The first week back to work in the new year is often one of the coldest, and this week the garden has seen more the usual number of frosty days. Most mornings have started with a fine dusting of ice crystals covering the garden. Whilst this means I am unable to start some jobs I have been planning, it is the perfect time to start my winter work in the orchard. Being off the cold ground and up in the canopy of an old apple tree, just a few meters closer to the winter sun, can be a rare delight.
Apple trees can be productive for many years. The original tree that all ‘Bramley’ apples were cloned from is now over 200 years old. While it is now starting to succumb to the effects of old age, most trees can remain productive for 100 years or more given the proper care and attention. Part of this process is pruning. By selectively cutting the new growth, we stimulate the production of more young and vigorous growth, and the production of more flower buds to ensure a good crop of apples.
The first task is to remove any dead, diseased or dying wood. Any branches that are crossing or rubbing should be removed to create an ‘open’ structure. I was told once by a gardener I was working with to “image you are a bird, and give enough room so that you could fly through the tree with ease”. I imagine he meant one of the small blue tits that love to visit the trees, pecking over the buds in search of aphids, and not the huge Red Kites that circle overhead like vultures, watching while I work.
The long, thin straight growth from the summer needs to be shortened to encourage the tree to focus it’s energies into producing more flowering buds. The branches are shortened by around 2/3rds, taking care not to cut off any flowering buds. These can be distinguished as they appear much, shorter, plumper and rounder than the thin, pointed growth buds.
I work as much as I can from the floor, first with secateurs, then loppers, then an extendable pruning pole. Once all the growth I can reach from the outside has been removed, I clamber up into the heart of the tree and start to work from the inside out, shortening and thinning back the years growth like an annual haircut. After a couple of days the ten young trees and three old masters appear more open, and able to breathe again.
Next week, the smaller trees will be treated to a dose of winter wash, an emulsion of fish oils, which helps to reduce any bugs that may be nestling in the tree, waiting for their moment to pounce later in the year. I will also apply a grease band that forms a sticky barrier to prevent the wingless female of the winter moths climbing these trees and using them as a nursery to raise their young.
With all the work in the orchard done for the year, it would now be time for the ‘Wassail’. This is a ceremony to bless the orchards and has been re-enacted for many years. Traditions vary from area to area. Some will push a handcart containing a sapling around the town, but most will tend to involve drinking copious amounts of cider. Villagers are lead by the Wassail King or Queen through the orchard rattling pots and pans and singing:
“Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills,
Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah,
Holler biys, holler hurrah.”
The aim is to make as much noise as possible, to scare away any bad spirits and waken the apple trees again, hopefully ensuring a prosperous harvest. The branches of the trees are decorated with bread soaked in cider and the evening is rounded off with a bonfire and plenty more cider. It sounds like a jolly good party.
I’m not sure of the science behind it, potentially the bread could attract birds that would clear the trees of any pests and the bonfire ash is a great source of potassium that will definitely help the trees to form fruit when they do come into flower.
Perhaps the most important aspect of celebrations such as the wassail is that the villagers would all be engaged in a collective task of clearing and preparing the orchard for the next year. The subsequent bonfire, cider and singing are just the social lubricants that help to develop and strengthen the bonds that will keep the community together long into the future.