It’s the time of year to prune apple trees. We used to have an old orchard, and I loved renovating the apple trees there; it was amazing to see them springing back into life with renewed vigour. They must have been around 80 – 90 years old, so towards the end of their time, although pruning will extend their lives. This is one of the reason why orchards are such good habitats. Apple trees don’t last long, so there is always lots of dead and rotting wood around, with their attendant flora and fauna.
There are several reasons to prune, which you should bear in mind. Firstly, remove badly placed and rubbing branches, which can be an entry point for infection. Then think about increasing the light and air flow through the tree, to reduce the risk of infection and help apples ripen properly. I also cut out diseased wood rather than spraying a tree with fungicide to help biodiversity. You also want to manage the tree’s shape so it doesn’t blow over or risk losing major limbs in windy weather.
I was always told not to be frightened of taking too much off an old tree – up to 25% as a guide is fine – and to concentrate on taking bigger branches off to reduce the number of wounds. An old apple grower in Kent used to say a well pruned tree was one you could throw your hat through!
The chances are good that when you renovate an old orchard you’ll find heritage apple varieties. Many have only gone out of fashion because they don’t keep, bruise in transit or look asymmetrical. Think about grafting from the cuttings, to perpetuate part of our rural heritage.
If you would like to know more about pruning have a look at this helpful video introduction from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species – big orchard fans because of their importance as a habitat for so many rare flora and fauna.
Like 99.99% of the population I’ve never seen a partridge in a pear tree. There are hardly gazillions of partridge around anymore and there are even fewer pear trees. I don’t understand why, as pears have so much going for them. I’m particularly fond of them because they’ve got something for all, from humans to everything else down the foodchain.
Pears as edible fruit are a bit tricksie. They’re either hard as bullets or the wasps have got them. Do not despair! Mrs. Mann has discovered the answer – mulled pears (thanks to River Cottage’s Pam Corbin). Yummy. If you’re not talking about edible varieties but rather Perry Pears, then power to you. A good Perry is a delightful and rare thing, and like a Mazzard aPerry Pear is a handsome ornamental tree. Fruit needs pollinators. Where local ecosystems are in a mess, as in places in the U.S. or in China, they’re imported in vast numbers. Millions of honeybees are driven across the States to pollinate almonds in California, blueberries in Maine and citrus fruit in Florida. But it’s a two way street; fruit trees are excellent news for bees too. They produce masses of early blossom, ergo masses of early pollen and nectar for hungry honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees. And not so early blossom too; a well-chosen mix of “top fruit” and soft fruit can provided huge amounts of forage from February to May. Apple varieties like James Grieve were grown by the Victorians as much for their beautiful blossom as their fruit, and pear blossom is spectacular in early spring.
This is one of the reasons why traditional orchards were the star of October’s excellent British Wildlife magazine. Orchards are great for wildlife – and not just because of their blossom. Different types of fruit tree decay at different rates, but they all give up the ghost quicker than our native trees, which means habitat for all sorts of interesting and endangered goodies. Pyrus (pear) decays relatively slowly, then Malus (apple), and quickest of all are Prunus (cherry, plum, etc.). A mixed orchard will provide saproxylic flora and fauna a wonderful range of niches to thrive in.
These include the Noble Chafer, a nice little chap British Wildlife describes as “iconic” and “charismatic”, which might be taking things a bit far, but you can appreciate their enthusiasm. There are also the moth caterpillars which eat fruit tree leaves and the six invertebrates associated with Mistletoe, which itself thrives in orchards. Further up the foodchain it’s no surprise that bats and a wide variety of birds love orchards, especially insectivorous and cavity nesting species. The traditional orchard floor is rich in fungi rather than wildflowers, as its soil tends to be too rich for a diverse sward to develop, but is still a valuable resource for wildlife – particularly in the autumn when covered with windfalls which are a boon for late butterflies and birds like thrushes and Blackbirds (“Colly Birds”), together with small mammals like Hedgehogs. At Hookgate Cottage we are working on a planting plan which involves a more complicated understory, including nut bushes and soft fruit. Many orchards used to work this way. The gardener’s happy – it looks interesting and it’s low maintenance. The cook’s happy – all sorts of interesting culinary opportunities. And as for the wildlife… biodiversity is first cousin to utility as well as it is to beauty.
The best time to plant trees and shrubs is now. The bare root trees we sell are not only cheaper but will also do much better than pot grown, and are best planted over the winter when the plants are dormant.
I want to grow some fruit trees, but where do I start? I don’t understand pollination groups or rootstocks, or the difference between a stepover and a cordon and a maiden and a bush. Help!
It’s a familiar cry. Folk quickly get bogged down when they’re shopping for fruit trees, as there are so many varieties and options open to them if they want to do things properly, rather than nip down to the nearest B&Q and end up with the wrong type of fruit tree. I’m faced with the same problem at the moment as we consider the possibilities for our new garden, so I went back to basics…
1. Which fruit do I/we like? Grow the fruit you want to eat! Delicious they may be to some, but I’m not very keen on Medlars – so there’s absolutely no point planting them. Although it’s easier said than done these days, try to find different varieties to taste. Although they’er not West country varieties, I’m a big fan of the apples Ashmead’s Kernel and St. Edmund’s Pippin, which we’ll be planting; I originally tried them at a local farmer’s market – no way would you find them in a supermarket.
2. What am I going to use the fruit for? Is there a keen cook in the house? If there’s someone who wants to make jams and flans it will not only influence the varieties you buy, but also the volume of fruit you can deal with. You’ll also need appreciative consumers. You might not like cider, but everyone loves home made apple juice – which you can freeze as well as drink fresh. An orchard sized apple tree can produce something like 1000lbs of fruit – that’s a lot of apple juice! If you have several of one type of fruit, make sure they ripen at different times and/or that you’re buying a variety that stores well.
3. Do I want anything else from my fruit trees? You may have secondary considerations to think about, maybe aesthetic. You might want particularly attractive blossom, of a certain colour and/or timing, or you might like nice looking fruit. In the Mann household there are other considerations too – I like early flowering varieties for my bees, which leads me to looking at more exotic options like Almonds.
4. How much space do I have? By grafting onto rootstocks of different vigour you can have a tree of the same variety but very different size. Obviously, you’ll get less fruit from the smaller trees, but they can be a lot more convenient. We only sell varieties grafted on larger rootstocks – see here for details of sizes and planting spaces – but you can find really dwarfing rootstocks or, alternatively, “cordons”, which can be planted under a metre apart. You can buy trained forms as well, to grow up walls and along paths.
5. What are the local conditions like? It’s no coincidence that we are surrounded by apples as we have heavy soil and wet weather, which puts paid to Quinces, for example. Perry Pears do well hereabouts too, which explains why Babycham was made down the road. Plums, on the other hand, prefer lighter soils. They will stand the wind though and, consequently, work well in exposed sites or around the edge of a mixed orchard, where they will protect other trees. By way of contrast pears need sun and shelter. If you’re not sure what will do well in your own garden, do some research. Have a look around to see what’s growing close to you, and find out if there are any trees which have either orginated from the area or were widely grown.
6. Do I need to think about pollination? Mostly not. Apples are easy; there’ll generally be another apple or crab apple within a quater of a mile to act as a pollinator. Most plums and gages are self fertile. The only tricky customer is the pear, most of which are self sterile, so will need at least another tree in the vicinity. If you’re worried consult a pollination list, but I suspect the most important thing you can do to encourage pollination is to encourage the pollinators. Build your own solitary bee box or buy a posh one from us; they really work, and more bees means more fruit.
7. How big a tree should I buy? This is a different question to any consideration about rootstocks. You can buy a one year old “maiden” tree, which is little more than a stick, and if it has been grafted onto a vigorous rootstock it will grow into a tree over 4m tall in no time. It’s tempting to buy as big as tree as you can find; you’ll get fruit quicker and it will look more impressive where you need it to. On balance, though, try to avoid it. It’s not so much the obvious cost differential as how well the tree will develop – you’ve got a much better chance of successfully growing a long lived and healthy tree from a small sapling as from a larger tree (say 6 foot and over) that’s been wrenched out of the ground to get to you. You won’t have to stake it or dig a whopping big hole to plant it in, and it has a much higher % of its root system intact. Simples. Within a few years the sapling will overtake the bigger tree anyway. Don’t – whatever you do – buy some fancy semi-mature or even mature fruit tree. It will cost you a fortune and it will fall over.
I’ve put a tentative fruit tree order in for this autumn’s bare root planting season; you can see it on the plant list on the Hookgate Cottage site. I’ll be getting the trees from me, if you see what I mean, but if you don’t buy your trees from Habitat Aid please use a specialist British nursery.
Much as I love Autumn the weather this week has been hard to bear, coming as it does hard on the heels of the last episode of Downton Abbey (incidentally, what one could do with staff!). This year’s cider is safely abed, as are the bees, and we’re bottling the sloe gin ahead of the North Dorset Rugby Club Christmas Fair (don’t ask!). Although we’ve just about finished bulbs now, we’re at the start of the bare root season so it’s organized chaos (or perhaps I shouldn’t say that – “very busy” perhaps). I’ve been delighted by the number of traditional fruit trees we are selling, where we’ve almost become victims of our own success as we’re already sold out of a number of apple varieties. We’ve now listed them on the website by region of origin, which seems to have gone down well.
We’ve extended our range by adding another supplier, Ian Sturrock, to our list. Ian specializes in old Welsh fruit trees, so we’re now able to sell apple trees like Anglesey Pig’s Snout and Pigeon’s Beak. We are now also working with Dulford Nurseries in Devon, who we are using to supply extra-large sizes of native trees.
Our big corporate news is still largely under wraps, so I can’t reveal too much until the New Year, but we’ve teamed up with Hilliers to produce an exciting new range of meadow products which will be sold through their retail, mail order and online networks. Without wanting to sound too much of a suck-up I’m delighted; we have been looking for a reliable, supportive and ethical retail partner for a little while (it’s harder than you might think!) and Hilliers fit the bill perfectly. A portion of the profit on sales of the products will go to either Butterfly Conservation, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, or the Grasslands Trust, and we will be using the opportunity to promote them as well.
We’ve been very active on the social media front, and now have well over 500 followers on Twitter, some of whom listened to my latest appearance on lovely BBC Somerset (if you can “appear” on radio?). The website currently has its highest ranking yet in the UK according to Alexa (well in the top 15,000!), which has been helped by some kind references and blogging ranging from the stroppy to the fruitily esoteric.
My marketing efforts over the winter will be aimed at landscape architects. We’ve picked up more business from them as a group as we’ve gone along, but we need to promote ourselves much more heavily to them as suppliers of native plants and seeds in particular. If you’ve got any helpful contacts please let me know!
Oh – and “Habitat Aid” is now a UK trademark. That’s got to be worth a few quid even if everything else goes pear shaped. That’s Perry Pear shaped, of course.
How many fruit trees are there in this story? Mostly varieties of apple, but with some others thrown in for good measure. You can count a variety more than once if it is repeated.
The Bloody Ploughman
They found the dead boy in the parsonage just after the coronation of George V. I remember it because I went to Ascot with my mother and nanny to see the new Queen, and came back tipsy after too many Gin Martinis. James Grieve, the young ploughman, was in the potting shed, where he had been beaten with the heavy rock which now lay beside him. There was a distinct aroma of brandy about, which had been spilt on some sacks, and signs of a struggle, including a broken hoe.
The harvest festival party was the night before and many of the revellers had stayed on, including the party from the big house, who had been enjoying Lady Henniker’s hospitality. Lord Lambourne, back home from service in the Middle East with the Grenadier Guards, had found the body. His spartan exercise regime took him on a jog around the village shortly after sunrise, and when he passed the forge he noticed a trail of blood leading under the parsonage gate on the opposite side of the road. He called for help when he found the dead youth, and old Fred the blacksmith came running. Fred was the butt of a great deal of ribbing from the jesters in the village. He was known to his friends as the Cornish Giant and to his enemies as the Missing Link. Anyway, he fetched Doctor Hogg from Sandringham, but even the great man couldn’t do anything. He did notice a curious feature of the killing, though; someone had left a cat’s head close to the body, covered by what seemed to be green custard.
The delicious Annie Elizabeth, local coquette, was the main suspect. James had rejected her advances in favour of her rival in love, the wealthy Ruby Thorn, renowned Beauty of Bath. Nothing was ever proved, however, and soon after the murder war broke out. Lord Lambourne went on to become a pilot in the RAF and was badly wounded trying to escape from his cockpit at the climax of the Battle of Britain. Ruby met Lord Derby (the Olympic gold medal winner) at the Yalta Conference, and the Reverend Wilks married them at St. Cecilia’s after the war. Annie Elizabeth died on Victory in Europe day in 1945, some say of a broken heart. Others reckoned it was the cider.
When we first moved into the village the noise of apples being dropped into buckets was, as much as Robins singing at dusk, one of the defining noises of autumn. Then the cider factory up the road stopped taking local apples and the orchard fell silent. Since when, though, inspired by traditional local cider makers like Hecks and Julian Temperley we have formed a village cider co-op. We now make an invigorating cider we called Bullbeggar, after our local spirit (every proper village in Somerset has a ghost). With Hecks’ help we bottle some for sale locally and in London, and sell the rest in the barrel at local fetes and festivals. The process starts with harvesting the apples, on an afternoon either on or close to the official Apple Day. Ern’s orchard is proper kit – a really nice mix of traditional cider varieties – so interesting to work in. The weather is aways glorious, as is the gossip and the tea. Community, local history, local food, habitat. Fantastic.
It’s September, and we’ve picked our early apples for juicing – despite the sheep’s close attention. It’s funny to think of the generations of apple pickers there have been in our orchard. It was on the earliest map of the village there is, and we’re just up the road from a late Roman settlement; I can perfectly well imagine the Saxons having the same arguments with their sheep in the same place.
We’ve recently started to value traditional orchards for their ecology; since 1997 they have been Biodiversity Action Plan priority habitats:
Traditional Orchards are hotspots for biodiversity and have been shown to provide a refuge for over 1800 species from the plant, fungi and animal kingdoms.
We’re also now valuing traditional local fruit varieties to eat (and drink!) of course, partly for environmental reasons and no thanks to the supermarkets, which aren’t set up to deal with localised purchasing. As for their aesthetic beauty, that’s never been in doubt – our Perry Pears are every bit as amazing in flower as any of the cherry blossom I saw in Japan when we lived there. The clincher for me, though, is the local and historic context of these old trees.
The fruite of apples do differ in greatness, forme, colour and taste; some covered with a red skin, others yellowe or green, varying indefinitely according to the soyle and climate; some very great, some little, and many of a middle sort; some are sweet or tastie, or something sower; most be of a middle taste betweene sweete and sower, to which to distinguish I thinke it impossible…
John Gerarde, 1597 (quoted in The Common Ground Book of Orchards)
No wonder; there are supposedly 6,000 varieties of apple in Britain. Like all the other varieties of traditionally grown top fruit here, they are all closely associated with their own areas and the history and social structure of their local communities. Where we are, in Somerset, the landscape is still dotted with mixed farm cider orchards full of local trees, many of them named after their villages. Originating within 10 miles of us, according to the Somerset Pomona we have Cadbury, Dunkerton’s Late, Honeystring, Neverblight, Norton Bitters, Pennard Bitter, Pig’s Snout, Porter’s Perfection, Silver Cup, Somerset, Sweet Pethyre, Yarlington Mill… And historical apple trees? You can still buy varieties dating back to Roman times. We sell trees grown from a graft of Isaac Newton’s tree and Hunthouse, the Yorkshire variety that Captain Cook took with him on his travels to fight scurvy.
One of the things I am most happy that we have done is to help Common Ground promote as many of these local varieties as we can and to help Ian Roger sell them. To my enormous pleasure we are now even selling Perry Pears and Mazzards (edible wild cherries) to add to traditional fruit trees like Mulberries, Medlars and Quinces and local varieties of Gages, Plums, Damsons, Pears, and Cherries. Beauty of Stoke, Claygate Pearmain, Cornish Gilliflower, Crawley Beauty, Keswick Codling – there will be an apple or other fruit which is local to you. If you had the choice – and they were similiar prices – would you buy a sofa from Ikea or one designed by a local expert for your house? Even if you’re thinking about just popping a small fruit tree into your back garden don’t just pick up something from B&Q, but find a local variety. Chances are it will do better – and you’ll be contributing to a rich and ancient local heritage.