Growing fruit is undergoing quite a revival. Maybe people are becoming dissatisfied with the uniformly bland offerings at the local supermarket? Or could it be that word has spread about just how good home grown fruit tastes, straight from the plant/bush/tree. Or is it just the ‘credit crunch’?
When I moved house in 2003 and took over a small field to use as an ‘allotment’ it meant there was space for fruit. The garden is on a relatively sheltered south facing slope, which is ideal as it gets a lot of sun. It is prone to wind from the south to southwest. It is also in a bit of a frost pocket.
The slope produced problems right from the start as it was too steep to use a traditional fruit cage without the vertical poles leaning at crazy angles. The slope over 8.2m (27ft) was around 0.6m (22inches). To level the whole area would have needed a huge amount of soil and some major civil engineering to hold back the soil at the lower end. The weight of wet soil pressing on the retaining wall was too much to contemplate and a botched job would have meant there it could end up deposited over the veg beds. In the end the only practical solution was to terrace the area.
Making the terraces involved building 3 large raised beds each 4m (13ft) wide and either 4m(13ft) or 2m (6.5ft) long. This was a much better idea but still needed some hefty pieces wood to hold heavy wet soil at the lower end. Some old beams were found on the farm which could do the job well.
(Click an image to enlarge)
A local scaffolding company supplied a quantity of used scaffold boards at a reasonable price and these were used for the rest of the retaining walls. They were approximately 6m (13ft) long and 23cm (9 inches) wide. The scaffold boards were easily capable of retaining the soil but they still needed careful staking to avoid being pushed over.
I was given a good tip by James, my ‘engineering consultant’. The tip was to anchor the top of the steel pins to the planks to stop them being pushed backwards away from the board. Suitable large staples were hammered into the boards and enough steel spikes were used to hold back the soil with a few extra for good luck. Having been a farmer all his life this was not a difficult project for him.
The beds were dug over before filling to break up the compacted ground. Filling the beds was a mammoth task as it was impossible to get a tractor into the garden. Loads of soil were dumped by the gate and a small back actor used to fill wheel barrows that were then emptied into the beds.
The cages are made up of 1.8m (6 ft) sections so each bed used 2 to make the 3.6m (12 ft) width. The length is then also made up of further 1.8m (6 ft) sections. The aluminum poles are joined together with plastic mouldings of various shapes that are supplied in a standard kit but are also available separately. The meant that it was possible to cut the vertical pipes and drop in an extra mouldings to allow for the decrease in roof height to the adjoining, lower terrace.
The cage was erected single handed in an afternoon. After some apprehension, and double checking the measurements, it all worked out as planned. The cage was supplied without a door and I would seriously recommend having a one as it makes life much easier. Covering with the netting was delayed until the spring. It not quite so easy and certainly could not have been a one-person job.
Deciding what to plant in the cage was easy. I wanted currants and gooseberries but there was space for more. Having planted the autumn fruiting raspberries a few months earlier I decided against summer raspberries and opted for cultivated blackberries instead. After much poring over catalogues I ordered Redcurrant – Rovada, Whitecurrant – Blanka, 4 Blackcurrant – Ben Conna’, 5 Gooseberries – ‘Whinhams Industry, Invicta, 3 Leveller and 2 Blackberries – Loch Nes.
The currant and gooseberry bushes were supplied as bare rooted plants. This means they had no soil on the roots so needed planting immediately. As the weather was very cold and the ground was frozen I decided to wait until conditions were better. To keep the roots alive it is essential to store the plants
by planting in a temporary soil bed or in pots using good quality compost. As all my ground was frozen I opted for pots. The Blackberries were container grown so just needed occasional watering to prevent them drying out.
When the soil thawed the bushes were planted at the spacing recommended by the suppliers. As the weeks passed there were signs of life and buds swelled and broke into leaf. Two of the blackcurrants did not show any signs of growth and were eventually removed. This was disappointing as it was too late to get replacements and it will be another year before they can be replanted. Four months later we were picking blackcurrants and gooseberries. The crop was not large but enough to provide a good taste of what is to come next year, the gooseberry crumble was delicious. Later in the summer the blackberries began to ripen. They were huge, sweet and very juicy. The redcurrant and whitecurrant bushes have grown well but did not fruit in the first year.
The next year I moved the Blackberry bushes out of the cage and planted next to a wall at the back of some new strawberry beds. They were replaced with summer fruiting raspberries, long cane Tulameen which were a total failure. In early 2006 they were replaced with another, slightly earlier autumn fruiting raspberry – Joan J.
After a couple of years all the gooseberries, excpet Invicta, suffered from very bad mildew. The remaining bushed were removed and replaced with another Invicta. In 2008 a Jostaberry was added together with some container grown Blueberries.
Overall it has been a good experience and I learned a lot. I now have a fruit cage as big as the whole area of the veg beds in my previous garden. It was a lot of very hard work to create but has been well worth it.
© Colin Shaw, 2006, all right reserved. No part of this article, images or text, may be reproduced in ANY form without the written consent of the author.