New Year, New Beginnings

Welcome to 2024! A tad late for a Happy New Year message, but what the heck. Here’s hoping it’s a good year for you and yours, as well as your fruit trees and bushes, your harvest, your cider-, jam-, and jelly-making, and so forth.

I’m very glad to report that my year has started really, really well. Firstly, I finally got to have a go at making Norfolk Biffins. For the past four years this has been something I’ve been really hoping I’d one day be able to do and I had a lot of fun experimenting with the method. The finished results weren’t perfect, but they were perfectly, deliciously acceptable for a first attempt. I look forward to having another go next year, or the year after, assuming my ‘Norfolk Beefing’ tree produces enough apples.

Secondly, my mate Steve and I have been able to make a start on re-organising the cordon apple trees down on the allotment. As I mentioned last month, I’ve decided to remove a stepover and three cordons that were planted years ago, although sadly on the wrong – too-vigorous-for-training, MM106 – rootstock.

Here are the three cordons in all their leafy glory, last September:

The third tree from the right – you can just about make out the main trunks at the bottom of the photo – is a ‘Belle de Boskoop’ that had already been summer pruned – breaking my usual rule-of-thumb – back in June, so that’s all just three months’ worth of re-growth. Ridiculously over-vigorous for the space and the purpose, which is why it, and its two neighbours, plus the ‘Blenheim Orange’ stepover – which made for a great hedge but terrible fruit production – had to come out.

All four trees were cut back hard – top growth and roots alike – before they were lifted, the soil knocked off their remaining roots and the rootballs bagged up. They were then transported up to Holly Mount Community Orchard in Greenmount, north of Bury, where they’ve been added to a few other recently-planted trees. I’m sure, given their general vigour, that if they get enough water and light this year they’ll be re-sprouting in no time, and will re-grow into handsome bush trees in the years to come.

But that’s not the big news. No, the really big news is that, thirdly, after a year and half’s worth of temporary contracts at RHS Bridgewater, I’ve now secured a permanent role as a gardener for the National Trust, at Quarry Bank in Styal.

It’s an absolutely gorgeous site, with plenty of horticultural variability, from trees and shrubberies, to perennial herbaceous planting, to formal mixed perennial and annual borders, to woodland areas, to kitchen gardens, and, the very best bit… lots and lots of fruit growing; orchard spaces, trained trees, fruit bushes, the works.

Here’s a selection of trees from the kitchen garden, the first photo taken on Monday, the second on Tuesday:

And here are a couple from back in December, of a pair of wall-trained trees in the kitchen garden, and a few of the trees in the Apprentice House Orchard:

I’ve only been in post for a week and a half, and there’s another new colleague starting at the end of next month, so I haven’t been assigned any specific areas to manage just yet1Our Head Gardener is very sensibly and very fairly waiting until everyone is in-post before opening discussions and/or handing out assignments. But given my well-known area of interest, ongoing knowledge development, and boundless enthusiasm2Verging on obsession, naturally… for the subject, I’m hoping that my professional future will involve a good amount of fruit growing and orchard management, alongside every other horticultural activity you can reasonably think of, short of large-scale tree-work3We have a team of Rangers for that sort of thing..

Expect a lot more photos from Quarry Bank, particularly of the kitchen garden orchard and wall-trained trees, the Apprentice House orchard, and the other two orchards in Styal village that the NT teams look after. I’ll be posting them here and on Twitter4Nope, I still don’t like ‘X’…, with the hash-tag #NTQBfruit.

Oh, and fourthly, this is the 300th post on Orchard Notes. Which is a nice milestone to pass.

How about you? Is your year going well, so far? Have you got any fruit-growing plans in place? Do let me know, via the comments.

Footnotes

  • 1
    Our Head Gardener is very sensibly and very fairly waiting until everyone is in-post before opening discussions and/or handing out assignments
  • 2
    Verging on obsession, naturally…
  • 3
    We have a team of Rangers for that sort of thing.
  • 4
    Nope, I still don’t like ‘X’…

8 comments

  1. Congratulations on the new and exciting challenges! I hope we will hear in detail about your endeavours.

    Have found your blog just recently, as was desperately flipping through virtual pages of internet on training and pruning apple trees, and other fruit trees and soft fruit, indeed. Why haven’t anybody told me that “open vase” or “standard” are not two ultimate viable options for a home grower? Why haven’t anyone encouraged me (or any proud new fruit tree owner) to look at my (tiny) space and think “stepover!” or “U cordon!”, at the best of times an “espalier” or “fan” being mentioned (strictly “against the (brick) wall!”).
    Anywho, thank you for being here and I would love to see you on Instagram, posting picture after picture.

    So, having realised that I have more options, and it’s in a reach of an amateur like me, I have decided to try and train one of my apples as a U cordon, or maybe double U, will see. It’s in its second year though, and on MM106 rootstock (I was planning to plant this tree in a different space, so the choice of a more vigorous rootstock, but the circumstances changed, so it’s planted now right in the middle of my kitchen garden), so… I am hoping that pruning the leader just above a few buds of this year’s growth will make it grow a few viable branches for training a U. It would be though, some 50 or 60cm above the ground. What do you think, is it all right? I planted a maiden last winter and pruned the leader, so the new leader is whole this year’s growth.

    And then I will be attempting growing a stepover (haven’t bought it yet, but am informed on the best rootstocks); I’ve read your experiences and investigated more, so, fingers crossed. One issue that I’ve noticed though that it’s a bit of a hit and missed with the new growth after pruning – they just aren’t growing by the book.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling on, pleased to meet you, I am Liena and am gardening in a typical suburban garden in Derby, UK.

    1. Hi Liena – Very nice to virtually meet you, and thank you very much. I certainly plan to post about any fruit work I do at Quarry Bank, watch this space. I might start up on Insta one day, time allowing. You never know.

      You’re absolutely right, a trained tree form is a great idea for a small space, as long as you also have room for a suitable support structure, so you can tie stems in to wires or posts as needed. A double-U cordon is a lovely thing to aim for, but it could take around five, maybe six years to become productive, due to the necessary pruning at each stage of the shaping process. A single-U, or even a simple, double stem cordon, will be fruitful sooner, but won’t look quite as artistic when it’s mature. So the eventual shape you choose needs to take both factors into account: how soon you want the tree to fruit, and what you want it to look like when its mature.

      If your tree is on MM106 then, depending on the vigour of the cultivar, it could try to outgrow any shape you seek to impose on it, as per the three cordons and a stepover that I’ve removed this year. I’d say 50-60cm above ground is fine for an initial trunk – as it grows and thickens over the years it will provide a good, solid base and support for the top-growth. Don’t plant the tree too close to the brick wall though, as the trunk will need space to expand into. And bear in mind that apple roots grow wider than they do deeper, so if blocked in one direction by a wall, they’ll grow outwards and away from it for some distance.

      As for the training the tree as a U-cordon, the key as I understand it, is to encourage two buds, which are growing on opposing sides of the main trunk, to grow outwards at 45 degrees in year one. Then, at the end of the growing season, and before they lignify and harden, these two stems need to be lowered to horizontal, and either their ends carefully bent around until they’re pointing upwards – the whole thing needing to be tied in to keep it in place, which is why the support framework is essential – or the ends of the horizontal branches need to be pruned back to an upward-facing bud – assuming there are appropriate buds the right distance from the trunk – which will then provide the vertical growth next season. If you are aiming for a Double-U, then the process needs to be repeated on both vertical stems – two buds in the right place on each, 45 degrees for a season, then bending down and curving upwards, or cutting to a good upward bud. Very tricky to achieve, very impressive when it works.

      One method you can use to encourage growth in the right place is to de-bud the stem: whilst you’re bending and tying in, use a sharp knife to cut off any visible buds that definitely aren’t going to produce growth in the right places. This leaves the tree with a clear path of least resistance for developing the remaining, viable buds. Next season’s growth should naturally be channelled into the buds you want. Dormant buds may grow from within the bark, but they can be rubbed off as soon as you spot them in spring. In fact, it’s a good idea to de-bud the trunk and horizontal stems whilst the shape is establishing, to channel maximum energy into the verticals.

      Once the shape is nicely established you can start encouraging fruiting spurs along the vertical stems, which will provide you with blossom and fruit for years to come, all being well.

      I hope at least some of the above is helpful, and I wish you the very best of luck with your tree training. Do keep me posted, I’d love to see the result in a few years!

  2. Congratulations on your new role, how exciting to be able to combine your passion with your work.
    I planted my 87th apple tree on New Year’s Day and have just taken delivered of another two from Keepers nursery – Rosette and Rubinola. These were chosen after watching Karim from Keepers amusing tasting sessions on YouTube. My problem is that I am running out of space – I’m lucky to have 2 acres but it’s getting full of lots of other growing as well as the apples. I was thinking of switching to a more commercial type of growing – columns, cordons but realise I have bought these last two in MM106 so will likely have the issues you describe.
    Any advice of the best way to save space if I do want to get more varieties?

    1. Hi Peter – Thank you very much indeed! And is that 89 varieties you’re growing now, or do you have multiples of your favourites? Either way: superb work!

      Yes, I do think MM106 is probably going to be a bit too vigorous for cordons. Perhaps a tall spindle might work though? It’s essentially a vertical cordon system, but side branches are allowed to grow a little longer, rather than pruning back to develop spur networks on the main stem. There’s a much better explanation on the eApples website at apples.extension.org. Although that page does recommend M9 rootstock, so perhaps MM106 might still be too vigorous.

      I’m going to be attempting something similar for a row of 5 trees I have on my plot. 3 of them are on dwarfing rootstocks and planted in the ground. The other 2, a ‘Norfolk Beefing’ and a ‘Withington Welter’, both of which are quite vigorous varieties, and both on MM106, are in large air-pots instead, to try to restrict their eventual size. Pot-growing is always tricky though if the weather heats up and they start to dry out. I’ll try to remember to post a few updates through the year if there’s anything to report.

  3. Congratulations on your new job Darren
    Be great to read your findings. They may have some findings on disease resistant varieties of fruit trees, for things such as canker

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