With December not far away now, we at Instant Scenery are getting ourselves ready for what has become a traditional job in the darkest of months.
We are getting ready to . . . prune!
More specifically, we are getting ready to prune the apple orchards under our care. These are traditional orchards, where pesticide use is forbidden by the owners, and where traditional, hard-labour is required to harvest their generous yield for the community each year.
Our job is different however. We are here to care for the trees in the winter, and to make sure they get the best of starts come spring. In the previous months we have stopped by to remove green waste from the premises, but even this is limited: in this orchard, run along natural lines, it has been decided that dead wood can be left to form habitats for such creatures as the green-sheened Noble Chafer Beetle, which spend much of their lives living in the rotting wood of fruit trees (these beetles are rarely seen outside of the Three Counties any more – a decline linked to the loss of habitat due to the more intensive techniques of orchard management).
But when the dark days of December are upon us, and the latest John Lewis advert is competing with the new M&S one for the nation’s affection (God help us all it’s still only November!) then have a thought for our toil in the crisp daylight hours, for pruning an apple orchard is task not meant for idle hands.
One of the first things to do is to ensure that the livestock are safely secured. A traditional orchard is often grazed by sheep, and not by machine, and this turns the land underfoot into a wild flower meadow that offers fantastic opportunities for wildlife.
At this time of year, one of the jobs of orchard care is to collect a different harvest than apple, and it is one which is tied to the coming season with as much affection as the Redpoll or the Robin: it is, of course, Mistletoe.
The seeds of this fruiting plant are carried into the high branches of trees by the sagacity of birds caching food for leaner times (or perhaps cleaning their bills on the bark as they lord it over us ground-confined mortals). But too much Mistletoe amongst the upper branches of any tree, apple or otherwise, is not a good thing. Firstly, its sheer weight can put strain on branches, and secondly, the extra force the tree is subjected to in the wind as the Mistletoe acts as a sail can cause a rocking motion down the trunk that can even damage root systems.
So it our job, as landscapers looking out for orchards, to cut back any excessive growth and to deliver it to local sellers where it might very well end up hanging over your front door in a few weeks time!
And once that is done, pruning proper can begin. The aim of pruning is to keep the tree in good health by removing excessive wood: particular areas to look out for are where branches look to rub against one another. When this occurs, damage to the bark will allow disease into the tree’s system. Pruning in mature trees also allows for a decent airflow and an equal balance of sunlight to reach all its areas. Pruning can also stimulate growth in languishing trees, as new growth will emerge to replace the old. Too much of this will, however, reduce the fruit available the following year as too much energy will have been spent.
Some of you are no doubt thinking that orchard management is beyond the ken of a humble, chainsaw-wielding landscape gardener. And it is an unusual job for us to do, but we have learned so very much doing it.
And much of it has been thanks to the efforts of one Wade Muggleton. As “Senior Community Greenspace Officer” in Worcestershire, we approached Wade when we first took on the orchard to check that what we were doing was right. He is a fountain of knowledge about orchard care and he kindly gave us sound advice that can only be the result of years of experience out in the field. (Did you know, for example, that there are believed to be 28 varieties of apples in Worcestershire?)
Anyone with an interest in the orchards of Worcestershire, and its associations with local history, should visit Wade’s site: