Maintaining a successful orchard

Apple blossom in spring heralds fruit

Apple blossom in spring heralds fruit - Credit: hmwt

Laura Baker, senior reserves officer at Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, gives an insight into the year-round work that goes into managing a successful orchard

Small tortoishell feeding on thistles in Tewin Orchard

Small tortoishell feeding on thistles in Tewin Orchard - Credit: hmwt

Many of Hertfordshire’s once-famous apple and cherry orchards are now gone, but some, such as Tewin Orchard, a traditional village example near Welwyn GC managed by Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, are still thriving.

There are no commercial orchards left in Hertfordshire today. Instead, we have a group of dedicated landowners and community groups wishing to preserve these historic food-and-drink producing wonders – and of course benefit from the delicious fruit.

There is always work to be done on an orchard, although this varies depending on the time of year. While the primary aim of such plantations is food production, they also provide a great natural habitat for wildlife and this is often a strong secondary aim for orchard owners, both for pollination and conservation. For this reason, managing an orchard is a balancing act between caring for trees (and the surrounding grasslands) for fruit and wildlife.

Throughout the autumn and winter, habitat management and the majority of tree pruning takes place. This is when the trees are no longer growing fruit and a lot of wildlife is hibernating. During the summer, trees are pruned –mainly trimming – and the orchard is kept tidy.

Pruning of trees allows air, light and space to benefit fruit growth

Pruning of trees allows air, light and space to benefit fruit growth - Credit: hmwt

Fruit tree pruning

Formative tree pruning is carried out on all young trees to ensure they develop a balanced shape. Fruit growth can be encouraged by cutting trees to allow the maximum growing area and light exposure for fruit – typically for apple trees, a bowl shape is formed. Formative pruning takes place during winter, however, sometimes trees will be cut in summer to maintain size for easier fruit picking.

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Once young trees have been pruned for shape, maintenance pruning takes over. This is integral to their survival and fruit yield.

Windfall at the orchard in autumn

Windfall at the orchard in autumn - Credit: hmwt

Pruning is also needed to keep older trees alive and intact. Veteran trees need the weight reduced on their limbs to avoid the loss of branches and prevent cracking.

Maintenance pruning also allows a balance of fruit and vegetative growth, controls the tree size and allows light and air around the tree. This takes place over the winter months ahead of fruit production.

Grassland maintenance

A full grassland cut and rake usually takes place between August and October, with scrub control between September and February.

Throughout the summer, footpaths are maintained and overgrown nettles controlled. This is to keep the orchard tidy and protect the grassland and trees from crowding and over-nutrification. The area also needs to be kept habitable for the wealth of wildlife it supports.

Fruit production

Trees have both leaf buds and fruit buds, the latter of which produce blossom, pollinated by insects in spring with fruit growing over the summer until fruit-picking season in autumn. In early summer, apple trees naturally shed some fruitlets in a process known as the ‘June drop’. This is an important part of the trees’ natural fruit thinning and is important for a healthy crop of apples to continue to grow on the tree.

In September and October, the picking begins and it is finally time to taste the fruits of our labours! Over winter while the trees lay bare, vital maintenance work to both the trees and wider orchard takes place.

Orchard wildlife

Orchards support a wide range of wildlife – wildflowers grow in the less-nutrified areas of grassland which in turn draws in an array of butterflies.

The white letter hairstreak is often found in Hertfordshire’s orchards where populations of elm persist – its caterpillar food plant.

Common spotted and pyramidal orchids grow well over the summer months and badgers can be found at Tewin Orchard. Mammals and birds feast on fallen fruit, while insects are attracted by it, and fungi spring up on tree trunks.

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