Of the practices which we may with advantage, and which indeed we must, adopt from the French, those of fruit-culture command our first attention, because good fruit-culture combines the beautiful with the useful in a very high degree. William Robinson
As an advocate of naturalistic planting, William Robinson’s admiration of the trained fruit trees he saw in France might come as a surprise. But in Parks and Gardens of Paris (1878, published by Macmillan) as well as reviewing public parks Robinson devotes eight chapters to French methods of cultivation and training of fruit trees. He visits and evaluates the work of various growers, including the school of horticulture at Versailles, the school of fruit-culture in the Bois de Vincennes and nurserymen such as M Jamin of Bourg-la-Reine.
In his introduction to the book Robinson discusses ways in which English growers could improve the quantity and quality of their crops by following the the French example. He mentions winter pears, of which France sends ‘many thousands of pounds’ worth annually’ which should be wall trained rather than planted in the open, and cordon training for apples, to save space in the domestic garden. Robinson is also enthusiastic about the French Paradise stock, which keeps fruit trees grafted onto it small enough to respond well to training (unlike the crab stock that was widely used in England at the time) and because of the Paradise stock’s hardiness enabling trees that favour warmer climates to be grown on cold, wet soils, like those in England.
But the most important improvement that should be made, he argues, concerns the education of English gardeners. In his forthright style, Robinson complains that in the British Isles the training of fruit trees is ‘not taught at all, or only in the most imperfect manner.’ He observes of the French,
‘Many of the illustrations in this book show the mastery they possess over each detail of training the branches of every kind of tree being conducted in any way by the trainer might desire, and with the greatest of ease.’
William Robinson (1838 – 1935) was a gardener, and a prolific author on horticulture. His best known books, The Wild Garden (1870) and The English Flower Garden (1883) contained his ideas for a new approach to planting gardens using plants to imitate nature instead of formal bedding schemes, which were so popular in Victorian gardens. He also worked as a journalist for The Times and The Gardener’s Chronicle and following the success of The Wild Garden launched his own magazine, The Garden in 1871. He put his theories about naturalistic planting into practice at his garden at Gravetye Manor in Sussex, (which became derelict after his death, but is now restored and managed as a hotel).
In Parks and Gardens of Paris Robinson also discusses ideas for growing trained fruit trees in unexpected places. As well as the Parisian front garden (illustrated below), he visits fruit trees that have been grown as fences along a French railway embankment.
Of the various waste spaces where good fruit might be grown the most conspicuous are the railway-embankments. Here we have a space quite unused, and on which for hundreds of miles fruit-trees may be planted, that will after a few years yield profit, and continue to do so for a long time with but little attention.
Robinson observes the planting of pear trees along the Chemin de fer de l’Est.
A cheap fence of galvanised wire runs on each side of the line, and on this Pear-trees are trained so that their branches cross each other; and, though only in their fourth year, they are at the top of the fence.
In time, the trees trained in this way (sometimes called a Belgian fence) become self-supporting. Robinson notes that both apple and pear trees were commonly grown in this way along the railway lines in Belgium. Maybe it’s time to revive this lovely idea?