Creating an orchard: get planting
The second part of a two-part feature by Jules Moore on creating an orchard
We have lived at Mumbleys Farmhouse for over a decade now and have more than two dozen fruit trees of varying types. Some we have planted ourselves, and others have been put in by delegates on our Orchard Creation & Maintenance Courses which we run over the winter.
I was keen to add another plum to our collection (as one of our rams had learnt to climb hurdles and practically destroyed one of our favourites by eating the bark), so I consulted our local tree nursery, Lodge Farm Trees (www.lodgefarmtrees.co.uk). I specifically wanted a local variety and the owner, Rob Watkins, selected a variety called Smith’s Pruin (a pruin is like a plum, but has a richer flavour, closer to a damson, I am told). This particular tree used to grow on both sides of the Severn Estuary (which is on our doorstep) but now only grows in one orchard in Epney, just south of Gloucester, from whence came our tree’s ‘mother tree’. It is great to be buying local, but quite a responsibility to keep it alive! Reading the nursery’s website, there are a wide range of interesting trees, perry pears being very popular around here, and Rob produces them from tiny little buds removed from branches of the ‘mother trees’ growing in his main orchard. I was tempted by a number of apple trees with interesting local histories, including the Berkeley Pippin , the Arlingham Schoolboys and the Gloucestershire Underleaf. I was less convinced by the variety Hens Turds, but it is, apparently, a great local cider apple and very popular!
To plant any fruit tree, you need to dig a hole in a suitable location. The hole needs to be slightly larger than the rootball, and you should not add any manure, compost or other form of fertiliser. You can add some granules of mycorrhizae, a type of fungi which helps the tree to absorb nutrients more effectively and which is especially useful if planting into poor or depleted ground. Before planting the tree, drive a vertical stake into the ground to support the tree. This will help the tree to withstand any attempts by the wind to heave it out of the ground over the first year.
After you have planted the tree, you can mulch it with compost or manure and should water it in if the ground is very dry. Rob did not recommend using a weed suppressing membrane under the mulch as he has found that voles like to live under these and nibble on the roots at the same time. Your tree should now need no more maintenance until the spring, when it is advisable to remove any blossom for the first year – growing apples in the first year will take a lot of energy that should be used to get the tree established, but I usually find I can’t bring myself to do it and leave just a few on to see what the fruit is like. If the weather is very hot and dry over the summer, give your tree a bucket of water once a week. Don’t be tempted to trickle irrigate it, as this will encourage surface roots which are less drought proof. Keeping weeds and grass away from the base of the tree will also reduce the competition for water and nutrients.
Once your trees are a few years old, it is good to get into the habit of pruning them over the winter, with the exception of plum types, cherries, peaches and apricots, which should only be pruned in the summer to avoid a disease called silver leaf. Little and often is best and you are looking to remove dead, dying or diseased wood, or any which is crossing another branch as two branches rubbing can let disease in. Aim for a goblet-shaped tree with plenty of room for light to get in the middle.
Never prune more than a third from your tree at any one time as this will cause an explosion of young, whippy growth which is, again, vulnerable to disease. Remember, also, that fruit grows more prolifically on horizontal shoots, so favour those over vertical ones. If this all sounds a bit complex, don’t worry too much – just take a step back every now and then to consider the shape of the tree, remember little and often and don’t cut anything too chunky off without stopping for a coffee first!
This type of pruning is also suitable for older, neglected trees, but it is better to take longer with a really large tree, cutting only 10-20% at first. It’s a slow process, but it is very rewarding to see them recover.
We do have some trees which are so large I have never bothered to prune them, but we have found that regular pruning reduces the quantity of fruit on an old tree whilst increasing the size and quality of it.
You can also prune in the summer, though this is harder to get right with all the leaves and fruit in the way. It will also promote more vigorous growth. Also, if you are growing your trees as fans or espaliers, you will need to take more care; pruning to achieve the desired shape.