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Cornucopia - Ornamentals in the Orchard

Ornamentals in the Orchard
James McCombe

The house was built in 1979, and I was the first occupant and taxpayer, for what was a rather barren and stony piece of ground. The impoverished soil was capable of growing the most excellent thistles, whose thirst for existence still lives on to this day. Well, what do you do with such a piece of ground? The answer was simple, or so it seemed. Inspired by those great suburban gardeners of the 70s, Tom and Barbara Good, I decided to grow soft fruit. While everybody else was making lawns, I had left the ground with a view to cleaning it out to remove as much of the perennial weed as possible. During cultivation I managed to get out enough stone to make a small rock garden for the front of the house. As a memento of those early days, I still have the three-pronged garden fork. To get the ground as open as possible I kept pushing the fork down and easing up the soil. The spade was totally useless, the only time I ever used it was for digging holes for the trees and mixing cement.

Originally the first plants were bramble 'Himalayan Giant' and tayberries, with a redcurrant 'Laxton'; this bush has produced over 300 lbs of fruit over its life and probably has the best flavour of all the redcurrants, being slightly acid. It averages about 15-16 lbs every year and occasionally up to 20 lbs. The brambles and tayberries were not really successful and were dug out after 4 or 5 years. Still keen on fruit, I came across Ken Muir’s minarettes so decided on apples and pears initially to try them out. Being successful, I continued and expanded to included plums, a damson, greengage and another pear and apple.

What are minarettes? They are just ordinary varieties of apples, pears etc. grown on a dwarfing rootstock and contained within a narrow branch framework. The difference from ordinary trees is in the pruning. The principle is quite simple; one allows a leader to grow and cuts it back by one third each year to develop lateral shoots and form a new leader. Using standard spur pruning techniques, the laterals are cut back to two or three buds to develop fruiting buds. I usually do this in mid July which means all summer growth that year is virtually removed to keep the trees within a width of 2 feet, though the greengages are more difficult to control because of their vigour.

Although the area is only 4.5m x 7.5m I still manage to pack in 11 fruit trees, a redcurrant, hamamellis and rhubarb as well as the understorey. It is this ability to concentrate trees that makes minarettes a good proposition for the small garden. The trees are underplanted with winter aconites, which have spread over the years to form a carpet of yellow in February, with some solid clumps of snowdrops providing a contrast. The aconites I have found are very good at suppressing the germinating weed seedlings with the foliage reaching 12 inches in a good open fertile soil before dying down in May. They shade the ground in early spring reducing moisture loss, also I dislike bare earth unless it is mulched to protect it from the sun. To get a succession of flowering I have planted tulip 'White Emperor', a most splendid and vigorous tulip with purple anthers and a yellow base to the throat which is good at competing with the dense foliage of the aconites. These are followed by Allium aflatunense with its giant flower heads. Beware of alliums, they can spread quite rapidly, do not let them seed. Interestingly this species has germicidal properties and, as well as being edible, it can be toxic if eaten in large quantities probably due to its sulphur content, which gives it its flavour. Reputedly it also is said to repel insects and moles.

Lilium regale is the first of the lilies to flower with its powerful scent that fills the air. The 5 foot plus Lilium 'Golden Splendor', is the next to flower with its large trumpet-shaped flowers arranged in groups of 3 or 4, and finally the delicately scented Lilium 'Olivia' with its snow white flowers and chocolate anthers is the last to flower. These plants give me a succession of flowering until mid September. Although the underplanting is largely bulbs or corms to minimise competition for moisture, I have also planted a few hellebores to give a constant succession of colour after the aconites have gone over. These present little competition for moisture but do provide a long lasting period of flowering. Having seen the behaviour and interaction between the various plants, this process is going to be fully developed to make a more unified approach with additional bulb planting. If you fancy fruit trees, there is no reason why you have to grow them separately from your ornamentals. After all they have attractive flowers and can be easily contained.

An edited version of an article first published in the Scottish & Northern Borders Group Newsletter Autumn 2007
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 25
© Copyright for this article: James McCombe

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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