Learn about fruit tree step-overs and why they’re becoming so popular with gardeners.
What is a step-over?
A step-over is a low growing tree, typically being around 45cms in height. It has a single branch either side of the trunk that has been trained horizontally, (miniature espalier). Depending on variety, a step-over will grow on average to 2 metres wide and it gets its quirky name from the fact you can literally step over it!
Step-overs are becoming extremely fashionable as they provide a solution to fruit growing in the smallest of gardens, they are also often used to define areas, making an attractive division on the allotment or vegetable patch, or a novel edge to a pathway.
The fruits themselves (Grow offers apples and pears trained in this form) grow from “spurs” along the horizontal branches. Of course, being a fruit tree, they also have the benefit of stunning blossom. Where several are planted, they soon form a beautiful edible hedge!
How we grow fruit tree step-overs
Our step-overs start off life as a maiden tree, that has been grafted from the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale. We select the appropriate dwarfing rootstock, which is suited best to the particular variety being grafted. Some of the older, rarer, trees in the collection are naturally dwarfing and so we are able to use our experience and knowledge to ascertain, when a slightly more vigorous rootstock is better suited.
If you are wanting to train your own step-overs M9 is probably the most widely available rootstock to use. M27 is the smallest of all apple rootstocks currently but this is best suited to more modern, commercial varieties.
The maiden tree (young tree) is grown on for a year and then pruned down to the desired height. When dormant in the winter (normally 45cms) the fresh spring growth is then tied in on the training frame and allowed to continue to grow.
We do not offer bare rooted trees in this form as step-overs require dwarfing rootstocks and we find that our pot grown trees have a stronger, more established root system without the risk of being damaged when lifted.
How to plant step-overs
When planting your fruit tree step-overs, we would recommend installing a simple post and wire system. You will need just one row of wire, tensioned at one end (you can buy a tensioner block to make light work of this). The opposing end of wire can be threaded through an eyelet (vine eye) and simply screwed into your post.
To plant, simply take the tree from its pot, you can add a handful of organic matter to the planting hole if you wish, well-rotted manure is our favourite medium. When in situ remove the bamboo growing frame and gently secure the two branches onto your wire system. Pipe cleaners or soft covered ties are preferable as they will not damage the delicate growth.
Maintaining your step-over
It is important to keep an area around the trunk of the tree free from competition from weeds and grass. If other plant material is allowed to grow it will have first dibs at the nutrients and moisture in the soil, depriving your tree of what it needs.
Allow a distance of 2m from trunk to trunk when planting more than one step-over. Keep your trees well-watered through dry spells, they do not have big enough roots to fend for themselves yet!
Mulching is a good way to feed your fruit tree step-overs, suppress weeds/grass etc, and to lock in moisture. You can do this in the spring or autumn. Liquid seaweed can be used on a regular basis as an additional feed (Monty Don has “feeding Fridays!).
As your tree grows, a little maintenance work will need to be carried out each year, to keep the tree in shape and to continue to be healthy and productive. In the growing season (July/August). Once the arms are established, cut back the laterals that emerge from them to three or four leaves above the basal cluster.
Shoots that emerge later on can be pruned back hard to one or two leaves to avoid congestion. Pruning in this way will allow fruiting spurs to develop over time. If a leader tries to emerge, simply prune this out.
When step-overs fruit
In years when a bumper crop is produced, you will need to thin out the fruit to ensure that there is room for the remaining fruits to develop properly and be of good quality and to avoid the tree from becoming exhausted and move into a biennial cropping habit.
For up-to-date availability of our ready trained step-over apples and pears, visit our website
Apple step-overs available at £40.00, Pear step-overs available at £42.00 prices correct August 2021