Thanks to the heroic endevours of our new land intern Ed Bailey we have finally got around to preparing the unlikely looking bit of land at the top of our SW-facing meadow, which will become a small orchard next year...Inspired by planting a wall of fruit at Abbey Gardens in London a few weeks ago, and by thinking 'If we'd planted an orchard when we first moved in here we'd be eating apples by now!'
The site will be a challenging one -200m above sea level, and rather exposed if sunny, so I'll also plant a surrounding hedge inside the dear-dissuading stock fencing - probably hawthorn as it's so twiggy and in leaf so early too. Much as I fancy shaped espaliers and fans they'd be decidely out of place up here and - more seriously - I know that with the emphasis on labour-saving we are best to choose the standard tree shape, below which -in the future - animals can graze and people can picnic.
Being organic, our ground prep (the meadow was cropped a few months ago by some hungry Exmoor ponies and is usually maintained for wildflower interest) consists of rotivating (now) the hedge-line and a 1m square for each tree (they should eventually reach circa 3m in height each) about 3.5m apart. We'll then spread a thick layer of well-rotted cow manure on this newly exposed soil, then cover with a light-excluding mulch of carpet or plastic, and let nature do the rest for the next 8 or 9 months. Then next winter I'll have a fork about under the mulch and we should see a decent if thin top soil level to plant into in Feb / March time.
I now have the delectable task of trawling through books and websites to choose the toughest apples I can find - I've decided to create the United Appledom of Grizedale by choosing 6 varieties each from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland - and by all accounts for the rare ones you need to get your orders for next winter in now. I'll be looking for early ripening varieties, and ones from the wetter parts of those countries. Any variety recommendations welcome!
An interesting away day was had by myself and some local ladies recently, at Acorn Bank near Penrith on the Northern Fruit Group's Apple Grafting Workshop. I enjoyed watching the elderly working with sharp knives and a devil-may-care attitude (see picture) as they showed us young 'uns the joys of creating apple trees from sticks, wax and plastic ribbons. My creation - 'Ashmeads Kernel' on M25 (thats a rootstock number not a motorway) - is recovering in the polytunnel.
One of my formative gardening memories is the successful raising of a 'Golden Delicious' (misnomer if ever I heard one) seedling from a pip in my back garden, a tree which was still there some 15 years later when the house was sold, and though I have as yet no orchard here, I long for this most fundamental of horticultural delights. I now have the technology, if not the space, to populate it with the rare and quirky of the apple world, forms selected by the fantastically perverse Northern Fruit Group, a club dedicated to growing fruit where it doesn't want to be grown, saving rare and wild weather-proof varieties for future generations, who better bloody well be grateful, what with the number of sliced thumbs this grafting must be causing.
A second trip was to the northern french town of Hesdin, where my partner's mother's garden had spent last summer turning into Sleeping Beauty's Forest, with added ground elder. We spend 5 long, 'dur', days labouring against every perennial weed known to man and wrestling some very energetic roses into submission. The French neighbours' curtains twitched as Adam flailed behind their shared walls, swearing prolifically as another thorn wedged itself into his head, and the local garden centre offered us shares in the company due to the quantity of mulch we bought.
Speaking of which, what gerden centres! Baby chicks, rat traps, log splitters, small agricultural machinery - these meccas put ours to shame, though bizarrely the only mulch you can buy baged up is large bark chips from maritime pines, rather municipal in appearance by probably very long lasting. We used them over a long border of membrane which I wrestled under the brutal roses in a desperate attempt to control the weeds.