Archive for the ‘orchards’ Category

Tips & Auxins

Monday, April 11th, 2016

The last of the pruning is done, working from a ladder I thinned the growing tips of the trees to ensure the leader is clear of side shoots.  The plant hormone auxin is produced in the growing tips creating cell elongation in plant cells (extension growth).  Removing side shoots allows the auxins to be most concentrated in the tip of the central leader therefore encouraging fast growth in height.

It is a good idea to get the tree to grow to its full height as quickly as possible, once side branches get established low down then they divert sap from the leader.

The pruning goes on…

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Whilst pruning the other day, I was surprised to come across this damage on one of the tree trunks.  I am presuming it is woodpecker damage but I didn’t think they would attack such a young tree nor so close to the ground.  Well I will have to dig up and replace this tree now…

Formative pruning – young trees

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

It has stopped raining, we have blue skies, frost and sunshine – what a delight. I have emerged from my office and the warmth of the woodburner to start pruning the orchard.

Day 1 I made a good start, pruning 86 trees in four hours.   Starting with the youngest trees (aged 4 & 5 years) I aim to create space around each branch and a gentle taper in the central leader with a good framework of near horizontal branches.

On day 2 I reached some older trees (7 years), tall and dense with a good framework of branches, surprisingly I did very little to these, cutting out one or two whole branches near the main stem to encourage a more uniform taper.

Most of the trees in the orchard are too tall for me to reach the very top where some of the leaders need ‘clearing’ of side shoots (removal of competition and thereby increasing the auxins at the main growing tip of the tree), I will have to come back with a telescopic pruner.

I enjoy formative pruning, it is a bit like puppy training – establish the rules early then reap the rewards thereafter. It is a very rewarding job, unlike fruit thinning which went on for weeks and weeks last June.

In summary our young orchard of 450 trees produced 4560kg of fruit in the autumn, all of which was made into cider.

First big harvest

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

Our orchard this spring was a mass of flower, every single tree flowered and set fruit, it was a sight to behold.  However this meant days and days of hand fruit thinning to ease the burden on each of the young trees.  This autumn the trees looked beautiful as they stood laden with brightly coloured fruit, branches bowing under the weight.

The trees are new cider apple varieties that ripen about a month earlier than traditional cider varieties.   We checked ripeness using the standard iodine test where iodine reacts with any starch in the fruit turning it black or if the fruit is ripe (starch converted to sugars) the iodine does not change colour.   The orchard was harvested last week producing 4650 kilos, our first serious harvest!

Orchard notes – Shepton Mallet

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

A beautiful bright sky this morning, cotton wool clouds sailing across a pure blue background, a strong biting wind ruining any plans of enjoying some gentle pruning in the orchard. This morning I was scheduled to welcome Shepton Mallet Horticultural Society to my orchard for a pruning practical but the weather forecast of chilling winds and heavy rain led this to being cancelled; this is the gist of what I was going to talk to them about.

Spacing is a funny thing, books tell you one thing and yet horticulturists constantly bend the rules – and you can if you have a plan. Traditional cider orchards are planted at approximately 10m x 10m with the plan that the grass is managed by grazing animals. It is an extensive and relatively low input system which works beautifully (other than risk of physical damage to the trees and soil compaction if badly managed). In other orchards you will find spacings anywhere from the 10m to an in-row spacing of 2.5m or even less (i.e. the hedgerow system). Inputs increase proportionately with closer spacing as there will be more pests and diseases, more trees to purchase and plant, more supports will be required, more spraying, more mowing, etc….

I find in my job that fruit trees in gardens cause a lot of misery; ‘the tree is shading my garden’, ‘this tree was planted too close to this one what should I do’, ‘my tree is growing too big’, ‘the tree produces far too much fruit’, ‘the fruit make such a mess’, ‘If only I knew how to prune’, etc… Gardeners tend to fear trees that grow beyond their reach and respond aggressively yet horticulture is all about understanding plants and responding or manipulating growth accordingly, it is a fantastic occupation whereby you develop a relationship with each plant through the seasons.

Some knowledge and courage, a good dose of patience along with regular interaction are key when it comes to managing fruit trees.  First, rather than be swayed by romantic notions or impulse buying (1) be sure you do want to plant a tree in your garden bearing in mind its mature size (2) do your research; find out which rootstock is appropriate to your conditions as this will give you an idea of how big the tree will grow, of what sort of staking is required and it will help you decide on an appropriate spacing (3) decide from the outset on the shape of the tree you going to prune to, this will also be influenced by the shape of the tree you are buying.  Plants are among the most forgiving of living organisms, they will grow despite your mistakes or neglect, they will usually give you a second chance however the more knowledge and practice you have under your belt, the more beautiful and fruitful your trees will be.

Rootstocks are not just about final size of tree, more vigorous rootstocks should be chosen on difficult soils (e.g. clay). That said it is a complex balance between choice of rootstock/ soil conditions, vigour of variety (e.g. Bramley and most other large apple varieties are very vigorous trees ), pruning and cultivars that you like to eat and have a use for.

So we come to pruning, traditionally fruit trees were grown as lovely open centred, bowl shaped trees, these allowed good air flow and sunlight into the heart of the tree however these days the trend (particularly in orchards) is for a central leader. Open centre trees require a lot of regular pruning and can suffer from poor (weak) branch angles whilst trees pruned to a central leader will tend to grow taller with good branch angles and a gentle taper from base to tip. I am growing my 500 cider apple trees with a central leader and I am aiming for spiralling layers of branches, about 3 branches per layer, so as to allow good light levels around each branch.

My trees are young and I am in the early days of developing a relationship with them. Some of them are growing ‘text book style’ whilst others can’t decide which shoot is going to be a leader, it is up to me on chilly winter days to make executive decisions as to which stem I elect as leader and which I cut out. My choice may not look obvious right now and my decision will be revisited next winter once I see how the tree responded to my cut(s). It is also now that I can evaluate the quality of the taper on my trees, if the trunk constricts too severely at a point that means that I have too many branches in a ‘layer’ and that the sap is taking the easiest route and being diverted into the branches of that layer rather than flowing evenly up to the tip of the tree. I want the sap to feed each branch equally and I want a gentle even tapering trunk for strength.

I have planted my orchard with an aim, I have an outlet for the fruit ( and I love the idea of transforming a flat field into a dynamic bio-diverse environment knowing that what I am doing has its roots in the Somerset tradition. Since I have an outlet for the fruit, I want to grow a big a crop as possible; I am farming light, light which will interact with the leaves to produce sugars which are converted into woody growth and apples. The taller the tree with beautifully spiralling well spaced branches, the more potential for a good harvest. All I need to do is cut out branches at the trunk in order to preserve the ‘taper’ of the trunk, this is called replacement pruning, it is simple to do and I don’t have to worry about shortening side shoots. If the tree is well pruned in its formative years then it will have the best start in life, just like us. A neglected tree but one which was given a good shape to start with can usually be brought back into shape over a few seasons by appropriate pruning but never remove more than 25% in any one season (little and often is best).

I understand that in a garden setting the aims are usually different and a glut situation is very rapidly reached so you might not want a big tall tree however a big tree is good for wildlife. Trees in the garden significantly contribute to biodiversity and the bigger the better! The more layers of vegetation (height) in the garden, the more habitat, shelter, the more food, the more creatures both microscopic and bigger, the more complex food webs. If you don’t have space for a tree, or trees, you can still have layers of vegetation from short grass to long grass, through to herbaceous perennials, small and larger shrubs plus a few bug hotels strategically placed around the garden.

An apple tree can live 100 years, when you plant a tree you are planting for the future, your choices (of variety, rootstock and spacing) will have a bearing on its chances of growing into a majestic specimen.

Summer management – this is another subject but for now just to say that… young trees (and shrubs) must be kept weed free around their base for at least 5-10 years or longer depending upon the vigour of the plant, this is a very common problem in gardens. If you have a plant growing in the lawn which just doesn’t seem to be putting on any growth it is because of the competition from the grass – hard to believe but true, a very common mistake in gardens.

Crop walking in August

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

A lovely sunny day for my routine crop walk – I walk up and down the orchard rows, secateurs on my belt, gloved hands and a plastic sack.  I give each tree a long hard stare, beginning with the leader then checking each branch from the top to the bottom.

The trees are being eaten – of course they are – this is an orchard which receives the minimum of spraying, an orchard where we are trying to maintain a balance betwee the ‘good and the bad’.

Second generation young Vapourer moth are sitting in the sun ontop of the leaves close to the leader, these are a spectacular looking caterpillar, easily identified.

Also at the top of a couple of trees, on the underside of the leaves, a healthy colony of voracious hawk moth caterpillars, much harder to spot and pick off than the Vapouror moths.  The guilt gets to me but I have to protect my young apple trees whilst I can, in a few years time the hawkmoth larvae will be well beyond my reach.

The bottom of the trees are being eaten too, by deer.  It took a couple of years for the deer to find the new orchard but now they pay it a daily visit and so our deer fence is being extended as I type.

The good news is that we have a healthy population of beneficial insects in the orchard too, I found many ladybirds and spotted a lacewing, hoverfly and earwig too.

A new cider orchard for Somerset – Pylle

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

The third and final phase of planting my 3 acre cider orchard is complete.  The last 2 weeks of dry weather arrived just in time to allow me to plant the last 150 bare root trees, this brings the grand total to 490 trees in my orchard.

I am growing 10 varieties, a mix of bitter sweets, sharps and bitter sharps, these are new cider varieties resulting from a breeding programme, led by Pomologist Liz Copaz, at Long Ashton Research Station in the 1980′s .  These new varieties have been bred for better disease resistance (particularly apple scab), earlier cropping (therefore extending the cider making season), more reliable cropping (as traditional varieties tend to become biennial croppers), and for bigger and juicier fruit!

Planning the orchard was a big task, I had so many decisions to make all of which would have very long lasting effects: which varieties, which rootstocks and what spacing.  Phase I  of the orchard (winter 2010/11) is planted on M106 rootstocks  but I then decided that maybe MM111 would be more appropriate to the clay soil, this was the great advantage of planting in phases – learning from mistakes / acquiring more knowledge.

I have planted at an in-row spacing of 4m with 5m between the rows.  All the trees have established well which is down to the excellent plants grown by John Worle, the use of mycorrhizal fungi and mulching at planting.  Trees are staked and protected with vole guards (which also act against rabbits).

Next month once flowering begins, weekly orchard visits will be vital for early detection of any pest and disease problems. 

The fruit from this orchard is being grown for Pilton Cider, a naturally sparking keeved cider which I defy you not to like!

A difficult year for apples

Thursday, July 12th, 2012
I have just read that “the English apples & pear season this year is delayed by three weeks due to unfavourable weather conditions. Heavy rain, cold temperatures and frost damage have affected some orchards causing the delay. This could result in apple prices rising by as much as 20%.
The Tree Council has reported on the affects of our unseasonal weather on young trees. Following the warmest March in 55 years we had wettest April in 100 years with more rain and high winds in May and June.  Young or newly planted trees are particularly vulnerable to high winds and flooding as they don’t yet have an established root system but there some simple steps you can take to protect your young orchard trees”.
Over the past two winters I have planted 270 cider apple trees, I shall be planting a further 150 this winter to complete my new orchard.  The first winter’s planting is looking good after a difficult first summer last year, the flowers escaped the frost and the young trees are bearing a good crop of apples.  The trees which were planted last winter put on good growth until the deer found them!  Deer fencing is going up as I type.
You can find out more from the Tree Care Campaign website:

Giant apples for cider bar – Somerset

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Cider maker, Martin Berkeley, of Pilton Cider, commissioned me to design and help build his cider bar at this year’s Royal Bath and West Show outside Shepton Mallet.  I made 4 large woven willow apples, the largest of which were up to 2.2m in diameter, they were set off with a 3.5 m high bottle of ‘Pilton cider’.  The stand was certainly original, eye catching  and stylish to promote the new season delicious keeved Pilton cider (naturally sweet, naturally sparkling).

A light prune in the orchard

Monday, March 12th, 2012


This tree was planted last winter, I have thined the shoots around the leader, I am hoping for more growth this summer. 

Phase II of planting is just about complete with  another 110 trees in this winter.  The soil has been mole ploughed although I am going to get some permanent drainage put in too due to the heavy nature of the soil.