Most gardens are too small these days to have an area set aside for an orchard, or even a soft fruit plot, but if you have room for a flower border, you can combine cropping shrubs and other fruiting plants with ornamental ones to give a feature that is both eye-catching and productive.
Start by providing some height with an eating cherry, like ‘Compact Stella’, which won’t grow too large and will provide masses of pretty, white blossom early in the season, followed by cherries that are both delicious and decorative. Otherwise plant columnar fruit trees at intervals along the border; these can be pruned to keep them narrow, even when quite mature, so will only cast a minimum amount of shade. If you prefer something slightly less tall, but still giving the impression of height, use standard currants and gooseberries.
A fence or wall backing a border can be used to support a grape, blackberry or tayberry – these can be interspersed with climbing roses, clematis or other ornamental climbers for extra flower power. If there is no existing support, use trellis panels and wooden or concrete posts to create one.
Currants – red, white and black – are so attractive that it’s a pity to consign them to the kitchen garden, even if you have one. You can leave the berries on the bushes for quite a while before picking them, where they will hang like glistening jewels, so instead of adding small ornamental shrubs to a mixed border, use these instead. Plant later flowing perennials, like hardy chrysanthemums, Michaelmas daisies and coneflowers, nearby to provide extra colour when the currants have been picked and enjoyed.
Blueberries, cranberries and cowberries are useful members of a mixed border because they are evergreen. They prefer a slightly acid soil, so when planting, dig in a lot of garden compost, leaf mould or other soil improver. If your soil is really alkaline (so rhododendrons turn yellow and die in a short time), you can still grow acid-loving fruit bushes in large tubs of ericaceous (lime free) compost, and place these amongst other plants growing in the soil itself. This gives a stylish and unusual effect, particularly if you add one or two medium-sized statues to co-ordinate the whole layout.
It’s not only shrubby fruits that can be used in this way. Edge the bed or border with strawberries instead of low-growing herbaceous perennials – the effect is the same, but there is the bonus of luscious fruit in a very accessible position. Young apple and pear trees can be trained as ‘step-overs’ – a kind of low-growing boundary to define the border edge – by cutting single stem fruit trees down to about 30cm above ground level, then training two shoots produced by each plant below the cut horizontally, one to the left, one to the right, onto a low wire frame. Blossom and fruit will be produced low-down on these branches, after the first couple of years. This never fails to cause comment from visitors to the garden!
Planting containerised fruit trees and bushes can be done at any time of the year when the weather is suitable – not freezing or during drought – but early spring is an ideal time, when the air and soil are warming up, encouraging rapid establishment and growth. This is also the last time until the autumn that bare-root fruit should be lifted and replanted. For the first year after planting, make sure the ground is kept moist but not waterlogged, adding a suitable liquid feed every three or four weeks to give your newcomers the best start possible.