Category: Cottage Garden Project

Modified Lorette System Pruning, Summer 2017

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.

Cornish Aromatic

September 2017 - apple 'Cornish Aromatic'
Strong growth and a few good apples, for a decent first year’s performance.

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.

July 2017 Cornish Aromatic fruitlets
Cornish Aromatic earlier in the season, pre-thinning, with a cluster of tip-borne apples.

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:

September 2017 - apple 'Cornish Aromatic' fruit bud?
One of next year’s apples, waiting in the bud? Here’s hoping it forms fruit.

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:

September 2017 - apple 'Cornish Aromatic' leader
A candidate for pruning, if only to stop the height of the tree getting out of hand.

A quick snip to the top-right and that’s one tree done.

Herefordshire Russet

September 2017 apple 'Herefordshire Russet'
Still a half dozen apples ripening on this tree, hopefully ripening nicely.

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.

September 2017 - apple 'Herefordshire Russet' new growth
There’s really not much here that can be pruned under the Modified Lorette system.

Blenheim Orange

September 2017 - apple 'Blenheim Orange'
Lots of new growth but no usable fruit this season. Better luck next year, hopefully.

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.

September 2017 - apple 'Blenheim Orange' leader
This leading stem was given a trim to bring it back under control.

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.

Morello Cherry

September 2017 - cherry 'Morello' canopy
Plenty of strong growth in its first season from our new cherry tree.

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.

September 2017 - cherry 'Morello' stem
A few side-shoots to trim and buds to rub off further down.

Conclusions and Observations

September 2017 pruning cuttings
Not a lot to remove this time around.

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.

Source Material

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.”

All of which I find rather fascinating.

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Time To Thin Out The Apples

The three apple trees that we potted up into our Air-Pot mini-orchard are all doing very well so far. After blossoming profusely back in May they’ve all set fruit quite well; a couple of them maybe too well.

Here’s a cluster of developing fruitlets on our ‘Cornish Aromatic’:

July 2017 Cornish Aromatic fruitlets
Coming along nicely, but a bit too crowded for comfort – time to thin them out.

As you can see, there are four healthy fruitlets developing at the tip of one branch. This is lovely to see, but it poses several potential problems.

Firstly, too many fruit at one branch tip, getting heavier as they grow, will cause the branch to bend and possibly break off later in the season.

Secondly, if the tree puts out too much fruit in one season it may exhaust its energy reserves and that could prevent it developing fruit buds for next year.

And the main reason: we’re establishing these trees for long-term growth in their Air-Pots and so we’d really like them to focus on developing their roots, rather than fruiting.

It’s all about establishing a healthy basis for longer-term harvests, and that’s why I’ll be out later on with my sharpest scissors to thin those clusters of fruitlets down to one or maybe two fruitlets in each, rather than the three or four that are there at the moment.

The same applies to our Herefordshire Russet:

July 2017 Herefordshire Russet fruitlets
Small but perfectly formed, these russet apples will be delicious when ripe.

This one is a spur-bearer and so the fruitlets are more widely spaced, which makes them easier to assess for thinning. Again though, I won’t be leaving more than maybe five or six fruitlets on the tree this year. It’s best not to be greedy now at the expense of future growth and harvest size.

Finally, our Belnheim Orange only has three fruitlets on it this year, so I’ll be leaving that along to do its thing.

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Air-Pot Mini-Orchard Update: It’s Blossom Time

I’m very happy to report that the fruit trees we bought from Grow at Brogdale and potted up in Air-Pot containers back in February all seem to have settled in nicely and are producing a healthy flush of blossom.

Here’s our Malus domestica (apple) ‘Herefordshire Russet’, putting on a lovely show in shades of pink and white:

April 2017 Herefordshire Russet blossom

Malus domestica ‘Blenheim Orange’ is joining in as well:

April 2017 Blenheim Orange blossom

A little way behind those and looking like it might be a partial tip-bearer (not to self re: future pruning requirements) we have the later-fruiting Malus domestica ‘Cornish Aromatic’:

April 2017 Cornish Aromatic buds

The Malus (crab-apple) John Downie has been on the verge of breaking bud for a fortnight, but very wisely decided to wait for the recent chilly spell to pass:

April 2017 Malus John Downie blossom

And not to be outdone, the Prunus avium (cherry) ‘Morello’ is currently a column of shining star-like flowers:

April 2017 Morello Cherry blossom

In a couple of years time, when the fruiting spur structures have had a little longer to establish, these trees should be absolute stunners.

The next stage will involve monitoring the blossom for fruit-set and then deciding just how many fruits to leave on each tree this year. I think I’ll err on the side of caution and thin down to two or three per tree, as this is their first, establishing season, and I’d rather they put their energy into root development as they settle in to their Air-Pot homes. But if you think that’s over-cautious and there’s a good, hortcultural reason why I should just let nature take its course, please do let me know via the comments.

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Planting Our Fig Tree

I just love the taste of figs. Dried (nature’s toffees) or fresh (as a snack or in a goat’s cheese salad, with honey) I could eat them every day. One of the first things I put on the Cottage Garden Project wishlist when we moved house in Summer 2015 was a fig tree. Jo didn’t mind (she’s quite fond of a fig herself) and so plans were set in motion which culminated in a Fig Tree Planting session last Wednesday afternoon.

Here’s how I went about planting up our Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’. (Having described the process of formative pruning and potting up our apple trees at some length earlier in the week, I’ll try to keep this post reasonably short and sweet…)

Preparing the Fig Pit

July 2016 Fig Pit
Restricted root growth and a sunny aspect – ideal for figs.

Last summer, whilst digging out one of the main planting beds, I prepared a fig pit in the sunniest spot in the garden, up against the wall of the new shed. It’s basically a rectangular hole in the ground, around 1.2 metres deep, lined with roof tiles on top of vertical concrete slabs, with a good 15-25cm of smooth pebbles in the bottom for drainage. The idea is to restrict the root-growth of the fig tree, preventing it from growing into a garden-dominating monster and encouraging it to produce fruit on a regular basis.

Last week, prior to planting, I back-filled most of the pit with a 3:2:1 mix of John Innes #3 loam-based compost, horticultural grit and well-weathered builders’ sand. And then, it was time to plant the tree.

Preparing the Tree for Planting

I ordered the fig last summer, along with the apple trees, from Grow at Brogdale, home of the national fruit collection. They told me at the time that they don’t grow figs themselves, but would order one in for me from another supplier.

Here’s a shot of the roots of the fig when it came out of the pot:

February 2017 - Fig Tree Un-Potted
Not as impressive as the Brogdale-grown trees, plus a dreaded vine weevil grub (circled)

I have to say I wasn’t 100% happy with what I saw. Perhaps I’m just over-thinking it, but the roots seemed a little sparse and a little too dark for my liking. The growing medium itself was very damp – despite the pot being stored in the greenhouse for 2-3 days prior to planting to keep the worst of the rain off – and there was no evidence of any drainage material being included in the potting mix. Plus, there was a vine weevil grub – circled in red on the photo – very much in evidence, which was worrying, to say the least.

I tried to tease out the roots and loosen the compost as much as I could to check for more weevil larvae. I didn’t find any, thankfully, but the roots were breaking away a little too easily for comfort, so I had to stop before I’d checked the entire root ball. Which left me in something of a quandary – go ahead with planting anyway and hope for the best, or ditch the tree and try to source another?

In the end, I opted for giving it a chance and hoping it establishes, sans vine weevil infestation. If the worst comes to the worst, I can always dig it back up and re-plant another specimen. I’ll also try to take a couple of cuttings later in the year and see if I can grow them on as backup, just in case the tree isn’t strong enough to survive whatever next winter throws at it.

Planting the Tree

February 2017 Fig Tree Planted
Fig tree, meet fig pit. May you be wonderfully happy together for many fruitful years to come.

I applied mycorrhizal fungi powder to the root-ball, on the grounds that those roots will probably need all the help they can get, placed the fig in the fig pit, back-filled with more of the planting mix, firmed in well and then watered thoroughly. I’ll apply a final mulch of washed gravel once I can spot enough new growth to know the tree has established successfully. And then we’ll have to see what the harvests are like, most probably in a year or two.

How about you? Do you grow figs? Do you have any top tips or advice to share? If so, I’d love to hear it, via the comments below.

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Establishing Our Air-Pot Mini Orchard

February 2017 potted apple trees
Three apple trees pruned, potted, temporarily staked and awaiting moving to their final growing space.

With the weather turning a little warmer and the immediate threat of frost receding this week, I took the opportunity to pot up our newly-delivered fruit trees. Even more importantly, I gave them a formative pruning to set them up for their future roles as small, hopefully highly productive, fruit-bearing trees.

Here’s how I went about it.

TL;DR Version

This is quite a long post, you might not have time to read it all. In summary: I carried out formative pruning on our three apple trees, training them towards a vertical cordon system. I then potted them up in Air-Pot containers, which they’ll stay in for the foreseeable future, all being well. (Please feel free to scroll on down and take a quick look at the photos, they’re quite self-explanatory.)

Pruning Principles

As I understand it: formative pruning takes place in the first 1-4 years of the tree’s life. The aim is to establish the framework shape and form that you’d like the tree to develop into, and encourage new growth in keeping with that concept. Pruning in winter, when the tree is dormant, generally removes the main, apical buds of individual branches and stems, encouraging new, branching growth from the buds further down towards the trunk. The result should be a bushier, denser canopy and more fruiting spurs.

Once the tree’s shape is well established, winter maintenance pruning removes any dead, diseased or damaged growth, thins out any congested sections and helps to keep the tree’s structure well-balanced, light and airy. Maintenance pruning can also be carried out in summer, mainly to control and manage any of that vigorous new growth that might be getting out of hand and ensure a trained tree conforms to type.

Our Trees

I started out by taking a close look at each apple tree in turn; assessing the existing structure, checking for damage or poor growth and deciding on where and how far to cut them back.

We’ve invested in 2-3 year old small bush trees, rather than maiden whips (single stem) or feathered maidens (single stem with a few small side-branches) to give us a head start on fruiting. As a result they each have between three and six established lateral branches, with one or two leaders. Apart from one or two evident pruning cuts, most of the growth had been left to its own devices, so a lot of the branches were long and quite whippy.

After much research and consideration, I’ve decided to develop our trees as vertical cordons, keeping them permanently potted up in Air-Pot containers. They’re all on dwarfing or semi-dwarfing root-stock, so shouldn’t grow too vigorously, but in order to keep a good balance between a relatively small root-zone and the amount of top-growth, I don’t really want them to grow much taller than two metres (six feet, six) or so.

Cordon Training – Modified Lorette System

Last summer I found a copy of the 1955 Garden Book Club edition of Fruit From Trained Trees by Stanley B. Whitehead, in a National Trust bookshop, for the princely sum of £1. On pages 23-46, Mr Whitehead discusses the establishment of a modern fruit garden that includes trained apple trees in such new-fangled (within the previous 30 years or so) shapes as “cordons”, “espaliers” and “pyramids”. Clearly Mr Whitehead’s words weren’t falling on deaf ears.

The aim of a cordon system is to maintain a single stem (unless they’re developed as ‘U’ or ‘double U’ cordons), with a strong network of healthy fruit-bearing spurs, like so:

February 2017 - Cordon Pruning Diagrams
Stanley B. Whitehead shows us how it was done back in 1955.

According to the current RHS advice on cordons, oblique cordons are more productive, but that’s not really practical with the Air-Pot containers and the space we have available, so I’m sticking to vertical.

Mr Whitehead’s book also makes mention of the Modified Lorette system of formative pruning and a quick Google search suggests it’s a system that’s still very much in use today. In a nutshell (if I understand it properly) it’s a summer maintenance prune that takes all lateral shoots from the main stem or leaders back to three leaves, not including the basal cluster) and any side-stems on the laterals back to a single leaf. This should help to develop the fruiting buds that will provide next year’s blossom and fruit on fruiting spurs. So that’s what I’ll be doing in August.

In the meantime though, back to the formative pruning cuts:

Herefordshire Russet

This tree wasn’t too tall, but had three well-developed laterals with a distinctly downward-slant to them. I shortened those, and took about a third to a half off the twin leaders as well, cutting back to a strong, outward-facing bud in each case.

The second photo shows an example of a pruning decision: to cut at point 1 or point 2. I went for 2, on the grounds that those large, fat buds will hopefully bear blossom and even if we remove the fruit this year to help promote root establishment, it will be lovely to see the flowers in spring. And I can always shorted than lateral in summer if needs be.

Before

February 2017 Herefordshire Russet - before
Horizontal branches are good for fruiting, but these are excessively downward-oriented.

Pruning Decision

February 2017 Herefordshire Russet - pruning decisions
A choice of two potential fruiting buds, by the looks of things… which one to cut to?

After

February 2017 Herefordshire Russet - after
I went for cut #2 and shortened those straggly branches, as well as the main leaders.

Blenheim Orange

This tree was a little awkward, with a double-leader (top-left corner of the pic) coming off from the main stem at quite an acute angle, and several whippy laterals lower down.

I’ve shortened the double leaders by around half, and the lowest laterals to four or five buds, depending on which was outward-facing. I’ve left one lateral, which is growing opposite the double-leaders, quite long to hopefully provide balancing weight and prevent the tree becoming too lop-sided.

Before

February 2017 Blenheim Orange - before
Some very long laterals here, in need of shortening.

After

February 2017 Blenheim Orange - after
The laterals have been cut back and the leaders shortened (just out of shot).

Cornish Aromatic

This tree was, if anything, even more awkward than the Blenheim. The bamboo cane that was used to support it was distinctly curved and it looks like the tree has grown with a definite bowing of the trunk in response. So as well as a less-then-straight main stem, there are three main leaders coming from a v-joint at the top of the stem, and then a couple of quite leggy laterals and three or four skinnier side-stems further down.

I’ve done the best I can for now, reducing the leaders by around a third and pruning back the laterals to four or five buds. We’ll have to see what happens in due course.

Before

February 2017 Cornish Aromatic - before
A couple of needlessly twisty, thin branches here that will have to be shortened.

After

February 2017 Cornish Aromatic - after
Those branches have been clipped back and will hopefully develop fruiting spurs.

Potting Up

With the formative pruning done the trees were all a bit more manageable and less likely to snag and snap on anything; time to transfer them from their training pots to their new Air-Pot homes.

Air-Pots are widely used by commercial growers. The walls of the pots are made up of small plastic cones with the ends trimmed to leave a hole. As the plant in the pot sends out roots, they eventually grow to the end of the cones and come into contact with the air. This dries and kills the root-tip, preventing further growth of that particular root and encouraging new root formation elsewhere. The result is a stronger, denser network of feeder roots, with little or no root-circling and no chance of the plant becoming pot-bound.

If you’re interested in Air-Pot growing, check out Alex Taylor’s blog at Air-PotGardener.com. Alex grows a wide range of crops in Air-Pots and provides plenty of photos of the root systems that develop and the harvests that he achieves. As far as I know he’s not directly associated with the manufacturers of the Air-Pot (although they really ought to be sponsoring him with a few freebies by now…)

Back to the potting up: first job, rolling up the plastic sheet around the base and applying a couple of screw-fasteners to construct the Air-Pots.

Before

February 2017 Air Pots, pre-construction
It takes about 2 minutes to turn these odd-looking bits of plastic into root-growth maximisers.

After

February 2017 Finished Air-Pot
Insert base, wrap sides around, fix in place with plastic screws… voila, one Air Pot.

Next, fill the bottom and as much of the sides of the Air-Pot as practical with John Innes #3 loam-based compost, working it into all those outward-pointing cones. JI3 is quite a rich mix and should provide enough nutrients to give the trees an initial boost once they start to grow and leaf up later in the year. After a couple of months then I’ll need to provide supplemental feed on a reasonably regular basis to keep them healthy and of course, plenty of water.

Then it’s time to knock each tree out of its pot and check the root system:

February 2017 Potted Apple Roots
Good, healthy roots on this Brogdale-grown tree.

Lovely. A bit of circling, but that’s easily dealt with by gently teasing the roots out from around the edges.

I then decided to apply a sprinkling of mycorrhizal fungus powder to each root-ball:

February 2017 mycorrhizal fungi
Applied as a powder, the fungal spores are dormant until activated by warmth and moisture.

Mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial fungi that grow in association with plant roots. In return for sugars taken from the roots, the fungi helps the plant to take up mineral nutrients from the soil more effectively. Perhaps it’s not strictly necessary in the case of a potted tree, but if it aids root development in the vital first year or two, then it’s worth trying.

Finally, back-fill with the John Innes #3 mix and soak with a couple of litres of clean rain water. The results can be seen in the photo at the top of the post.

The trees are currently standing in the shelter of the shed. This is a temporary position and they’ll probably be moved around a couple of times as work progresses on the garden, until they’re eventually put in their final position, when they can be properly staked, and perhaps a support structure put in place, if it seems as though they’ll need one.

I’ll be covering fig tree plating in a separate post, and I haven’t potted up the Morello cherry just yet either, so that’s another post to come.

Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions or observations on any of the above, please feel free to leave a comment, below.

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Now’s the Time For Your Annual Seed Audit

January 2017 seed packets
It’s seed sorting time!

Don’t you just love this time of year? Okay, the weather can be pretty atrocious – the ground tends to swing from too wet to walk on to frozen solid – and maybe there isn’t much colour around to speak of. But hey, that’s just outside. Plenty of time for outside later in the year. Now is the time when you have the perfect excuse for some inside jobs (with hot beverage of preference and biscuits of choice to-hand). And right now, one of the most exciting inside jobs you can get on with is… your annual seed audit!

Trust me on this, there’s nothing like sorting through your seed box on a cold, dark, February evening to get you excited about the horticultural year ahead. All those brightly coloured packets, so full of the promise of wonderful things to come. Here’s your favourite variety of runner bean – remember how fresh they tasted, picked and steamed within half an hour? – and those tomatoes that actually managed to stay blight-free, and a few seeds left from that squash plant that did so well, and oh, yeah, there’s that paper wrap of “special herbs” you picked up at the farmer’s market… er, maybe the least said about that the better. Look, leeks! (You’re on much safer ground with leeks). And beetroot, and courgettes, and callaloo, and calabrese, and okra, and physalis, and kale, and cabbage, and spinach, and… and…

You get the picture. So many seeds. And the best thing to do with them right now is give them a proper sort out. Otherwise, how will you know what you need to go seed shopping for..?

Here are some general, rule-of-thumb criteria that I apply during my own seed audit, offered as a starter-for-ten.

Criteria #1 – Did You Grow These Last Year and Did They Taste / Look Good?

If Yes: You’ll probably want to grow those again, then. If you have any seeds left, move to Criteria #2. If you’ve kept the empty packet to remind you to buy more, add them to the shopping list. Unless you’ve found another variety that’s likely to taste even better, or just fancy a change, of course.

If No: Let’s face it, life’s too short and space is probably too tight to grow crops you know you’re not going to eat (unless you’re growing them for someone else) or flowering plants that just aren’t as attractive as you’d hoped they’d be, or don’t fit in with your overall schemes and plans.

Put them aside and then, when you’ve been through your whole seed collection, donate the unwanted ones to someone who might be able to make good use of them. There ought to be a local school, charity garden, Incredible Edibles group, youth organisation or someone who’ll put them to good use.

With everything that’s left (probably still at least 90% of the total…) move on to:

Criteria #2 – Did You Pay Good Money For Them?

If Yes: You probably had an idea at the time that this was something you definitely wanted to grow. Or, like me, you thought that it would be interesting / challenging / too bizarrely wonderful-looking to pass up on. Whatever your reason, you should really make an effort to sow them this year, before they do go out of date and fall victim of Criteria #3.

Do your research: read the instructions on the packet, or the printed sheet that came with your order, or Google sowing methods, and then make a few notes. Plan ahead so you don’t miss the best sowing window and get those seeds in when the time is right. The results could be amazing.

If No: Magazine freebie? Donation from a well-meaning friend / neighbour / fellow allotment holder? A momentary whim that you’ve de-whimmed on second thoughts? Again, if it’s surplus to requirements, add it to the donation pile.

Criteria #3 – Are the Seeds Still in Date?

Now Then: I know a lot of you folks will swear that stored seed can and will last a lot longer than the dates on the packet and yes, this is probably true in a lot of cases. But having done a couple of RHS courses and been taught a fair bit about plant biology, I’ve learnt that there’s such a thing as ‘seed viability’, which varies according to the type of seed, its ripeness at picking and the conditions in which it has been kept.

If a seed is viable, it should germinate under the right conditions, unless it’s dormant and needs to have its dormancy broken by scarification (scratching the seed coat) or stratification (a period of cold treatment), or soaking prior to sowing. If it isn’t viable, nothing whatsoever will make it germinate, because it’s dead.

If Yes: If a packet is still in date then there’s a good chance that the seed inside should be viable.

If No: If you take best-by dates on seed packets as a general guide then yes, you might get away with sowing them a year or two (or more) beyond the suggested ‘sow by’. Or you might not. The safest way to tell, if you have enough seed, is to perform a seed germination test. Which is very easy to do, and all fine and good, but depending on how many packets of older seed we’re talking about, and how many seeds are left in the packet, germination testing might not be practical.

By way of a compromise, I’d suggest re-buying or swapping for new stock of your very favourites – why risk disappointment? – running germination tests on anything you’ve got spare seed and time for, and then anything you’d like to grow but won’t be upset if you miss out on, you can just sow anyhow, and see what happens.

Don’t Forget to Organise and Take Notes!

Checking through your seeds obviously offers the perfect opportunity to organise them into some sort of order and compile some sort of a ready-reckoner to help you remember just what’s in that overflowing seed box of yours, and when you need to sow it.

2017 seed box
A well-organised seed box is a happy seed box…

I think the easiest way to organise a seed collection is in rough sowing-date order, with monthly dividers to give you a clue as to where you’re up to. At the end of the month, simply move everything you haven’t sown yet that’s still within its sowing window into next month’s section. Leave everything you’ve sown, or honestly aren’t going to get around to sowing, in the current month’s slot, for sorting out in next year’s seed audit.

You may prefer to organise by lifespan (annual, biennial, perennial), height, colour, the section of the garden they’re destined for, or something else entirely. Whatever works for you is fine, of course.

As for the ready-reckoner, my favourite method is to set up a Google spreadsheet and record the pertinent details: veg type, variety, sowing dates, and any specific germination conditions, temperatures, stratification requirements and so on.

If you’d like to take a look at my seed list for 2017, you can visit it here. It’s locked for editing by anyone other than me (no offence, I trust you really, but accidents will happen) and if you’d like to ask questions about anything you see on there, please do feel free via the comments below.

Finally, it’s Time to go Seed Shopping

Of course, the best part of taking stock of the seeds you’ve already got is working out where the gaps are. This gives you the perfect excuse (as if one was ever needed) to start browsing through the seed catalogues, looking for replacements for that all important favourite variety you’re now missing. And while you’re there, it’s a chance to see what’s new and interesting, which new varieties look like they’re worth a try, which old heritage varieties have been rescued from obscurity and might be good to grow.

Here’s a quick link-list of some of the seed suppliers I’ve bought from in the past, or know of from Twitter or online browsing. You’ve probably heard of most of them, but there might be a few independents that you haven’t come across yet. And of course, if you’re a seed supplier that I haven’t become acquainted with yet, or your favourite online seed shop didn’t get a mention, then please do feel free to add a link in the comments, below.

(All suppliers listed are UK-based unless otherwise stated. Links provided for information only – inclusion in the list does not constitute a personal endorsement of a particular supplier.)

Larger Suppliers

Smaller Independents

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Our Fruit Trees are Here!

Last summer, on the way back from our garden-visiting holiday in Kent, Jo and I stopped off at the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale. It turned out to be the day of their annual cherry festival, which looked like a huge amount of fun, but we weren’t there to eat pie or spit pips. No indeed, we had only one thing on our mind: apple trees.

We had two apple trees at our old place – prolific ‘Discovery’ and zero-fruiting ‘Bloody Ploughman’ – and we knew that when we moved we’d really miss having fresh fruit to pick from right outside the door. They’re also an essential part of our Cottage Garden Project plan; to include a good mix of herbs and edibles amongst or alongside the mainly decorative planting beds.

After half an hour talking to Brogdale’s Sales Manager about suitable varieties for our Northern climes, pollination compatibility and dwarfing root-stock suitable for container growing, we placed an order for three apples: ‘Cornish Aromatic’, ‘Herefordshire Russet’ and ‘Blenheim Orange’, one crab apple: good old ‘John Downie’ of the stunning blossom displays and excellent jelly-making, and, yes, one cherry: Morello – I do love ’em sour, and a fig: ‘Brown Turkey’, apparently the most reliable cropper in the UK climate. Of course, they weren’t for immediate delivery. We had to wait for winter, when the trees were in a dormant state, suitable for transporting and transplanting. And wait we did…

…until, as I sat in the pub after my four RHS exams on Tuesday afternoon, a text came through from Jo to say that the end of our driveway was now occupied by a pallet of trees. Huge excitement! Couldn’t wait to get home and take a look. Couldn’t see much in the dark when I got home, of course, except that the order seemed to be all present and correct, and was well-wrapped in cellophane.

Yesterday morning, I headed outside with my trusty knife and, like a kid at Christmas, unwrapped our delivery.

January 2017 Pallet from Borgdale
Now that’s the sort of delivery I’d be happy to come home to any day.

First off: I was very pleased with the manner of the delivery. Although I was out, due to a minor mix-up as to the delivery date (which was entirely my fault for saying “any time after the 7th” rather than stressing “the 8th onwards”…) the delivery driver still not only dropped them off, but fork-lifted the pallet up the drive and placed it neatly behind the bins into the bargain. Fair play and thank you to them for making the extra effort. All the trees were in great condition; a couple of small twigs had snagged in the cellophane and snapped, but nothing worse than that, and certainly nothing you wouldn’t expect on a journey from Kent to North Manchester.

January 2017 Brogdale Order Unwrapped
Removing the cellophane wrap reveals… trees!

The unwrapped trees all looked great. We’ve invested in 2+ year old bush standards rather than maiden whips or feathered maidens – apart from the cherry – to give us that head start on fruit production, and all the trees have a decent amount of lateral growth, as you can see when they were lined up ready to move round to the back of the house:

January 2017 Trees from Brogdale
The full line-up: three apples, and ensemble backing group.

Two of the trees – the crab apple and the fig – are quite small, but that works to our advantage. We don’t want the crab apple to grow too big, based on where we’re hoping to place it in the planting scheme, and the fig is hopefully going to be quite vigorous, so starting off with a small specimen gives us a chance to prune and train it to suit the space.

We also ordered a couple of Jostaberry bushes, which you can see in the pic below. (They’ll be heading down to the allotment in about half an hour…)

January 2017 Smaller Plants from Brogdale
A close-up of the fig, crab apple, Morello cherry and 2 Jostaberry bushes.

Here are the technical details of the trees we’ve bought:

Malus domestica ‘Herefordshire Russet’: M27 rootstock (extreme dwarfing). Pollination group C(3). Diploid. Harvest September.

Malus domestica ‘Cornish Aromatic’: M9 rootstock (dwarfing). Pollination group D(4). Diploid. Harvest September.

Malus domestica ‘Blenheim Orange’: MM106 rootstock (semi-dwarfing). Pollination group B(2). Triploid. Harvest October.

Malus ‘John Downie’: M9 rootstock. An effective cross-pollinator for all three maincrop apples and a source of fruit for crab apple jelly, as well as pectin for other fruit jams.

Prunus cerasus ‘Morello’: G5 rootstock (semi-dwarfing). Self-fertile. Shade tolerant. Harvest July to August.

Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’: Figs are propagated by hardwood cuttings, so no rootstock applicable. Self-fertile. Pollinated by Chalcid wasp. Harvest when ripe, late summer onwards, hopefully.

The next stage will be to transfer the three apples and the cherry into the Air-Pot containers that we’re planning to grow them in for the first few years, at least. All the varieties are grafted onto dwarfing or semi-dwarfing root-stock, so we’re hoping they’ll develop strong root systems, courtesy of the Air-Pot’s air-pruning characteristics and not suffer from having a lack of open ground to grow into.

Formative pruning will be carried out after potting, either as columnar cordons or compact bush shapes. The idea is to fit all four potted trees along the fence outside the back door, without risking the branches becoming congested or tangling with each other. I’ll be reading up on the pros and cons of both methods before I make any cuts, and asking the gardeners down at Ordsall Hall for their advice, when I’m down there volunteering tomorrow.

The fig will be planted into the fig-pit that I prepared last summer. And the crab apple will be planted out in pride of place in the shed bed, once that has been suitably edged, back-filled and the soil considerably improved. It should be happy enough in its pot until that’s done.

What do you reckon? All sounds good, or is there anything I’ve over-looked? Are you a bit of a pruning expert, or have you grown potted fruit trees yourself? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences, down below in the comments.

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Cottage Garden Project Update: October 2016

So here we are at the end of October and, being realistic, at the end of the season for work on the back garden.

It’s been a strange old month, hasn’t it? If, on the first of October, I’d seen an accurate weather forecast for the next four weeks, I might have been tempted to go ahead and order a load of hard landscaping materials, push ahead with getting the trellises in and the patio laid, with the balustrade railings installed to boot. But with the constant threat (if not a promise) of the weather turning wet, windy and a lot more Autumnal at any moment, it didn’t seem worth the risk of getting bogged down mid-job. Plus, laying stone and putting timber in place now would just mean a winter’s worth of lifespan-shortening weathering before we could actually start to use and appreciate any of it. Best to leave it all until Spring.

What I did get on with was digging out the base for the patio area. It’s quite a large area, 3 x 3.7m, with cut-off corners, but then we’re planning on investing in a couple of sun-loungers, so we’ll need the space eventually. Since this shot was taken, I’ve been busy with short lengths of bamboo cane, marked to 10, 12.5 and 15 cm depths, which I’m levelling in to mark out a slight gradient for the M.O.T. limestone sub-base:

October 2016 patio base dug
Dug out, subsequently re-levelled, and to be filled with three tonne of MOT limestone in due course.

You can probably just make out some of the dark-coloured muck – ground up tarmac, or some sort of clinker by the looks of things – that someone, sometime, thought would make a good garden soil, at the back of the house. I’ve been able to usefully re-distribute most of it though, by digging out the usable top-soil from where the main path is going to run (see September’s update for a more overhead plan-view) and back-filling with the useless muck.

This, then, is where we’re up to at the end of the digging year.

October 2016 back garden
It’s starting to take shape, if not actually take form…
October 2016 back garden
Work very much still in progress across the back of the house.

We’ve achieved the following check-list tick-offs to-date:

  • Install new greenhouse and shed.
  • Remove old crazy-paving style concrete patio.
  • Dig, bastard trench, back-fill large planting bed alongside shed.
  • Dig the fig-pit, line with concrete slab and tile, back-fill a third with smooth stones.
  • Dig out main path, back-fill with sand / tarmac grounds.
  • Dig post-holes for trellis panels, front (18″) and back (36″).
  • Dig out area for patio sub-base.

Not too shabby. We’ve also bought, but not yet planted, a few choice specimens: Eupatorium maculatum (for height in one of the beds), Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’ (a rather lovely variegated ivy for the low trellis), Dryopteris affinis ‘Crispa Gracilis’ (lovely, compact, thick-leaved fern) and a pair of rather handsome Miscanthus (ornamental grass, can’t remember the name off-hand).

Although the project hasn’t moved on as far as I’d hoped, that’s partly due to my focus on the RHS Level 2 exams earlier in the year, but mostly down to the soil (or lack of it) conditions. Having encountered nothing but builders’ sand in large parts of the area that I’m turning into planting beds, so having to mix that in with top-soil from elsewhere as I go, all whilst bastard trenching the old lawn – removing perennial weed root by hand in the process – and breaking through a sub-surface pan of compacted clay and silt (see my July update for more on the soil) to boot… well, the job has taken a whole lot longer than digging a similar-sized section on the allotment would have done.

So it goes. I was hoping to have the hard landscaping done and be moving on to initial planting by now, but I’ll have all that to look forward to next Spring. I’ve got a second set of RHS Level 2 exams to focus on between now and early February, then I’ll see what the weather is doing and start making plans for more progress.

Here’s one final, panorama-mode shot of the whole back garden. It’s a bit blurry in the middle (I must have swung the phone around a bit too fast) but you get the gist. When I do a panorama-shot at the end of next year it will look very different indeed, I can promise you that. As I say, I’m hugely looking forward to cracking on with it all in the Spring.

October 2016 back garden panorama
The view across the back, in panorama-mode.

And here, for the convenience of any interested readers, are the rest of this year’s Cottage Garden Project updates:
January | March | May | July | August | September

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Cottage Garden Project Update: September 2016

The weather was kind in September – until the last few days’ worth of persistent, soaking rain, that is – so I’ve been taking the opportunity to push ahead with the hard digging phase of the landscaping.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a bit of a slog: weedy turf to remove (hand-picking the perennial roots out as I go) and then set aside until I’ve been able to clear the top-soil (varying in depth from about two to eight inches) and sand (mixing it together for an improved overall consistency), before breaking through the sub-surface pan by hand (and foot: standing on a fork and working it back and forth has proven the best method). Then the turf has been re-laid, broken into chunks and arranged in a rough mosaic, upside-down, at the bottom of the newly-dug section, with the sandy soil mix (or sand with added soil) piled back on top.

I’ve made good progress though: the shed bed is now dug over and shaped, ready for the addition of plenty of organic matter in the Spring, before we start any serious planting (although one or two plants may live in there over winter, nursery-bed style). I’ve also dug out a couple of the path sections and back-filled with a mass of sand, ready for a layer of weed membrane and, eventually, gravel on top.

I also dug a good-sized sump at the far end of the path, where the down-spout from the shed spews its rainwater. About eighteen inches deep, filled in with all the rougher chunks of stone and brick I’ve removed from the shed bed, all well stamped down and topped with a layer of finer gravel. As it happened, the mid-September storm hit a few hours after I’d finished it, turning sump into pond… but only temporarily, so I think it seems to be working.

I’ve dug a trio three-foot post-holes as well – they were fun, I found a sub-layer of solid clay about eighteen inches down, which had to be carved out with a hand trowel – on the off-chance that the weather clears again long enough for me to get posts in and a couple of six-foot trellis panels fixed up, although I’m not sure that’s going to be possible before the onset of Autumn’s wet season (as opposed to Summer’s wet season…)

Here’s an out-of-the-bedroom-window pic of how things are coming along, overlaid with a general outline to show how we’re intending to divide up the space:

September 2016 Cottage Garden Project progress
The general outline – click for a much larger version.

All in all though, I’m pleased with how much I’ve been able to get done so far, considering the ground conditions I’ve been working with. One more path section to dig out and sand in, up the centre of the grassy area. And then the larger bed to dig out once conditions improve again towards Spring. That should be a little easier; there’s a much deeper layer of topsoil to work with, so less juggling of soil / sand mixes etc. to slow me down.

Still to do in addition to that: installing the aforementioned six foot trellis panels, another, shorter trellis panel at the near end, a wooden arch across the path and an Indian stone seating platform nearer the house; edging the beds with split-log chestnut hurdles (we’re fetching those from a chap in York); digging compost / manure in to the main beds and mulching with composted bark; gravelling the paths, and then, the good bit: planting up. Jo and I are definitely looking forward to that, although it’s not going to happen this year as we’d originally hoped. So it goes. Slow and steady wins the race.

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