Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Hope springs eternal (especially if you are a plum tree)

One of the first plants my husband and I bought for our garden was a fan-trained plum, a Victoria, to be precise. My husband was always very keen on plants that provided food. If he'd had his way, I think our garden would have been one giant fruit cage.
We bought the plum tree complete with training frame from the RHS plant centre at Wisley. Having an urban garden, we wanted something that wouldn't take up too much room, so we intended to plant it against a south-facing fence. We were told it was on the "dwarf" rooting stock for plums and gages, which is called Pixie.
We took it home, planted it and waited impatiently for a crop of succulent plums. The first couple of years it didn't really do anything - in terms of either fruit or growth - which was fair enough. Then it started to take off. We got quite a few plums - but we also got lots of growth. The tree seemed determined to shake off its fan-shaped bonds and wriggle skywards. Every time we pruned it back, another huge leader would appear at the top of the main trunk, while the lateral branches would send out exploratory shoots in every direction. Usually in my eye.
Even more irritating, around this time I heard Bob Flowerdew, one of the Gardeners' Question Time panellists, talking about fruit trees and saying that you could never grow a plum as a fan-trained tree, even on a dwarf rootstock because ... they were too vigorous. Thanks, Bob! Perhaps you could pass that information on to the garden centre at Wisley. Likewise, I see that Pixie is now described as a semi-dwarf rootstock.
In 2008, Anna Pavord, the garden writer, came to see my garden to write a piece about it for The Independent Magazine. She gave me a copy of her book, The New Kitchen Garden. I showed her the plum. What did she suggest?
Chop it in half, she said. Cut it right down to about 3ft high, so you've still got the original lateral branches. That should, she said, encourage it to grow sideways rather than upwards. Of course, she added casually, it may kill it.
OK, Anna, I said, with a brave smile, I'll do just that. It only took me four years to summon up the nerve. But this winter, I took my courage - and my pruning saw - in both hands and enacted the Wandsworth Pruning Saw Massacre. I'm delighted to report that this spring, the tree is showing signs of life.
Urban gardeners like me always look longingly at the fruit trees in the nurseries. I love the idea of growing a little apple tree in a pot - 'May Queen' would be my choice - or perhaps an apricot. And maybe a standard gooseberry tucked among the pots of herbs. But would it really work? And would it work in a really small space, like a balcony?
So I was pleased to hear that Timber Press has just published Fruit Trees in Small Spaces, by Colby Eierman and I'll be very interested to see what ideas it has to offer.