If you have ever thought about turning an unproductive grassy area into an orchard, and then quietly filed it away under ‘wouldn’t know where to start’, then it may be time for a rethink. The Fruit Tree Handbook by Ben Pike (£16.95, Green Books) is fairly hefty for a paperback, but this is a big topic and deserves the space. All too often ‘top fruit’ is relegated to a couple of chapters in a general fruit book, losing out to the easy virtues of strawberries and other soft fruit. In such cramped conditions it’s no wonder people get confused about pollination; so a well-written specialist book like this one is a welcome addition to my bookshelf.
The author, Ben Pike, is the head gardener of Sharpham Estate in Devon, which includes 150 fruit trees. This is a man who clearly knows his subject inside out, and isn’t afraid to take a pragmatic approach. As such, he advocates eco-friendly but effective measures rather than trying to be strictly organic. He keeps his tone light and friendly, especially in the more technical sections; in the pruning chapter he reassures the reader that it is very likely that their trees will not look like the ones “in the book” (and for that one statement, Mr Pike, I am almost pathetically grateful). The aim of the book is to be suitable for novice growers as well as more experienced types, and on the whole it pulls it off admirably.
The Handbook covers everything you’d hope to find in a dedicated top fruit book, with chapters on choosing, buying and planting trees as well as a dedicated section for each type of fruit. Pollination groups are explained clearly, and there are some welcome surprises too, like a chapter covering the much neglected quinces, medlars and mulberries in reasonable depth. There’s also a chapter dealing with rootstocks (often a source of mystification to new growers), but I was particularly impressed with the chapters on planning new orchards, renovating old ones, and starting a community orchard. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find them, given that the author runs Orchard Link, an organisation dedicated to saving and promoting small orchards.
The author pulls no punches when it comes to cultivar recommendations, making the book worthwhile for his frank variety appraisals alone. Even so, he laments the lack of space to cover a bigger choice of varieties, and refers the readers on to a number of other sources. My only grumble about this book is the chapter on ‘problems’, which is detailed but not particularly easy to navigate. It could really have done with a table to help novice readers identify their problem from a list of symptoms, rather than simply trawling through the text. The pruning chapter, on the other hand, is the best I’ve seen. Explaining why pruning works, as well as how to do it, will make a huge difference to how you look at your trees, just as the rest of the book will change how you think about orchards. All in all, it might be time to finally take a spade to the back garden.