Do you like my first attempts at willow work, pictured above? I made it at a talk on willow given by our friend, Alison, for the Lincolnshire Organic Gardeners Organisation back in April. LOGO - to use its acronym - is the organisation that held the Apple Day last October where we had the allotment apple varieties identified. We joined the group earlier this year to meet other like-minded growers and because they have a stall at Lincoln Farmer's Market once a month where you can sell your surplus produce. Also, in April, I mentioned a secret. It actually took much, much longer than we had ever envisaged at the outset, to negotiate the lease, but we are now the proud tenants of almost an acre of orchard, within walking distance of our home! It contains fifteen trees - two pear, two plum/damson ( not sure which, yet) and the rest are a mixture of cooking and eating apples. The 'orchard garden' - as it is described in the lease - runs alongside the allotments and also contains hazel which we intend to coppice to provide sticks and poles for the allotment. We even have an option to keep 'livestock', with the permission of the landlords! This brief description conjures up a pastoral idyll with gnarled old fruit trees standing proud in a meadow of grass and wild flowers, with birds singing and butterflies flitting about between the foliage. After an awful lot of hard work on our part it is beginning to look that way but it is a far cry from how it was when we first took an interest.
Do you remember the children's story about Sleeping Beauty who pricked her finger on a spindle and slept for a hundred years? When the prince came to rescue her he had to hack his way through a seemingly impenetrable forest of brambles and undergrowth. This is just what the orchard reminded me of when we first seriously considered taking it on. The picture above was taken in February this year and actually shows the clearer end. Although it is choked with ivy you are able to see daylight between, whereas the other end had brambles climbing fifteen feet up into the trees, compounded by self-seeded elder, and was too dark to photograph clearly. Initially, we had to cut a passage through with a pair of secateurs! We wrote to the landlords in early October and as soon as we knew they were willing to let - in principle at this stage - we asked if we could tackle the ivy on the fruit trees to encourage them to rejuvenate. We carefully removed vertical pieces of ivy about eighteen inches long all around each trunk to kill its top growth and effectively release its grip. We then left it until the end of February to start removing the loose dead growth piece by piece. It is quite widely believed that ivy is not harmful to trees but having dealt first hand with a severe infestation I would dispute this. Once it gets into the crown of the tree it prevents the tree from forming new growth; in addition, a thick covering of ivy stems on the trunk allows fungal spores to take hold and thrive, thus introducing life threatening infections. We have already lost one fruit tree in this way. In fact, if you look at any piece of unmanaged woodland these days - where ivy has taken hold - the story is much the same.
At first, we weren't even sure how many fruit trees the orchard contained or - indeed - if they would have survived the winter. Some of the apples had borne fruit last autumn and - with the shocking statistics regarding the demise of British orchards fresh in our minds - we decided to try and save them. The two photos above tell the 'before' and 'after' tales of The Magic Tree. (No, she isn't magic because she has leant right over from one side to the other! The sun was shining straight into the camera on the second shot, so I had to take the photo from the opposite side). The magic is that she has actually survived at all. In addition to the torments inflicted on her by years of ivy, elder and bramble growth, poor Magic Tree had the limb of a large ash tree growing down through her branches, effectively pushing her over. It is just visible in the top right corner of the 'before' shot. Removing most of her entanglements only required hand tools and a stepladder but taking out the ash limb required complicated procedures with proper ladders, ropes and the chainsaw. Had Si cut the limb off in one piece it would have crushed the tree beneath as it fell so it had to be done bit by bit. You can see what was left in the top centre of the 'after' photo. Freed of her restrictions, her branches - which had previously been touching the floor as she leant - rose clear of it by four feet over two days. If that's not magic then I don't know what is? The wicker star at the top of this post hangs in her branches in the hope of imbuing its own bit of magic in the form of fruit. And guess what? She has about half a dozen little apples; just enough, I think for a tree that has survived against all the odds.If they reach maturity in the autumn we can have them identified!
The orchard itself is actually a long strip of land bordering the allotments at the bottom of the hill. No-one has done anything with it in the ten years we've had an allotment there and it has been used as a dumping ground for less scrupulous persons to dump their rubbish and broken glass. It is bordered on both long sides by hedge but whereas the one bordering the road has been cut intermittently by a contractor, the hedge facing the allotments has grown into trees. After we'd 'ringed' the ivy on the fruit tree trunks, we turned our attention to the inside hedge first as we knew how much light these saplings would exclude once they were in leaf. We cut off quite a lot to waist height but Si' was able to lay the thinner saplings back into the hedge as we worked along it. Once we had more light we started at the top end of the fruit trees and worked our way down. From mid-February onwards, I worked seven days a week on my 'mission to liberate' with handtools and a stepladder and Si helped at weekends with the heavier jobs requiring the chain saw or brute force! No wonder I had so little time for this blog, though until we had actually signed up for the orchard I didn't feel able to reveal why. At first, the other allotment holders thought we were crackers to take on such a big project but gradually - as things began to take shape - we even got a few compliments from the older members! The roadside hedge yielded some excellent poles for supporting beans and those that we did not need ourselves have been shared out amongst our fellow allotmenteers.
When we first cut our way through the undergrowth there was an incredibly eerie silence; not a single bird sang in the darkened interior and there were only signs of the odd pigeon using it to nest. As the light returned through clearing,though, so the birds began to return. It was as I was clearing undergrowth and rubbish that I first met the robin of my earlier post. He and his mate delighted in the rich pickings to be found in the cleared earth and though he has been pre-occupied with feeding his brood we have recently noticed fledgling robins flitting about the place. Birds have nested in the rejuvenated hedges; only last week we lucky enough to catch a family of wrens hopping about in a heap of bramble cuttings.
In early April, our efforts were rewarded as first we saw buds on our trees, followed by pear blossom, then damson/plum and finally apple blossom in early May. We had been advised to remove as much dead growth as possible over the dormant period but we are going to need some guidance and training on how to prune the trees back into shape in the future. It will be an ongoing project for some time as they can die of shock if too much radical pruning is done all at once. So for this year the buds and the blossom were our sign that the trees had survived the worst and were in recovery. At this stage we were pinning our hopes on survival - any fruit they produced would be a bonus.
We gave all our attention to the orchard until we had to start sowing and planting on the allotments in April. We had completed our initial tasks of hedge cutting and freeing up the fruit trees and now it was time to let nature take its course. We walk through most evenings when Si has finished work and we go up to the allotments to water. And the orchard has never been short of surprises. Just after we'd started on the hedge a little patch of blue and white chionodoxa braved the cold to flower beneath the outstretched limbs of an enormous Bramley and since then we've enjoyed sheets of pungent wild garlic followed by bluebells. Old gooseberry bushes are covered with strong new growth - and even a few gooseberries - and a deep red climbing rose has just begun to flower in an untouched area at the centre. I caught its scent first before I ever noticed the blossoms. At the most overgrown end I discovered a large deciduous shrub intertwined with a young laburnum. The laburnum flowered in May but the shrub kept me guessing until last week. As its buds burst the heavenly fragrance of philadelphus, or mock orange, was released onto the warm summer breeze.
Just when we thought things couldn't get any better, every single tree is bearing fruit and some of them in bumper quantities! I think that the rain came at just the right time to swell them after pollination and they grow noticeably bigger by the week. Also we're getting some idea as to what they will look like as mature fruit in terms of their size and colour. I must confess to spending quite a lot of time these days just gazing up into the branches and marvelling at such little miracles in so short a time.
So what comes next for the orchard garden? Well were loathe to do much before August, when the birds will have finished nesting but we've still got the upper reaches of hedge to tackle that extends beyond the fruit trees and then - once the brambles have fruited - we'l begin digging them out ready for planting some additional trees from November onwards. The East of England Apples and Orchards Project - the charity that identified our first apples - can supply us with trees that were originally bred to suit our area and then we want a quince, a medlar, some cherries ..... the list gets longer and longer! One thing is for sure - we are on our way to becoming just that little bit more self-sufficient, a little less reliant on the shops for our fruit and a whole lot happier about the way our life is going. I look forward to sharing our orchard with you over the coming months.