Fruit Trees and Small Gardens

quince in leaf, fruit tree


Why do some people – including some garden designers – presume without any evidence to the contrary that growing fruit and vegetables is not possible in small gardens and city gardens?


This may start out as a minor rant, but it develops into ideas and practical suggestions for fruit trees and small gardens.


There may be a bit of a tirade, but hopefully the questions posed make you reconsider some of your presumptions about what we can grow in small gardens.



I don’t watch a lot of TV, I’m more of a film person. But, in relation to fruit trees and small gardens, this next bit is what really makes me shout at the TV when I am watching. Especially it seems, if it’s a garden makeover show.

Having pushed aside or ignored altogether a useful fruit tree, the aboricultural choice is made. The aforesaid garden designer suggests planting a silver birch or ornamental fruit tree. Usually the tree is to be planted right on the boundary line. Where it will potentially create shade in what was a sunny neighbouring garden and possibly even damage the neighbours’ fence.

Naturally, the clients’ needs and expectations, ie their brief to the TV designer, is the driving force for the new garden design; limited by the framework of garden boundaries and available budget. But if garden designers are the experts in designing gardens, then they should be ensuring that their clients are benefiting from that expertise. It is up to us to suggest options to our clients that they couldn’t think of (not having the relevant knowledge) or didn’t consider possible.


Fruit Trees and Small Gardens – a Bad Idea?

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with planting fruit trees for purely ornamental purposes. If the humans do not want the fruit, the garden birds and small mammals will certainly enjoy it! It is the presumption that growing edible fruit, and fruit trees in particular, is not possible or worthwhile in a small garden. And yet it is thought that even larger ornamental trees can be grown?

Or perhaps it is not merely the size of the tree, but the perceived amount of time required to care for the tree that is of concern? Larger trees will need a diligent pruning routine, anything from annual to every three years, depending on the species and cultivar. And possibly the services of a tree surgeon will be required to carry out this work.



Yes, fruit trees will need more attention than this. But not as much as many people think they do. Likely chores include: –

  • Annual pruning,
  • Feeding and mulching,
  • Checking for pests and diseases,
  • Leaf picking up in autumn

So, just like they would be for any tree. What extra gardening chores are needed for a fruit tree?

  • The obvious one is picking the fruit when its ripe
  • Extra diligence on feeding and watering at the correct times
  • Purchasing a disease resistant variety reduces maintenance
  • Planting two complimentary trees that will pollinate each other, or growing a self-fertile cultivar resolves the need to hand pollinate

ornamental cherry blossom, spring, deciduous tree

If you hate cherries but love cherry blossom, an ornamental cherry tree may be the answer. But do remember that it still bears fruit, and what the birds don’t eat will fall on your lawn and squish!


Fruit Trees and Small Gardens – a Good Idea?

Well planned out and designed, fruit trees and small gardens can be a marriage made in heaven. They tick lots of the boxes that appear in many clients’ desire lists. For example: –

  • Seasonal interest – flowers, fruit, autumn leaf colour
  • Pretty flowers – spring blossom
  • Wildlife friendly
  • Short bursts of maintenance rather than an hour or two every week
  • Safe and non-toxic for the children / grandchildren
  • Fruit for humans to eat / grow your own
  • Give shade, depending on size and type of fruit tree
  • Minimum space taken up
  • Client’s childhood memories

You’re unlikely to be self-sufficient in fruit if you only have a small garden. But there is the satisfaction of picking your own fruit and eating it straight from the tree. Sun warmed peaches…

blossom, espalier apple, red house, william morris, arts and crafts

What you will have is the ability to grow the fruit you like, heritage varieties and decorative forms of fruit trees. You could choose your fruit tree mainly for its decorative features. For example: –

  • Spring apple blossom may be pure white, in bud and open. Or it may be deep pink in bud, opening to pale pink.
  • Later in the summer, the furry fruit of quince and stripey pears add a talking point for visitors at your BBQ.
  • Autumn leaf colour may not be as spectacular as the acers can provide, but many fruit trees will carry warm yellow foliage for a while. For spectacular show, you could grow a persimmon in a warm, sheltered garden. The yellow fruit picked in October is a glorious sight against rich red leaves.


Fruit Trees and Small Gardens – Cultivars, Heritage Varieties, Decorative Forms and Rootstocks

Fruits that can be grown on smaller trees include apples, crab apples, pears, plums, damsons, greengages, cherries, peach, nectarines, apricot, quince, medlar, orange, lemon, grapefruit. So a reasonable list to choose from! You could also consider nut trees such as hazel and sweet almond. And if you garden in a warm, sheltered location then growing persimmon and pomegranate outdoors should be possible.


Once you’ve decided on the fruit (apple, cherry, etc), you then need to choose a cultivar. Which heritage variety or modern cultivar you choose will depend partly on where in the UK you live. For example, heritage Cumbrian apples such as are grown at Acorn Bank will not necessarily thrive in the warmer, drier region of Sussex. Other fruits like peaches and citrus fruits will need frost protection. It is possible to grow them in northern areas. Dwarfing root stock means they can be grown in pots which can then be taken in to the greenhouse over winter.


Cultivars, Heritage Varieties

If you’re after heritage fruit for as interesting plant to grow and eat, it’s best to grow local. Visit local gardens that have orchards to see a selection. Online, search for a county and a fruit. For example, Black Worcester is an old variety of pear, which may even date back to Roman times. Early Rivers is a C19 Kent variety.

cordon apples, orchard, acorn bank garden, heritage apple varieties, cumbria, national trust

Of course, you could have a modern cultivar. Apple Greensleeves dates from the 1960s and grows well in containers.


Fruit Trees – Decorative forms

This is a whole blog in itself. Suffice to say, do not feel confused by the difference between cordon, espalier, fan, step-over and so on. They will all need some form of support – a fence, wall or framework.

espalier fruit tree, box hedging, hall place, kent

What is helpful to know here, is that single cordon trees take up the least space. They can be grown vertically – sometimes called minarette, or at a 45-degree angle, which gives a better harvest. They can be grown as close as 2 – 3 feet apart and in containers.

The majority of fruit and nuts can be grown as cordon trees. However, they are better suited to those which fruit along the branch (spur fruiting) rather than at the tip only.


Fruit Trees – Rootstocks

Many fruit trees are grafted onto a rootstock. This enables the eventual size of the tree to be determined. The naming of the rootstocks varies between the types of fruit.

For example, apples use M numbers. M9 is the best known dwarfing rootstock, (6 – 8 ft). M27 is smaller (5 ft) and M26 larger (8 -10 ft) All are suitable for container growing.

Dwarfing rootstock for cherries is Gisela 5; for pears, Quince C, for plums, damsons and gages, you need Pixy.

showing graft of rootstock and scion on newly planted bare root fruit tree


Of course, you don t have to have a heritage variety apple tree in a double U cordon just because you have a small garden and decide to grow fruit! A modern disease resistant cultivar as a straight forward spindle bush fruit tree on a dwarfing rootstock is more than acceptable.

And what if, after reading this, you decide fruit trees and small gardens are not the combination for you? Have a look at the blog links below, where I recommend some ornamental trees for small gardens. Or you could always drop us an email.


Related Gardening articles you may enjoy from our Award Winning Blog

Quince Trees and Quince Cheese
Apple Trees – Designing the Garden of Eden?
Bare Root Fruit Trees
5 Trees for Small Gardens
Ornamental Deciduous Trees for Small Gardens


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