Tag: orchard

Introducing Plot #79, Orchard-in-Progress

Apple Harvest
This is what it’s all going to be about…

For at least the past four years, Langley Allotments Plot #79 – the one opposite ours across the road – has been a derelict eyesore. When we first took on our plot, Plot #79 was an overgrown mess of trees and bushes with a collapsed greenhouse and not much else going for it. It’s right in the middle of site, on one of the roads through to the car park at the lower end. It’s also a rough triangle shape, on a fairly steep slope, with a dug-out gulley down the middle, where a previous tenant had attempted to put in a stream.

Here’s a bit of two-year-old Google Maps imagery to illustrate the general shape of things:

Plots #59 and #79 as of 2016?
A couple of years out of date, but not much had changed since…

Even after the committee paid to have the trees and shrubs ripped out, and the knee-high weeds regularly strimmed, nobody had shown the slightest interest in renting it. Then an idea started to form in my head, which I voiced to the Secretary this time last year: “Wouldn’t it be good if someone really took hold of that plot and turned it into, I dunno, some kind of community orchard or something…”

It turned out I wasn’t the only one who had been having similar thoughts. Fellow plot-holders Christine – who has the plot on the far side of #79 and had also previously rented a strip down the side of the new plot to grow fruit bushes – and Mike, whose plot is on the far side of hers, were both keen to do something similar. And so we had a word with the committee, and a plan was born…

Stage One: Clear The Site

Here’s what the plot looked like before we started:

November 2017 Plot #79, from top-left corner before
Looking down and across the plot from the top-left corner, with Christine’s fruit bushes on the left.
November 2017 Plot #79, from top-right corner before
Looking back down and across from the top-right corner.
November 2017 Plot #79, from bottom corner before
Looking up from the bottom corner towards the road.

Mike and I were up for this part of the job, and last November we set to with a will. Of course, it turned out to be much more easily said than done. Aside from the topographical challenges mentioned above, as soon as we started digging we discovered that the plot was absolutely full of all sorts of junk.

Beneath a reasonably thick top-layer of mulched plant material – legacy of successive years’ worth of strimming, re-growth and more strimming – we discovered the remains of the old plot. Including more than one concrete slab path, buried under soil. There was also a lot – and I do mean a lot of plastic sheeting, in various forms ranging from sheet tarpaulin to patchwork quilts of individual compost sacks.

We also had that gulley to deal with: said former tenant had dug a channel and a couple of deeper pools, outlined with sand, then used what looked like a boiler insulation jacket (!) as a bottom layer, covered that with overlapping sheet plastic – rather than butyl rubber – and then lined it with assorted cobblestones. They’d probably spent a fair bit of time wondering why the water kept leaking out of the pool, too.

It took us the best part of six days’ worth of pretty hard slog to lift the slabs, clear the cobbles, drag out the plastic sheeting and pick out as much general plastic litter, broken glass and metal junk as we could. Mike made about six trips in his van to get rid of the bulk of it, and some we stacked down the bottom of the site where the skip will be at Easter, when we’ll load it all up and get rid.

And then there was the perennial weed to tackle. Every time we ripped out another section of plastic, we found a mass of bindweed stem, horsetail runners, or both. That’s the thing about plastic sheeting: it’s good as a temporary measure to kill surface growth by blocking light, but after that the perennials will start using it as a handy shelter, sending their stems questing horizontally between soil and sheeting until they find a chink of light to grow up into.

We also shifted a couple of tonnes of soil around, filling the gully back in and levelling off some of the larger hummocks as we went. Which really annoyed the fox who’d been attempting to dig holes in the soft sand of the gulley’s sides:

November 2017 - Plot #79 foxhole
Fantastic or not, Foxy was going to have to find somewhere else to live.

We burned a lot of the weed and any other wood that we found when it was dry enough, and Mike was able to run his rotivator over the surface a couple of times. By the time rain stopped play in early December – and hasn’t really let up much since then, apart from allowing us to sneak in one or two more sessions – we’d done pretty well.

November 2017 Plot #79, from top-left corner during
From the top-left corner again, and looking much better already.
November 2017 Plot #79, from top-right corner during
Another look from the top-right corner, with most of the surface weed and rubbish gone.
November 2017 Plot #79, from bottom corner during
A big improvement after about six days’ hard slog with forks, barrows, buckets and rotivator.

There’s still a lot to do, starting with an epic litter pick to get rid of as much of the freshly-unearthed rubbish that’s now lying around on the surface. Then we’ll need to double-check we haven’t left any slab in the ground (we found another buried path right at the edge of Christine’s fruit section and started digging that out before we stopped for winter) and rake the whole lot over to check for sub-surface junk. Then we might be ready to move on to…

Stage Two: Cover It Up

The committee have very kindly agreed to fund the purchase of enough heavy-duty weed membrane to cover the whole plot, through which we’ll plant the trees. Mike’s going to get in touch with a few local tree surgeons to see if we can source enough woodchip to cover everything in a good, thick layer (we reckon 14 tonnes ought to be just enough). And then we’ll be ready to the most important – and enjoyable – phase of the project:

Stage Three: Plant an Orchard

I’ve been in touch with an active member of the Northern Fruit Group who lives in Manchester. He regularly grafts a selection of heritage apple, plum and pear trees, and we’ll hopefully be buying our initial stock of assorted young trees from him. We might have to heel them in on a spare bit of one of our plots until we’re ready for them, but with any luck it won’t be too long before we can get the beginnings of an orchard into the ground.

We’re planning to start with around twenty one or two year old trees to begin with, on dwarfing rootstock, which will hopefully grow into reasonably-sized bush / standard trees. We’ll also be re-laying the path along the long diagonal edge, which is in a shocking state, and hope to erect a post-and-wire fence along it, which we’ll use as a support for a number of diagonal-cordons as well. Eventually, our orchard should consist of between 40 and 60 trees, if all goes according to plan.

I’ll post further updates as and when I have news and photos to share.

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Book Notes: The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown

The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown, published by Particular Books
The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown, published by Particular Books (Penguin)
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, by Pete Brown, published by Particular Books
The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown, UK hardback
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:

Amazon* | Book Depository* | Hive | Waterstones | WHSmith | Wordery

* = affiliate link – if you buy the book from here I’ll earn a small referral fee, which will go towards my next gardening book or packet of seeds.

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