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The Fruit Tree Handbook

The Fruit Tree Handbook

by Ben Pike

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This clear, practical guide for both amateur and expert explains all you need to know in order to grow delicious fruit, from designing your orchard and planting your trees to harvesting your produce.


This clear, practical guide for both amateur and expert explains all you need to know in order to grow delicious fruit, from designing your orchard and planting your trees to harvesting your produce.

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“A must for anyone considering anything from a couple of trees to an orchard.”  —Mark Diacono, author, A Taste of the Unexpected

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UIT Cambridge
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6.60(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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The Fruit Tree Handbook

By Ben Pike, Jennifer Johnson

Green Books Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Ben Pike
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-900322-74-4


The site of your orchard

There is such a thing as a perfect site for growing fruit trees. It would be a south-facing spot sheltered from strong winds and away from frost pockets. The soil would be a fertile, well-drained loam with a pH of around 6.5. Although such sites are to be found, it is unlikely that you will live in such a place.

There are many variables affecting the cultivation of fruit trees. Some, such as soil fertility, drainage and shelter, can be adjusted, while others, such as altitude or aspect, must be worked with as they are. Although the site of your orchard might seem far from ideal, there is much that you should be able to do to improve it. Most places in the British Isles are suitable for growing fruit trees, although you will need to choose the type of fruit trees you intend to grow according to the locality. If you live on a sheltered site in the south of England, you can take your pick from the different fruits featured in this book. It is only if you live in a cold mountainous area with little topsoil that you will not be able to grow fruit trees. If, like most of us, you live somewhere in between, you will have to tailor your fruit growing to the conditions, but you will be able to harvest crops of delicious home-grown fruit.

It may be that you have room for only one or two trees, but, unless you have a really small garden, you will have some choice about where you plant them. Choosing between different parts of your site involves understanding variables such as sun and shade, soil and exposure, and the effect that they have on your fruit trees. Making the right decisions about the position of your trees can be a key factor in the success of your orchard: it is not just a question of growing the right trees, but also of planting them in the right place.

Finding a suitable site for your trees is largely a matter of avoiding extremes of drainage, pH, exposure, soil type and microclimate. This chapter explains about the ideal conditions for growing fruit trees and ways to overcome any difficulties that may be present on your site.

The best way to assess the conditions is simply to observe the site over a period of time. Look to see where the frost lies heaviest in the winter, where the sunlight falls at different times of the year and how the water drains away after heavy rainfall. Such observation will build a picture of the conditions in your garden that you can then use to determine the best place to plant fruit trees. You can supplement your own knowledge with a soil test, which will give a scientific analysis of the soil, pinpointing any deficiencies that need remedying.


Soil is a miraculous substance that forms a thin skin over the surface of the earth. When you look at a landscape, what you see is the soil and the plants that grow in it, but this is almost a mirage, because what lies just underneath the surface is rock. It is this rock that the soil is formed from originally, but it also contains a host of other organisms that give life to the soil, such as fungi, earthworms, bacteria and humus.

Soil types

Soil types are divided into different classifications according to the biggest constituent, although, in practice, most soils contain a mixture of the different types.

Clay soils

The most common method of classifying soil types is by particle size. Clay soils contain the finest particles. They bind together into a tight mass, which can be heavy and sticky when wet, or hard and unforgiving when dry. Clay soils often crack as they dry out during the summer. They are easily damaged by treading on them while wet, which compacts the soil. They are potentially fertile soils, but this fertility can be locked away in the tightly bound structure.

Clay soils tend to warm up slowly in the spring and also drain more slowly than other soils.

Sandy soils

Sandy soils contain the largest particles. The resultant larger spaces between the particles mean that sandy soils drain well-often too well for the gardener's liking. They warm up quickly in the spring, but also dry out quickly. They are often low in nutrients, which can be easily leached away by heavy rainfall. They tend to be more acidic and low in organic matter.

Silty soils

Silty soils contain intermediate-sized particles, somewhere between those of clay and sandy soils. They tend to have some of the characteristics of clay soils, such as high fertility and easy compaction, and some characteristics of sandy soils, such as good drainage, while avoiding the extremes of either.

Loamy soils

There are also a number of combination soil types, of which loamy soils are the most important. They are a mix of different types of soil types that may include clay, silt and sand. They often have a relatively high organic content, particularly where the soil has been improved over the years. Loamy soils tend to be ideal for growing fruit trees because they are fertile and avoid the extremes of drainage found in clay and sandy soils.

Peaty soils

Peaty soils are largely composed of decaying organic matter. As such, they hold moisture well and are generally very fertile. Peaty soils are mostly found in the area around The Wash, in East Anglia, as well as in other localised pockets.

Chalky soils

Chalk soils are found in large swathes of southern England. They are alkaline and often lacking in fertility. They are often described as 'thin' soils, being light and crumbly to the touch. They may contain pieces of chalk.

Identifying your soil type

Simply looking at your soil will give you clues to its composition. You might notice elements of the bedrock in the soil, such as shale or chalk, or you might see a dark peaty look or a light sandy texture. Digging the soil will give you further clues. A heavy cloddy texture will point you in the direction of a clay soil, for example. Digging deeper will provide more evidence; the greater the depth of soil you find, the better. Exposing the subsoil or bedrock will give you more idea of what the soil is composed of.

The easiest way of identifying the presence of clay in the soil is to attempt to roll the soil into a ball in your hand. Take a small lump of moist soil, then roll and squeeze in one hand until it forms a ball or otherwise. If the soil refuses to form a ball and feels gritty, then you have sandy soil. If the soil readily forms a tight ball, then you have soil with a high clay content. If the result is somewhere between the two, you are likely to have a loamy soil.

Soil pH

Soil pH is a way of measuring the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. In the UK, this might vary from 4, which is extremely acid, to 9, which is extremely alkaline. A measurement of 7 shows a neutral soil, which is close to ideal for most fruit trees. The pH requirements of particular fruits can be found in Chapters 12 to 16.

Soil tests

A soil test, or soil analysis as it also called, is a scientific method of determining the composition of your soil. The most important factors to test for are the pH of the soil and the amounts of the major nutrients present. Nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium are the important nutrients and will show up with a simple testing kit. These are available from garden centres and are simple enough to use at home.

Alternatively, there are various professional bodies that will test your soil for you. Carefully chosen soil samples are tested in a laboratory. Although more expensive, having your soil tested professionally will produce a much more accurate result.


Achieving good drainage is, again, a matter of avoiding extremes. Sandy soil can be very free-draining, to the extent that trees will often be short of water, whereas clay soil can give rise to waterlogged conditions that can be detrimental to fruit trees. Poor drainage leads to a lack of oxygen for the tree roots and can also contribute to the development of fungal diseases such as phytophthora, which can kill fruit trees.

Where possible it is always best to avoid badly drained areas of your land when planting fruit trees. Where this is not possible, planting on ridges or mounds will help, but in serious cases you will need to consider installing land drains.

Quince trees will tolerate damp conditions better than most fruits, as will some varieties of apple – Lord Derby being the best-known example.

Improving the soil

You have a choice of improving the soil over the whole area, or improving conditions in the planting hole when the tree is planted. Improving the soil over a large area is a good investment for the future but it can require a lot of time and effort. Improving conditions at planting time will help the tree to establish, but won't help once the tree roots have grown beyond the planting hole.

This section explains how to improve the soil before your trees are planted; improving the soil at planting time and ongoing feeding requirements are covered in Chapter 7. While specific deficiencies that show up in a soil test can be remedied as needed, there are more general ways of improving different types of soils, as described below.

Improving clay soils

Clay soils benefit from digging over in the autumn to break up the hard pan that tends to form. Leaving them exposed to winter frosts will also help to break them up. The addition of lime will assist this process, but it should be used only if the soil is not alkaline. If the soil is very heavy, adding course grit will help, although considerable quantities will be needed to make a real improvement. Adding organic matter, such as manure or compost, will provide extra nutrients at the same time as improving the soil structure, and therefore drainage. Manure should not be added at the same time as lime as they react badly with each other, releasing ammonia.

If the only area you have to plant fruit trees in is prone to waterlogging, you may need to consider installing land drains as well as improving the soil. This is a task best undertaken by a professional such as a landscape gardener.

Improving silty soils

Silty soils, having small particles, tend to have similar problems to clay soils. Digging in autumn is helpful, as is the addition of organic matter. Soils with poor drainage should not be walked on, as this will compact the soil and damage the soil structure. Use a board to walk on while digging.

Improving sandy soils

Sandy soils also benefit from the addition of organic matter. Manure or compost will increase the nutrient levels in the soil as well as helping it to hold more moisture. Growing green manures (see right) is another way of adding nutrients and organic matter to sandy soils. Crimson clover and bitter blue lupins are excellent green manures for improving sandy soils.

Improving loamy soils

Loamy soils, being a mixture of the other soil types, tend to avoid their extremes of drainage or nutrient deficiencies. Although loamy soils might not need specific improvements, they will still benefit from the addition of organic matter or the cultivation of green manures.

Improving peaty soils

Peat soil is one of the easiest types of soil to cultivate, with an easily workable soil structure. These soils have a high organic matter content but can be somewhat acid and will therefore benefit from the application of lime or mushroom compost. Peat soils are often found in areas where there is a high water table, in which case the drainage might need to be improved with land drains.

Improving chalky soils

Chalk soils will benefit greatly from the addition of organic matter such as manure or compost. Being slightly acidic, these materials will counteract the alkalinity of the chalk, while also improving the water retention and increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil. Winter tares and alfalfa are green manures particularly suitable for alkaline soils.

Correcting soil pH

The ideal soil pH for most fruit trees is between 6.5 and 7, i.e. slightly to the alkaline side of neutral. However, they tend to be tolerant of all but the most extreme conditions, so it is fine to aim for a slow improvement rather than to expect sudden change.

It is easier to make soil more alkaline than it is to make it more acidic. Adding garden lime to an acid soil will increase the soil pH easily and predictably, so long as the directions are followed. Mushroom compost, which is composed of chalk, manure, peat and gypsum, is alkaline, and will feed the soil at the same time as increasing the pH. Manure, and to a lesser extent compost, are acid in nature, so adding these to soil will increase the acidity over time. You can increase the acidity of compost by adding pine needles or bracken to it.

Green manures

Sowing a green manure crop in the season before planting is a valuable means of improving the soil. Green manures do this either by drawing up nutrients from the lower levels of the soil or by fixing nitrogen from the air, making it available in the soil. They also provide large amounts of material for composting.

Heavy rainfall leaches nutrients from the topsoil, depositing them lower down in the soil structure. Green manures with extensive roots, such as buckwheat or rye, help to draw nutrients up to where they are needed, as well as reducing further leaching. Leguminous plants, such as field beans, tares or bitter blue lupins, will fix nitrogen. Different green manures are suited to different soils and different times of the year, so it is worth finding out which is the best for your needs and soil conditions.

Correcting nutrient deficiencies

Specific deficiencies can show up in a soil test. These can all be remedied using organic methods. In addition, green manures can be used to draw up nutrients from lower in the soil and to fix nitrogen from the air.

Nitrogen is the nutrient that is responsible for the vegetative growth of a tree. Too little nitrogen will result in a starved-looking tree that puts on little growth. A deficiency of nitrogen in the soil can be corrected by using a high-nitrogen fertiliser such as dried blood, or a more balanced fertiliser such as pelleted chicken manure or blood, fish and bone.

Phosphorus is largely responsible for root growth, so is particularly important in the establishment of a tree after planting. Applying bonemeal is the most common organic method of redressing phosphorus deficiency.

Potassium, or potash, is the nutrient that is largely responsible for the formation of flowers and fruit. Potassium deficiency can be corrected by applying rock potash or comfrey-based preparations.

Other important minerals are magnesium, iron, zinc and copper. Levels of all these minerals can be improved by the application of seaweed or preparations made from it, such as seaweed meal. Seaweed-based feeds will also provide the other trace elements that are needed. The use of seaweed, manure or compost will ensure the development of a healthy soil with adequate nutrients and a good soil structure.

Remedying compacted soil

If you are planting a large orchard, access to agricultural machinery can be helpful. Land that has been used for intensive agriculture in the past may have become compacted by heavy machinery. If you find that the soil is dense and difficult to chop through with a spade, you may be suffering from this problem (although clay soils can present a similar picture). If you suspect your soil is compacted, contact a local farmer who can loosen the soil with a tractor-mounted sub-soiler.

Shelter and exposure

Fruit trees appreciate shelter from harsh conditions. Warm, sheltered conditions will lead to strong, healthy growth and favourable conditions for pollination. Plenty of sunlight is needed for the formation of fruit buds and the ripening of fruit. While all gardeners might wish for a warm sunny site, we have to make the best of what we do have. There are favoured spots in any garden and, even where conditions appear adverse, there is much that can be done to improve matters.

The exposed site

Exposure to strong winds can hinder the growth of fruit trees as well as making successful pollination less likely. Gales can blow trees over and knock ripening fruit to the ground. When looking at conditions in your garden or orchard site, it is important to know the direction of the prevailing wind. Over most of Britain, this will be between the south-west and north-west, but it can vary with local topography. Wind will follow the path of least resistance, so is likely to funnel down a valley or blow between hills, giving rise to local variations.

There is no substitute for patient observation of your own site, identifying the direction of the prevailing wind, as well as its strength in different areas of your land. You might find that local features such as a hedge or trees will provide the kind of shelter that you are looking for, but make sure that they are not blocking out sunlight at the same time. Trees and hedges will usefully filter strong winds, whereas solid objects such as walls and fences can create a harmful whirlwind effect.


Excerpted from The Fruit Tree Handbook by Ben Pike, Jennifer Johnson. Copyright © 2011 Ben Pike. Excerpted by permission of Green Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ben Pike is an orchard consultant and writer, and is head gardener on the Sharpham Estate in Devon, where he looks after the walled fruit and vegetable garden as well as two orchards containing 150 fruit trees. He helps run Orchard Link, an organization that supports orchard owners and the preservation of old orchards.

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