21 Dec 2011

Book Review - The Fruit Tree Handbook

The veg patch has definitely embraced winter - I managed an hour of clearing and tidying in the garden at the weekend before my hands needed to warm up around a mug of hot chocolate.  I noticed that the branches of the fruit trees are now completely bare, in contrast to a couple of weeks ago when it was 'too soon to prune'.

(Taken on the day of Winter Solstice - so dark in the midday that I had to photograph in the bathroom!)
This year I feel much better equipped to deal with pruning as I've received a copy of The Fruit Tree Handbook by Ben Pike. What I needed was a book that properly explained the how, why and wherefore of pruning and, in this book, I've got it. There's an entire chapter devoted to the subject: read this and the brain fog surrounding pruning will magically disperse. Every pair of secateurs sold should be accompanied by a copy of this chapter.  For me, this is life-changing stuff and it's written in a really clear, logical way. No wonder I couldn't figure it out from a 2 page RHS handout - this one topic takes 22 pages to explain.

The author writes about the consequences of pruning lightly or hard, both immediate and long term, in producing both vegetative and fruiting growth.  Terminology is clearly explained, supported by very good diagrams - laterals, sub-laterals, fruiting spurs, growth rings, leaf buds, one year old growth, two year old growth: all of these are now easily identified.  Formative pruning, pruning techniques and a range of pruning tools are all comprehensively covered. And I now know the difference between tip bearing and spur bearing trees.  And that's just the general skinny on pruning; information specific to each fruit is contained in later chapters.

The book is presented in four sections plus a glossary, appendices, resources and index; pruning falls into the section on Fruit Tree Management and is followed by a chapter on identifying, and organically controlling, pests and problems associated with fruit trees. Detailed information in the chapter reads like a medical dictionary for fruit, complete with graphic pictures that drive the point home.  For me, this whole section would have been worth the cover price alone.

But there's so much more to this book.  Ben is a man who is passionate about orchards (indeed, he's the Head Gardener at Sharpham Estate in Devon where he manages two orchards containing 150 fruit trees).  So the third part of this book has separate chapters devoted to individual tree-grown fruits:  apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches & nectarines, apricots - and other fruit (figs, quinces, medlars, mulberries). You won't find shrub or cane fruit in here - we're talking Orchards. Tables neatly set out the unique characteristics of each variety and are listed in order of their time of cropping: for example, I could pick Beauty of Bath in early August and, by growing a variety of apples, carry on picking fresh fruit through to late October with a Winston apple (sweet-sharp, aromatic and nutty). I had almost completed my preparations to buy more trees for the York Rise garden but this section had me tearing up my list after reading the recommendations for dessert and cooking apple varieties. Ben sensibly advocates taking some time to deliberate over the final choice to make sure that what you grow is right for your garden and your needs and for storage, if you so wish.  This is not something we did when the York Rise mini-orchard went in 3 winters ago as we opted for well known varieties: conference pears, braeburn apples, morello cherries and victoria plums.  I've realised that I now have an opportunity to broaden the scope of the 'orchard' here by growing some more interesting varieties such as Pitmaston Pineapple ("an old variety with crisp and nutty, small sweet yellow apples") or Lord Lambourne ("crisp, juicy flesh, sweet with balancing acidity").

Both the first and last sections (Planning and Planting an Orchard; Renovating an Orchard and Building a Community Orchard) are more probably targeted towards the professional fruit grower and of less interest to the amateur gardener who may only want to grow a few trees but that, in my opinion, does not detract from making this a useful reference book for both.

The book concentrates on growing fruit but doesn't tell you what to do with your fruit once picked; Ben Pike leaves that to other experts.  This is a handbook that reflects the author's love for the environment and for fruit trees. What you do get here is a wealth of knowledge that will benefit the trees in your care - written in an easy, flowing style that makes the information easily accessible and memorable, even for a novice like me. This is the author on the principles of pruning:
"Pruning fruit trees is a subject that seems to be shrouded in mystery. Many people, not really knowing where to start, are afraid of damaging their trees [...]; it is possible to harm fruit trees, either by pruning too hard, or pruning at the wrong time of year, but clear instructions and an understanding of the principles of pruning will allow you to make judicious cuts that will help your trees to prosper."
If, like me, you have any doubts about what to do when faced with any tree or shrub to prune, I recommend you give this book a try. You'll be in safe hands. And if you are yet to contemplate growing your own fruit, this book may just motivate you to find a space for a couple of trees in your garden. As the author says, by growing your own orchard, or just a few trees, you can grow the kind of apple that is perfect for you - with the added advantage of creating a habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

My (very grateful) thanks to Stacey Hodge at Green Books for sending the book.


  1. Sounds like a book we should all have a copy of!

  2. @Mark Willis
    I agree! It's nice to have a book written by someone so knowledgeable - and readable!

  3. It definitely sounds like a good common sense book that I will put on my birthday wish list - I always approach my trees cautiously, especially when they have done well the year before - but they do quickly get out of hand if you're not careful.

  4. It sounds like a really helpful book. I don't have a clue how to prune, but I don't have any trees (apart from my small cherry) so it doesn't really matter at the moment.

  5. That sounds like a great book. Prunig is my achilles heel. I got loads of handouts when I did my RHS courses but it's one of those things you only really learn if you practice. I love anything to do with orchards and old varieties so will have to keep a look out for this one. I've been lucky enough to visit the Sharpham Estate and it's lovely and they make very nice wine and cheese.

  6. Thanks for a most interesting, and informative, post. With your new pair of secateurs you'll be able to put all that new found knowledge to the test! Flighty xx

  7. Sounds like a must have book for anyone with fruit trees. I like most people just sort of second guess the pruning process. Maybe this will appear in my Christmas stocking!
    Happy Christmas to you and yours.

  8. Will look out for it when I next visit a book shop. Wishing you peace and joy at Christmas Caro and throughout the New Year xxx

  9. @elaine rickett
    I find myself looking at trees in a new light now, seeing crossing branches, etc. The book also covers why a tree might fruit well one year but not the next and how this trend can be balanced out. V. useful I'd have thought as have read lots of bloggers telling of bushels of fruit one year and nothing the next.

  10. @Jo
    Hopefully you'll have more fruit trees one day Jo. They're real harbingers of spring, even a small cherry!

  11. @wellywoman
    If, like me, you want to prune but don't dare start in case you get it wrong, I would STRONGLY advise reading this book! Seriously, life-changing. Caro xx

  12. @flightplot
    Yes, I will - and am looking forward to it! Caro x

  13. @Bridget
    It would certainly be a must have book on my bookshelf - I have 8 fruit trees and plan for more - I'm SO pleased to have read this book! Hope you get a copy for Christmas!

  14. @Anna
    Thank you Anna - and the best of festive wishes are sent to you and yours too, both for Christmas and next year. Caro xx

  15. Hi Caro, Sounds like a great pruning book-now on my wish list. Thanks for enthusiastic and thorough review. Here's wishing you happy gardening for 2012! V.best Naomi

  16. @outofmyshed
    Hi Naomi, lovely to hear from you! As the title suggests, the book is aimed at gardeners specifically interested in growing fruit. I may not have an orchard yet but I found it very informative and useful. Wishing you well in 2012, Caro x

  17. Thanks for stopping by my blog Caro, your book sounds just what I need. Only have a few fruit trees, but stone fruit need such different pruning don't they from apples etc? Will be looking for it at the garden centre, many thanks. Wishing you a very happy gardening year in 2012!

  18. This sounds like a really great book. I will have to get myself a copy. Best wishes for 2012 x

  19. @Pauline
    Pauline, you're welcome - I'm pleased to have found your blog! If you treat yourself to the book, I'm sure you'll find it useful. It been an eye-opener for me because different fruits are susceptible to a variety of differing pests and diseases. Once forewarned, you're armed to succeed!

  20. @The Green Lady
    Lorna, I'm always pleased to flag up books that I think will be useful to other gardeners, and this one certainly fits that description! I'd say essential if you want to grow your own fruit successfully and have trees that will be an investment. Caro x

  21. That looks like a very useful book. Last year I planted two apple trees which I'm trying to grow as espaliers and a gage and an apricot that I want to fan-train and it sounds as though that might be just what I need. I've got the RHS "Growing Fruit" by Harry Baker and "The Fruit Expert" by Dr D G Hessayon, but the pruning information is quite basic.

    Thanks so much and good gardening in 2012!

    1. I have both of those books plus other books on pruning but I've been unable to feel confident about pruning until now! I was lucky enough to go to a community pruning workshop and one of the pruning exercises we looked at was a pair of espaliered apple trees. I'm hoping to grow espaliered apples myself this year (if I can get permission to dig up the grass!)


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