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Up the apples and pears

It's fruit tree pruning time again here in the Garden, a task that can be done while there' s snow on the rock-hard ground. We don't summer-prune - we just don't have time with everything else that's going on. Even if we did, I'd be reluctant to wade through the borders to get to the wall-trained trees at the back, for fear of causing unnecessary damage. And actually, pruning trees by hand when there are no leaves getting in the way is so much easier. And there are no late-nesting birds to worry about.

A note of caution though - we never prune our plum and cherry trees in the winter; these ( and some other Prunus varieties) need to be pruned while the plant is in active growth as otherwise you risk introducing silver leaf disease.

Most of our fruit trees are apples and pears and we have around 70 of them in different shapes and sizes, and most growing against the south-, east-and west-facing walls as espaliers or fan-trained. We do have a number of pillars, though - essentially single trunks with no branches, the fruit growing as close to the trunk as possible. And a few free-standing apples as well, in the Old Orchard, Summerhouse and Teacup gardens.

All of them are at least 40 years old and some, we believe, could be approaching 200 - original plantings put in when the Walled Garden was constructed. While we have lost one or two of these oldest trees, our aim is to conserve them for as long as we can, and one way to do this is by pruning.

All of our fruit trees are pruned by hand with sharp secateurs or long-reach loppers every year. The larger trees can take 3-4 hours, with every growing shoot reduced to just a couple of buds of this past year's growth. Essentially, the trees are growing but very slowly.

Some put on little growth (just an inch or so), the more vigorous varieties a metre per year.

And they really do need to be pruned. Every year, particularly the wall-trained ones. The weight of an average crop is considerable and the centre of gravity needs to be as near the trunk of the tree as possible. Too big a crop and the branches break. So the branches need to be as short as possible.

But a well-pruned tree is a thing of beauty- in the winter, snow will highlight the tree's framework against the walls, etching each branch and twig. But it's in the spring when, over the course of 3 weeks or so, the gardener gets his reward, as one by one, each tree erupts into a explosion of sweetly scented pink and white flowers, festooning those bare branches with instant pollen for the newly emergent bees. This is something I bear in mind when up the ladder in December and January with my Felcos, unable to feel my feet or fingers!

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