Apples, pears and plums are the most popular fruit trees in British gardens, but there are plenty more options available for anyone thinking about something a little different. Here we pick out five of our favourites…
Some people incorrectly assume that fig trees fail to fruit in the UK, but give them the sunniest spot in your garden and you’ll have an excellent chance of being able to munch on your own freshly picked ripe figs.
The biggest problem with fig trees is their eagerness to grow, having an ability to become big very quickly. If you’re planting them directly in your garden, then consider restricting their growth by burying barriers around their roots. Alternatively, they’re a great plant to grow in pots. Restricting the growth of the tree also means it’s more likely to find more energy for fruit.
Fig trees will benefit from a decent feed in spring and regular watering in summer, and if you’re concerned about a cold snap over winter then consider protecting them with fleece. They ripen quite late in the season so it’s also worth dancing to the sun-gods for an extended warm summer. There are several varieties of fig you can grow but the most popular and successful is “Brown Turkey”—a heavy cropper with delicious fruit.
The quince is another fruit more accustomed to hotter climates that will still happily grow in the UK, providing it’s given as much sun as possible to allow the fruit to ripen. It blossoms early, so late frosts could scupper your harvest, but get over that hurdle and you won’t need to put too much more effort into growing them.
Much like apple trees they come on different rootstocks to produce a range of sizes depending on the space you have available. There are even compact quinces that will happily grow in a container.
The fruits are bright yellow and have the appearance of a large, clumsy pear and when it’s time to harvest—in October or November—they’ll release an enticing fragrant aroma. In the kitchen they’re most commonly used for all kinds of jams and chutneys that make excellent accompaniments to cheese.
If you’re after an unusual old fruiting tree then consider a medlar. They’re easy to grow, tolerating most conditions, and will provide you with a unique fruit that you hardly ever see in the shops.
A medlar is a peculiar looking fruit—a not particularly appetizing scruffy brown colour with a funny shape that has led the French to call it “cul de chien” (dog’s bum). To further put you off, they’re picked before they’re fully ripe and then allowed to rot slightly, a process known as “bletting”.
If you still have the stomach for this ancient plant, then you’ll be able to enjoy its unique flavours that are something between an apple and a chewy date. They can be eaten raw but are at their best cooked in a hearty winter pudding—a crumble is our preference, especially if smothered in custard.
There are few plants that do a better job of heralding the warmer weather than the elder, bursting with beautiful soft white blossom from hedgerows and fields, yet few people consider them as a garden plant.
Although many of those trees and bushes you see in the wild grow to a huge size, there are plenty more that have the restraint to work wonders in a border of any size. With attractive leaves, an abundance of flowers and the subsequent masses of deep purple berries they keep on rewarding the gardener throughout the year, particularly those, like us, that like to turn their harvests into wines.
There are other uses for those flowers and fruits, from cordials and teas to jams and desserts (try dipping a head of elderflower into stewed gooseberries for a fragrant fruity bonus) and, if you don’t fancy cooking with them, the wildlife will gladly tuck in.
Elder is easy to grow and will thrive in just about any soil—if you live near wild elders you may be constantly pulling up self-sown seedlings. We particularly like the fine black leaves and pink tinged blossom of Sambuca nigra (black lace) which will be making its entrance into our borders this year.
If these fancy fruit options don’t appeal and you want to stick with a trusty apple tree, then it’s worth considering a heritage variety. There are thousands of traditional apple trees producing glorious fruit that have fallen out of fashion as supermarkets focus on the ones that best suit their needs. Seeking out these heritage varieties not only helps to preserve them but also allows you to harvest unique tasting apples that you won’t find anywhere else.
Start by looking at what varieties are traditional to your area and decide what you most want from your apples—cooking, eating, dual purpose or even making cider. You might even discover that your local town has an “apple day” to learn more about what’s available.
We currently grow the big fruited, dual purpose “Keswick Codling” and the deliciously aromatic eater “Lord Lambourne” along with five varieties of cider apple. Or you could just go with the “Grand National betting” option of picking a name you like the sound of—we reckon “Peasgood’s Nonsuch”, “Bucks Sheep’s Nose” and “Lady’s Finger of Offaly” would all give you a good run for your money.