Kingston University Biodiversity Action Group

13-02-13 : Orchard conservation masterclass

Volunteers braved the chill on Wednesday to help the fruit trees in the delightful orchard at Dorich House prepare for the coming year.

Lewis from The London Orchard Project talks 'apples and pears' to a keen audience at Dorich House.
In collaboration with the London Orchard Project, staff, students and local residents eagerly got to grips with traditional orchard management techniques such as pruning, mulching, and training.

The old trees had done surprisingly well in the last year, many putting on lots of healthy new growth. In contrast, the new trees that were planted haven't flourished as we'd hoped and growth had been very slow. One pear had in fact died so volunteers got the chance to plant a new replacement in the grounds.

The apple tree is an 'early senescent' which translates as 'it gets old before its time'! It needs a lot of TLC to keep it in good condition and productive, and that is where our volunteers come in!

First task was some restorative pruning which involved looking for and removing dead wood. A simple tap on the branch ends by a pruning saw was enough for the tree to drop the dead twigs. Larger dead branches which were making the trees unstable were removed, but others were kept for biodiversity. Holes in old wood can provide roosting sites for bats, and some insects such as the Noble Chafer beetle solely rely on decaying wood to survive. Fungi, lichen, and birds all benefit from the orchard habitat too. In fact, traditional orchards are now recognised as a priority habitat in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan because of the wealth of wildlife that they support. This is partly because of the lack of chemical input in their management.

The long reach of our pruning saws was just the ticket for some of the higher branches.

Having identified a dead limb,  Marlon reaches for his long-handled pruning saw to cut it off.
Choosing the right spot to cut was crucial. By minimising the cut surface area, the tree was less likely to become infected and could heal quicker. 

Moving in for a closer inspection, volunteers are shown how a tree heals after a branch is cut off.

If any pliable new growth was present it could be tied down to encourage replacement limbs in the right places and ensure the tree's stability. By pulling vertical stems (good for leaf growth) down into a more horizontal position (good for fruit growth), the tree's productivity will be enhanced too. Here's hoping for a bumper crop this year!!

Nigel ties down a new shoot to encourage the tree to develop a more balanced shape.

Old trees are frail and susceptible to infection. That's why we needed to spot infected fruiting bodies and pluck them from the tree.

Beware of infected fruits!
Molly,  Giovanna and Seline check for the shrivelled infected fruits.
Sticking to the golden rule for orchard maintenance of never removing more than 25% of the canopy from old trees in one year, volunteers had soon crafted the trees into open, balanced and healthy specimen ready for the Spring.

We gave one old tree a helping hand in the form of a prop as it had become so lop-sided it was in danger of toppling over. This 'walking stick' was a simple fix made from a log found in the back of the garden wedged under the branch. We will be doing further work to support the tree in coming weeks.

Our makeshift walking stick!

Next on the task list was formative pruning of the new trees. This involved assessing the growth potential of the trees and removing stems which could conflict or lead to an unbalanced shape. It seemed wrong to cut off what little growth some of these new trees had put on, but Lewis was confident it was best for the tree in the long run. So, nervously volunteers held their breath and snipped away! By cutting above an outward facing bud, we could encourage the tree to produce shoots growing away from itself instead of clustering in its centre.

Seline takes the plunge and cuts off the leader of this young tree! Not usual practice, but in this case it will prevent the tree becoming top heavy.  Waste not want not, the cut stem was snipped onto the mulch. This young wood is nutritionally rich and easier to break down than older wood so works wonders for the soil.
Once all the apples and pears had been trimmed, volunteers learned yet another new technique - that of fanning. This is a form of decorative fruit tree training which guides growth along a frame on a wall. The three stems of our young nectarine leant themselves to a fan shape, so Marlon, Phil and Lewis got to work tying the tree to canes on the wire trellis.

No, not an eagle impression, but Lewis demonstrating the arts of  espalier and fanning fruit trees!

Fan-tastic! Phil shows off the newly-trained nectarine.

Finishing the practical work by planting a new tree was very satisfying. This one looked like it would go the distance. At 2-3years old it had a great shape and plenty of growth and even signs of blossom buds!

Molly tweaks the new pear, ensuring its young growth is well spaced in the middle to increase air flow. This will dry out potential damp spots which attract pests and disease.

Final touches making our new pear feel right at home. This 'Williams' Bon Chrétien' pear is a heritage variety of the kind that would have been planted here years ago.
Molly and Nigel dug a hole for our new tree and once it was in place and staked for support, an extra protective layer was added - a mulching mat. This would act as a further barrier to weeds while the tree got established and will rot down itself in a few months. With a top layer of mulch, we have done all we can to help it thrive here at Dorich House. Only time will tell if it will last longer than its predecessor.

Last, but by no means least, we gave all the trees a good thick layer of mulch. This protects the trees from lawnmowers and provides a rich source of nutrients to aid growth. Shovelling this stuff was also a great way to warm us up on this bitterly cold afternoon...brrrrr!

Having a barrow-full of laughs, Chris and Seline give our trees a good mulch.
New and old, side by side. The orchard has been greatly spruced up, and we are full of hope for a productive year.

After all that sawing, trimming, training and shovelling, volunteers were in need of a sit down somewhere warm and Dorich House didn't disappoint. The plaster room was awaiting us with hot teas of every kind and a delicious selection of tasty treats to reward our efforts. While we thawed out Lewis gave a presentation on the importance of working with nature in traditional orchards like this one. He highlighted four key principles to guide maintenance:
  1. Generate healthy, fungally-dominated soil which is good for fruit trees by adding woody material as a mulch.
  2. Underplant with beneficial plants such as comfrey which take up nutrients from great depths. By cutting its leaves, the leaf litter makes these nutrients available to the fruit tree. 
  3. Attract natural predators of pests: bats will eat the problematic, night flying codling moths.
  4. Attract pollinators: comfrey and clover for instance, attract bees.
Now orchard experts in the making, our volunteers have learned not only new practical skills but also the theory underpinning a successful orchard. And all in an afternoon's work set in the beautiful Dorich House grounds. The Spring blossom will be a sight to behold and hugely rewarding after our hard work - well done everyone!

If this has caught your imagination, why not get involved? Dorich House holds regular open days - it's a fascinating building and of course you'll get to see our orchard for real. And there are plenty more Biodiversity events coming up - first up is a Rhodo Bash at Kingston Hill campus on Saturday 23rd February. This is the last one of the season so come and help make it a good one!

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