Well, what a couple of months we’ve had. After an incredibly mild January, February and March have pulled a double shift on winter weather duty, chucking pretty much the full repertoire of sleet, snow, hail and frost at us, quite frequently all at once. All of which has meant our January plans haven’t moved on as far as we would have liked, but it is what it is: the first thing you learn as a gardener is that you can’t control the weather, you just have to work around it.
That didn’t stop work progressing on Plot #79, our new orchard plot. Orchard-buddy Mike and I covered the plot in heavy duty weed membrane back in December, before planting out 20 trees – stakes, ties and all – in January. We started the job in breezy sunshine and finished it in freezing rain, but we’re now the proud custodians of 11 heritage apples, 4 heritage pears, and one each of quince, greengage, plum, damson and medlar. I’ll write up a more detailed progress report and post that separately.
I also found enough dry(ish) weather at the end of January to prep the slab base for our new shed, which we ordered yesterday. It’ll be with us in 3-4 weeks and that will allow us to finally move all the junk out of the greenhouse and use that as proper growing space instead. Cucumbers, y’say? I think so.
Last week was the first reasonably fine, dry spell we’ve had for a while, and I was able to get on with some of those infrastructure and clearance jobs, that I was really hoping to do much earlier in the year, on our main plot #59. Another half dozen recycled concrete slabs laid along the central path, another couple of square metres of the remaining midden mound – a previous tenant’s rubbish dumb, right in the middle of our plot – dug over and a few more kilos of broken glass, metal, pottery, brick, plastic (you name it) picked out and set aside, ready to dump in the annual site skip. Nothing glamorous, but essential work that’s better done than pending.
Jo and I also spent a few hours yesterday planting out onion sets, sprouted shallots and over-wintered broad beans – I know the weather is due to turn a bit colder again this week, but it’s only a short snap, and the plants need to be in the ground rather than the greenhouse – so they’re providing a bit more green amidst the see of brown earth and wood-chip. I noticed that the gooseberry and jostaberry leaf buds are just starting to break, the rhubarb as well, which is always a good sign that things are finally getting underway.
This week’s forecast of a short burst of cold, wet weather aside, I think we can say it nearly, almost feels like Spring is here. At long last.
In common with much of the rest of the country, we’ve had a burst of proper wintry weather for the past few days: snow, sleet, hail, high winds and rain, usually all within the space of an hour.
Despite the inclement conditions, our back garden is showing signs of precious life. Spurred into action by a mild December, most likely, and probably regretting it just a little now, but clinging on regardless.
Here are a few snaps I took yesterday afternoon, in-between the worst of the showers:
That’s our brand new Witch Hazel. We opted for the ‘Diane’ cultivar because we’re planning on planting a Cornus mas in the same area, which has similar-looking flowers in yellow rather than Diane’s deeper reds. Hopefully they’ll coincide at some point and provide a nice contrast to one another.
We’re not sure whether this is one of the hellebore hybrids that we bought from Ashwood Nurseries a couple of years back, or one of our own hybridised seedlings. Jo has been collecting the latter from beneath their parent plants and carefully potting them up and nurturing them along. Either way, it’s particularly lovely, with that delicate purple rim on the white flowers.
One newly-planted section of our back garden is liberally scattered with primroses. This one tentatively flowered during the mild December and seems to be weathering the worst that January can throw at it since.
A fair fer bulbs and other plants started putting on fresh growth a few weeks ago. Let’s hope they’re not too badly frosted and knocked-back by the recent drop in temperatures.
Here’s an item that allotmenteers might be interested in. Researchers at the University of Coventry, in partnership with the RHS, have published the results of a study into the damaging effects of bad digging practice, along with a few suggestions as to how to improve your posture and technique to help reduce the risk of back and shoulder damage.
Using the University’s 3-D motion capture technology lab, the team assessed the impact of various digging methods in terms of musculoskeletal damage risk. In the researchers’ words: “A novel method of determining joint angles, joint torques, and contact forces, using three-dimensional motion capture and musculoskeletal modeling, was applied to the movements of a sample of workers, engaged in the horticultural task of digging, to determine if objective biomechanical data could be correlated with a subjective visual assessment to predict risk of injury.”
The general conclusion – which was also mentioned in a short article on BBC Breakfast on Monday – is that good posture and practice involves standing as close to the spade as you can, bending with your knees rather than your back, and using smooth, regular actions (top row, below). Bad technique involves stretching and reaching with the spade, bending the back and using jerky, irregular actions (bottom row).
The full study has been published in the journal HortTechnology. One thing I noticed was that the 15 subjects that participated in the study were asked to use the same spade throughout. Which makes sense from the point of view of comparing two digging methods, of course, but it would have been interesting to see if there was any difference between the standard ‘digging spade’ used and a long-handled spade or shovel, which I’m a big fan of. The latter allows for a more upright posture, provides more leverage during the digging action, and seems to encourage more leg and shoulder work, rather than back-twisting, which the study highlights as a particular danger. But that’s just my experience, and a motion-capture study might prove me wrong.
Of course, if you really want to minimise the risk of musculoskeletal damage, you could adopt Charles Dowding‘s no-dig methods and save yourself a lot of back-ache that way.
For at least the past four years, Langley Allotments Plot #79 – the one opposite ours across the road – has been a derelict eyesore. When we first took on our plot, Plot #79 was an overgrown mess of trees and bushes with a collapsed greenhouse and not much else going for it. It’s right in the middle of site, on one of the roads through to the car park at the lower end. It’s also a rough triangle shape, on a fairly steep slope, with a dug-out gulley down the middle, where a previous tenant had attempted to put in a stream.
Here’s a bit of two-year-old Google Maps imagery to illustrate the general shape of things:
Even after the committee paid to have the trees and shrubs ripped out, and the knee-high weeds regularly strimmed, nobody had shown the slightest interest in renting it. Then an idea started to form in my head, which I voiced to the Secretary this time last year: “Wouldn’t it be good if someone really took hold of that plot and turned it into, I dunno, some kind of community orchard or something…”
It turned out I wasn’t the only one who had been having similar thoughts. Fellow plot-holders Christine – who has the plot on the far side of #79 and had also previously rented a strip down the side of the new plot to grow fruit bushes – and Mike, whose plot is on the far side of hers, were both keen to do something similar. And so we had a word with the committee, and a plan was born…
Stage One: Clear The Site
Here’s what the plot looked like before we started:
Mike and I were up for this part of the job, and last November we set to with a will. Of course, it turned out to be much more easily said than done. Aside from the topographical challenges mentioned above, as soon as we started digging we discovered that the plot was absolutely full of all sorts of junk.
Beneath a reasonably thick top-layer of mulched plant material – legacy of successive years’ worth of strimming, re-growth and more strimming – we discovered the remains of the old plot. Including more than one concrete slab path, buried under soil. There was also a lot – and I do mean a lot of plastic sheeting, in various forms ranging from sheet tarpaulin to patchwork quilts of individual compost sacks.
We also had that gulley to deal with: said former tenant had dug a channel and a couple of deeper pools, outlined with sand, then used what looked like a boiler insulation jacket (!) as a bottom layer, covered that with overlapping sheet plastic – rather than butyl rubber – and then lined it with assorted cobblestones. They’d probably spent a fair bit of time wondering why the water kept leaking out of the pool, too.
It took us the best part of six days’ worth of pretty hard slog to lift the slabs, clear the cobbles, drag out the plastic sheeting and pick out as much general plastic litter, broken glass and metal junk as we could. Mike made about six trips in his van to get rid of the bulk of it, and some we stacked down the bottom of the site where the skip will be at Easter, when we’ll load it all up and get rid.
And then there was the perennial weed to tackle. Every time we ripped out another section of plastic, we found a mass of bindweed stem, horsetail runners, or both. That’s the thing about plastic sheeting: it’s good as a temporary measure to kill surface growth by blocking light, but after that the perennials will start using it as a handy shelter, sending their stems questing horizontally between soil and sheeting until they find a chink of light to grow up into.
We also shifted a couple of tonnes of soil around, filling the gully back in and levelling off some of the larger hummocks as we went. Which really annoyed the fox who’d been attempting to dig holes in the soft sand of the gulley’s sides:
We burned a lot of the weed and any other wood that we found when it was dry enough, and Mike was able to run his rotivator over the surface a couple of times. By the time rain stopped play in early December – and hasn’t really let up much since then, apart from allowing us to sneak in one or two more sessions – we’d done pretty well.
There’s still a lot to do, starting with an epic litter pick to get rid of as much of the freshly-unearthed rubbish that’s now lying around on the surface. Then we’ll need to double-check we haven’t left any slab in the ground (we found another buried path right at the edge of Christine’s fruit section and started digging that out before we stopped for winter) and rake the whole lot over to check for sub-surface junk. Then we might be ready to move on to…
Stage Two: Cover It Up
The committee have very kindly agreed to fund the purchase of enough heavy-duty weed membrane to cover the whole plot, through which we’ll plant the trees. Mike’s going to get in touch with a few local tree surgeons to see if we can source enough woodchip to cover everything in a good, thick layer (we reckon 14 tonnes ought to be just enough). And then we’ll be ready to the most important – and enjoyable – phase of the project:
Stage Three: Plant an Orchard
I’ve been in touch with an active member of the Northern Fruit Group who lives in Manchester. He regularly grafts a selection of heritage apple, plum and pear trees, and we’ll hopefully be buying our initial stock of assorted young trees from him. We might have to heel them in on a spare bit of one of our plots until we’re ready for them, but with any luck it won’t be too long before we can get the beginnings of an orchard into the ground.
We’re planning to start with around twenty one or two year old trees to begin with, on dwarfing rootstock, which will hopefully grow into reasonably-sized bush / standard trees. We’ll also be re-laying the path along the long diagonal edge, which is in a shocking state, and hope to erect a post-and-wire fence along it, which we’ll use as a support for a number of diagonal-cordons as well. Eventually, our orchard should consist of between 40 and 60 trees, if all goes according to plan.
I’ll post further updates as and when I have news and photos to share.
Depending on the weather, December and January can seem like a long, long slog through some of the bleakest, wettest, least productive days of the year. But they also offers an opportunity that no allotment holder should pass up on: with no massed ranks of vegetation and no jobs much more pressing than a spot of pot-washing and plant label scrubbing, right now you have the chance to walk the ground when you can really see the site properly and get to grip with the shape, the structure, the bones of your plot.
Now is a great time to examine, assess and think ahead. The joyful, chaotic frenzy of Spring’s seed sowing, pricking out, potting on and planting up is still a good three or four months away. That’s around twelve weeks in which to plan and execute any essential maintenance work, infrastructure improvements or upgrades that your plot needs. Weather allowing, of course, but if all you do is continue to hibernate through to the end of March then that’s a lot of opportunity to toll your sleeves up and get stuck in that you will have missed.
Four years into our tenancy of Plot #59 down at Langley Allotments, and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. A slow couple of years – due to a house move and then the complete re-development of our back garden – has meant that we’re not as far ahead of our stated goals for 2016 or 2017 as we’d like to be.
Here’s a photographic meander up the central path of Plot #59, to give you a general idea of the state of the place. As you can see, it’s far from perfect-looking at the moment, although there’s been such a huge improvement from the early days (check out some of the pics I posted here) that Jo and I can’t help but be proud of all we have actually managed to achieve.
But the past is past and it’s time to look to the future. This year I’m aiming to treat the allotment much more like a part-time job than a hobby or pass-time. The aim – again, weather allowing – is to put in three good (three hours plus) sessions a week, plus weekends, and evenings too, when the evenings are warm enough for me to venture out after tea. Jo works full-time and so will be joining me for weekends and the odd evening or two as well.
So, here are the major goals for the first quarter of the year, taking us from the end of winter through into the early days of Spring and that glorious rush to get growing.
Dig out and prepare a concrete slab base for a small shed / tool store. Buy and install said shed.
Finish as much of the central path – concrete slab again, using any slabs that are salvageable from our forthcoming driveway overhaul at home – as possible, as well as the floral planting beds either side.
Level off and roughly pave the area around the compost bins, greenhouse and shed-to-be at the back of the plot.
Finish any more bed preparation that I haven’t completed yet – I’ve already set up a couple of no-dig beds that I hope to make good use of later in the year.
Prepare a full sowing, propagation and planting plan for the year, and carry out my annual seed audit.
Of course, in addition to the above, Jo and I have also decided to completely re-develop our front garden as well as the back (although we’ll be getting landscapers in for that one, rather than attempting to do the work ourselves) and we still have plenty to do on the back garden as well.
Plus, I’ve taken on a second plot at Langley with two fellow tenants (more on that in another post, soon). There’s also chance I might be studying for an RHS Level 3 qualification (although that might end up on hold for a year). I’d like to do some more volunteering this year; maybe at RHS Bridgewater, maybe at another venue (details pending). And of course there’s my hugely enjoyable part-time job at Ordsall Hall, which accounts for the best part of at least two days per week.
So, yeah, feel free to check back in April to see if it’s been a case of Mission Accomplished or ‘best laid plans’…
Last week, my colleagues on the gardening team at Ordsall Hall and Gardens and I hopped on trams and trains down to Ryton, on the outskirts of Coventry, to visit the headquarters of the UK’s organic gardening movement, Garden Organic.
We were there to meet the team who do the incredibly important work of managing and running the Heritage Seed Library; a repository of heritage, heirloom and orphaned seed varieties that are no longer grown commercially and therefore at risk of disappearing from circulation.
The HSL’s manager, Katrina, very kindly spent a couple of hours showing us around their seed collection and processing facilities, storage areas and growing spaces and it was all rather fascinating. I’ve been an HSL member for a couple of years, including a stint this year as a Variety Champion for French Bean ‘Black Valentine’, and we grow and save seed on the HSL’s behalf at Ordsall Hall and Gardens. So it was a real treat to see how the operation is run, and get a taste of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Huge thanks to Katrina for taking the time out of her busy day to show us around.
Here are a couple of shots of some of the HSL’s seed-winnowing gear. I seem to remember that this vicious-looking contraption, with a sliding panel on top to move those spikes back and forth, is for threshing and breaking open tough seed pods:
A little more towards the technical end of the scale, here’s an auto-winnower, which works by dropping seed into one chamber, and blowing the separated chaff into another:
But most of the HSL’s work is done by hand – either by the staff or their legion of loyal volunteers – such as the measuring of finer seed into packets for distribution to members, using this rack of short lengths of pipe of assorted guages:
And here’s what it’s all about: packets of seeds ready to distribute to the Heritage Seed Library members, for growing, saving and of course, eating the resulting crops:
We also enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the organic show gardens. Perhaps a chilly November day, with the sun dipping rapidly towards the horizon, wasn’t the best time to see the gardens at their glorious best, but there was still plenty of interest in the low-maintenance and therapeutic gardens, the veg growing area, and my favourite area, the heritage orchard:
All in all, it was a fascinating visit to an incredibly important project. Without the work of the Heritage Seed Library, a great many varieties of seed would have been permanently lost. True, not every heritage seed variety automatically deserves to be grown. Some varieties have fallen out of favour because they’ve gradually lost vigour, or have just been superseded or supplanted by better, stronger cultivars – often off-shoots of the originals – which seed companies will naturally prefer.
But in an age of increasing agricultural monoculture, vanishing wildlife and dwindling variety in the shops, it’s supremely important to keep our options open, and our genetic seed stocks as diverse as possible. Katrina told us of a couple of cultivars that the HSL no longer makes available because they became so popular they were re-stocked by commercial seed breeders and are now available in all the major seed catalogues. That, of course, is a major win for the HSL, although they’ll always keep a small batch of seed in reserve – frozen, if necessary – just in case the situation changes back again.
How to Join Garden Organic and the Heritage Seed Library
Now is the perfect time of year to join Garden Organic and take part in the Heritage Seed Library project as a grower, or even a Variety Champion. The new seed catalogue has just been sent out to members (I put my 2018 order in this morning) and it contains a gloriously wide range of heritage and heirloom veggies to choose from. The price of HSL membership is £51 per year, for which you get a full membership of Garden Organic – including their bi-annual newsletter and discounts at their online shop – and a chance to request up to six varieties of seed from the HSL list, plus a lucky dip variety (which has a quite high chance of being Calalloo…) if you’re so inclined.
I’ve been a member for two years now and am looking forward to my third; I’ve grown some fascinating cultivars – runner bean ‘Blackpod’ and pea ‘Kent Blue’ being particular favourites so far – and have enjoyed adding a wider range of vegetables to the harvests from Plot #59. I highly recommend taking out a membership, or buying one for a friend or family member, and doing your bit to help preserve vital heritage seed stocks for future generations.
Last week we had a couple of frosty nights and down on Plot #59 I spotted that our Yacón plants were feeling the effects:
With the frost starting to kill off the leaves and stems, and not much more photosynthesis in prospect, that meant the tubers would probably be as large as they were likely to grow. So I trimmed back the top growth and carefully up-ended the first of three pots to see what, if anything, the plant had produced. I was very happy indeed to find the following:
A few years ago, veg pioneer Mark Diacono wrote a piece on growing, harvesting and cooking Yacón for The Guardian, which explains what happens next. The larger, ‘storage’ tubers are detached from the plant and left for a couple of weeks to sweeten. The smaller, Jerusalem artichoke-like ‘growth’ tubers are the essential part of the crown that needs to be packed in moist, spent compost and stored in a cool, dark place over the winter. It’s the same sort of procedure as you might use to store a Dahlia crown.
They’re very easy to tell apart, as you can see:
With the large tubers detached and sweetening, and the crown carefully packed away for winter, the next stage will be to cook ’em, eat ’em and see if Jo and I actually like ’em or not. (I did try a small piece raw on the spot and it was rather like a juicy radish / sweet chestnut, so I’m probably a fan already). Then then there are two more tubs to come. Apparently the large tubers store really well, so either we’ll be eating them for weeks and months to come, or my colleagues on the Ordsall Hall gardening team will be getting a few more Yacón tubers to try than they’ve been led to expect.
How about you? Have you grown Yacón before? Do you have any top tips for storing crowns or cooking the tubers? Please do let me know, via the comments.
This year we’re growing three Andean tuber crops down on Plot #59: Oca, Yacon and Ulluco. It could also be the last year that we grow the third of that trio. DEFRA – the government’s Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs – have issued a biosecurity warning, because some Ulluco tubers imported into the UK may be infected with several non-native viruses.
The situation is a serious one: the viruses could potentially infect plants of three major families: Amaranthaceae (spinach, beets, chard etc.) Cucurbitaceae (squash, pumpkin, courgette, etc.) and Solanaceae (potatoes, tomatoes, etc.) so that’s a number of our major food crops. I double-check with the head gardener where I work – Lindsay Berry, M.Hort – and she confirmed that yes, this sort of warning should be taken very seriously indeed.
Frustratingly, DEFRA haven’t updated their website with their own biosecurity alert, so I can’t point you straight to the source, but Emma at the Unconventional Gardener blog has posted details of the warning, along with a copy of the DEFRA document that was issued to tuber suppliers and sent on to me by the folks at Incredible Vegetables, from whom we bought our tubers this year.
This is the relevant section of the DEFRA document, with instructions to Ulluco growers:
Ulluco should only be harvested for personal consumption and should not be sold or transferred to other sites (and all tubers should be removed from the soil).
Tubers of ulluco should not be saved for planting in the following year.
If potatoes and species of Amaranthaceae, Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae are also grown nearby to ulluco, these should only be harvested for personal consumption and any seed/tubers should not be saved for planting in the following year.
Any remaining waste from the vegetables, including peelings, can be disposed of in general waste bins to go to landfill and should not be composted.
Remaining plant material (leaves and stems) of ulluco, should be destroyed following harvest, either by incineration (burning on site), via deep burial (to a minimum of 2 m) or bagged and disposed of with waste for land fill.
Remaining plant material or potato and species of Amaranthaceae, Cucurbitaceae and Solanaceae, which you have grown, should be destroyed following harvest, either by incineration (burning on site), via deep burial (to a minimum of 2 m) or bagged and disposed of with waste for land fill.
The planting area should be cleared of all plant material, including weeds.
If any ulluco and potato plants regrow in the following year, they should be destroyed as for the plant material above.
The viruses are potentially transmitted mechanically (on people, clothes, equipment etc.), so hygiene best practice should be followed:
Wash hands with soap before and after working on a crop.
Clean any tools and equipment which have been in contact with ulluco thoroughly to remove all plant material and soil.
Once again, rather frustratingly, there’s no information on how to spot signs of a definite viral infection, or whether the viruses are likely to persist in the soil next season, which of course would prevent growing any crops from potentially infected species. Although, as DEFRA hasn’t told us to immediately destroy all Ulluco crops and remove the soil, it would seem that the viruses in question might need a living host to persist?
In any case, because of the potential risk for mechanical transmission, I spent an unpleasant couple of hours on Sunday dragging half-decomposed vegetable matter out of our large compost bay – to which for the past few weeks I’d been adding the foliage from this year’s squash plants, which had been growing right next to the Ulluco – then bagging it up and taking it to the municipal tip.
So that’s an entire year’s worth of compostable material destroyed, because DEFRA haven’t specified the precise conditions under which the viruses can persist. Still, better safe than sorry, eh? I’d rather loose a year’s compost than risk a future year or more’s potato, tomato, squash and beet harvest.
I just hope we have a decent Ulluco crop this year, to make up for all the hassle.
I’m a huge fan of the whole Cucurbitae family, but particularly squash. I love their savoury-sweet flavour – especially chopped into chunks, oiled, seasoned and baked in the oven until the edges start to caramelise nicely – but also the longevity of the fruits; picked at the right time, well-cured and properly stored they can last right through the coldest months of winter and into early spring.
But I have confession to make: this year I took my eye off the ball at the crucial time (July into August) and let the plants grow and ramble far more than I intended. The result was – rather predictably – far too much foliage and far fewer fruits than I was hoping for. As a result, we’ll be lucky if we get half a dozen good squashes this year, and at least three of those are overgrown courgettes.
But hey, next year will be better – I’ll have more time to keep on top of the plot, seeing as I’ll have finished the hard landscaping in our back garden that’s kept me so busy through the summer – and the harvest will be mighty.
In the meantime, here are a few pics of the squash / pumpkin / overgrown courgette fruits that we’ll hopefully to be able to enjoy eating later in the year.
Squash / Pumpkin
One of the new varieties I tried to grow this year is ‘Ukichi Kuri’, a compact Japanese squash. We have one decent fruit developing at the moment:
Another new-to-me variety this year is the old French heirloom ‘Rouge Vif D’Etampes’, which means ‘bright red, of Etampes’, a town to the south-west of Paris. It still has some reddening to do, but is coming along nicely:
Last year one of our allotment friends gave us a ‘Crown Prince’ squash in exchange for one of our ‘Turk’s Turban’. It was delicious, and even though it’s an F1 variety – which never come true to type if you grow from their seed – I thought I’d give a second generation a go. This is the most promising of the two fruits that have come from the saved seed:
And this is the other, not quite so promising-looking specimen:
We’ll see how they turn out. You never know, they might be absolutely delicious.
Finally, this variety of squash is called ‘blue banana’:
So far, not very blue – more of a mucky dark green – and not very banana-like. But again, the proof is in the eating, so we’ll see how that one turns out.
The ‘Zephyr’ courgettes that we tried earlier in the season were very tasty, and quite unusual with their two-town green and yellow bisected colouring. It looks like they develop into some sort of crookneck squash if left on the plant long enough to mature:
We’ve also got a smallish marrow that we’ve grown from courgette ‘Midnight F1’ and a gem squash from a courgette ‘Tondo di Piacenza’, already curing in the greenhouse.
That’s it for this year. Not quite the haul we were hoping for. But as I said, next year will be much, much better. I plan to nick Monty’s idea for growing smaller squash up stout poles (in our case, Jo suggested using three bamboo canes lashed together for each ‘pole’, which I reckon is a good idea) and also set up a couple of larger manure mounds for the more rambly, ground-hogging varieties.
Earlier this year I talked about establishing our air-pot mini-orchard; three apples and a morello cherry that we’re growing in Air-Pot containers. At the time I mentioned that I was planning to use a Modified Lorette system of pruning in an effort to develop the best possible network of fruiting spurs without over-taxing the trees. This is a pruning method that seeks to establish a network of short, fruiting spurs along the length of a tree’s main branches, which makes it suitable for trained forms such as cordons, espaliers or step-overs (a.k.a. horizontal cordons).
To be honest, he trees we were supplied with are probably better suited to growing in the ground as small standards than as pot cordons. When they arrived they already had quite well-developed branch systems and a couple of their trunks aren’t particularly straight, either. But that’s the risk you take when you mail order, without picking out the specimens yourself. Caveat emptor and all that. If the worst comes to the worst, we’ll transplant these trees to the allotment and start again with more suitable cordon stock.
Persevering for now, the plan for the next few years at least is to restrict the trees’ top growth and keep them at around 5′ to 6′ (1.5m – 1.8m) or thereabouts in height, hopefully allowing their root systems to develop nicely within the Air-Pot planters, and their trunks to thicken enough to take the weight of additional branches.
I’ve unearthed a few more sources of information on the Modified Lorette system recently. The most useful is a detailed explanation in a Natural England Technical Information Note (that link should open / download a pdf document). There’s also this 2009 blog post from one of the gardeners at RHS Rosemoor, and a blog post by a chap called Mark Lee. (See below for the relevant sections.)
So, armed with my summary notes gathered from those articles, I set out last Thursday – a little late in the season perhaps, but hopefully not too late – to assess the state of our own trees and decide what sort of pruning cuts I needed to make this season. Admittedly, I’d already made a few snips earlier in the summer, mainly to control and cut back a few aphid-infested sections, so there wasn’t going to be a lot of new pruning to do.
This tree was probably the best-balanced of the three in terms of its first year growth versus fruit production. It leafed up well, produced plenty of blossom and we had four good-sized and very tasty (if not particularly aromatic) apples from it.
One thing we weren’t made aware of when we bought our trees is that the Cornish Aromatic seems to be a partial (at least) tip-bearer, meaning the fruits form at the end of side-stems, rather than along their length.
This obviously has implications for pruning under a Modified Lorette; I’d have to assume there’s a risk involved in shortening branches to form fruiting spurs if the tree isn’t a spur-bearing fruiter. Looking at our tree, I spotted a number of shorter side stems with a large bud at the tip:
With any luck those will form fruit clusters next year, rather than just growing out and extending the length of the stems. All of which left just one 20cm+ leader to be pruned back to the recommended three leaves:
A quick snip to the top-right and that’s one tree done.
Our second tree has been slower to put on new growth this year, but did produce a fairly prolific crop of apples, which were thinned down to a half-dozen over the course of the spring and summer. Definitely a spur-bearer this time, so an ideal candidate for Modified Lorette shaping in years to come, but not much to prune this time around.
Our third tree produced one lonely little apple which dropped from the tree in July, so no harvest at all this year. Lots of fairly vigorous growth instead, so a bit more pruning to be done here.
Bringing a leader or two back under control should help shape the tree and hopefully prevent it becoming too leggy and thin. And hopefully some of the spurs that are developing will be more fruitful next year.
Although we had a fair bit of blossom earlier in the year, and I took steps to cover the tree with a Cherryaid mesh sleeve once it looked as though the blossom had set, we didn’t have any fruit this year. The tree seems healthy enough otherwise, with good new growth.
Reading the Natural England Technical Information Note though, it doesn’t sound like it’s a good idea to try to cordon-prune a cherry, because they “produce fruits at the base of maiden laterals and along the length of older stems so spur pruning is not suitable, as this would remove the most vigorous fruiting wood.”
I’m going to aim for a fairly compact standard instead, maybe some sort of weeping form. To that end, I’ve trimmed or rubbed off the buds to about half-way up the stem, and we’ll see how things develop next year.
Conclusions and Observations
As you can see, I really didn’t end up pruning too much from the apple trees this time around, although I did make a few more cuts earlier in the year as I mentioned.
I need to re-visit my research on feeding regimes to make sure the trees are getting the nutrients they need at the time of year they need them. Calcified seaweed feed will be on the shopping list to make sure the slight bitter pit that we had on the Cornish Aromatic doesn’t become a regular feature. I’ve already bought a soaker hose, which might help provide steady irrigation when the weather is drier, rather than drenching them every couple of days. And some sort of organic aphid control is a must, as we had a few cases of woolly aphid to contend with this year.
On the whole though, I’m happy that the trees have grown well in their first year and are starting to strengthen. I’ll continue to carefully prune them according to the modified lorette (or not, for the Morello) and see how they go in years to come.
I’m going to replicate the key information from all three above-mentioned source articles here, mainly for my own reference but also in case the original pages are taken down for any reason.
From the Natural England TIN:
Pruning should be delayed until the basal third of new shoots has turned woody and growth is slowing down (to reduce the amount of frost-vulnerable secondary growth). This is usually from around mid-July (pears are normally ready for pruning a couple of weeks earlier than apples).
With the modified Lorette system only maiden laterals and sub-laterals (ie the current year’s growth) that are longer than 20cm are pruned. They are cut back to the third leaf from the base
(not counting the leaf clusters at the base). These short stems will then become the spurs where the fruit is produced.
Weaker laterals are left as they may have fruit buds at their tips. Over-vigorous, upright laterals may be removed completely, or left to draw up vigour and help reduce the amount of
secondary growth formed and then removed in the winter.
Side shoots on more mature laterals should be cut back to one leaf above the basal cluster. Any secondary growth produced should be cut back to one or two buds in September, or over the winter.
From the RHS Rosemoor post:
[Modified Lorette] Pruning does not start until the basal third of a new shoot has turned woody, and growth is slowing down. Timing will depend largely on the weather and which part of the country you are in. Prune too early and the basal buds will break and produce soft growth for the winter. Prune too late and the basal bud will not turn into a fruit bud before the winter sets in.
Once the permanent framework is established pruning cuts are made to one bud from the main stem, if it is the first time the shoot is pruned then cut to 3 buds to help form the spur system.
Pruning is best spread over a 2-3 week period and to further discourage secondary growth, a few vigorous shoots may be left unpruned to act as ‘sap drawers’. Shorten sap-drawers in the spring.
It is recommended that shoots shorter than 9 in should be left unpruned as these often have a flower bud at the top. I find over time that these short shoots tend to produce vegetative side shoots that gradually force the tree further away from their supports, so I prune some of these out.
From Mark Lee’s post:
—Summary of the Lorette System
1. Don’t prune in the winter, except for removing main branches from the framework of the tree.
2. Don’t prune until around the middle of June. At this point in the season, leaves and new shoots are almost fully mature.
3. Only remove branches when they are pencil thickness. Make cuts almost to the base of the branch. Fruit spurs will form as a result where each year fruit will form.
4. Every 30 days of the growing season after the first pruning, remove any branches that are now large enough.
In cool climates, a Modified Lorette System is practiced: one pruning in mid-August to the third leaf of all pencil diameter branches, followed in winter by removal of those same branches down to almost the base where fruit spurs are forming.
Mark Lee’s post also includes some useful commentary on the originator of the system – Monsieur Louis Lorette – and his reasons for establishing his new system, namely:
“Lorette noticed as a young man that well trained trees, pruned carefully each winter, produced much less fruit than standard trees that were left unpruned. Around 1898, Lorette began a series of experiments that showed that apple and pear tree buds formed at the base of a branch are more productive than those formed farther up the branch.”