An allotment is a great place to grow fruit trees, there is often more space than you might have in the typical garden, as well as the opportunity to share experiences with other plot holders. Furthermore many allotment plots benefit from careful husbandry over the years, and have good quality soils which is particularly useful for fruit trees.
Many allotment associations impose restrictions on growing fruit trees, because they are (rightly) concerned to make sure that you don't shade neighbouring plots. Fortunately there are several simple techniques to help you grow fruit trees on your allotment whilst keeping them under 6ft-7ft (well under 2m) if necessary - dwarf fruit trees are the ideal choice for the allotment.
(a) Dwarfing rootstocks
The best way to keep the height of your trees under control is to choose dwarfing rootstocks. These restrict the vigour of the tree, and in the case of the apple M27 rootstock, will readily keep the height of the mature tree to less than 6ft. Dwarfing rootstocks tend to require more care and better growing conditions than vigorous rootstocks - but this is not likely to be a problem for most allotment owners.
Allotment growers might also be interested in our range of spindlebush fruit trees - these are dwarf trees which have been raised in the nursery and trained specifically for maximum production at a very young age. This style of training is usually reserved for commercial growers, but is also ideal for the allotment.
(b) Encouraging precocity
Another useful technique is to encourage the tree to fruit earlier in its life, also known as encouraging precocity. This is a surprisingly effective technique, particularly for fruit trees on semi-vigorous rootstocks such as the apple M26 or MM106 (it doesn't work as well on M27). All fruit trees go through a juvenile growing phase which can last 2-5 years before they enter the adult fruiting phase. The logic is that if you can get the tree to start fruiting earlier, it will not have grown so tall, and once it begins fruiting it will have less energy to continue growing. The easiest way to encourage early fruiting is to plant a 1-year tree and as the shoots start to emerge the following spring, tie them to canes to encourage them to grow outwards rather than upwards (their natural tendency). This technique is sometimes called maypoling, the canes can be removed after a few months.
(c) Scion vigour
The scion is the fruiting variety which is grafted on top of the rootstock. Some varieties are simply more vigorous than others, and will become bigger trees on the same rootstock. Low vigour varieties are therefore often a better choice if you want fruit production in a small space. Note that low-vigour does not mean the tree is necessarily less productive, the only slight downside is that low-vigour trees tend to need a bit more care and attention.
The shape in which you train the tree can also help. In general the best style for a small allotment tree is the spindlebush or pyramid. These forms both retain the central leader, so the tree resembles a Christmas tree, wider at the bottom. This is a naturally productive shape, and promotes good fruit quality because the fruit gets good exposure to sunlight. It also means that the bulk of the tree is lower down, with fewer branches higher up and therefore less chance of shading neighbouring plots.
A permanent tree stake is an integral part of growing a fruit tree as a spindlebush, and helps encourage precocity because the tree does not need to spend time growing thicker stems and branches to support itself.
(f) Fans and espaliers
For trees on semi-vigorous rootstocks (which if left to their own devices would grow beyond 10ft / 3m) you can try training them as fans or espaliers along a trellis. Espaliers are popular because of their ornamental appeal, so for an allotment where production is more important we suggest fans - they are much easier to manage than espaliers, and better suited to the growth habit of cherries and plums, as well as being perfect for apples and pears.
Restricting the tree to 2 dimensions in this way gives you much more control over its growth, and in a way is an extension of the maypoling technique. As branches try to grow upwards you can use pruning and training to direct growth sideways.
Cordons are a technique for growing apple and pear trees in a closely-pruned form which allows several trees to be grown in a small space. Dwarf rootstocks - M9 for apples or Quince C for pears - are the best choice. The trees can be planted at a 45-degree angle, about 1m / 3ft apart (or even less) and supported on a simple trellis.
More details about cordons, ballerinas, and minarette fruit trees.
(h) The last resort
As a last resort, if you have a mature apple tree which is getting too big and you really don't want to have to dig it out altogether, you can cut the entire top off the tree, leaving the main stem at around 1m / 4ft - 1.5m / 6ft or so. This should only be done in winter. Cut back any side-branches to a downward-pointing shoot or cut them almost flush to the main stem but leaving a small nub at the base (this is known as a 'Dutch cut') from where a new shoot can re-grow. This technique probably won't work on plum trees (because of the risk of infection), but usually (not always) will work on apple trees as long as they are less than 10 years old. The following spring the tree will probably start to send out new shoots from the remaining stem, and these will bear fruit a year or so later.
Rootstocks for allotment fruit trees
Most fruit trees are grafted on rootstocks, which help control the size of the mature tree. Vigorous rootstocks which produce large traditional trees might look nicer, but they have no place on an allotment - instead choose low-vigour or dwarfing rootstocks, which will keep the height down and allow you to grow more fruit in a smaller area.
The M27 rootstock is by far the best choice for allotment apple trees as it is very precocious and will probably start cropping the year after it is planted, and the trees will not get much bigger than about 6ft. Trees on M27 can be planted just 1m / 3ft apart if necessary. We have more details of the M27 rootstock here.
M9 is a possibility, and is also very productive. It can however get much taller than M27, but encouraging early fruiting is a very effective way to stop an M9 tree from getting too big.
The semi-dwarf M26 and semi-vigorous MM106 are likely to be too vigorous for allotment apple trees, except when used for fan-trained trees.
Choose the Quince C rootstock, which is roughly equivalent to the apple M9 rootstock. Quince A is more vigorous, so only suitable for a fan-trained pear. Pears naturally grow more vertically than apples, so you will need to be more vigilant if you have height restrictions.
Pixy, or the even more dwarfing VVA1 are the best choices for allotment plum trees. The semi-vigorous St. Julien A is useful if you want a large fan-trained plum.
Cherries are naturally vigorous, and also do not like being pruned, so the only sensible choice is the Gisela 5 rootstock. This can still produce a tree of 10ft / 3m in a short space of time (young cherry trees grow quite rapidly) so fan-training is a good idea. This also means you can throw a net over the tree more easily as the cherries start to ripen - otherwise the birds will get their first.
We recommend you buy 1-year bare-root trees for your allotment orchard, these are better value than pot-grown trees, and allow you to control the growth from the earliest possible age which is often useful in an allotment situation. All these rootstocks will require the tree to be supported with a permanent stake.
Choice of fruit tree varieties for the allotment
You could of course grow any number of different varieties on an allotment plot, but many plot-holders want their plots to be productive and space-efficient and some varieties are better suited to this than others. As well as the height restrictions sometimes imposed by allotment associations, many plot holders like to grow their fruit without the use of chemicals (a 'no-spray' regime) and this means that reliable and disease-resistant varieties are important. Pollination is another consideration when growing fruit trees, but in an allotment situation you can usually assume there will be other apples, pears, and plums nearby - although not necessarily cherries.
We therefore suggest varieties which are:
- Low maintenance
- Neat and compact
- Self-fertile (in the case of cherries)
Any crab apple
It is also worth considering damsons, as these are mostly compact trees, and generally easy to grow.
The above recommendations do not take climate considerations into account.
Managing your allotment fruit trees
Fruit trees can be put anywhere on the plot, but if you are planning a new plot it is sometimes easier to set aside a specific area for them.
Keep the area immediately around the trees free of vegetation - farmyard manure is a good mulch, and many allotment associations arrange deliveries.
Fruit trees look very attractive if the area between them is grassed, and this will allow you to strim or mow to keep the plot looking tidy. Inter-planting with early spring flowers is a good idea to encourage pollinating insects.
Hygiene is as important on the allotment orchard as it is for commercial growers. Always remove fallen fruitlets or rotting fruit as soon as possible, as these can harbour pests over-winter. If any of your neighbouring plot-holders keep chickens consider putting some temporary fencing around the area where your fruit trees are, and borrow some of the chickens for a day every now and then - they will relish the change of scene and their natural scavenging will help remove unwanted pests.
One of the particular problems with growing fruit trees on an allotment is often aphids, as the concentration of high density vegetable crops on allotments seems to encourage aphid populations, and their intermediate host plants are difficult to eliminate when they are not on your own plot. Whilst aphids can theoretically be controlled by encouraging natural predators such as Ladybirds and their even more voracious larvae, in practice aphid attacks can stunt the critical growth of new shoots almost immediately, before the cavalry arrives. To prevent this, always take the time to look at your trees on a regular basis, the warning signs are the odd leaf curling near the top of the tree, or ants (which often farm the aphids) patrolling purposfully on the undersides of leaves. If you find an ants nest on your plot, try to remove it.
Since the planting densities on a typical allotment are quite high, your trees will need watering more often than you might think.
Similarly, if you are choosing dwarfing rootstocks and/or low-vigour varieties, your trees will benefit from an application of standard plant feed in late winter.
Even if you only plant 3-4 fruit trees, it is surprisingly easy to forget which is which - especially if you get bitten by the fruit tree bug and plant more the following year. Therefore make sure you keep a planting record. This is often best in the form of a diagram at home, since labels attached to the trees invariably fall off or fade. You can also record your blossom and harvest dates on the Tree Register on our sister website.