It may have been a few months ago but as I am trying to document everything I am doing for my diploma, I thought I’d do a little write up of a course I went on in January.
After successfully getting lost in the farmland of South Somerset, I finally managed to find the house with the sign saying ‘Orchard Course’. Organised by the Low Impact Living Initiative, it was a one day course on ‘Maintaining an Orchard’.
The tutor was Kevin Croucher from Thornhayes Nursery in Devon, who has decades of experience in horticulture and knows most things there is to know about orchards, thankfully imparting as much of it as he could on to us in the few hours we had.
He talked through the different rootstocks, and how they govern the vigour of a plant but also emphasised the rootstock is never the sole determining factor and that as much work needs to be done to have a healthy soil and surrounding environment.
We were reminded that fruit trees are a domesticated species and while there are all sorts of heritage and local varieties, apples are actually native to kazakhstan and so do not get too bogged down in which species you choice, as long as it meets your needs and suits the site.
He talked about grafting methods, including bench grafting, which is done in January, and in pollytunnels at his place, and field grafting and budding basically done outside and much easier and simpler to do.
The most interesting part of the course for myself was his emphasis of the centre leader framework. This is where one centre leader is identified and supported through subtle pruning, as to make a structurally strong tree. It allows air and light into the crown of the tree and therefore produces a better crop. All of his trees at his commercial nursery are pruned like this.
This differs from horticultural etiquette of goblet pruning, where branches are encourage to spread into a kind of crown. I couldn’t help but laugh at his impression of a horticultural ‘snob’ daintily snipping off little twigs in an apple tree following the most complicated pattern in gardening schooling. Its simple, to keep one branch (the strongest appearing one) as the leader and any pruning you make, you make them as effective as possible, so that tree only has 3 or 5 wounds to heal in comparison to 20 or so.
A maximum of 25% should be taken off in any one year, and he couldn’t stress this enough, if the tree seems to be in a good state following this method, sometimes the tree doesn’t need pruning at all, a method encouraged by Austrian permaculture designer Sepp Holzer.
We then were introduced to some very sexy horticultural hardware – high quality secateurs, loppers and saws. He recommended Felco for secateurs and loppers, Silky for saws, if you can invest in them and take good care.
We then walked round the surrounding land, of Nick Mann’s home, from Habitat Aid, who kindly hosted us. Kevin pointed out where trees had been neglected (Nick had only just moved in so could aptly deny responsibility!) and showed evidence of goblet pruning where the trees had been weakened. He asked us where we would recommend to prune following his introduction and then we all had a go. I learnt to take my time so that when I had finished sawing I didn’t accidentally nip the bark of the tree.
After a totally delicious lunch, with lots of welcomed vegan extras laid on for me, we went down the road to look at a local orchard. Kevin gave a bit of background to the economic situation of why a lot of orchards have been removed and why so many farmers converted to dairy farming because of subsidies. What was encouraging however was that he seemed to think that the younger generation were now more interested in diversity and many new orchards are being planted by landowners.
We calculated the likely costs of restoring the orchard to a commercial standing, in terms of labour and equipment to prune.. yikes! However the clear benefits of having well-looked after trees, that will last for decades shown through. It certainly is all about perennials!
There was so much more to the day. At the end we had a Q & A session and Kevin kindly answered all of my annoying questions about planting green manures and flowers with trees and all sorts. When I returned home I came and gently tried to restore some of our fruit trees in our orchard and now I will just have to wait and see if they have benefited. Not long now!