January 29, 2011

On planning and planting an orchard (guest post by AJLR)


It’s only a tiny orchard but we’re very proud of it – the ‘we’ in this case being I and my fellow kitchen-gardeners, on the university campus where I’m a member of staff.

Three years ago the University decided to encourage students and staff to get involved in a project called ‘creative campus’. All sorts of things have come out of this, including a grass maze, an arboretum, and the kitchen-garden*. This last is an area of about half an acre that has been set aside for use by those students and staff who are interested in growing vegetables (or learning how to do so) – and now fruit, as well. We have a number of vegetable beds inside a wire (anti-rabbit) fence – 15 plots, each of c.10’ x 12’. The soil is very light and fairly sandy and dries out a lot in summer, so earlier this year we bought a lot of well-rotted horse manure and a big trailer load of spent mushroom compost and have been digging this stuff in and mulching with it ever since, to help the moisture-holding capacity and general health of the soil. I must admit that when I first pressed for us to get so much organic matter in I had some very doubtful co-volunteers. However, everyone can see now how our worm count is going up and how much healthier the plants have been this past summer so I’m glad we went ahead. As the person in the group with the most gardening experience (some of my fellow gardeners are complete beginners, though extremely willing and keen to learn) I really enjoy sharing information (the RHS site and forum are a great reference resource) and showing new gardeners something of how to get the best crops from their plantings. It’s also great to get away out to the garden during summer lunchtimes when I’m on campus, as a change from being plugged into a computer.

A few months ago we heard that an external bid put in by the campus environmental co-ordinator had been successful and that we would have some extra funding to expand our operations in ways that would benefit the students. We decided that it would be good to get some fruit trees and bushes, as an interesting feature in themselves and as an aid to teaching people more (informally) about how easy it can be to grow some food of their own. After innumerable hours of online and face-to face discussion (really – the number of emails involved was stupendous), we finally settled on having apple, pear, cherry and cobnut trees, together with raspberries (both autumn- and summer-fruiting varieties), blackcurrants, redcurrants, loganberry and tayberry. We commandeered some of the grassed area outside the vegetable garden, some of our members got together and built a large fruit cage (for the soft fruit) from some old metal and mesh frames that were discarded near us, and we were ready!

We’d had a look around during the summer to see where we might be able to get good stock from (it has to be certified as virus-free) and eventually decided on Brogdale – well, with the National Fruit Collection there being only eight miles away from the campus, it seemed the obvious place. We kept everyone interested in the kitchen-garden informed about what the steering group was planning, asked for volunteers who’d like to come along and learn how to plant trees/soft fruit so as to give the best start, circulated an RHS video about the way to plant trees**, and planned our planting day.

Of course, the day we’d picked as the planting day (27 November) turned out to be three days after the start of the current mini-Ice Age in the UK. After a couple of hours of preparatory groundwork the morning before by my Noble and Nice-Natured Husband (‘You want me to go up there and do WHAT?! In these temperatures!! Are you joking, woman…?!’) and myself, we found ourselves at 10 o’clock on the morning of the planting day standing on a just-thawing area of pasture and with 14 slightly chilly volunteers in attendance. The man from Brogdale, with all our beautiful trees and soft fruit stacked behind him, gave a practical demonstration of ‘how to do it’ (including such elements as making sure that the supporting stake went in on the side of the prevailing wind, so each little tree’s trunk would be less likely to rub against it),  my husband gave a brief demo of how to take turf off the ground first without either a) taking too much soil with it or b) laying oneself open to a slipped disc, and we were off. I’d asked people to work in twos and threes and for each little group to plant a tree according to the layout and measurements we’d agreed and just then marked out (15 feet between trees, which are on semi-dwarfing rootstock). Everyone was very keen to get started – and to warm up! After the first 30 minutes they all seemed to be getting the hang of stripping the turf off where their tree was to be planted (I was building turf stacks with what they took off) and the first planting holes were starting to appear. Everyone looked much warmer and there was a lot of chatting and good-humoured comparison of techniques going on, which was great.  As the trees went in one could see how much care people were taking and the general enthusiasm for what they were doing, despite the -2oC temperature around us. By 12.30 all the trees were in and we went for a quick lunch and warm-up in the students’ cafe a few minutes walk away. Knocking the mud off our boots (mostly) and going into that warm room, engulfing food/fuel at a rate of knots, we were all feeling really good about the day.

Going back out into the cold 45 minutes later was, of course, not quite so much fun. Some of the volunteers heard the siren call of essays waiting to be written and left, but enough remained for us to go back as a group and get on with planting the soft fruit bushes and canes inside the cage. I’d done a planting plan, showing what needed to go where, and once we’d got more turf stripped off, the ground dug over and loosened up in the new beds, the remaining plants went in fairly quickly. My N&N-NH went off and brought back a pack of pastries, one of the group went across to the Plotting Shed*** and brought mugs of hot tea out to us and, by the time the frozen grey dusk started to envelope us all at 3.30, every plant was snug in the ground. Now we’ve got even more of a reason to long for the Spring.

* * *

* The campus is around 300 acres in extent and there’s still quite a lot of spare land round the edges. We’ll also have two bee-hives out there, near the kitchen-garden, from this coming Spring. I’m so looking forward to this and to my bee-keeping training.

** We were planting bare-root grafted trees, in which case one has to be sure and keep the grafted area – where top and rootstock join – a couple of inches above the ground. The general planting technique is just the same as shown in the video though.

*** There is an old (brick-built) shed on the edge of the kitchen-garden that we’ve got kitted out with water, power, chairs, wall-charts, etc. When this potting shed (as it was before) was renovated for us last year by the University’s maintenance staff, we asked the k-g group what it should be called. The ‘Plotting Shed’ it then became…


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