‘Trained fruit has gone beserk!’. Christopher Smith who runs inspirational edible plant nursery, Pennard Plants in Somerset, is relishing the surge in demand for ready-trained fruit trees. Growing fruit trees such as apples and pears as espaliers – that is training the branches into two or three distinct tiers, often against a fence or wall, creates a particularly healthy tree with easy to pick fruit. A trained fruit tree is extremely pretty in spring, handsome in a satisfying ordered way when it is laden with fruit and offers an architectural presence in the winter.
Fan training is the other key way of wall training fruit trees – literally spreading out a number of stems from the base of the tree as you would a hand. Both are brilliantly space-saving methods and there are suitable varieties for any aspect. Apricots and nectarines as well as apples and pears for a south-facing wall, plums, apples and pears for an east-facing wall, plums, pears and sweet cherries for a west-facing wall and sour cherries for a north wall. A fan trained Morello cherry – delicious for cooking – is an uplifting way to cloth a shady wall and is laden with shiny bright red fruit until September.
Because trained fruit is designed to be kept to a certain size with a simple regime of late summer pruning, trained fruit trees work well in containers. Inspired by the gorgeous French garden, La Prieuré D’Orsan, I have a row of four U-Cordon apple trees in generous terracotta pots on my London terrace. Christopher advises feeding container grown trees four times a year, alternating between a slow release granular fertiliser such as Osmocote and a liquid seaweed fertiliser to help keep the plants disease free. Make sure to seek out unusual and delicious varieties which are not available in supermarkets. Specialist nurseryman Chris Pike whose Branch Nurseries supplies garden designers such as Arne Maynard is disappointed that there are requests for Pink Lady or Braeburn espaliers when you could be growing Ashmeads Kernal ‘a russet type with a nutty complex kind of flavour’. There is no end of delights available: Pennard Plants supplies the covetable double u-cordon, ‘Palmette verrier’,in many varieties of apples and pears and also quince which must look exquisite when it is in blossom and then again with its luminous yellow fruit.
And the shapes do not stop here. If you are planning a visit to Paris next spring head to the Potager du Roi, the kitchen garden of the Sun King, Louis XIV, a short walk from the gates of the Palace of Versailles. Against the high walls of this intoxicating 22 acre garden, now home to National School of Landscape Architecture, there are 400 varieties of fruit trees grown in 68 different shapes (requiring 1000 hours of expert pruning) – intoxicating rows of apples and pears grown as incredible spreading candelabra, extraordinary vertical waves of single cordons and entire walls of ‘Reine Claude’ greengages trained into circles.
Closer to home, the walled kitchen garden at West Dean in Sussex has immaculate and imaginative specimens of trained fruit on display, directly inspired by the Potager du Roi, and by the splendid Encyclopédie des Formes Fruitières’ written by its former Head Gardener Jacque Beccaletto. Riding the crest of the fashionable wave for the espalier is the Newt in Somerset where Patrice Taravella (who designed the Prieuré D’Orsan and the super-chic garden/hotel, Babylonstoren in South Africa) has created an extraordinary maze of 460 trained apples trees in 267 varieties within the weathered egg-shaped walls of this important newly reimagined garden.
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Photographs of trained fruit trees in the Walled Garden at West Dean by Trevor Sims