The word cordon used in the context of fruit trees simply means a stem with short branches known as spurs which bear the fruit. Cordon trained trees have a columnar form with a main trunk and spurs coming off the trunk. They are often sold under various commercial names which unfortunately create the impression that they are special kind of trees. We prefer to use the traditional name so that it is clear that it is simply a form of training of otherwise ordinary trees.
Cordons are usually grown at a 45 degree angle to the ground. When grown in this way they are known as oblique cordons. They can also be grown vertically as vertical cordons. In addition to the simple single stemmed cordon more elaborate forms such as ‘U’ cordons with two vertical stems, double ‘U’ cordons with two sets of two vertical stems and more are possible. They can also be arched to produce a fruit arch. The Belgian fence is yet another decorative form with trees having two cordon arms at 45 degrees to the ground planted in a row such that the arms criss-cross to make a diamond pattern. Most of the advice below refers to the simple single stem cordons that we supply. If you require advice on more elaborate forms please contact us via our contacts page.
Cordon training is useful for growing fruit trees where space is limited and as a decorative feature on walls and fences. They are also an excellent way producing a fruit hedge to create a screen or separate different parts of a garden.
Cordon trees need a suitable support structure in the form of a set of horizontal wires at 50cm (20 in) spacing. In addition a long cane needs to be attached to the wires next to the tree in order to tie in the main stem of the cordon and guide its growth in the right direction. Cordons are usually grown against a wall or a solid panel fence. Alternatively they can be grown in the open supported by posts and wires. When grown on a wall or solid fence they should ideally be facing south or west but some apple varieties can be grown on less favourable north or east aspects. When grown in the open the rows should ideally run north-south with the top of the cordon pointing north so that the trees receive maximum sunlight and even light on both sides.
The reason why cordons are usually grown at an angle to the ground is that it reduces the overall vigour of the tree. More importantly it allows the branches along the length of the tree to have more even vigour and reduces the dominance of the higher branches.
It is important to realise that cordons do not naturally grow in a columnar form but need appropriate annual summer pruning to maintain and develop the form. A very small number of apple varieties known as Ballerina® trees do exist which naturally grow in a columnar form, but these must not be confused with cordons (please see below). Cordon training is usually done with apple and pear trees. Plums, cherries and other stone fruit trees are less suited to cordon training.
There are two options available to you if you wish to grow cordon trained trees.
The first option is to buy a ready trained tree. We supply a large range of over 30 varieties of two year cordon trained apple and pear trees. Unlike most other nurseries which produce container grown cordon trees ours are field grown and supplied bare-root in the winter. As a result they are larger and more robust. We supply two types of cordon trained trees: Our regular cordon trained apple and pear trees on M26 and Quince C rootstocks respectively which are intended for growing as oblique cordons. We sometimes also have regular apple cordons on M9 rootstock. The second is our mini-cordon apple trees which are on the very dwarfing M27 rootstock and intended for growing as vertical cordons. Please click on the links at the top of the page for lists of cordon trained trees.
The second option is to train you own from scratch. To do so you need to start with a maiden (untrained one year old) tree on a suitable rootstock. Two year old trees trained in other forms would not be suitable. Training your own tree gives the additional flexibility of choosing from a larger range of varieties or rootstocks as well as training more elaborate cordon forms. The rootstocks most commonly used for apples are M27 for small vertical cordons and M26 or M9 for oblique cordons. MM106 rootstock can be used for very poor soil or other adverse growing conditions. Quince C is the preferred rootstock for pears but Quince A and Pyrodwarf can be used for poor soils or other adverse conditions. Most varieties are suitable for training, but tip bearers should be avoided. You can find out if a variety is a tip or spur bearer by referring to the characteristics page for that variety on our website.
As with all restricted forms the mature size is ultimately determined by pruning and training. Once the tree reaches the required height further growth is prevented by pruning. Because of the heavy summer pruning the mature size of a cordon trained tree will be much smaller than the equivalent tree grown in a non-restricted form. While there is quite a lot of flexibility, it is nevertheless important to choose a rootstock appropriate for the space you have available. If the rootstock is too vigorous you would get too much new growth every summer and would then need to prune excessively. If you have too little vigour the tree may struggle to grow to the required size. You also need to take into consideration the growing conditions. If conditions (soil, climate etc) are poor you should err on the vigorous side.
Regular oblique cordons on M26 or Quince C rootstocks would typically be grown up to a vertical height of about 2m (6ft 6in) and planted at a spacing of 1m (3ft). Grown vertically our mini-cordons would typically be grown up to a height of 1.5m (5ft) and spacing of 60cm (2ft). The choice of rootstocks for more elaborate cordon based forms varies with the exact requirements and conditions and cannot be covered here but we would be happy to advise if you contact us.
These are a small group of apple varieties bred from an unusual apple variety called Wijcik McIntosh . They naturally grow in a column form and only occasionally form short branches. The fruit is borne on very short spurs coming off the main trunk. They are both slow and weak growing. So they are usually produced on vigorous rootstocks such as MM111 or MM106 and are much smaller than regular varieties when supplied. They can grow up to 3m (10ft) in height. The only pruning they require is to cut back any branches which form. Please note that there are no Ballerina® trees of fruit other than apples, nor Ballerina® versions of ordinary apple varieties.