Orchard Design At Brogdale, National Fruit Collection In Kent

Last weekend I visited the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale, to take part in an orchard design course they were running.

Beautiful place and a warm day, I recommend a visit. I came home with 3 bottles of cider. Drank them all. Then realised they were weighing in at 8%. I don’t recover that quickly (no longer being 20 years old) and so had something of a musty head the next morning.

The power of apples I say!

Below are some notes I made from the day. They may be of use to you, although really they are there for me to remember what I thought was worth noting. I am building up my knowledge of orchards, as I now look after quite a few in the winter months (and summer, when they include plums and other stone fruits.) I restored an enormous private orchard many years ago and fell in love with these garden spaces then.

Any pruning is good, really. And when you get a plethora of fruit at the end of it too… wow. An orchard, for me and us here at Modern Mint, is on elf the greatest places in any garden.

So if these notes read as slightly confusing and inarticulate, well, that’s ok. Because it was never about you….

Orchard Design Course Notes, From Brogdale

Think about your trees. Think about your spacing.

Why do you want an orchard? For your own, organic fruit, I would imagine.

  1. Clarify why you want an orchard. Then you know exactly what you are going after when designing the orchard space.

Graft your own trees. It is worth the effort and means you can move at the speed you want, make the changes that you want. The Grafters Handbook is worth buying….

(And this was the book, an AMAZING book apparently, if you want to make cider – Craft Cider Making.)

Pruning management is not the same as design – this goes back to knowing what you want from your orchard. If you want lots of fruit, the trees will not be pruned the same way as if you wanted an orchard that is a beautiful, atmospheric space to enjoy.

If you add pigs, you will need vigorous trees as they must be tall enough to grow a canopy above and away from the livestock.

Traditional orchards had large trees. They sent children up 18m ladders to collect the fruit. Now, especially this was the case with cherries, but now they keep the trees smaller, sheltered and away from the birds.

Cook quince with apple. The best!

Cider is more difficult to make than fresh juice. When you get too much fruit (easily done) freeze the juice.

Nuts are underrated for your orchard.

Late varieties, that can be stored later in the year, help you have apples from August through to February.

Plums must be stewed, then frozen, if you want to keep them.

A known variety of fruit is a clone, propagated by grafting. If you grow it from seed, you will change its genetics.

For pollination of trees within your orchard, 1/2 a dozen varieties will pretty much see you through. Commercial orchards perhaps every 9th tree is ‘Discovery’ or ‘Golden Delicious’, to help pollinate the crop.

The apples? Culinary. Dessert. Cooking. Cider.

As branches descend with the fruit, it makes a garden feature. Trees for production, called a ‘spindle bush’ will keep their centre leader. It will then rises in layers of branches, making it easy to prune.

Decide – the size of tree you want.

The tree will do two things – if the branch grows up, it is vegetative growth. When it grows down, it is fruitful (weighed down) and so you perhaps want to encourage this earlier on? Too much nitrogen on your sward affects the vegetative growth (it has more) and so the quality of the fruit.

Grass roots, intensively compete for water. This can also affect the amount of fruit, and quality.

Interstock – when you have TWO grafts of your fruit tree. The bottom one is a vigorous rootstock, the next part of the stem is a dwarf variety, so you get strong roots, then a small tree, with the fruit on top. Such an abusive relationship, building the tree up, then putting it down!

Massive hedges around the Brogdale site. Things of beauty, really, to help keep the wind off.

The stakes for the trees are impregnated with copper chrome arsenic, CCT. A fungicide. Yikes! On your stakes!

Prunings can be left in the inter-rows (the space between the canopies of your two rows of orchard trees, which allows you to walk down them or send a tractor down them) – this soft prunings are for rabbits, to stop them getting a the tree. They prefer the softer bark and smaller diameter of the stems.

Choosing your site:

  • why you want your orchard?
  • what animals lurk?
  • other orchards close by?
  • other trees? woodland? oak? so hazel will grow well? fruit likes the woodland nature of soil.
  • depth of the soil! is it compacted? formerly ploughed? more fertile than pasture? variation through the site? you want a friable soil, without LOTS of fertility.
  • water table? too high, and the roots won’t keep going down. you can always plant on mounds if this is the case, as water logging is bad for fruit. a well drained site warms up quicker too.

The tougher the site, the higher the vigour of the rootstock needs to be! (Or add soil!)

Make sure air drains away, ground frost is not a problem really. Plums and pears can be planted away from any frost pocket.

Late ripening varieties helps you avoid a short season.

High rainfall areas means you should avoid varieties that are susceptible to canker (the bark dies) and scab (related to the humid climate, and at times the variety.)

Barefoot plants? Prune before you plant, because the tree at this stage has limited ability to pick up water. So if no water is available, there is then no problem. Roots have to get down. Irrigation stops them doing so.

June drop? Too much competition for what the plant and fruit need.

Another good book – Joan Morgan and Apple Varieties. (Has been written about before on Modern Mint….)

Traditional varieties – and this seems so important! – are more resistant. Develop din the 19th Century, so 100 years ago. Developed in the field, and for taste, as opposed to how they could be transported. And they had to be tough. Choose the Victorian varieties if in doubt, as they were for eating, tough, pre herbicide though not for yield. Pears came from Belgium and France, and again you want those early varieties.Though the best plums are more recent varieties, as better ones. Traditional fruit had better eating qualities.

The site and the pruning seem to be the most important factors to good health.

Organic growing is difficult because of:

  • Weed control
  • Loss of production
  • Proportion of grade 1 (sellable, beautiful looking fruit) plummets. You may have to send it all to the juicer!

Varieties for connoisseurs may not work outside of the most amazing conditions for growing the trees in. Stick to the tried and tested perhaps, especially if you have little space.

Quincunx – when you add an extra tree in between rows. It is a design thing. And looks amazing. Straight lines are for production.

Rows should run up and down a slope, rather than across. (But why not experiment yourself?)

Make a wider spacing if there is less light or if it is too humid.

Headland space – the space around an orchard.

This was lovely – a well-pruned apple tree should look as if it has been ‘pruned to the flowing branch’.

The history of the tree is in the pruning. We wrote a bit about pruning apples trees on Modern Mint before.

Put all of your varieties in rows, or double rows. To make picking easier.

You want 2-4 different varieties to be eating through each season – early, mid, late….

For the taste, also note the texture and the thickness of the skin. A late variety may start to dry out, become spongy in texture and a tad wrinkled, yet the taste can be amazing.

Right for picking?Lift up against the stalk and it should come away easily.

Branchage – it is a Jersey thing. And they make a brilliant cider of the same name…

For pruning, this saw is good. Actually, it is amazing.

Conference pears are called ‘turnips in camouflage fatigue.’

That is all I will write for now, but will add more about spacing and speak in more depth as I go. I have never designed an orchard, only planted fruit trees (some with mistletoe, how great, yes?) and I have done restorative pruning and maintenance pruning on quite a few orchards over the last 15 years.

If you have any questions, please do contact us for a chat. But I will write more about orchards and how amazing they are, and how to plant them, as I do further research and get more experience soon. Probably back to Brogdale, for a start….


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