A couple of weeks ago I enjoyed the opportunity to work on a rather lovely Bramley’s Seedling tree that hadn’t been pruned for a while and was starting to get too big for its space.
The owner of the tree – which was highly productive last year – was very keen that it shouldn’t just be hacked back, but wanted to gain space around the base of the tree for lawn maintenance and accessing the border that the tree is planted.
The clear answer was a crown-lift: removing three large, low-growing branches to reduce crowding at the base and allow in more light as well.
Here’s a pic of the tree, with the three branches marked for removal:
Unfortunately, I forgot to take a pic the side to show just how much it leans out away from the fence: the fence and next door’s garage are to the south to south-west and so the sun is blocked for large parts of the day; the tree grows out into the middle of the garden as a result, looking for light.
The three marked branches plus one more around the back – and particularly that thick one – growing low and potentially dangerous to unprotected eyes, were following the same pattern. In addition, and even more importantly, they were adding a lot of weight to that side of the tree and contributing to the the lean of the trunk.
Here’s a close-up of the area I was working in:
And here’s how much cleaner and less congested it looks after the branches were removed:
I used good, sharp tools – bypassloppers to take back the branches and reduce the weight, then either a Felco F180 or SilkyFox Pocketboy pruning saw to finish – to make clean cuts that should heal nicely once the tree emerges from dormancy. I cut on a good, steep angle to ensure water would run off as well:
Looking at the rings on the cut end, I reckon that branch that been growing and thickening – adding to the weight on that side of the tree – for a good seven or eight years:
(RHS Level 3 revision, anyone..?)
Looking at the post-pruning shape of the tree, although the photo isn’t amazingly clear, you can hopefully get a sense of how much more open and balanced it looks:
Admittedly, there are still parts of the tree that need work: the crown is a little lofty and could perhaps be reduced, and that odd-angled branch on the right of the pic is another possible candidate for removal. But as I judged I’d already removed around 15%-20% of the tree’s canopy, I decided to stop there and not make any other cuts – aside from removing a few damaged or congested smaller branches from the centre of the tree – rather than risk causing too much imbalance in the tree this growing season.
I’m going to go back and take another look at it in the summer to see how the tree has responded to the cuts I’ve made and then I’m hopeful that I’ll be asked back next winter to work on it again: maybe a crown reduction or a more general thinning next time, once that problem branch has been addressed and corrected.
In the meantime, here’s hoping the owner will enjoy another year’s bounteous harvest. The tree is covered in potential fruit buds, so as long as the weather and the pollinators (the tree is less than half a mile from a 15-hive apiary, so that shouldn’t be a problem) are kind, then there should be plenty more apples to enjoy for many years to come:
Last Sunday I girded my loins against the chill and headed down to Platt Fields Park in south Manchester for a day of restorative top fruit pruning. The session was organised and run by The Orchard Project, with The Friends of Platt Fields Park, and was led by Mark Simmonds, a Hebden Bridge based orchardist whose day job involves helping to establish sustainable community co-operative ventures with Co-op Culture.
It was a mixed group that attended. Some previous volunteers, some self-confessed complete novices, and some first-time Platt Fields volunteers – like myself and my good friend Ian P – with a bit more horticultural knowledge. Before we were let loose on Platt Fields Park’s collection of mature and, in some cases, somewhat overgrown fruit trees, Mark provided us all with an hour’s worth of tuition and pruning theory.
That hour alone was was well worth the £10 entry fee. I was greatly reassured when the first thing Mark said was “forget what they tell you in the gardening books, pruning doesn’t work like that,” (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist) and then went on to explain the basics of apical dominance, hormonal balances within the tree, and the importance of focusing on next year’s likely re-growth pattern, rather than what you think the tree should look like once you’ve finished cutting. All excellent stuff, all very well delivered. (More on that sort of thing in another blog post or three, another time…)
Once we’d covered a bit of blade-based health & safety, we were shown the trees and, after a bit more demonstration and Q&A, allowed to start work. Ian and I teamed up with David from the Friends, and made light work of an overgrown apple. After lunch David was needed elsewhere (decisions to be made) so Ian and I cracked on with a couple more trees.
The most extreme pruning job of the day was on a tree that had forked a couple of times near the base, resulting in had four narrow trunk-limbs, shooting up a good three or four metres. It was quite close to three other trees and we spotted a problem at the base of one branch: a bore-hole filled with rotting-down wood. We cut that branch out completely, although unfortunately we discovered that the rot had progressed deeper into the core of the tree:
We were worried that the rot might affect the stability of the tree and so Ian suggested taking the other three limbs right back to shoulder-height. This would lighten the load on those three limbs in case the base rotted further, and Ian pointed out that the Friends could potentially use those limbs as the stock for grafting some new (and named – none of the trees in the Platt Fields Orchard are identified, alas) varieties.
Mark agreed, and further suggested that instead of cleft-grafting this year, they could wait for the re-growth wood to sprout and then use that as the stock to graft scions onto next year. I added that they could make it into a multi-variety ‘Franken-tree’, David liked the idea, and so we went ahead.
This was the result:
I’m rather hoping I’ll be free to come along when the grafting happens next year. I’ve not tried grafting onto a tree in-situ yet, so I’d be interested to pick up a few tips.
More general pruning and tidying went on after that, but as we had paperwork to do before we left, we had to call it a day and could only work on a fraction of the total orchard. It’s a great site, with a large number of trees (80+ mostly apple or pear, some cherry). If I lived closed I’d volunteer to do a lot more work there. Hopefully David and the more local Friends and volunteers can crack on and get some more done whilst the trees are still dormant.
All in all, it was an excellent session. Good weather for the time of year, good company, good knowledge, good practice. A good time had by all.
Mark said that he works and runs workshops with various groups, and on various sites, particularly in West Yorkshire. If you’re interested in orchard work, or just improving your general pruning skills, and get a chance to go along to one of his sessions, you really should.
The Orchard Project work at sites in Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh and London. See the events page of their website for details of upcoming sessions.
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.”
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’:
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:
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.
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:
Malus domestica ‘Blenheim Orange’ is joining in as well:
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’:
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:
And not to be outdone, the Prunus avium (cherry) ‘Morello’ is currently a column of shining star-like flowers:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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…)
Here are the technical details of the trees we’ve bought:
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.
Pete Brown’s new volume of entertaining investigation into the social history of a subject dear to his heart looks at apples and the orchards in which they grow. Anyone who has read any of Pete’s other books – I’ve hugely enjoyed all of his beer- and pub-themed works to-date, including Man Walks Into a Pub, Hops and Glory, and Shakespeare’s Local – will know what sort of reading experience to expect. His style is highly readable; he knows just how to keep the narrative moving along at a decent clip, dropping in historical facts, amusing asides and moments of personal insight with equal measure, but never allowing them to clutter up the prose or divert the flow for too long. The Apple Orchard is true to form: a healthy mix of well-researched social history, pithy observation, personal discovery and plenty of humour.
In The Apple Orchard, Pete turns his attention to that once essential but now, sadly, much-diminished feature of the English landscape. Following the apple tree through the cycle of the year – beginning with the blossom of Spring and ending with a dose of deep-winter wassailing at a cider farm – he examines the humble fruit from perspectives as diverse as modern orchard management, cider production, mythological tropes from the garden of Eden to the Isle of Avalon, apple genetics, historical reasons for the decline in English orchard acreage, current reasons why we see so few varieties on supermarket shelves, tree grafting, proper pruning, the vital importance of European seasonal migrant labour to the UK apple industry, the many and varied benefits of the aforementioned wassailing, the key role in the whole process played by the ancient art of morris dancing, and a whole lot more.
The finished product is a heart-warming love-letter to a way of life that seems to have disappeared from all but the most die-hard apple-producing parts of our green and pleasant land. It’s a very personal exploration, rather than a detailed historical document, or technical analysis of modern apple production methods. It wanders, it meanders, it pokes around in dusty corners, turning up odd facts of interest and uncovering lost gems of once-common knowledge – think QI or Time Team, rather than Timewatch or Panorama – and it’s all the more enjoyable for it. At times Pete seems genuinely astonished by some of the information he uncovers, as he comes to realise that a thing as simple and ubiquitous as the apple lies at the core of a hugely rich history, with a massive impact on the cultural development of humanity, and a state-of-the-art production industry that turns out all the millions upon millions of crisp, red-and-green specimens that are demanded on our behalf by the supermarket buyers.
As a reader, I couldn’t help but be similarly amazed and delighted by those same discoveries and, like the author himself, I came away from the book more than a little in love with the whole concept of the orchard. On finishing the book, I found my head spinning with mad ideas of moving to the West Country and taking up fruit tree management as a new career. Instead I’ll have to content myself with the few potted trees I have on order from the National Collection at Brogdale – a place mentioned often in the book and much-lauded for its work on preserving apple diversity and developing new strains of fruit – and look forward to gently (and quietly) Wassailing them in our small back garden in years to come.
I suspect Pete Brown may end up taking a more involved interest though; there’s a moment or two in the book when I thought I could detect the stirrings of his inner horticulturalist. I enjoyed a similar awakening a few years ago, and it came from the same root that Pete sums up so neatly when he says:
“If you spend most of your day looking at a computer screen in an office, becoming increasingly tied to people who demand responses to emails, tweets and texts within an ever-shorter time-window, you really need to attend the odd Wassail or Beltane festival as a matter of urgency, in a place that has no 4G or Wi-Fi, just to restore the equilibrium. The world of pixels can never replace the feeling of earth beneath your feet and the breeze in your face, the smell of the blossom and the attention-stopping beauty of it.”
Mr. Brown, I couldn’t agree more.
I highly recommend The Apple Orchard to anyone with an interest in apples, orchards or English social history, as well as any and all fans of a light but highly informative read that will leave you craving a Crawley Beauty (they’re a late variety, should be ready for eating around now, if you can find any) and a long walk through an apple orchard next blossom season. Definitely for every gardener’s Christmas list, birthday list and ‘dammit, I deserve a good book’ list.
The Apple Orchard: The Story of our most English Fruit is published by Particular Books (Penguin Random House) in the UK and is available from all good high street bookstores, as well as the following fine online retailing establishments:
The do say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I’ll briefly walk you through the above. From the top-left: a bag of apples and plums donated by a plot-neighbour; the last of this year’s maincrop ‘pink fir apple’ potatoes, with three giant black radishes on top; (in the box) autumn raspberries and Japanese wineberries; this year’s onion harvest, cleaned and trimmed and ready for storage; the first of this year’s ‘turk’s turban’ squashes (we have another nine or ten at varying stages of size and ripeness); a few more courgettes and a smallish spaghetti squash (at least, I think it is…); another bag of fresh runner and French beans, plus an unruly head of bolted purple cauliflower / broccoli.
Not too shabby, if we do say so ourselves.
Coming soon: sweetcorn, which I’m leaving a little longer to enjoy this week’s forecast sunshine, and perhaps the first of the cabbages.