A Beginner's Guide to Growing Fruit - Part 1

A Beginner's Guide to Growing Fruit - Part 1

For many people, their working life has been substantially altered in the past few years and the large increase in people working from home has led to many reconnecting with their gardens and outside spaces. To try and help people who may be novice gardeners, or are just new to growing fruit, here is a two-part guide covering some of the basics on how to choose a new tree for your garden or allotment, and start growing fantastic fruit.

The first question to ask yourself, is what fruit would you like to grow. I know this sounds self-evident, but you probably have a much wider choice than you imagine. Many fruit trees can thrive in quite a wide range of conditions, so don’t initially limit yourself by thinking your site is less than ideal. Don’t worry if you have particularly heavy clay, or free-draining soil, this can be rectified (and next month we will look at how to give your new trees the perfect start). Windy spots can be improved by something as simple as letting nearby plants grow up and provide a mini windbreak. Garden fleece can be used to protect vulnerable blossom if there is the threat of a Spring frost. Growing top fruit is generally easier and less time consuming than growing vegetables, but there is still quite a commitment, in terms of cost and effort so make sure that you will really enjoy the fruit you produce. No point in planting a Bramley apple if you never cook with apples! And if you have your heart set on growing a peach, there is probably a way to do it, by careful choice of variety and a little TLC.

There is a second part to this, though, which is how much do you want to grow a particular fruit. Having just said that you shouldn’t be limited in your choice, it is only fair to point out that certain fruit are slightly easier to grow than others. I would never wish to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm, and if you are determined to grow your own pineapples, say, then by all means go for it! But you should know that it will undoubtedly take up a huge amount of effort and time, as well as being a steep learning curve (this is meant to be an article aimed at beginners). So, consider just how much time you are willing to give to growing fruit, and perhaps choose accordingly. If you are just starting out, and also lead a busy life, it may be worth sticking to the safer options to begin with. Once you have got the hang of it and have some confidence in pruning and maintenance, you’ll want to move on to growing the trickier fruits in no time.

Here then, is my list of fruit varieties, from easiest to the more challenging:

Cooking apples. Easy to prune and will tolerate colder conditions and some shade. Large range from early to late storing.

Eating apples. Just as easy to prune, but do need at least half a day’s sun in the summer to get the best quality fruit. Again, a huge choice of flavours, there will undoubtedly be one for you.

Pears and Quinces, again, pruning is pretty easy, but both these prefer a slightly warmer and more sheltered site to produce the best fruit. the trees themselves are very hardy, but the blossom can have little frost tolerance. Choose tougher varieties and they are a good choice for beginners who want to try something a little different.

Damsons. The pruning for all stone fruit (plums, Damon’s, gages, cherries, etc) is slightly more challenging than for the pome fruits (apples, pears and quince), which is why they are all a little further down the list. That being said, it really isn’t rocket science and damsons in particular will put up with cold wet gardens and still fruit well. A cook’s dream and damson gin is a winter delight!

Plums. Everyone loves good old Victorias, but they are quite vigorous and can be prone to disease. There are a lot of other plums that are just as good, if not better and also easier to grow, so if you do want to grow plums (or their even sweeter cousins the gages), pick the right variety and you should be fine.

Cherries. In the interests of fair and honest journalism, I need to declare a personal interest here. I don’t do cherries. I think I am mildly allergic to them, as they make my throat itch. So they are probably lower on my list than they should be. The main problem here is that birds will strip the tree of fruit just before you are ready to pick them, which is heart-breaking after watching the fruit swell and ripen over the preceding weeks. However, there are ways around that, and there are some good hardy varieties which will set reliable crops for you and are self-fertile. (That is, they don’t need a pollinating partner).

Peaches, Nectarines and Apricots. Probably some of the trickier top fruit to grow, as they really do need a warm and sunny site to prosper. However, if you happen to have a warm south facing wall, the right choice of variety and a little pruning and training mean they are still a realistic proposition for an enthusiastic beginner.


Pollination is probably the area that confuses the beginning fruit grower the most. Open a nurseryman’s catalogue or browse online and you will undoubtedly come across terms such as Pollination Group C (partially self-fertile) and wonder what on earth it means. Time to demystify, as it really is a lot simpler that it seems.

Pollination group refers to the flowering period. All fruit trees blossom in spring, but it spreads out over a couple of months from the very earliest in the plum family to the latest apples and quince. So the flowering periods are divided up into overlapping periods of a couple of weeks, and given either letters (generally from A the earliest to D the latest) or shorter periods and given numbers (1 to 9). It’s at this point that people start to get hung up on just choosing varieties in the same group, to get good pollination and fruit set, but you really don’t have to, for several reasons.

The groups overlap - so an apple tree in group B will be pollinated by another apple tree in groups A, B and C.

Bees can travel - for pollination purposes you should bear in mind that trees up to a quarter of a mile away will help pollinate your tree. Look to see if a neighbouring tree is bearing fruit - if it does, chances are yours will too.

Many varieties are either self-fertile (so the blossom will be pollinated as the bee travels from one flower to another on the same tree) or partially so (which means you will still get a crop, but it will be heavier if there is a pollinating partner nearby).

All of which means that for apples, plums, damsons and gages, pollination should not really be a concern for you and certainly not a criterion for choosing one variety over another. Pollination issues for these fruits are generally more to do with cold wet weather at blossom time, which means the bees aren’t flying, rather than a lack of viable pollen. For cherries (if you insist on growing them) there have been great advances in breeding over the past 70 years which mean there are several reliably self-fertile varieties to choose from. The only fruit I think pollination is an issue for is pears. There tend to be fewer around so you can’t rely on a neighbouring tree, and few of them are self-fertile. The good news is that one variety which is, Conference, is also one of the hardiest and easiest to grow.

There is no doubt that as a beginner you will find there is a lot to learn. Don’t worry about it, just concentrate on the essential questions you need to ask yourself as outlined here, and you will be well on your way to choosing you first trees. In the second part, Beginner's Guide - Part 2 we will be taking a look at which size and shape of tree will be best for you and bring you up to speed on rootstock choice. Time to start planning!