Thursday, 12 November 2015

Orchard time - part 1 (getting diggy with it)

The Old Apple Orchard, Wisbech St. Mary
by Michael Shirley

One of the main reasons I chose this house was because I wanted to be able to grow my own fruit and vegetables. I've been a long time reader of sci-fi and fantasy, and in most fantasy novels the protagonist wanders through an orchard and takes refuge sitting in or under an old fruit tree. I love the old orchards you see dotted around both the Dutch and British countryside, with gnarly mature trees spaced out irregularly across a field which is grazed by fluffy cloud-sheep. I tried to get apple trees growing in my old UK home, but never really had either the time or the space to make a genuine orchard. Most trees take up a lot of space and resources in an urban garden unless you aim for mini-varieties, such as 'ballerina' apples, which I did . There is also  growing trend in multi-fruit trees where you can have multiple different varieties grafted on to a single root stock , so can have more options in a smaller space. The lack of space didn't spoil the joy of being able to harvest your own fruit and eat perfectly ripe, perfectly fresh luscious plums and apples during the summer. And it's particularly exciting to be know that the varieties are heritage ones, not something you would be able to purchase in a supermarket or grocers shop. For those of you in the UK, I highly recommend the Brogdale Trust which is the home of the National Fruit collection and sells a wide range of heritage trees.  However, I've always wanted an idyllic grassy orchard to spend a summer afternoon reading in, and the lure of a field I could plant up was far too much to resist. 

As I'm trying to do a lot of the renovation of the house and grounds on a tight budget, I've had to be a lot less picky about varieties, and to focus more on price point in order to find sufficient trees to get the first field started. I've found that Dutch garden centres have mass clearouts of old stock at the end of the autumn season : most people don't want to spend a lot of time in the garden over the winter and it's obviously better to get some money for plants than none. I think I may have gone a little shop-happy with the sale prices! Unusually they are also selling off their tree stock, despite the fact that October - Dec is the best time to plant trees.

With most fruit trees, it's not enough to buy the trees. You need to make sure you can actually get fruit from them.  Hold on to your seats, folks - we are about to go super technical and deep dive into a hidden world of apple tree sex. There's a lot of similarity in other fruit ( pears, plums, cherries ), and in order not to bore you I'm going to stick to apples which is the majority of our stock.

Let's start with genetics! Most apples are 'diploid'  - have two sets of chromosomes. These chaps are the norm in fruit stock. A few are self pollinating (happy chaps!) - can create fruit from their own blossom - but most have to have pollen from compatible partners, and are often picky daters. The key to attaction is all in the timing : early bloomers will pollinate other early bloomers, early-mid will pollinate early mid etc through 4 groups. Although there is some crossover between groups, you are gambling that the season is clement and that the blooms are around at the same time. Some apples though are 'triploid' - three sets of chromosomes. These chaps are essentially mules - sterile. They don't pollinate other trees reliably if at all, but they can be pollinated by other trees. So,good to have for the fruit, but don't count them in your pollination rota.

With the potluck approach to buying trees, having a list of pollinating groups is super important. The Royal Horticultural Society have a useful PDF which you can print or save on a phone or a tablet to take with you when shopping. It's a little limited once you cross out into the EU as suddenly there are lots of varieties which aren't commonly found in the UK. That said, with a bit of extra google help and the assistance of the garden centre staff, I have pollinating partners for most if not all of the trees. Those that are missing will have to be a special order at a later date - but definitely this winter, before it's too late to plant trees.

Planting is simple if  hard work : the soil is fertile, but has large lumps of clay in it. For each tree, we needed to dig a hole that was at least a yard wide in each dimension and boy did people feel that the next day! Then add lots of lovely compost, some fertilizer, the tree itself and bed in with the soil previously dug. A lovely tip from a knowledgeable digger - if you are digging through turf, you can place the turf layer upside down ontop of the tree hole to help keep the non-grassy area clear. The grass will die off, and will act as a supressant, slowing down the regrowth of the grass back into the hole. And  with such young trees, keeping a square of clear land around them is important to give them the best start in life. We staked each tree on the side of the prevailing wind - discovering as we did that the prevailing winds in this part of North Holland are completely un-intuitive and definitely completely different to the UK. to attach the trees to the stake, I am used to rubber tree bands and was surprised to find that the nursey recommended using what looked like safety belt material from car seat belts. I decided to give it a try and it's up and supporting the trees so I won't get the opportunity to see if I can upcycle it from a car scrapyard - but it seems like a clear re-cycling opportunity , rather than buying from new. For the couple of remaining trees still lacking a tie, I will be using the tried and tested route of old laddered tights.

After a couple of weekends of hard work - made much easier by some very kind helpers both times -there is now  the start of a beautiful orchard at the bottom of the garden. W is even starting to look like a young farmer !

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