The first blossom in the orchard!

dessert cherry Hertford

Dessert cherry ‘Hertford’


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Thanking my lucky rabbit

NThis post, misleadingly, is nothing to do with rabbits.  No, it’s about the 66m of hedging between the field and the road – or more accurately, the lack of 63m of it.

Very excited by selecting the components of the mixed native hedge we plan to grow (think ‘child in sweet shop’), I had saved the somewhat complex order, ready to send to Glebe Farm Hedging, when I noticed a neighbour had put in a new hedge around one of their paddocks.  WITH RABBIT GUARDS.  Rabbit guards!  How could this have dropped off my radar?  (In the spirit of not turning the field into a fortress following many dire predictions of rabbit/deer/badger apocalypse certain to befall my fruit and vegetables, I think I may have moved quickly past this chapter of the hedge planting manual.)

My husband sensibly suggested that we just try a trial section of the hedge without guards and see what happens to it.  All very good.  So I cut down the order from 66m to…12m, and then getting in to the spirit of it, in half again to 6m (24 plants).  The whips (small trees) arrived last week and we planned to plant them on Saturday.

We began by removing the turf from the 1m x 6m strip.  Well, I say ‘we’, but in this case, I didn’t have much to do with it (being well acquainted with the difficulty of this particular operation having just finished making the raspberry beds).  Then I forked the strip over – by myself because my husband was feeling it a little by this point.  The forking was Not Easy due to the enormous quantity of flint mini-boulders lying just beneath the turf level.  Having extracted the boulders, we then had to dig two parallel trenches in which to plant the whips – at which point we discovered that I hadn’t quite removed all the boulders.  3 meters and a large pile of rubble later we could both barely stand any more and was apparent that this was the maximum length of hedge we could realistically plant in one weekend.

So, in view of this, I’m really very glad I didn’t order all 66m of plants in one go.  And thank you to the (real or imagined) rabbits for pointing this out.

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A peach-coloured haze of uncertainty

When I think about it, this whole orchard project may have come about as a result of a conversation with a lady named Celia…

Celia and I were out walking one day when we began chatting about our mutual passion for peaches and bemoaning how difficult it is to find a good one without going to France.  She told me of a large peach tree in the garden of her childhood from which she had picked and eaten delicious peaches.  A free-standing peach tree!  In England!  The idea was astonishing to me.  The notion of having desirable fruit of all types growing in my garden took hold and, well, the rest is history.

The thought of growing peaches in this way makes me swoon a little.  However, technically there are a number of challenges to be overcome:

Firstly, let’s not beat around the bush: Peach leaf curl.  It isn’t possible to grow peaches outside in this country without taking evasive action against this disease.  The options are either spraying several times each year with Bordeaux Mixture (which I don’t want to do because I’m intending to garden without the use of chemicals) or covering the leaves of the tree between December and May to keep them dry (some kind of polytunnel or similar cover).

But is this true?  The new variety Avalon Pride is “resistant” to peach leaf curl.  What does this mean?  That it doesn’t mind it?  That it will endure for longer before finally succumbing?  That it will need help for the first few years but after this it will be ok?  Resistant?  Resistant.  We all know what happens to frost-resistant pots…  Michael Phillips in his book The Holistic Orchard hints that it is possible to overcome the disease by growing strong, healthy trees and boosting their own ability to resist the disease by spraying them with organic remedies.  On the other hand, Mark Diacono writing in the Telegraph states “Don’t be tempted by ‘Avalon Pride’ – sold as offering good resistance to leaf curl, my 40 trees became riddled with it from year one and have never really recovered.”  I think my answer is to start with one or two trees and protect them while they are small.

The second issue is hardiness.  It is standard practice in this country to train peaches against a wall.  The extra warmth radiated by the wall gives some protection to the blossom against frost and helps the fruit to ripen.  However, I tracked down a second hand copy of Peach Orchards in England by Justin Brooke (1947) which describes how the author established and managed a peach orchard (of free-standing trees) for commercial purposes – which leads me to believe that a wall really isn’t necessary for peaches to grow and fruit well.

And what of Celia’s tree?  It was growing long before the time of peach leaf curl-resistant varieties and fruiting successfully in the English countryside.  Possibly environmental conditions have changed, and in their wake corresponding disease concerns. But with a prize such as this, what risk would not be worth taking?!

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Blood on the cable ties

newly planted trees 2013-14

My fingers are so cold that they are numb and I realise that it would be a good idea to stop trying to fix the tree guards to the stakes when I see blood on the cable ties.

I decided, after much deliberation, to use individual tree guards to protect the trees since we know there are deer in the area.  They don’t come in to the garden and munch the plants so I’m hoping they won’t be too much of a problem in the field – but of course there’s every chance this won’t be the case, so the trees must be protected until I know for sure.

The guards are not ideal and the chosen solution was selected as a result of budget and, probably, inexperience. It is a rigid plastic mesh with 3cm holes which comes on a roll.  I have been cutting lengths of 1.5m to surround each trunk with an 20cm tube. The mesh is rolled width-ways on arrival but has to be re-rolled length-ways to form the guard.  The mesh does not like to roll a new way.  It is stiff and the ends are scratchy and sharp.

The 20cm diameter also doesn’t allow for any branches to grow outwards (except through holes in the mesh) but I imagine that somehow the guard can protect the trunk and the branches will come over the top, or I can at least cut holes for the branches if the mesh holes aren’t big enough.  Hopefully this will all be enough to keep the trees alive until I find out if we have to erect a deer fence around the orchard at great expense…

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Autumn raspberries – what’s the point?

autumn raspberries

Autumn raspberries sound great:  Easy to maintain, don’t need staking, often thornless and what could be bad about a few extra months of raspberries? Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as saying there’s anything bad about more raspberries, honestly, who is really interested in raspberries in October?

The first flush of raspberries in early summer are a delight; a long-awaited treat and probably my favourite fruit fruit.  Hunting for raspberries in our garden with the children and eating the fruit as we find them captures that perfect summer moment; something special to be anticipated through dreary winter days.

Then, as the raspberries begin to crop heavily, we eat bowls and bowls of them with ice cream (actually, with almost anything) – outside in the sunshine.  It’s a lovely summer thing to do.

And then finally, when we have all gorged on raspberries until we are perhaps getting a little bored with them, there is always raspberry jam.

By this point in the gardening year I am feeling it would be better to hang up my raspberry hat and move on to a new excitement – maybe the first apples of the season, a blackcurrant or (wondrously) a ripe peach… But then, hello, the autumn raspberry season kicks in and here we are with some more raspberries.  Which of course is very nice, but do we really want them?

The catalogue descriptions mention that many continue until the first frosts. Imagine a bowl of raspberries in October: dew drops hanging from the spider webs, mist in the cool mornings and elsewhere in the garden mushrooms, damsons and chestnuts. I am indifferent.

So why am I growing them?  I have several reasons, the first of which is that unlike summer raspberries (which fruit on last year’s canes), autumn raspberries are primocane, meaning they fruit on the current year’s growth.  This also means that, with a bit of cunning pruning it is possible to induce them to crop twice in one year, the first crop ironically being an extra early – and therefore extra exciting – one (to do this, the top bits of each cane should be trimmed off after fruiting and the rest of the cane left to overwinter).

My second reason is again to do with their primocane nature.  I enjoy picking raspberries, but I recently realised that it is an experience which could be improved upon when I happened to see a TV clip of Raymond Blanc strolling around a woodland, picking wild raspberries in France.  The birds were singing as he wandered between wild flowers and ferns in the dappled sunshine, collecting his fruit.  Now that, I thought to myself, is a tip top fruit-gathering experience!  So my plan is to plant some of the autumn raspberries in a grove of trees and then cut the canes and any surrounding growth down at the end of each year (as one usually would with autumn raspberries).  There will also be flowers, including some vigorous roses which wont mind the same annual chopping treatment. Whilst I would prefer to recreate this scene with summer raspberries I think the management involved in cutting out only some of the canes would be too time consuming.

My last reason is that, despite everything I’ve said, it’s hard to believe that More Raspberries could ever really be a bad thing.

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The first trees (hooray!)

They have arrived.  Huge excitement!!  The stakes are in the ground with the names of the trees written on them (now in permanent marker since the ordinary felt tip was not a success).  For some reason there turned out to be 16 stakes when I only intended there to be 15 trees, but then I discovered a tree I hadn’t expected so despite the confusion and much pacing out of the circle it all worked out well in the end.

These trees form part of a circle and I have placed the earlier fruiting trees closest to the shelter belt of existing woodland which runs along their south side, thinking that they will be most likely to have finished fruiting before they are overtaken by the shadows of the woodland trees in the autumn than the later-fruiting varieties.

The trees are (in order of eating season):

Scrumptious – a modern, early eating apple

Tickled Pink – a modern, dual purpose pink fleshed apple which also makes pink juice

Red Falstaff

Red Falstaff

Pinova – modern dessert apple

Red Falstaff – a red sport of the delicious, juicy dessert apple, Falstaff, which I have previously grown.

Peasgood’s Nonsuch – mid season cooking apple which cooks to a puree.

Onward – a mid season dessert pear which is hopefully similar to Doyenne du Comice (which I adore), but less tempramental to grow.

Catillac – a very old (17th C), late season culinary pear

Beurre Hardy – a traditional French variety.  A late dessert pear.  Apparently it has ‘buttery melting flesh’ which sounds all good…

And the bonus tree (which I had forgotten I ordered):  Discovery – the earliest autumn fruiting apple and the tree whose fruit will signal the beginning of the season in the Orchard area.

A large amount of my orchard fruit tree research has been done on the excellent Orange Pippin web site.  The staff at Orange Pippin have also been really helpful and willing to talk on the phone, helping me with some rather esoteric questions about own-root trees (more on this later) amongst other things.  Rosie Sanders’ Apple Book has also been a very useful source of information.  Of course, eating the fruit will be the best sort of research…

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The soil, the soil

ground conditions Dec 2013

There was a moment, somewhere between the dry, dry summer and the winter rain where I briefly imagined my soil to be perfect – you know the sort of thing; a light, crumbly, humus-rich loam…  The moment lasted for about two weeks.   I suppose the complete impossibility of inserting a spade in to the rock-hard ground over the summer should have given it away, but there’s nothing like being optimistic when you’ve got three acres to cultivate.  Anyway, it turns out that the soil is 18 inches of topsoil and flint over a lot of clay.  It could be worse.

Now that the soil is wet it has become very heavy to lift and sticks to the spade.  It is useful to get to know this with my own wet and sticky boots and gloves because I can see that extra drainage will be absolutely necessary for some plants – starting with the lavender I plan to use to edge the raised vegetable beds.

Next job: breaking up spare bricks to use as crocks under the lavender…

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