Fruit is often expensive to buy in the shops (particularly organically-grown and out-of-season fruit), so sadly many children may not be eating enough to count towards a healthy diet. Also, children are not often introduced to the wider variety of fruits that can be grown in this country, which is a great pity. Many will never have seen hybrid berries, gooseberries, redcurrants, whitecurrants or blackcurrants as these are seldom offered in shops, yet these crops are cheap and easy to produce and the UK has a long heritage of growing and using them in many dishes.
Gardening and tending crops from an early age encourages children to develop a life-long love of gardening and food, which may naturally progress to an interest in cooking and healthy eating. Children will derive even more pride and pleasure from eating something they have grown themselves.
Growing fruit is not only a pleasure in itself, but opens up a world of learning for children, which can include pest (‘mini beasts’) and disease identification (leading to problem solving!), looking for beneficial insects, recognising and naming different varieties (eg of apples) and finding out how to use them in cooking. Children love to be involved in outdoor projects and are not often deterred by messy work – digging and ‘messing about with dirt’ is something enjoyed from toddlerhood. Outdoor work can not only be exciting, but it can bring a sense of adventure and experimentation. It is a great way of teaching basic gardening and outdoor skills (eg recognising weeds, pests and diseases) which will last a lifetime and foster a love of outdoor activities.
It also helps children understand how plants grow – from how the plant develops after planting, to buds forming and the flowers and fruit produced, to what plants need to grow and the various ways in which they need to be cared for.
BUYING PLANTS - You can buy fruit trees, bushes, canes and strawberry plants from a variety of outlets, including garden centres, nurseries and by mail order from specialist nurseries. Several nurseries offer organically-raised plants. Do some research first before you buy anything, to make sure you are getting the varieties and rootstocks (for apples and pears) suitable for your needs and growing conditions. A good place to start getting ideas is by looking through seed and plant catalogues (most have a small section devoted to fruits and offer a good selection of the most popular varieties). Specialist fruit suppliers will have a broader range of varieties on offer and it is worth contacting them directly for a catalogue or advice. Involving children in planning and choosing varieties will give them a sense of anticipation and excitement for what is to come!
PLANTING - If you order your fruit trees, bushes or canes from a specialist fruit tree nursery, they will usually arrive as bare-root plants (without soil, but wrapped in damp peat and protective sacking, or damp roots in a polythene bag) during the dormant season (November to March). Plant them as soon as possible after they arrive, but if the soil is too wet, dry or frozen, keep the plants in a frost-free place and keep the roots moist to prevent them drying out. Before planting, the roots can be soaked in a bucket of water for an hour.
Container-grown fruit trees, canes and bushes can be bought all year-round and planted at any time, provided soil conditions are suitable. Give the plants a good watering an hour or two before you plant them, to help prevent the roots drying out.
LEARN How to plant a variety of fruit bushes and trees using resources at gardenorganic.org.uk
FIND Unusual organic plants at organiccatalogue.com
Once your plants are well established it is easy to raise more plants from them – as long as your original ‘mother’ plants are healthy, pest and disease-free.You will notice that the plants start to produce long trailing stems (stolons) in late summer. At the end will be a tiny plant (a runner), which may already show some roots.When these have three or four leaves, peg each into a small 8cm pot filled with multi-purpose compost. Leave it attached to the ‘mother’ plant until the new runner has rooted into the pot. It can then be cut free from the ‘mother’ plant and grown on in its pot before transplanting to a new growing site the same autumn or in spring the following year.
Steps for planting fruit trees
- Choose a suitable site. Mark out the exact positions where the trees, canes or bushes are to be planted. Use a tape measure and some markers to help you measure planting distances and lay out the area. Prepare the soil at least a month in advance if possible, digging it over thoroughly to break it up. Dig a large hole (about a square metre in size), digging down until you come to a lighter layer of subsoil. Dig over the surface layer of subsoil lightly to help break it up a bit, working in a layer of garden compost. Making a slight mound at the bottom of the planting hole will help position bare-root trees better – giving them something to ‘sit on’.
- Remove any weeds or large stones. Bang in a sturdy supporting stake (if required), driving it in firmly so that it doesn’t move around. Bare-root trees should have the stake driven straight in vertically, placing it on the side of the prevailing (south-west) wind. Container-grown trees may need the stake to be driven in at an angle, so that it doesn’t get in the way of the tree’s roots when planting. Drive this stake into the soil on the opposite side to the prevailing wind, so that it leans into the wind. Supporting structures for cordons and espaliers will also need to be in place before planting.
- Place your tree into the planting hole, turning it until you are happy with its positioning.The stem of the tree should be set about 8cm away from the stake.Trees to be grown as cordons will need to be positioned at an angle. Do not plant too deeply – the graft union between the rootstock and the upper portion should be well above the surface level of the soil. If there is an old soil mark on the trunk (darker in colour) – use this as the depth. Do not plant too shallowly – if there are roots poking above the surface level of the soil, you will need to dig a deeper hole. Examine the roots of bare-root trees and trim any damaged or very long roots over 30cm long. This will make them easier to plant. Spread the roots out evenly within the planting hole and back-fill with a good planting mix of topsoil, compost and organic all-purpose fertiliser, gently shaking the tree to disperse the soil around the roots and firming with your hands as you go. After back-filling some more, start to gently firm the tree in using your foot, but do not tread too heavily. For container-grown trees, carefully slide or cut the rootball from the container and position in the planting hole, adjusting the depth with more or less planting mix as required. Gently tease some of the roots away from the rootball and back-fill the hole with planting mix, gently firming as above.
- When you have filled the planting hole give it a final firm, then make a shallow depression around the base of the tree to form a water-retaining basin, which will help water soak into the rootball. Give the tree a good water-in. Using a tree tie, secure the tree to the stake (positioning the tie near the top of the stake). If the tree has a long trunk (eg half standard or standard), fix a second tie near the base of the stem. If rabbits are a problem in the area, protect your young trees using galvanised netting or rabbit guards around the base of the trees.