Orchard notes – Shepton Mallet

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 (piltoncider.com) 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.