Saturday, January 30, 2010

A talk from mistletoe man Jonathan Briggs

One component of the National Trust orchard training day I attended on Thursday at Day's Cottage was a talk by mistletoe enthusiast and expert Jonathan Briggs.

Mistletoe being harvested near Dieppe, France around 1930 to be exported to England for Christmas. (courtesy of J. Briggs)

Viscum album, the European species (that exists as several subspecies across Europe and Asia) is just one of ~1300 species of mistletoe worldwide. In the 1990s a national survey of the plant's distribution showed gardens to be the most common habitat, closely followed by orchards, or parks (in eastern counties). It thus favours the open habitats of wood-pasture, especially where preferred host species can also be found. In order of preference, these hosts are 1) apple, 2) lime 3) hawthorn, 4) poplar, 5) maple and 6) willow, but it has been recorded on many others as well.

Nationally, mistletoe is distributed across much of Britain, but sparsely, yet it becomes abundant in the counties of Worcestershire (e.g. Conderton in above photo), parts of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Somerset. This correlates with those areas with the most orchards BUT this is not a causal relationship. If you took away all the orchards in these counties it would still be relatively abundant compared with other regions. Mistletoe can survive across much of the UK, but it won't spread naturally except in these areas. Quite why is still a mystery!

Image courtesy of Mistletoe Matters Consultancy

As well as being important for Druid ceremonies, mistletoe is a valuable component of orchard biodiversity. Firstly, as it is winter flowering it provides a valuable nectar source for insects like flies in February.

The berries are food for birds, especially mistle thrushes (hence the name) and blackcaps. Indeed blackcaps are the primary vector for spreading the seed since they only eat the outer casing and wipe the sticky seed off on a convenient branch. (The best way of seeding your own tree with mistletoe is to mimic this technique on branches of a suitable species. Choose younger branches, 1 - 2 inches in diameter and use berries harvested in February and March for the best germination results. The seeds will take 4 years to produce the first two leaves, but after that will grow exponentially so you need to be careful for things not to get out of hand! )

Mistletoe also has a group of insects that are specifically associated with it. It is a hemi-parasite and will sap strength from the host tree if not controlled but in general it is certainly a beneficial component of any traditional orchard.

Friday, January 29, 2010

National Trust orchard training day at Day's Cottage: A tour of the orchards

Yesterday I went to Day's Cottage in Brookthorpe near Gloucester for an orchard training day. It was hosted by Dave Kaspar (GOG chairman) and Helen Brent-Smith at their Orchard Skills Centre on behalf of the National Trust. The day started with a tour of the orchards, the oldest of which was planted by Helen's great aunt in 1912. In this picture Dave is explaining that this dead tree is the most important tree in the orchard from an ecological viewpoint, due to the value of standing dead wood for invertebrates and the things that feed on them. As you can imagine, I was in my element!

This Newton Wonder apple tree was blown over only recently, but it is far from doomed. The tree will respond to this stress by putting out more roots and over time it will gradually re-align its canopy. I think it is healthy to encourage a more Victorian perspective on tree beauty, where the gnarls and warpings of time are celebrated and admired.

We also visited an old perry pear orchard which had several trees about 150 years old. We were shown how pear trees have very obvious graft marks even in old age. Perry pears have been recorded to live over 350 years, far longer than any apple. Dave explained how they are best left to their own devices and he regularly advises people not to try and prune them. I think the tree pictured is the variety Butt.

They have about 16 acres of orchards around the site that are being managed very sensitively for wildlife with mistletoe, bird and bat boxes, standing dead wood and no chemical inputs. This tree in the foreground has been toppled for a lot longer, and you can see it has recovered its posture quite admirably and still produces fruit. It reminds me of the Blenheim Orange trees at Mount Pleasant.

This is the museum orchard that was started around 15 years ago in partnership with Gloucestershire council and the GOG as a bank of Gloucestershire apple varieties. New varieties are still being found by people like Charles Martell so it's an ongoing project but it is old enough for the trees to be starting to take off. It's so exciting to think of returning in twenty years to see an established orchard and for an apple off each tree...

Here is my friend Freddie, a longstanding volunteer with the Charingworth Orchard Trust and Tanya, a beekeeper with her own company called Apples and Pears. We were pretty pleased to be able to purchase some perry for tasting later on!

The loot. Mistletoe for seeding at home, a perry pear maiden of the variety 'Bergamy' ("pronounce carefully") and superior grog.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Three portraits of an oak: 1907, 1997 and 2008

(For many months now I have had this posted on another blog that is now defunct. Since I have encountered many tree fans in the blogosphere, this oak has been upgraded to 'standard fruit tree' status, albeit a larger, older and (dare I say it?!) more impressive fruit tree than any I have yet seen.)

1997- I am 12 in this photo.

I always admired this huge oak tree, standing alone in a meadow near Bourton-on-the-Water. It had a huge trunk and thick branches that reached right up into the sky. I passed it daily on the way to school, photographed it and drew from the pictures for an art project.

The tree had clearly lost may of its great arms over the years, and back in 1997 the most recent of these losses was still piled in the corner of the field. In December 2008 I was in communication with the photographer Archie Miles about the oak and he pointed me in the direction of this old tree book, The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland (7 volumes 1906-1913), that had a mention of a great oak near Boughton-on-the-Water. I tracked down the reference, and amazingly there it was as photographed in 1907.

A magnificent specimen in 1907, in the prime of middle age (at 250 years old?).

'...remarkable on account of the perfect condition of all its branches...'

The oak in 2008. A little weather beaten, but nothing to stop another 200 years of nobility and awe. The farmers said it was once pollarded, but that must have been quite early on in its life.

Orcharding in the USA

God I love America. This video is a real cracker. Just think, with Allen-Smith at the helm the Charingworth Orchard Trust would be attracting significant benefaction by now. And maybe I should soak my trees in dormant oil? Ah only joking, that would kill e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g! Still, check out the height of the standards in Chuck's orchard. Mmmmmmm.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thinning fruiting branches by hand

Today I made up a flask of hot chocolate and scampered into the 1920s orchard above Charingworth village to make a real start on the pruning. I was only using a pruning saw as each tree needs a certain amount of trimming before its safe to get the pole pruner involved. The tree pictured is one of the largest in this orchard - can you see the water shoots protruding vertically from the main boughs? This is regrowth from the last pruning and tells me the tree is healthy and vigorous. You can also see a fair amount of congestion in the lower fruiting branches that needs to be reduced.

I plan to thin these congested lower areas by hand. I have three main things in mind while doing this:

1) to take in any excessive growth lessening the weight carried by the main boughs, thus minimising the chance of major splitting.
2) increase the gap between these fruit bearing branches and the floor to improve air circulation and (when the time comes) keep the trees out of reach of hungry sheeps
3) to thin the branches out allowing more air and light to the developing fruit

One thing to remember when doing this is to consider the characteristics the variety of apple tree you are pruning. Bramleys, for example, only fruit on growth that is at least two years old. This means that if I went around clipping the tips off all the shoots no fruiting buds would form in the coming season. Once this thinning is done I will have the room needed to safely manoeuvre my fairly unwieldy pole pruner that will help me to quickly remove most of the vertical water shoots.

Copyright © Cass Turnbull Plant Amnesty.

Basically there is a LOT of different advice about pruning fruit trees around. I need establish what pruning will keep the trees in the best health for the longest time. I think the trees I tackled last year were pruned too hard and so I plan to experiment with a few different approaches within a general framework of reducing the chances of splitting, raising the canopy, increasing fruit health and preserving ecological value (in scenarios where it doesn't immediately condemn the tree).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Getting serious about pruning

I have now invested in a Stihl pole pruner. It's basically a mini chainsaw on the end of a pole and will allow me to work much more quickly (and reach into first floor windows!). Not as accurate as pruning by hand so I will try and make any of the more critical cuts with a saw. Could struggle to fit it in my mini too...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How can you describe pollarding as 'degrading'?

Another Christmas present this year was this, No. 102 in the Collins New Naturalist Series: 'Garden Natural History' by Stephen Buczacki.

I am only half way through the book so will reserve an overall judgement of its quality, but there are parts where the Buczacki's awareness of habitat value seems a little lacking. The coverage of orchards and fruit trees is fairly limited. He mentions mistletoe (but not the associated fauna) and different suites of bark dwelling organisms but fails to highlight the importance of dead wood and rot holes (e.g. Noble Chafer), blossom, and windfall for overwintering birds. On page 100 there is also this passage that I have to highlight to you as perhaps a little benighted (N.B. highlights added by me):

"Both coppicing and pollarding are among the most functional and degrading uses to which a tree can be put and the resulting plants are unsightly; witness the pollarded limes of many of our urban streets which should teach gardeners a lesson in species selection. If you cannot accommodate a full-grown tree of any species in your available space, then choose a small species rather than hideously abbreviate a large one."

Woah now!

© Copyright
1) Do you think this ancient alder pollard has been hideously abbreviated?

2) How can anyone take offence to the pollarded trees that grace our cities? As a counter-example, consider the London plane, a tree allowed to reach huge sizes in our capital and that can be pollarded to suit. Does Stefan think a more dwarfing species would have a high enough crown to avoid blocking passing buses and lorries? Is he suggesting we do without roadside trees altogether if no natural tree form is both very tall, pollution resistant and has a compact crown? This height is necessary to provide natural balance to our lofty city architecture.

2) How can a man who has spent his life advising people in the manipulation, control and propagation of plants for gardens suddenly be offended by an ancient form of tree management? Pollarding and coppicing have been practiced in Europe for over a thousand years. Pollarding is also only a special type of pruning after all - can he be suggesting that pruning is also 'degrading'?

3) Take a look at the UKBAP for 'Lowland wood-pasture and parkland'- surely this type of tree management has beneficial consequences that far outstrip any romantic notion of tree exploitation?

Pretty snow, and pretty hard to prune

The weather has been, and continues to be, exceptional. I had intended to start pruning yesterday but have a look at this photo comparison of the 1940s orchard: Christmas Day on the right, today on the left. It's flaking away again right now. I saw a flock of long-tailed tits yesterday which is encouraging as they are very vulnerable to hard winters, being tiny and insectivorous. At night time they often roost communally with their bodies together and tails sticking out, a sight surely very few people have ever seen. Get the fat balls out!

Look at how the snow crystallises the branching shape of this old sycamore.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Starting the New Year in 'Ciderland'

This is what I found in my stocking this year. James Crowden's "Ciderland" takes you on a journey through many interesting cider and perry producers in the South West of Britain. Alongside culling my intake of smokes, a resolution for 2010 is to learn about these processes, visit the orchards and (clearly) taste, taste, taste!

Look at the bluebells in Half-Moon orchard, Melplash, Dorset. Have they been planted? Looks almost too good to be natural! I expect they get a great rate of pollination. Could there be a more photogenic scene in the British countryside?

A pleasing series of photos showing the making of a cheese prior to pressing. I particularly enjoyed reading about all the different attitudes and approaches to cider making. One of the key themes of the book seems to be that small-scale artisan producers are using hygienic methods to create a sophisticated product that is facilitating a change in the way we all think about cider. I also hadn't realised that many of the larger cider producers (e.g. Bulmers, Magners) use imported apple essence to flavour their drinks and there is no legislation currently forcing them to display the percentage of real fruit juice used. A pint of strongbow many only be 30% fruit juice, whereas proper farmhouse cider will be over 90%.

Perry also seems like an intriguing creature- as Tom Oliver says: "Cider is a hard master but perry is a beautiful but fickle mistress."

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