Tag: pruning

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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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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Autumn-Pruning our Soft-Fruit Bushes

July 2016 - berry harvest
Clockwise from bottom-left: raspberries and blackberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, Japanese Wineberries. Yum!

With the weather holding dry and fair last week, I took the opportunity to spend some time down at Plot #59 and make a start on of the more essential winter maintenance jobs: pruning our soft-fruit bushes.

Soft-fruit crops are among the most useful you can grow on an allotment. They’re perennial, so once they’re in they take very little to maintain, and count towards your area-under-cultivation score for purposes of satisfying the allotment committee’s quotas. The fruit itself is the sort of thing that’s generally classed as a ‘superfood’ (although it seems that pretty much anything fresh is going to be vitamin-packed and bloody good for you). And when you look at the shop-price of a small punnet of raspberries or blackcurrants in the shops, then think of the kilos of fruit you can pick from even a couple of bushes in a decent year, I think you’d be a bit daft not to.

We have a small but highly fruitful selection so far: five gooseberry, around ten blackcurrant, a Japanese Wineberry, three redcurrant and a whitecurrant. We also have a section of assorted raspberry canes relocated from elsewhere on the plot; mostly Autumn-fruiting, one or two Summer-fruiting. We have plans to grub the raspberries up and replace them with named varieties next year, but for now they’re staying put. And we’re hoping to add a few more bushes to the section as well: one or two Jostaberries, maybe a Gojiberry, that sort of thing.

Confession time: we made a bit of a noob mistake when we planted them out back at the start of our allotmenteering and the fruit bushes went in too close to each other. Now, well-established well and with conditions this year proving favourable for lots of new growth, they’re a little too closely packed for comfort. Some of them will need to be relocated, or donated to plot-neighbours. But before that stage, they all need a good winter prune.

I’ve tackled the blackcurrants and gooseberries so far, going over the plants to remove any congested, crossing or damaged stems and branches. I’ll be giving them a second pass shortly, and working on the redcurrants, too, following the generally prescribed method (Carol Klein’s book Grow Your Own Fruit is a good source for general advice).

Blackcurrants: Fruit on new growth. Up to the fourth year after planting, remove weak and wispy shoots to establish a framework of 6-10 strong, healthy branches. After year four, cut out about a third of the old wood at the base to make room for new growth. Continue to remove weak shoots and those leaning towards the ground.

We moved the blackcurrants from elsewhere on the plot, or brought them in from home, so I’ve assumed that they’re all probably more than four years old and so have pruned accordingly.

Gooseberries, Redcurrants, Whitecurrants: Fruit on old wood and at the base of new stems. Shorten leaders back by a third and sideshoots back to two buds to encourage fruiting spurs.

Here’s a before-and-after shot of the largest of the gooseberry bushes. A bit difficult to make out – especially with the different light levels between shots – but hopefully you’ll spot that the second pic is less congested, with a more open, goblet-shaped centre. This should hopefully allow for good ventilation when the plant is in full leaf next year, cutting down on the risk of grey mould infection, and allow plenty of light to reach the whole plant.

November 2016 gooseberry pruning
The aim is to cut down on congestion in the centre of the bush, improving air flow and light levels.

Raspberries (Autumn): Fruit on new canes. Cut down all old canes, right to the ground.

Which is what I’ve done with all of ours. There’s a different pruning regime for Summer-fruiters, which fruit on one-year-old canes which need to be tied in to a support framework. Check out this short GardenersWorld.com video for useful advice from Monty Don.

Japanese Wineberries Fruit on this year’s growth. Sprawling habit, will self-layer (like blackberries, they’ll form roots if stem-tips touch the ground), and can become invasive…

The Japanese Wineberry only gets a passing mention in Carol Klein’s book as a hybrid berry of interest, but I’ve read up elsewhere. Knowing about the tip-rooting habit, I made sure that the one strong stem that grew last year from the newly-planted rootstock (which I think we bought from Beningbrough Hall NT, where they grow them in the walled garden, if I remember it right) was tied to an upright bamboo cane. This year it sprouted prolific side-shoots, all of which developed multiple clusters of delicious berry-producing blossom. After fruiting, these side-stems seemed to die right back, and so I pruned them out as they failed, leaving a single strong, upright stem and three or four smaller side-stems. We’ll see what happens next year: hopefully more of the same, and I might be able to encourage a stem or two to self-layer into pots so we can increase our stock.

Blueberries: Maintain a soil pH of 5.5 or lower, using ericaceous compost or a sulphur-based amendment, and mulching with conifer clippings (a handy use for your neighbours’ chucked-out Xmas tree). For established bushes, remove 2 or 3 old stems at the base to encourage new growth and tip back vigorous new shoots to a healthy bud to encourage fruitful side-branching. These hardwood cuttings can be used for propagation purposes, too.

We have two blueberry bushes growing in large pots at home. I’ll be taking a look at those this week and checking to see what needs doing with them, but as I re-potted them at the beginning of the year, I don’t think I’ll be doing anything too drastic.

And that’s pretty much it, apart from the aforementioned reorganisation and relocation, followed by a good mulching with composted bark.

If you’ve had success – or not so much success – with the same or different pruning and care regimes, please do feel free to share your top tips in the comments below. All feedback and advice will be very welcome indeed.

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Plot #59 Update: April 2016

Plot #59 Update April 2016
A burst of early morning sunshine in mid April 2016.

“April is the cruellest month,” said T. S. Eliot, in the opening line of his epic poem ‘The Wasteland’. He could well have been referring to the tricks that April seems to enjoy playing with the weather. Last year April served up a prolonged, scorching heatwave, followed by a thoroughly miserable, damp cold-snap. This year the month started out typically grey and wet, switched to a few days of August-like temperatures, then conjured storms for the South, dropped hail, snow and sleet on us here in the North, and now seems to have settled back to a steady, spluttering, mucky mizzle.

As a result, Plot #59 has gone from a sodden mud patch to a parched, cracked hard pan and back to a sort of dank dreariness that’s keeping air and ground temperatures well below useful ranges. Recent overnight frosts have meant that seedlings germinated earlier in the month have been kept greenhouse-bound, taking up space that I should be using to sow the next batch of edibles: beans and cabbages in particular. But then I remind myself that last year, due to the house move, we were even later getting most things into the ground and everything quite happily caught up. So there’s really no need to panic. I just have to be patient, keep everything ticking over and moving along when possible. It’ll all come good in the end.

The jobs I have managed to do this month have all been useful ones though. The month started with signs of life in the fruit section and since then the gooseberry bushes have all been given a further pruning and the whole section has been fertilised and then thoroughly mulched with leaf mould. Jo has hacked back a lot of last year’s dead or dying strawberry foliage and it looks like the plants stopped just short of actually putting out blossom in the recent hot spell – the buds have formed but not opened yet – so I’m hopeful that they’ll come along later this year and won’t suffer as badly. We might actually get more than three berries, all being well.

April 2016 - mulched fruit section
A good thick layer of leaf mulch will help keep moisture in.

I finished another one of this year’s Big Jobs when I planted out asparagus crowns on the ridges that I prepared last month. I’m happy to report that they’ve nearly all sent up their first shoots, so I’m confident that they’ll establish well this growing season. I also finished off this year’s potato planting, with main-crop ‘pink fir apple’ joining first-early ‘swift’ and second-early (or main-crop) ‘saxon’. We’re growing around half the number of potato rows that we deliberately over-grew this year. Hopefully this time around we’ll be able to use up all our stored tubers without this sort of thing happening again:

April 2016 potatoes sprouting
Yeah, I think the last of the spuds have gone over…

I’ve put a bit more thought and effort than usual into this year’s carrot and root veg beds after a few years’ of disappointing results in the carrot department and hit-and-miss cropping elsewhere. Here’s hoping all the digging and sieving pays off later in the year. One notable failure already is the Garden Organic clover experiment that I started last month. The combination of scorching heat and cold, dry winds has blasted the seedlings and they’ve all-but died off completely. Garden Organic have sent me a fresh batch of seed, and I’ll be re-sowing just as soon as conditions improve a little.

With sowing and planting largely off the agenda, I did take the opportunity to do some maintenance work on the composting section at the back of the plot. The two compost beds that Jo and I built in our first couple of months, way back in 2014, were cleared of stored pallets, plastic piping and water butts, then turned one into the other and well watered; the first time I’d done that for a good while. A lot of the material was bone-dry, so I gave it a good soaking as I turned it, then covered it all over with empty bin bags, dumped a pallet back on top and I’ll leave that lot to break down for a couple of weeks before I turn it back again. And so on, through the summer and into the Autumn, when the bulk of the fresh material will be ready to add in again.

April 2016 - compost turning
There’s good compost in here, somewhere.

Elsewhere there are promising signs of blossoming fruit trees, and the over-wintered garlic and Spring-planted onion sets continue to grow strongly. The rhubarb patch has finally woken up and our eight crowns are sending up some good, thick, stems. But there’s not a lot else going on, just yet. I get the feeling that it’s all poised and ready to explode into activity just as soon as the temperatures come up a bit and then stay there. We can never rule out late frosts in May, of course, but with any luck we’ll get enough of a run of decent weather to start the process of hardening off and planting out in earnest. I can’t wait to share the summer updates.

By the by, I found time in April to share my recommendations for top bits of allotment kit that you might not immediately think of. Please feel free to take a look and let me know if there’s anything else you’d recommend, via the comments on that post.

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