If the sweet perfume of its blossom doesn't seduce you, then its aromatic fruits certainly will. Anthony Bennett sees the quince as an essential member of the fruit garden
The quince (Cydonia oblonga) has been grown on British shores since the 13th century if not earlier, but gradually fell out of favour over time as apples and pears nudged this humble fruit aside. This is a huge shame, as the quince is possibly the most obliging fruit tree of all – good-looking, easy to care for, requiring no specialist pruning, and producing fruits with an intoxicating aroma.
In their native Iran the fruits ripen to a soft and juicy texture in the long, hot summers, but here they are more likely to remain hard and sour until, that is, they are cooked. Bake, stew or preserve these eager-to-please fruits and they are completely transformed – becoming softer, and releasing their sweet aroma and heavenly taste. Add them to apple pies, bake them with meats or make a quince cheese for the perfect accompaniment to the cheeseboard. The quince also has a high pectin content, which makes it great for jam enthusiasts.
Quinces do well in most free-draining soils of neutral to mildly acidic pH (around 6.0-7.0). They will thrive in earth that remains moist throughout the summer months, so if your ground is particularly sandy it will need ample organic matter dug in to increase its humus content, which will help to retain valuable soil moisture.
Trees need a long growing season to be sure of ripe fruit – pick a sunny, sheltered spot. In northern gardens, care will be needed to select as warm a position as possible. Try, for example, a southwest-facing corner of the garden enclosed by walls to reflect heat back towards the tree.
Prepare the ground before planting by digging out a hole wide and deep enough to accommodate the roots of your new tree. Dig a couple of buckets of wellrotted manure or compost into the soil and sprinkle a general-purpose fertilizer, such as blood, fish and bonemeal, over the surface. Planting positions can be prepared a few weeks in advance to allow the ground time to adapt.
Most quinces come on their own rootstock. Trees can grow to become quite large – expect even the smallest tree to reach at least three metres in height and width. If you have space limitations, pick varieties grafted onto the dwarfing rootstock Quince C for a more manageable tree. For those with larger plots, Quince A rootstocks allow trees to spread to four metres or more.
Quinces are self-fertile, which means it is possible to grow just one tree and still enjoy plenty of fruit. Plant containerised trees at any time of the year, as long as soil conditions allow. Bare-root trees may be planted from early November, once fully dormant. Pick a two-year-old tree that will already have a basic branch structure established. Dig a hole in the prepared earth and spread the roots evenly over the bottom of the hole. Make sure the nursery soil mark, visible at the base of the trunk, is level with the new hole’s depth and fill your pit with the earth, firming as you go. Trees need support in their first few years – drive a tree stake at least 60cm into the ground and tie it to the trunk using rubber ties. After planting, thoroughly water to settle the soil.
As spring arrives add a 7cm layer of organic mulch around the tree to help preserve soil moisture and to gently feed the tree as the summer progresses. The main task in the first growing season is to make sure that your tree has enough water. Keep watering in dry weather, applying generous amounts on each occasion to encourage a good root system.
Over the next three years, the objective is to establish a balanced branch framework. Do this by pruning one-year-old growth back by half in winter to just above a bud. This will encourage more branches to form further down, thereby filling out the tree. In subsequent winters, pruning is simply a question of cutting out any dead, diseased or awkwardly placed branches to keep the crown open and healthy.
As well as the annual winter prune, quinces need a little attention early on in the year. Give them a top-dressing of general-purpose fertilizer each February, just before the tree bursts into leaf. Sprinkle this evenly on the ground under the canopy. A month or two latergive your tree its annual cloak of mulch, setting down a few inches of leafmould, garden compost or similar organic material.
The magnificent quince blossom arrives much later than other fruit trees (usually around May) but even at this time of year frosts are still a threat. If the mercury plummets then cover the blossom as best as you can with a couple of layers of horticultural fleece. If you plant in an area free from frost-pockets you should avoid this problem.
Quinces progress from small, furry fruits to good-sized, pear-like whoppers by autumn. A warm growing season will give a fantastic crop, which should be picked as late as possible but always before the first air frost strikes. Pick fruits in late October or early November and store them under cover in a cool, frost-free location. Given the right conditions there is no reason why quinces shouldn’t keep for six weeks, though they often store for longer and will continue to ripen as they wait to be eaten.
Store quinces in trays or boxes, keeping fruits unwrapped and not touching each other. The quince’s characteristic aroma will quickly permeate the air. This heady scent can taint other fruits such as apples and pears, which necessitates them being kept in quarantine, away from other stored crops. Check your stores every week or so and use up any fruits which you suspect may be about to turn bad.
Only plant in this coldest month when ground conditions allow. Firm back any recently-planted trees that have been heaved loose by frost.
It won't be long before growth resumes. Complete pruning by cutting away dead, diseased or badly placed branches and top-dress with fertilizer.
Keep the area around trees weed-free as spring arrives and temperatures creep up. Finish planting bare-root specimens early in the month.
Maintain weed-free conditions around trees in what can be a very hot and dry month. It is important to watch out for quince leaf blight now.
Trees require little attention as summer progresses, other than keeping the soil moist. Top up mulches if necessary to keep moisture locked in.
Resume planting containerraised quinces and begin preparing the ground for soonto- arrive bare-root specimens. Pick a sheltered site.
Quince Leaf Blight
Fortunately quinces are relatively trouble-free but one disease you may come across is leaf blight. This fungal disease makes its presence felt from early summer when the leaves become infected with deep red spots. These become brown as they expand and link up to form irregular patches. As the disease progresses, fruits can also become infected and the leaves may drop early. The clean parts of blight-afflicted quinces can be eaten, but these fruits won’t store, so use them immediately.
As with all fungal diseases, rigorous hygiene will avoid re-infection. Rake up diseased leaves and burn them, rather than adding them to the compost heap. Cut out any infected shoots and dispose of these in the same way. If your tree has become infected spray it with a copper-based fungicide and do so again in early spring as the buds break.
Related Forum Topics
Quinces: Varieties To Try
These large, tear drop-shaped fruits ripen earlier than many other varieties to give a solid, reliable and aromatic harvest that will prove obliging in jams and preserves.
A relatively new variety, this crop of golden fruits can be sweet enough to eat fresh. They soften on ripening with a mild pineapple flavour.
This it one of the hardiest quince varieties, making it the logical choice for northern gardens. The Lescovaeks fruits are large and shaped like apples.
These large quinces turn pink when cooked, and its unusual colouring in the kitchen makes the variety particularly suitable for preserving.
The pear-shaped fruits of this variety can grow to quite a considerable size. The tasty fruits are great keepers and will store well into winter
Round-headed, medium-sized trees with large, dark green leathery leaves. The fruit has a delicate, golden yellow flesh with a good, rather acidic flavour.
Given a sheltered spot Portugal will crop early in the autumn months, producing oblong-shaped fruits with a dark, almost orange colour that sets it apart from other quinces.
A gorgeous small fruit tree, with large, green-felted foliage. Pale pink blossom in spring is followed by large, mustard-coloured quinces in Autumn.
A more compact shape belies this varietys prolific fruiting habit. Beautiful pink flowers in late May are then followed by earlier-than-usual fruits.
Vranja is one of the most popular quinces thanks to its combination of excellent aroma and truly delicious flavour. The large fruits have a pale golden hue.
The Japanese quince, Chaenomeles, is an ornamental shrub which is related to the conventional quince in name, but produces fruits which are even more bitter to taste when raw. It also has vicious spines to keep out unwanted visitors. The fruits from a Japanese quince can be eaten, but it is wise to wait till they have endured a hard frost and their starches have changed to sugars, which makes them more palatable.
Japanese quinces are highly ornamental plants. The show starts in May when a magnificent floral display garnishes the twisted, prickled branches. The flowers can be pure white, pink, peach or deep red, depending on the variety you grow.
The shrub is tough, and will fare well in the most unpromising of garden soils, whether positioned in full sun or partial shade. In fact, it is resilient almost to point of being unstoppable!