The most frequently cited reason for not growing fruit trees is 'I don't have the space'. Well, my green-fingered friends, this excuse no longer passes! Modern dwarfing and semi-dwarfing rootstocks have helped to limit the final size of fruit trees, and when these rootstocks are combined with training the trees as cordons the outcome is an impeccably behaved orchard that packs flavorsome variety into a remarkably tight space.
Cordon fruit trees are simply trees grown as a single stem, with all the fruit swelling on short laterals immediately off this central stem. Cordons are normally grown at a 45-degree angle for the simple reason that this increases the length of the stem, and hence fruits, at picking height. Of course, cordons may also be grown straight up – it's entirely up to you.
Because of their compact size a cordon's final yield will never be as weighty as that of a traditional tree. However, the fact they can be planted just 60-90cm (2-3ft) apart more than makes up for this and an established tree should still produce up to 10kg (22lbs) of fruit. Now let's assume that the average small garden is a very modest 5m (17ft) long and that cordons are planted along just one side of the garden boundary. Crunch the numbers on this and you'll find a row this long works out at a none-too-shabby 80kg (176lbs) of home-grown goodness per season – and all within a strip of ground no more than a couple of feet wide.
Apples and pears make the most successful cordons, although cherries and plums can also be grown like this. Select spur-fruiting varieties over tip-bearers to guarantee plenty of fruits along the entire length of the stem, and make sure you plant varieties that flower at the same time for successful initiation of fruit on those trees that require a pollination partner and heavier yields from those that don't.
Where to Grow Cordons
The real beauty of growing cordon fruit trees is their easy-care, easy-access habit. Trees are best grown against a wall or fence to capture reflected warmth, which will help to ripen the fruit. The happy by-product of this is that wall-growing makes them a doddle to protect, a cinch to pick and the trees' maintenance a total breeze.
Cordons can also be grown free-standing against horizontal wires tied to stout upright posts that are at least 10cm (4in) across. Growing them in this way opens up the possibility of using your cordons as a living wall to divide up areas of the garden – what better way of marking the limits of your vegetable patch?
All cordons trained against a wall or within a free-standing row will need a system of taut, horizontal wires into which the stems can be tied. Three wires spaced about 60cm (2ft) apart will do the trick. Opt for quality wire of a decent thickness that will last as long as the trees. Use thick vine eyes to strain the wires into the upright posts or your wall. Don't scrimp on your supporting infrastructure – it's not worth it.
Planting Cordon Fruit Trees
Prepare the ground for each tree by removing all weeds then digging in at least a bucket full (preferably two) of well-rotted manure or compost into the immediate area. Add a handful of bonemeal to help the root system find its feet. Tie a tall bamboo cane into the wire supports where each tree's stem will eventually grow, angling the cane as appropriate. The cane offers the stem further support and gives you something to tie the growing point of the stem to as it reaches out.
Plant each cordon 60-90cm (2-3ft) apart, angling the tree at a 45-degrees to meet its cane. Make sure that the union, where the stem (known as the scion) meets the rootstock, sits above ground level. The union is identifiable as a bulge at the base of the stem. The scion usually emerges from one side of the rootstock. If this is the case, position the tree so that the scion is uppermost as this will dramatically reduce the chances of it snapping at the point of the union in the future.
Tie the stem to its bamboo cane and firm the soil around the roots by pushing it down gently with your feet. Water in well and continue to water during any dry periods.
Pruning Cordon Fruit Trees
A cordon fruit tree won't remain a cordon if it isn't pruned correctly. Thankfully this is a very simple process! As well as helping to shape the tree, pruning will help to stunt the tree's growth – think of it as a less extreme form of bonsai.
The crucial prune comes in late summer, when new sideshoots emerging from the main stem are cut back to three leaves. Shoots produced from the laterals – those existing short stems on which the fruit is carried – are cut back to one leaf beyond the basal cluster. This pruning is often carried out with fruits still on the tree, and will force the tree to concentrate on producing flower buds the following spring, which is obviously good news come picking time.
Winter pruning when the tree is dormant involves thinning out congested laterals and cutting out any really old ones that are failing to produce fruit. This will allow more air to circulate, thereby improving the general health of the tree, and encourage new, productive growth to pick up where old growth has left off. The only other pruning to consider is when the main stem has reached the desired height. At this point the new growth at the end of the stem is cut back to just one leaf each spring.
Cordons are pretty forgiving fruit trees and are the very best way of enjoying a wide variety of fruits without giving over your entire garden to an orchard. Once you realise how prolific these dainty trees can be you'll have well and truly cottoned on to cordons.
Photographs courtesy of: Stephen Shirley, Pomona Fruits.
By Benedict Vanheems.