to 12 dessert, 5 culinary and 2 dual purpose apple varieties. Four of these are grown and tagged in this Community Orchard; all on a MM106 rootstock producing a free-standing tree of around 4m, which can be kept to a smaller size of about 2.5 metres with a good pruning regime. The cost of the trees was £195; stakes, ties and guards cost another £202.

The New Rock Pippin apple dates from 1821 when it was raised by a Mr William Pleasance, a nurseryman at Barnwell. It is a late winter apple which is usually picked in mid October for eating. The flesh is yellow, firm, sweet and perfumed with the flavour of anise. It keeps well for cooking and baking between January and March.

The Wayside apple dates from 1930 when it was raised by a Miss Cunningham in Cambridge. It is a seedling of the variety Charles Ross; the flesh is sweet with some of the aromatic qualities of Cox's Orange Pippin. It is ready for picking in late September and eating in October and November. It is well suited for making fresh apple juice and pies with chunky apple pieces.

The Histon Favourite apple dates from the mid 1880s and has a certain fame because it was raised by John Chivers. It is a small eating/dual purpose apple which has a pale yellow skin with a scattering of pink stripes with a sharp and crisp flavour. It is ready for picking in late September, mellowing with storage for eating in October to December.

The Jolly Miller apple dates from 1883 and was once popular in the Cottenham area. It is a medium sized tall culinary apple with a greasy yellow skin, reddish flush and broken red stripes; by the time it is ready for picking and cooking in late September, it can resemble a ripe tomato in appearance. It is well suited for pies, crumble, sauce, chutney, apple butter or fruit preserves.

In March 2010, four crab apple trees were planted on the site; in September 2010 two quince trees were added. A hedge comprising 75 Hawthorn, 15 Blackthorn, 15 Hazel, 15 Field Maple, 15 Dog Rose, and 15 Guelder Rose was planted along the site boundary and 50 woodland wildflower plugs were planted amongst the trees. Together these cost £158.

The Crab Apple fruits are very small and normally green, ripening to yellow or red and best picked when the leaves start changing colour. Their juice can be made into a ruby-coloured preserve with a full, spicy flavour. The flesh is sour to taste but suitable for making jams, jellies and preserves.

The Quince Vranja produces an attractive large pear shaped fruit but light cropper. Very fragrant pale green, pear-like fruits which ripen in the autumn to a golden yellow. They are too bitter and hard to eat fresh but when cooked the flesh softens and turns pink and makes a delicious jam.

The Quince Meeches Prolific has fragrant yellowish fruits which should be picked at the end of September or early October and then stored in a cool place for a few weeks - it is ripe when it turns a golden yellow colour. The sharp flavour makes a superb jelly.

Phase 2 plantings

The second phase involved the buying and planting of four Wallis's Wonder plum trees, two Cambridge Gage trees and two Willingham Gage trees in June 2010. They are all local to Cambridgeshire. The Wallis’s Wonder plum flowers early; the Cambridge and Willingham gages flower later. All three are grown on a St. Julian 'A' rootstock and reach a height of 2.7-3.6m and a spread of 3m. The cost of the trees was £96.

The Wallis's Wonder has a medium to large sized purple skinned fruit that ripens for picking in late September and, if put into cold storage, remains good for eating well into October. The flesh is sweet, soft and juicy - ideal for plum treacle, plum pie and pudding, and plum wine.

The Cambridge Gage is one of the most popular green gages. It has large yellow-green fruit which are ready for picking in early September. The flesh is yellow, juicy, sweet and with an excellent rich flavour. Good as a dessert gage and for culinary purposes such as jam making.

The Willingham Gage is an excellent cropping variety which produces a very attractive and sweet tasting green gage. The fruit is similar in appearance but larger than that of the Green Gage. The fruit ripens around mid August when the flesh is sweet and juicy to taste.

In 2010 a King James I mulberry tree was donated and planted on the site. A year later, in 2011, a Nottingham medlar was planted in the same area. Raspberry canes and blackcurrent bushes were planted along the east and west boundaries to add to the blackberries that were already there. The cost of the canes was £21. In 2015 two apricot trees were donated and planted on the site. Apricot trees are not native to England but both are growing on the same St Julian 'A'rootstock as the plums and gages. They are early bloomers and can be adversely affected by frost. In 2016 a second mulberry tree was donated and planted.

The King James mulberry has royal associations dating back to Tudor times. The mulberry tree has a spreading habit and becomes crooked and gnarled with time, making it an architectural feature. It has attractive leaves and tasty fruit that are rarely found in the shops. The picking season is over three weeks in August and September.

The Medlars were important fruit during Roman and medieval times but are rarely seen today. In the play Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare likened their shape to a person's bottom. They are ready to pick in late October or early November. When completely bletted by frost or storage, the fruit is very squishy and sweet; its taste is complex but similar to that of an over-ripe date.

The Hargrand apricot came out of the Harrow Research Station in Canada in 1980. It is an extremely hardy variety that produces heavy yields of deep orange-red fruits that are 'freestone' (the flesh comes away from the stone easily). It is self fertile but pollination by another apricot will maximise yield. The fruits ripen in July.

The Flavorcot apricot was specially bred for the cooler English climate. It is a self fertile tree which produces huge crops of large delicious orange-red fruits with outstanding colour, texture and flavour. It flowers in April and should be ready for picking in August. Sweet and juicy when eaten fresh and well suited for cooking.

Phase 3 plantings

The third phase involved the planting of 6 pear trees. No pear variety is local to Cambridge but two from nearby were chosen. Three Warden and three Laxton's Faremost pear trees were chosen and planted in June 2010, all on a Quince A rootstock. As proposed, these were planted in espalier formation. Training pears as espaliers, is a space-saving way of growing fruit on a wall. The cost of the trees was £72.

The Laxton's Foremost is a cultivar pear. It dates from 1901 when it was raised by Laxton Bros in Bedford. The fruit is large and yellow but can have a reddish flush and a few red stripes; it has a course texture. It is harvested in mid to late September. The flesh is buttery and sweet with a hint of acidity but is well suited for cooking.

The Warden pear dates back to the 13th century when it was used to make the famous 'warden pies' at the Cistercian Abbey in Warden, Bedfordshire. It has large fruit with greenish brown rough skin, usually flushed dark red. They are hard and gritty and ripen slowly for picking in October and culinary use from November to February. The flesh is coarse and firm and excellent for bottling and baking.

The above fruit trees were planted in accordance with the original Orchard proposal. In 2012, it was decided to plant 12 cherry trees as an avenue along the narrow strip of land leading into the Orchard from the Newmarket Road gate. FoMC members helped fund the purchase and planting of 6 prunus stella and 6 prunus sunburst trees all on Colt rootstocks. The flowers appear mid-spring followed by the cherries. They should not be picked before they are fully mature because they will not ripen off the tree. Birds ignore this advice. More recently, in 2020, a fig tree was planted in the Orchard as part of a religious ceremony by students from the neighbouring Beth Shalom Reform Community.

The Prunus stella is a Canadian bred variety which makes an attractive tree both in flower or when laden with fruit. It is Britain's best known dessert cherry that produces firm, bright red fleshed fruits with the sweetest flavour, that can be harvested from mid July to August.

The Prunus sunburst is an attractive cherry tree both in flower or when laden with fruit. A slightly earlier cropping variety than 'Stella', from early July this dessert variety produces large dark red, almost black cherries of the sweetest flavour. The high quality fruits store well for a short period after picking.

The Brown Turkey fig is an Asian species of flowering plant in the mulberry family. If you plant a fig tree into the ground without taking precautions, you will quickly realise just how big fruiting figs can grow. It crops every year, almost without fail, and if it is planted in a nice sunny spot it will produce excellent fruit and heavy crops in sunny summers. The best way to eat a fig is to simply reach up and pick one off a tree, twist off the top stem, split the fig gently in half, and enjoy the sweetness.