Episode 138: Plan, Plant & Maintain Fruit Trees

Hello and thank you for joining me this week, as I talk to Wade Muggleton, permaculturist, tree expert and author of The Orchard Book, a book about incorporating fruit trees into your garden, however big or small your space. Wade is my favourite type of guest in that he’s written a book based on 20 years of solid experience and he’s busted a few myths along the way, not least the received wisdom around fruit tree pollination. So if you’d like to find out what makes an orchard, when to prune your trees, what types of tree to select, how to underplant your trees, creative tree training, what is a pitcher and what is a chequer, then listen on!

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What we cover

What is an orchard?

What types of tree might one contain?

Underplanting orchard trees

Keeping the costs down when establishing an orchard

Have you heard of chequers?

Grafting and over grafting


Pollination and the need for multiple trees of the same pollination group

Creating step overs and fruit tree arches

Pruning in summer instead of winter

Top types of tree

About Wade Muggleton

“Wade Muggleton lives in Shropshire with his partner and two children, where their plot, Station Road Permaculture Garden, is a demonstration site for permaculture and opens under the National Open Gardens Scheme. In 2013, he acquired a field and now has a collection of over 130 fruit trees and was featured on BBC Gardeners’ World in 2018.” https://www.chelseagreen.com/writer/wade-muggleton/


The Orchard Book: Plan, Plant and Maintain Fruit from Garden to Field by Wade Muggleton – 2021, Permanent Publications


Wade Muggleton 0:00
Well an orchard is essentially just a piece of ground where fruit trees grow.
I think in in the planning system if you’re trying to save an old orchard from development or something six trees plus constitutes an orchard, but for our purposes, it’s just where you grow fruit trees, it could be the corner of the garden, it could be an allotment, it could be a piece of a field, it’s just a place where fruit trees grow. It doesn’t need to, we don’t need to be too hung up about a technical definition of it. But it’s a nice word orchard. I always think it’s a it’s a sort of word that has promises. You know, what, what might you find in an orchard?

Sarah Wilson 0:42
Yeah, that’s very true. And what might you find in an orchard in terms of types of tree? Well, the most common thing.

Wade Muggleton 0:44
So, the most common thing in Britain is the apple. Obviously, apple orchards is something that’s synonymous really with with British history and culture. And it is the most widely grown, in the top three in this part of the world, but there are other parts of the country where you get plum orchards. Years ago, you would have had a lot more pears, that’s a fruit that’s rather diminished. But I guess to most people’s imagination, the apple orchards of Kent, Herefordshire, and Somerset, and places are what what people think of when they think of an orchard.

Sarah Wilson
And why do we have fewer pears now just out of interest?

Wade Muggleton
Yeah, it’s just one of those fruits that’s fallen from favour massively. In the 1700s it was the pinnacle of fruit growing if you could grow good pears and, and serve them to your guests, if you were from the sort of higher echelons of society, because pairs are really difficult as a fruit because you pick them under ripe. And then you store them. And the trick is picking the right moment when they’re actually ripe. There’s an old joke that there’s only 10 minutes in the life of a pear, when it’s perfectly ripe. And the skill is to know when those 10 minutes are, because they’re quite easy to spoil.

So I think it’s probably that apples are much easier to grow. And you know, it’s the ultimate fast food, isn’t it really an apple, you put it in your lunchbox or it’s sort of food on the go. So I think pears are just trickier harder to grow harder to store, harder to serve.

Is it better to grow a mixture of types of tree? Yes, I will say that diversity is a wonderful thing. So to grow not only lots of different varieties of the same fruit, but also to grow different fruits. I mean, I’m probably somewhat obsessed with apples. So I’ve got 106 different varieties of apple. And I’ve got about a dozen pears and probably five or six plums, different varieties, but certainly in terms of the health of the orchard. And of course, if you grow lots of different ones that blossom and fruit at different times, you’re spreading the risk, the great enemy of the fruit guy is late frost. So if you’ve got the same variety that are all in blossom at the same time, and you get a late frost, it can just wipe your wipe your crop out. Whereas if you’ve got ones that blossom over a six, seven week period, there’s a good chance that some of them are going to get away with it. So the more variety you have, the healthier the orchard and the more successful, I think you will be in terms of getting a crop – that’s obviously not a commercial crop. You know, mine is a slightly crazy collection of rare and unusual varieties. It doesn’t make any sense from a business point of view.

Sarah Wilson
I was thinking about how you might set up an orchard I think probably everybody envisages trees in the middle of a field surrounded by grass, which then gets mown maybe once a year or is grazed with sheep? Is that the optimum way to grow fruit trees? Are there better things that you can particularly underplant with?

Wade Muggleton 3:50
Well, there used to be sort of historical examples of intercropping really, there was
a time when people grew daffodils in amongst the fruit trees because that gave them a cash income in February, March whereas obviously the main orchard income would be in October, November. And then there was another system which was to to grow currant bushes between the trees because currents are derived from woodland plants. So they’re very shade tolerant. So they don’t mind a bit of shade from the fruit tree.

So you could have say daffodils, currant bushes, fruit trees, so you’ve got three sort of different crops growing together, but most orchards that we see today do have probably sheep grazing underneath as a way of managing the grass. So that would be a sort of land production and fruit production, dual purpose land use. You can do all sorts of things in a sort of permaculture sense you can grow ground cover plants, and you start verging into the forest garden idea then of having a canopy layer and a middle layer and a ground layer and mixing all your plants together in a polyculture. So I think there’s that necessary distinction between a few fruit trees in your garden and perhaps something bigger on a field scale. And managing the grass on a field scale can be the biggest problem. People think, Oh, we’re not just about growing fruit trees. But when the whole place has turned into waist high grass, and you think how on earth am I gonna get this under control? So I did resort in the end to a to sheep – I’ve got three sheep. And then they, they do quite a good job of keeping the grass at bay, which saves me a lot of work. So yeah, you’ve got to think about how you manage it other than just the trees.

Sarah Wilson
Talking about a smaller space, I’ve actually got a job where I manage four fruit trees in a line in a very tiny little area. And we actually did the no dig method and got rid of the grass underneath them. And now we’ve started to plant various bits and pieces. But there’s three things that I always come up against when I’m under planting fruit trees with anything but grass. And that is, how do you avoid dropping fruit breaking the plants underneath? You know, sometimes it’s difficult to weed the trees if they’re in full leaf and full fruit. And also, I think sometimes it’s difficult to work around underplanting when you’re harvesting so those would be my three things that I struggle with, if I, as I say if I put anything under fruit trees other than grass. Are there are ways around that?

Wade Muggleton 6:22
I suppose select plants that are a bit ruffty tufty and don’t mind a bit of, you know, trampling occasionally or fruit falling on them, I suppose try and pick as much fruit as possible before it falls because obviously it does bruise and won’t keep once it’s once it’s bruised. I mean, a great thing I think is Alpine strawberries for a garden, because they just run all over the place. And they form a fantastic ground cover. But other people put herbs around fruit trees, which there’s a there’s a school of thought that the aromas given off by the herbs, you know, adds to the health and keeps pests away and things and some people grow comfrey around fruit trees as a sort of ‘chop and chuck’, because it’s mining minerals from deep down, and by cutting it and then just mulching it back round, you’re sort of enriching the soil from the top. So there’s a range of techniques in permaculture.

I’ve got about 120 trees in my collection altogether. And if I’d had to buy those in at sort of 15, 16 pounds a tree, I couldn’t afford to do it. So I grafted a vast chunk of my own trees. And by buying the root stocks, and then getting cuttings or scions from other people, I established a whole load of my trees that are pound each. So grafting is one of those things that’s a bit shrouded in mystery as if it’s some ancient art, it’s all a bit secretive. If you can get to go on the course and learn how to do it, it’s incredibly satisfying. I’ve taught a wide range of workshops over the years on it, and I often bump into people and they say, well, the little tree I did on your course is going great guns and people find it really satisfying the idea of creating their own tree. And because you only need a root stock and, and a cutting off someone else’s tree, you can make your own tree. So that’s the cheapest way of doing it, I suppose the other the other way to do it is to perhaps wait till the end of the season, and often fruit tree nurseries will sell off surplus stock in sort of late March because they don’t want to keep it. And so bargain hunting is the other way to perhaps save some money on your establishment costs.

Sarah Wilson
And you mentioned in the book over grafting. What is that?

Wade Muggleton
Yeah, overgrafting is something we don’t see so much of today. But it’s the idea that if you’ve got a tree, you can actually convert it or turn it into a different variety. So in the past, for example, you had an orchard full of russets and say the market commercially has died a bit, you could cut those trees back. So you sort of saw off all the main branches. And then you go round and you splice in a whole load of cuttings of a different variety. And within two, probably three years, those trees that will once say russets will produce a different type of apple altogether. And we can find examples of that in old orchards through talking to sort of the old orchard men and women of sort of 78 years ago and they say, Oh yeah, that tree over there used to be such and such and my dad grafted something else onto it. And so what you’re looking at as the trunk of the tree is not the same as the fruit being born on the branches. So it is one of those sort of quite extraordinary things that you think that’s amazing. It’s a bit like transplants I suppose that you base off one tree and transplant it onto another and it grows away. So I’ve got one in my front garden which used to be an ornamental crab apple, and it’s now produces seven different seven different apples because I’ve grafted different varieties onto different stubs and stubs of different branches over the years. And it looks quite wacky in October because you’ve got like like green apples, russets, red apples all grown on the same tree. If you only got a small space in your garden, for say one or two trees by having a family tree they call them you can buy them ready done with two or three different ones on and off. You can master the art of grafting you can add extra varieties onto onto an existing tree. So you can have an apple tree that produces several different apples on the same tree.

Sarah Wilson 10:00
Oh, yeah, I bet that gets the passers by.

Wade Muggleton 10:14
Yeah, it’s sort of like, sort of traffic light tree with green, yellow and red apples, it’s amazing.

Sarah Wilson
And the other piece of terminology that I wasn’t familiar with, that you mentioned in the book, and I wondered if you could explain is pitchers.

Wade Muggleton
Yes, that’s, that’s something that’s sort of been researched a little bit now.The thing that a lot of people don’t understand about apple trees is that if you take the pips out of an apple, and grow them, they will go into an apple tree, and it will produce apples, but those apples will be different to the one they came out of. And that’s because they’ve been cross pollinated. So when the insects turn up in the spring, and pollinate your blossom, it’s 50%, the tree and it’s 50%, the genetics of whatever the pollen that the insects bring is. So therefore, when we buy a fruit tree, it is grafted, because the only way to get a known variety is to propagate it vegetatively. So you need a cutting, you can’t grow apples from seed and get the same apple they came out of.

And the reason we have to graph them is because generally they don’t strike from cuttings. If you put a piece of Willow or poplar or something in the ground, it roots and grows away. But apples tend not to do that. But some research has shown there’s a few varieties that will do that. So if you snap a branch off an apple tree and stick it in as a hardwood cutting, a few of them will grow. And they’re called pitchers, because you can supposedly pitch a bit of anywhere, and it’ll grow. And they seem to exist mostly on the sort of Wales and Ireland and Cornwall. So the sort of extremities of Britain. But they still appear to be very, very hardy trees. And obviously, if you were sort of the rural poor in the past, you could just go around to your neighbour and get an apple tree by snapping a bit off off their apple tree. So it kind of cut out the whole sort of idea of having to graft and nurture trees. But it’s unusual because in general the apple family won’t won’t strike on their own roots from cuttings, but there’s a few that do and they’re called pitchers. And there’s a few people looking into that at the moment, they’re not sure whether they exist in those places, because that’s where they hung on whether they were perhaps once more widespread, or whether they are just suited to the sort of wetter western half of the country. But yeah, pitchers is a bit of an obscure apple subject that’s being looked into a bit now.

Sarah Wilson
Talking about obscure things to do with orchards, what are chequers?

Wade Muggleton 12:40
Chequers? Yeah, chequers is not probably what we would consider a fruit or fruit tree today. But they’re basically the fruits are the berries of Sorbus terminalis, which is the wild service tree. So being a sorbus, it’s related to white beams and rowans. And it’s quite a rare tree to find in the wild. It’s associated with ancient woodlands, you find it sort of never in large numbers, you just find the scattering of them sometimes in certain ancient woodlands. But you can obviously get it from a nursery and grow it so. And yes, it produces these sort of berries about the size of a cherry. And they were used to make beer in the past, which is why in certain parts of the country, you get pubs called the chequers, you know the Chequers Inn or something. But also there’s written evidence from late Tudor times of them being dried on strings as dried fruits like I suppose the way we would use currants today, and then sort of used as treats for kids who ate them as sweets in the winter. So yeah, the chequer is a sort of a much forgotten or overlooked fruit or berry that we would, perhaps in past centuries have harvested. But yeah, so I have got one in my orchard, the wild service tree.

Sarah Wilson
Yeah, that would really, that would be totally different. I was wondering, I learned a lot from your book, I have to say, and I like your approach to orchards, because it does seem trial and error is obviously involved, but you’re not afraid to do things. And you’ve obviously got a massive amount of knowledge. And I thought your take on pollination was interesting, because we’re taught that you need multiple trees from the same pollination group in order to achieve pollination. Is that completely correct?

Wade Muggleton
No, I don’t believe that at all. Because I think on the one hand, it depends where you live in the country. I suppose if you lived in the Highlands of Scotland where there are not many fruit trees pollination might be more difficult but if you live in central and southern England there are fruit trees all over the place. And to suggest that you need to plant two trees next to each other to pollinate each other is a bit of an insult to the insects who know exactly what they’re doing and they’ll fly around the district and if your trees in blossom at the same time as one half a mile away the bees pollinate it so yeah, I don’t believe that at all. I think this advice gets trundled out on all these garden programmes. The bees are hopping over the garden fences and spreading around the district all the time. And I think the other thing about pollination is that the bees get all the publicity, but there are all sorts of other insects that do pollination, you know, pollen beetles, and hoverflies and bumble bees, of course. And so pollination is done by a wide range of insects, which is why the biodiversity crisis and the demise of insects is such a worrying subject, because we’ll need insects to help us out in our gardens and orchards and do a lot of that valuable work for us.

Sarah Wilson
One of the things I’ve always hankered after is some stepover fruit, apple trees specifically, I’ve seen them different places, and I really, really want them. And also one of the other things that you mentioned in the book was fruit tree arches. How easy is it to start these things off from scratch? And would it be years and years before you see it saw some sort of results?

Wade Muggleton
No, it doesn’t necessarily take very long. And the thing about young fruit trees is that they’re incredibly malleable. When you’ve got young trees that are in their first two or three years, the branches are incredibly flexible. So if you sort of bend them over and tie them to a certain angle, they will set like that within a few months. And so you can shape fruit trees into all sorts of amazing configurations and shapes, stepped over as a sort of, it’s like an espalier that’s only one tier high. And it was a Victorian idea to sort of decoratively edge vegetable plots and things in large kitchen gardens. So you can buy them ready done, or you can make your own. And to make your own, you just buy a a maiden which is a one year old sort of sapling, and you’d basically behead it at about a foot to 18 inches, which seems a bit brave when you’ve just just paid for a new tree to chop the top off. But then the following spring, when it puts on buds, you rub them all out except two. So you just think by sort of mid to late summer, when the woods starting to harden a bit, you bend them over left and right, and tie them down to a cane or a wire. And they will set like that. So you’re essentially encouraging two branches one to grow left then one to grow right. And then subsequent years, you’ll get a lot of vertical growth. And what you do every summer is you just keep shortening that back to two or three buds. And that forms the spurs along the length of it. I’ve got about seven or eight stepovers in my garden, and you can get 50 apples off a step over. And that’s that’s a tree that’s 18 inches high, and maybe five or six feet long. So when people say I haven’t got room for fruit tree, I will say it’s just finding the right one for your situation.

And with the arch I again, in my garden, I just bought a very cheap metal starch from the garden catalogue many years ago, and I planted one to run one side and a green cooker on the other side. And I find them at the side of the arch and then bent them over the hoop and tie them in. And now I could really unbolt the little arch and get rid of it and you’d have a living arch of just apple growth. So you don’t need a lot of space for a huge apple tree. You can grow them in all these wonderful forms. I suppose for a lot of people the problem is having somewhere where they know they’re gonna stay for any amount of time so that they can keep you know, invest the time in doing it. But it does sound like an amazing thing to do.

Sarah Wilson 18:40
The other thing you mentioned as well, is that you I think prune in summer instead of winter. What’s the theory behind that?

Wade Muggleton
Yeah, it’s quite interesting. If you open any book from the sort of 50s 60s 70s, even into the 80s, they all say you prune your apple trees in the winter. But there’s a much more modern sort of school of thought of doing pruning in the summer. There’s two types of pruning really, if you prune in the winter, you stimulate quite a lot of growth. And obviously, it is easy to see what you’re doing because there’s no leaves on the tree. Summer pruning, it’s much harder to see what you’re doing because everything’s closed in leaves. But the idea of summer pruning is that because the tree is in full leaf and the sap is flowing, you’re sort of shocking the tree a bit so it then throws a bigger crop of fruit the next year. So the advice I always give to people is to winter prune trees until they’re as big as you want them to be. Because when they’re young by winter pruning, you’re stimulating new vigour and growth. But once they get to a size where you don’t really want to get any bigger if you switch to Summer pruning, it reduces the vigour and it produces more fruit. I suppose pruning in general is, is possibly a form of cruelty because you’re, you’re jumping into the living tree but that’s what it does is it shocks the tree into into throwing more fruit the following year. So all my trained ones, my stepovers, the espaliers, cordons and things I summer prune all of them now. I still do a bit of winter pruning on some of the bigger trees in the orchard. And just because it is really hard to prune bigger trees, when they’re covered in leaves, but that’s for different objectives. Really, the winter pruning will, you know, encourage more growth on the tree that summer pruning should if you get it right, being less gross and more fruit.

Sarah Wilson 20:31
And when you say summer, can I just confirm what kind of months you’re thinking about?

Wade Muggleton
Yeah, so I do it in sort of August, probably. All you’re doing with summer pruning really is you’re giving it a bit of a haircut of this year’s growth. Because apples and pears don’t crop on the new growth, you’re not wasting any fruit. And by taking some of the new growth off, you let the sunlight onto the fruit that is on the old wood. So in a way it has the advantage of helping ripen the fruit. And by reducing the amount of leaf for the last six or eight weeks of the season, you are reducing the vigour of it because it hasn’t got as much leaf area to photosynthesize and feed itself. So it does that two fold thing of letting the light onto the fruit and reducing the vigour and hopefully the shock of the tree will make it throw more fruit the following year. And it is very much considered a sort of a lot of modern nurseries will absolutely advocate Summer pruning now.

Sarah Wilson
Also, before I let you go, I wondered if you could just share maybe your top types of tree to include if somebody had a smaller space and your top types if they had perhaps a larger garden?

Wade Muggleton 21:43
I think the thing to think about when you’re when you’re selecting what you’re going to grow is what do you want to get out of it? Because the general rule is that the earlier varieties, the ones that come ready in August or September, don’t keep very well. They’re beautiful three of the tree, but you probably don’t want loads of them because they won’t store whereas if you want to keep things and stash them away for the winter, you want some varieties that crop later.

I think it depends. People often ask me what they should plant and I say, well, it depends what you like really, because like beer or wine or something, I suppose everyone has individual palates, but I still think for most gardens you can’t beat an apple tree. And whether you want something just like Discovery or Worcester Pearmain that you can eat off the tree for a month. Enjoy it and love it, and it’s gone for another year, or whether you want to grow something to keep much, much longer into the winter and store them away.
Plums are a bit more fickle to grow. They’re a bit more disease prone. And I think people don’t eat them like they used to but I think really, when pressed I would say every garden should have an apple tree. It’s the the ultimate English thing, isn’t it to have an apple tree in the garden?

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