The fruit garden is a collection of apples, pears, plums and nuts which are cultivated in a carefree way at the back of my plot. They were planted as one year-old ‘maiden whips’ seven years ago. This means that they were literally single twigs only about knee or thigh-high. During that time they’ve grown, been appropriately pruned and developed into attractive ‘bush’ specimens with a short length of stem and balanced, goblet-shaped framework of branches. Consideration was given to the small space and future ease of picking so I chose a ‘dwarfing’ rootstock to keep my charges within sensible proportions (no more than four metres tall). For the apples this was M26, the plums St Julien A and the pears are on what is called Quince C. The pears have been slowest to yield a crop, but this spring something wonderful has been occurring for the first time since planting: blossom!
The pear varieties are Hessle, of Hull (Yorkshire) origin. In 1827 it was first recorded and is notable for extreme hardiness. Hessle, or Hazel Pear as it was also called, ripens in October and will thrive in almost any situation. I nurture a specimen in my North Dorset garden in honour of a once-mighty but now under-achieving football team. The other backyard pear is Beurre Hardy, dating from 1820 and known to some as the French Butter Pear. A fancy was taken to this one because it is described variously as “outstanding, fragrant, with melting flesh”: attributes which sounded too good to be true and have earned it the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit. Crucially for a decent crop, these two varieties blossom at the same time of the year so are compatible. This means that, via insects including bees, they’ll pollinate each other. Some pear trees are able to pollinate themselves (’self-compatible’) but choosing suitable partners is an important factor in the planning stage of an edible garden. This applies to apples as well.
The flowers themselves are beautiful beyond belief: simple clusters of five petals, pure white (with a delicate hint of pink on the French variety) of which invite exploration of the reproductive organs by flying creepy-crawlies which have evolved alongside fruit blossom in a mutually beneficial way: embryo fruit is pollinated and those hard-working creatures receive pollen and nectar, the food which fuels their busy existence.
In terms of life on earth, flowering plants have been around for at least 130 million years. That time in pre-history is known as the Cretaceous Period and is also when dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus Rex and the three-horned Triceratops were at large on the planet. Until then, the colour of plant life was predominantly green and dominated by conifers (cone bearing trees that don‘t shed their leaves in winter). Nowadays, flowering plants comprise 90 per cent of species in the Plant Kingdom.
Fruit trees are best planted young. They establish quicker that way and, although the effect is less instantaneous, tend to make rapid growth. They soon make a handsome statement when positioned with consideration to their immediate surrounds. ‘Bare-rooted’ trees, which have been grown in a field then lifted immediately prior to sale, should only be planted in their dormant season (from late October until March). If you feel inspired by the blossom on trees sold in pots then no worries. ‘Pot-grown’ apples, pears and the like may be planted at any time of the year. Doing it around now, whilst flowering, ensures that compatible partners are purchased.
Copyright, Joe Hashman May 2010