Horticulture Magazine

How To Grow Cordon Fruit Trees In A Small Garden

double cordon apple tree in an orchard

Fruit trees can be excellent additions to any garden, and when you cordon fruit trees they can be grown in even the smallest of spaces.

If you want to grow fruit trees in smaller spaces, a cordon system can be a good idea. When fruit trees are grown and trained in this specific way, you can grow far more fruit in a far smaller area – so this can be a great way to make the most of your space.

Read on to find out more about cordon fruit trees:

  • Learn why they can be a great idea in a small garden.
  • Discover which fruit trees are best for treating in this way and where to position your trees.
  • Get tips for providing them with support and how to plant and care for them in your garden.

What are Cordon Fruit Trees?

cordon apple trees bearing lots of fruit
Cordon grown apple trees

Cordon fruit trees are trees which are grown to form narrow, columnar forms.

They are kept compact, with once central trunk and short, fruit-producing spurs.

They are not allowed to bush out into full standard or bush-shaped trees. Nor are they allowed to branch out sideways significantly, as in fan-shaped or espaliered forms.

Cordon fruit trees are usually grown on intermediate (moderately vigorous) root stocks.

Because they do not have major side branches, cordon trees will not crop as heavily as standard trees or fruit trees with other forms.

However, when you choose the right varieties and care for them correctly, trees pruned in this way can still provide a yield of up to around 10kg of fruit per tree.

Why Cordon Fruit Trees in Your Small Garden?

While cordon fruit trees are usually relatively small, when treated correctly they can produce a high yield. Since a number can be grown in close proximity to one another, you can increase the overall yield of fruit from your garden.

Cordon fruit trees can be an excellent choice if you want to make your small garden as productive as possible.

You can grow several trees pruned in this way in the space that would ordinarily only be able to accommodate one fruit tree – and therefore get a lot more from the available area.

Since cordon fruit trees have a relatively flat profile, they can be grown up against a wall or fence – making use of marginal spaces.

They can also be used to provide some privacy or screening without casting excessive amounts of shade across the space.

Which Are The Best Fruit Trees to Cordon?

multiple cordoned apple trees in an orchard
Cordoned apple trees in an orchard

In the UK, the best fruit trees for cordon fruit trees are apples.

Apples are often one of the easiest fruit trees to grow here, no matter what form they take.

They tend to like the growing conditions UK gardeners can provide, and will grow well in many gardens across the British Isles.

Apples also respond well to different pruning regimes and it is usually fairly easy to find apple trees in cordon or columnar form.

Pears are another top pick for cordon fruit trees. Pears too can grow well in many UK gardens, and these trees can also respond well to cordoning or columnar pruning.

They too can fruit well on the short fruiting spurs created with this shaping regime.

While apples and pears are the best choices, you can also consider other trees too.

Plums and cherry trees can also make good cordon fruit trees, as long as you select suitable cultivars for this type of pruning. Be sure to choose spur fruiting varietals.

It is far easier for most gardeners to purchase cordon fruit trees which have already been trained and pruned into columnar form. These are now fairly readily available from garden centres and plant nurseries.

Remember, however, when choosing your trees, that you must choose varietals that are suited to the growing conditions in your particular area.

Remember to think about all the different factors in the environment which influence plant growth: sunlight, wind, water and soil type, pH and conditions.

Where to Grow Cordon Fruit Trees

Cordon fruit trees can be placed against an existing structure, such as a wall, fence or trellis. Or they can be placed in another spot in your garden, with a new support structure.

They can be useful when used to create partitions between different ‘rooms’ in a garden.

Cordon fruit trees can be grown in the ground. But there are also fruit trees suitable for growing in containers, or large pots.

For best results, they should typically be grown with support, and not as free-standing specimens.

When choosing where to place cordon fruit trees, it is important to consider the types and varieties of fruit tree that you have chosen.

Think about the needs of the plants, and whether the location you are considering will provide them with what they need.

Sunlight is one important consideration. Think about the orientation of the wall or fence you wish to place your cordon fruit trees against, for example, if you are placing the trees against an existing structure.

Does it face south, east, west or north? How much sunlight does it receive?

There are fruit trees suitable for structures of any orientation. But you need to choose the right varieties – especially when it comes to choosing cordon fruit trees for a north-facing or more shaded place.

Support For Cordon Trees

One important thing to note, whether you are training your trees against an existing structure, or making a new support structure, is that it must be strong enough to withstand gales, and support the weight of your trees in windy conditions.

It should be sturdy and durable enough to meet the purpose.

On an existing wall or fence, you will need to make sure that the structure is in good repair before you begin.

And you will need to add support wires which are firmly anchored in place. Remember, fruit trees will be there for the long term – usually the next 30-40 years.

So make sure your fencing wire and fixings are good quality, durable, and up to the task.

Planting Cordon Fruit Trees

Before planting your cordon fruit trees, make sure that you have prepared the area.

If you are growing in the ground, make sure that you have amended the soil with plenty of organic matter, and provided fertile and weed-free soil.

  • Prepare your support structure and place your well secured training wires horizontally across this structure.
  • Take long branches or sturdy bamboo canes (2.4m long is ideal) and tie these to the wires, at an angle of 45 degrees to the ground. This marks the angle and spacing of the trees, and is the support to which the main trunk of your cordon fruit tree will be tied. (While not essential, it is a good idea to place trees on a 45 degree angle, because this will give you a longer trunk while keeping all the fruits at comfortable picking height.) The canes should be spaced around 60-80cm apart. This gives the spacing for your cordon trees.
  • Next, dig your planting holes at the foot of each cane to accommodate your new fruit trees. Consider adding mycorrhizae to the planting hole to aid establishment.
  • Place your cordon fruit trees in each hole, so they follow the same 45 degree angle as the canes. Tie the main trunks to the canes, and fill back in the soil firmly around each tree.
  • Water well, and keep watering during establishment and during any dry periods.
  • Mulch well with organic matter around the base of your trees.
  • Add fruit tree guilds of beneficial companion plants for best results.

Fruit Tree Care and Pruning

columnar apple tree in the foreground, with foliage out of focus in the background
Columnar apple tree

Fruit tree care is largely the same no matter what form your fruit trees take. The only way that cordon trees differ is in their pruning requirements.

In around May each year, you should prune back the main leader or main trunk by around 1.5cm.

You should then maintenance prune for shape and form in later summer or early autumn (usually July-September).

Cut off the tip of each lateral spur to leave around 6 leaves. After the harvest, prune back to three leaves on each fruiting spur.

Any excess wood should be removed before the dormant period to deprive the tree of some of its winter reserves.

This means the tree will focus not on foliage growth but on flowering and fruiting in the spring.

Though they need more careful pruning than other fruit tree forms, cordon fruit trees can still be a relatively low maintenance choice – especially if you keep them healthy by companion planting beneficial guilds which help keep them free from pests and disease in an organic garden.

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