Fan Train Cherries

We're in the process of bringing more fruit into the garden. Many people shy away from fruit trees because they fear they will get too large; a common complaint is that the roots may get under the house and cause subsidence. Another worry is that the maintenance of them will be too hard. To give you an idea of what fruit we had at Drovers, our first small front garden, we had: 3 x rhubarb crowns, 1 x blackcurrant, 1 x Morello cherry tree, 1 x Greengage, 1 x Boskoop Glory grape and 1 x Brown Turkey Fig. We did this by using our boundaries and understanding that training fruit to the shape we needed was an easier step than we thought it would be. When we moved we took the rhubarb, grapevine and fig with us. The summer after our move our old neighbour told us that the Greengage had cropped so heavy that he nipped in and scrumped the tree - the house was empty at the time and we didn't mind, food eaten is food not wasted. Back in 2011, we started the first phase of our standard tree orchard and now we are moving into our final phase, the trained trees. So, let's look at how easy it is to train a sweet and sour cherry tree (the variety in the photo is Early Rivers):

Early River Cherry being trained into a fan.

When starting to train a tree into any shape, start with a maiden; this is the name for a one year old tree. There are some plus sides to selecting such a young tree, it's cheaper especially if you go down the bare root path (these tend to come in the dormant period e.g. winter), they establish better as they get used to your environment (this is not a joke and we always recommend that you buy trees grown in the UK and trees that will do well in your region and altitude) and you'll have more of a selection of varieties compared to garden centres (all our trees come from RV Roger). In our first phase, the standard orchard (standard is a term for the trees we see in our landscape, what we term a full grown 'lollipop' tree), we planted a Damson Merryweather, a tree not known to be associated with Yorkshire, and a tree often grown at low levels, it lasted one winter and died. It taught us an important lesson. Damson's hate altitude. Now imagine if we'd bought this at a garden centre ('the tea and a wee' places where there is little knowledge beyond how much it costs) where older specimens cost anything from £25-£60 depending on the specimen and the garden centre. Our bare rooted Damson cost £12 and though it died, it wasn't such a battering on the wallet. One year old trees are also more supple, easy to train and coax into shape. There is a downside to training a tree, it can take up to three years but most standard fruit trees will take three years to establish and crop heavily. Standard apple and pear trees can crop anything from 100lb of fruit to 400lb. Standard cherries can give you up to 120lb but we have to remember that cherry trees are harder to net and birds love cherries, but don't give a stuff about apples or pears. We've decided to fan train our cherries, meaning we'll get around 20-30lb of fruit per tree but we can net them, protect them from frosts and harvest with ease. It also means in the space we'd hand over to standard we can double the amount of cherry trees we can get in. The technique below is for cherry trees being grown on in pots. We're doing this so we can plant later in the year after we have constructed the supports and we don't miss starting the fan training.

How to fan train a cherry.

You will need a bamboo cane the height of the tree in the pot, the cane used as the vertical is around 5 foot high and when sunk into the pot is 4 foot high (the pot is 12 inches deep). While the cane is in the pot mark on the cane with a felt pen where the two parallel vertical branches are. These branches 'mirror' each other on either side of the trunk, or will be with an inch or two of each other. Take out the cane and on the ground tie on a horizontal cane where you have marked it with the pen. Now take two more canes and tie to the horizontal and vertical, to create a triangle (see below) and a bamboo trellis is born.

Creating a trellis for your fan trained cherries.

Push the trellis back into the pot, the two branches you selected should sit comfortably against the horizontal bamboo cane (see image below). Now the frightening step, pruning. You can prune cherries to shape and to stimulate growth up to the end of April. Do not prune when the weather is wet or worst still, when the tree is dormant, you could risk killing the tree. You are pruning for shape, and to stimulate growth.

The basics to fan training stone fruits.

First remove any branches that are behind the tree, you will know which ones these are, they are the ones that get in the way of you tying the tree to the trellis (see the image below and the offending branch rubbing against the horizontal cane).

Which branches to remove when fan training cherries.

After removing these branches, remove all branches other than the two you have selected (the two that 'mirror' each other, see the image below).

You will now be left with the leader (the long shoot reaching for the sky) and the two branches you selected (see below image).

Cut the leader off with a sharp pair of secateurs, make a sloping cut to stop any rainwater collecting in the cut. You want to make the cut above the two branches you have selected, leave around one inch nub). You will be left with a tree that looks rather sad but is the framework for a cherry fan (see below). It may look harsh, you may be panicking at this point but remember the first steps to making a fan is often the hardest.

The final cuts to making a cherry fan will make you sweat.

Cut two more pieces of bamboo and tie them onto the triangle trellis at 45 degrees (see below).

Coax branches to 45 degrees in a fan.

Using soft twine, tie on these branches gently coaxing them to a 45 degree angle (when in the final planting position you can coax them further down to a 35 degree angle). Then remove a third of the branch growth with a pair of sharp, clean secateurs. Turn around the tree and with your thumb rub off any buds facing backwards, remember this will be against a wall or fence one day and you want no growth facing away; not unless you want branches in your fence or wall.

Tie your fan training down.

You should end up with a tree and trellis that looks like the image below. We tend to finish off the process by feeding the tree at this point with half a handful of blood, fish and bone, then we water before mulching the pot with compost. We then store the tree in a sheltered spot to recover, and water regularly during hot spells. In a few weeks new growth will shoot out of the two lateral branches and over the next few months we will show you what to do with this growth. However, if you want to read on, we recommend the RHS book Growing Fruit by Harry Baker. Believe it or not, this tree cost us £14 and by the end of this year will be worth around £45, the average cost of a one year fan trained cherry. So, it's well worth trying to learn pruning.

The final fan trained cherry.