With chilly nights hungrily encroaching on meagre daylight hours, and the striking colours of Autumn fading with Winter’s frosty grasp, Nature is preparing for a period of rest and hibernation. But for tree nurseries all over the UK, we are now in one of the busiest parts of the season. With the trees in their dormant, winter phase, now is the time to be lifting them from their neat nursery rows, to be sorted, packed, and sent out to customers eagerly awaiting the new editions to their gardens, allotments, smallholdings, city parks and community orchards.
Last month, we undercut the trees, which involves attaching a plough and a winch to the tractor to cut the strong tap roots, leaving the trees still heeled into place, until they’re ready to be lifted. It’s amazing to see how many trees can be undercut in just one day – and certainly beats digging each individual tree out by hand! I’m so pleased with how strong and healthy these nursery trees are looking, a testament to what can be achieved when you work with Nature.
This month we began lifting, packing and dispatching them. Each tree gets a label detailing the variety, rootstock and its plant passport information. Some of the most popular varieties this season have been Eliza Bizley, a rare Welsh cider apple rescued from extinction, Bardsey, a dessert apple rediscovered in the ruins of an old monastery off the coast of the Llŷn Peninsula/Pen Llŷn, Shropshire Lady’s Finger, whose graceful, oblong fruits give it its name, and Adam’s Pearmain, an aromatic, nutty dessert apple whose origins are somewhat unclear (maybe Hereford, perhaps Norfolk…). The Denbigh plum has also emerged as a clear favourite, and it’s fantastic there’s clearly a demand for these distinctive, local varieties. There’s still time to order from our Winter stock, and enquiries regarding appropriate rootstock and variety choice for your site and geographical location are welcomed.
While we’ve been waiting for the tree lifting season to really kick in, I’ve been planting up the cherry orchard with heritage UK varieties Summer Sun (heralding from Norwich), Black Oliver (the Midlands), Hertford (Hertfordshire), and Regina (the outlier – from Hannover, Germany, whose delicious, well-rounded flavour and resistance to fruit cracking mean it’s an exception I’m willing to make…!). After two years in the nursery, these stunning trees have been planted at 2m spacings, for maximum fruit yields. They’ve have been grown on Gisela 5 rootstocks to ensure the fully sized tree remains a manageable height for picking, and will be netted against damage from birds. Netting also affords some protection from late frosts which can damage the delicate blossom and endanger the harvest. This is something of an experiment to explore the results of commercial style cropping using heritage varieties, and a personal challenge to see if I can achieve this kind of management. It represents a departure from my usual style, and from the styles already represented onsite in the orchard made up of cordoned apples, pears, and plums. We should expect the first cherry harvests next summer, a delicious reward to look forward to – which should make up for some very rainy days spent covered in mud, and the frosty, can’t-feel-your-fingers ones too!
In other news…
It’s been an honour to help the Marcher Apple Network steward many extremely rare heritage varieties, by grafting specific cultivars here at the nursery. Amongst them the Sweeney Nonpareil, one of the most local in our collection, originating near Oswestry on the Sweeney Hall estate in 1807 – this visually striking culinary apple made it into the Oswestry Heritage Comics series; and Bringewood Pippin, a rare dessert/cider apple, rescued from near extinction by yours truly – I wrote about in this blog post back in the Summer… Taking grafts ensures that these rare fruit trees are protected, stewarded against loss if the specimen tree should be damaged or succumb to disease, and allows for further research into the different characteristics, growing requirements and disease resistance (or susceptibility). These trees will be in my nursery for a little longer, before heading back to the MAN, where they’ll be planted into their new growing sites, including their specimen orchard in the Welsh Marches, at Frank Matthews’ site, and here in my own orchard.
This October, I contributed to a webinar as part of the Trees Outside Woods project with the Woodland Trust. My talk was on ‘Fruit Trees on the Farm’ where I spoke to farmers and land owners about the opportunities of incorporating apples, pears, plums, cherries and more into existing agricultural systems, as a useful diversification crop which offers many benefits: both financial and environmental. Fruit trees used to be such a staple part of the rural economy, with almost every farm and smallholding having their own orchard, which served as a multifunctional space. Traditional orchards are an example of how agroforestry has been practiced in Britain for hundreds of years, with the co-benefits of the trees including a useable commodity for sale or on farm consumption, and for lambing or as nursing area for sick animals who could shelter from cold winds and frosts, and from the summer heat. As they were once such a quintessential part of British farming life, it’s great to see organisations including Defra, Natural England and our own Shropshire Council taking steps to ensure fruit trees are part of the way we look for climate solutions whilst creating resilient rural economies.
Members of The Orchard Project brought some South-Waleian sunshine with them when they came for a tour of the site last month for a staff development day. It was great to welcome them for a visit and talk about agroforestry and all the different elements of what’s going on here and discuss design ideas. The Orchard Project works to establish new urban community orchards, as well as breathe life back into neglected sites, with the bold aim for every household in the UK to one day be within walking distance from a productive, well cared for community orchard.
And finally… It’s been great to have had so much interest expressed recently by people wanting to learn and improve their skills of fruit tree management. I’ve now set dates for Winter Pruning and Winter Grafting courses, (details of which can be found via the link) as follows:
Winter pruning Friday 3rd & Saturday 4th March 2023
Winter grafting Friday 10th & Saturday 11th March 2023
Places are limited, so get in touch to book.
But before then, we’ll be focussed on getting this year’s nursery stock shipped out – big thanks to everyone whose ordered trees so far! There’s still time to get your order in…