This week here at Chartwell we hosted a volunteer apple pruning event in our Private Orchard. This is a part of the garden that although visible from the Top Terrace and occasionally seen in close-up on one of our garden tours, is generally not open to our visitors. Although you might therefore think that this makes it an ideal place to carry out some apple pruning training, it is still a very important part of Churchill’s gardens. Not only are some of the apple varieties reasonably rare, the produce from here makes its way up to the Chartwell restaurant for use in their recipes and also into the hands of our visitors when we sell our fruit and vegetables for donations in the kitchen garden each year.
We had around 30 volunteers attend our one day prunathon, around 20 from the ranks of the Chartwell garden volunteers and a further dozen or so from fellow National Trust properties Red House and Rainham Hall where Claire our Kitchen Gardener used to work. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t overly kind to us but once I had run through some basic risk assessment information and essential equipment details, it was time to get down to the actual pruning instruction itself. In this blog we’ll tell you how I asked our volunteers to carry out our winter apple pruning and maybe you can have a go yourself at home…
There are several reasons as to why we prune apple trees. The most obvious one of course is to produce good crop of apples of a decent size. You don’t want hundreds of undersized apples, nor do you you want only a handful of massive ones. The next reason is to remove the 3 D’s. Otherwise known as Dead, Diseased and Damaged wood. Canker is the most common disease of apple tree wood and when out of control can cause the death of the branch in question. The third reason is to improve air circulation and light penetration. This improves fruit ripening and pollination as well as reducing the chance of disease. The final reason for pruning is to control the size and shape of the tree. Too tall a tree will be impossible to harvest fruit from while too big a spread can affect other nearby plants and structures.
Winter pruning of apple trees is done between leaf fall and bud burst when tree is dormant, and always with clean, sharp tools. If you tackle the big work first you should be thinking about the following:
1. Remove / reduce dead, diseased, dying, damaged, crossing, rubbing branches, congested areas and branches growing in the wrong direction.
2. Keep the centre of the tree open in a classic goblet shape. An old rule of thumb was if you could throw your hat up through the centre of the tree then you had done your job!
3. Reduce height and spread where possible.
4. As a general guideline, no branch should be nearer than roughly 30cm to its neighbour.
The more fiddly pruning work can now be done and this will differ depending on how the fruit is borne on the tree itself. Spur-bearing apple trees produce their fruit on spurs (clusters of fat fruit buds) on older wood. The process of pruning the new growth on spur-bearers goes like this:
• Cut back branch leaders (shoots at the ends of the branch or stem) by a third to a bud facing in the required direction (i.e. not back into the centre of the tree).
• Cut strong, thick side shoots to 5 or 6 buds.
• Cut back weaker, thinner side shoots to 2 or 3 buds.
• Very short laterals can be left un-pruned.
• Thin very congested spur clusters. If you don’t go as far as this stage, the fruit itself can instead be thinned after the June Drop (the time when the tree naturally sheds its excess fruit).
Tip-bearing apple trees are much less common and their fruit is produced on the tips of the previous year’s growth. Once you done the heavy work as above, the finer pruning methods for these trees is as follows:
• Cut back all leaders to the first strong bud, removing at least the top 3 or 4 buds, to encourage further side branching.
• Leave sideshoots less than 25cm long un-pruned.
• Cut longer laterals back to 4 buds.
Partial tip-bearing apple trees include the likes of Bramley’s Seedling and have a mixture of spur and tip-bearing buds. They can be treated much like spur-bearing trees in most ways except at this time of year you should leave any shoots less than 25cm un-pruned.
The staff here at Chartwell, and Claire Bryant and myself in particular who ran the event together, would like to thank all of the volunteers who came and helped in our mass prunathon this week. We got virtually the whole Private Orchard done and dusted and we hope that they both enjoyed their day and perhaps learnt a few things too! Hopefully we’ll do something similar again soon…