FRUIT TREE CARE
This year, thanks to support from the National Lottery Community Fund in Wales 'Together for Our Planet' programme, we are delivering an 8-part series on fruit tree care in collaboration with Orchard Cardiff - a not-for-profit community group that helps people harvest, share and enjoy locally grown fruit.
This series of workshops will be covering the basics of fruit tree care through the ages. Including: pruning, wildlife-friendly orchard management, fruit-tree training and integration of organic principles, culminating in an Orchard Celebration in the Autumn focussed around harvesting and preserving.
Fruit Tree Care Workshop@Coed Hills Forest Garden
On a sunny day on the last weekend of March, gardener and educator Stephen Watts, Ediculture led one of the first of the workshops in the series at Coed Hills Forest Garden.
Attended by a range of people interested in fruit tree care in community garden and home garden settings, the workshop kicked off with a tour around the 2-acre Coed Hills Forest Garden where over 150 apple tree varieties and many pears and apples have been planted. As we walked around the forest garden, Stephen introduced us to some of the apple trees, ranging from those that were planted when the forest garden was established in 2009 to more recently planted trees.
"The right tree for the right place" We were encouraged to observe the form of the apple trees and growing habit. It was surprising how varied apple trees can be - from rounded, stout forms to more whispy, elongated forms. We met several Welsh heritage apple varieties including the Bardsey apple - a variety found growing on Bardsey Island, on the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, North Wales which can cope well with wet and windy conditions, St.Cecilia, a Cox Orange Pippin seedling which tends to fruit in November and Wern, a dual-purpose apple (cooker and eater) which can be stored through until early Spring. With so many fruit tree varieties out there, Stephen encouraged us to think about "the right tree for the right place". Plus, as Stephen pointed out, if the variety isn't working out for you, you can always graft another variety onto the rootstock. At the Coed Forest Garden, a number of trees have been cleft grafted -an approach where a new scion of a selected apple variety is grafted on to the trunk of a mature tree.
Most apple trees consist of scions of varieties grafted onto rootstocks that determine influencing fruit tree size and vigour. As you can see in the diagram below, M27 is a "dwarf" rootstock, M9 and MM106 semi-dwarfing and M111 and M25 full size or "standards". Most of the apple trees at Coed Forest Garden are on M26 or Mm106 rootstock. Brogdale Fruit Collections have an information sheet that offers more information about rootstocks.
The first principle of pruning is the removal of dead, diseased and damaged branches - known as the "3D's". After addressing the "3D's", we can then move on to formative pruning, focussed around enhancing the structure and shape of the tree to promote health and fruiting. This includes the removal of branches that are crossing as well as cutting back branches to promote airflow. According to one saying, ideally, a pigeon should be able to fly through the canopy! Fruiting generally occurs on branches between 45-90 degrees from vertical axis, so removal of drooping branches at angles greater than 90 degrees is also recommended.
Whilst there are some schools of thought that encourage fruit tree pruning to achieve a open, "goblet"' shape, more recently orchardists have been following "delayed centre pruning" - which aims to encourage upward growth of the main leader until it has reached the height that is desired for the main framework branches. .
Formative pruning standard tree. First 4 winters. Image Paul Lacey Natural England
Spur bearing versus Tip bearing
Apple trees can produce fruit either on the spurs of branches (on short, stubby shoots called ‘spurs’ which develop on two to three year-old wood) or tips (producing all or most fruit buds on the tips of branches). Fruit buds can be identified as they tend to be rounder and more swollen than vegetative buds. If you are not sure, it can be helpful to delay pruning until the buds begin to swell in March. Be careful not to cut off all the fruiting buds or you will not have any fruit in the following years!
Top tips for pruning
Winter pruning for apples and pears is recommended between November-March when the tree is dormant to help develop tree shape and encourage fruit. Summer pruning between July-September is recommended for espaliers and other restricted forms to enhance fruit development.
Use sharp, clean secateurs and clean the secateurs when you move between trees to reduce disease transfer.
Prioritise the removal of dead, diseased and damaged branches.
When you prune, make a slanting cut around 2mm above an outwards or upwards facing bud. The direction the bud is pointing determines the direction the new branch will grow.
Some people also thin fruitlets in June to leave just a few per cluster so that the apples are bigger.
Following on from pruning, we learnt more about some basic techniques to promote tree health in the first few years after planting.
Firstly, mulch. Applying a few layers of cardboard and 3-5 cm layer of deciduous woodchip or manure in early spring each year helps keep the weeds at bay and supports tree health both via nutrient supply and moisture retention.
Secondly, stake and tie. When planting, it is generally advisable to use tree stakes, particularly in windy sites. Every 6-12 months, check tree stakes and fastenings and loosen if required. Old bicycle inner tubes can be great ways to attach trees to stake that can be easily loosened, extended and re-attached.
Thirdly, observe. Check trees regularly for pest and disease. We recommend using the biodynamic tree paste to support plant health!
Following on from pruning, we learnt more about some basic techniques to promote tree health in the first few years after planting.- a mix of clay, lime and cow manure. To find out more about the tree paste, see the Star and Furrow article (pp. 11-13).
With thanks to the National Community Lottery Fund in Wales for supporting this workshop series.