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Winter pruning time for our fruit trees

Updated: May 11, 2020

After a winter’s hibernation, getting together to prune the communal orchards often marks a change in the air, and the beginning of a new growing season. We’ve paid our rents, the days are getting longer, and the soil is starting to warm up. This year, however, the annual pruning workshop was postponed not once, but twice: due to storms Ciara and Dennis. Instead of change in the air, there was a cold chill, some lashing rain, plus anything you’d left on your plot that wasn’t weighted down. So, the planned workshop drifted from the ninth of February, to the 16th, finding its final resting place on 23rd February, amidst calmer weather and some sunny spells.

The focus was to prune the apple and pear trees that grow in the communal orchards. (We steer clear of stone fruit trees, like plums, at this time of year to reduce the risk of fungal infections like silver leaf disease – pruning in high summer instead when fungal spores aren‘t being produced). Both orchards near the Highbury gate are brimming with interesting varieties not found in the shops. In the hour or two workshop, most of the trees were pruned, meaning they’re in a good position to keep bearing crops we can share in the coming years. Plot-holder Pip said “I learnt so much from the pruning day and it gave me the confidence to tackle my own trees. I’ve got 2 apple trees on my plot and they’re a little unruly, but now I know what to take off and what to leave”.

Guided by choice quotes like “a leaf not in direct sunlight is a parasite” and the idea that you can throw your hat through a well-pruned tree, plot-holders banded together to tackle the whippy new growth put on by trees over the last season, focusing on improving the shape of the trees, as well as light and air flow through the branches. As well as keeping trees healthy, this helps direct their energy into producing fruit, and equally importantly, fruit at a height that is easily picked! Elsewhere, another plot-holder bundled some of the prunings together to make traditional fire-starters: a great example of reducing, re-using and recycling for the allotment.

Organiser Fiona said: “I’m really impressed by the number of people who’ve turned out on a not very promising day, and we’ve got the whole job done in one go. Hopefully the trees will benefit, and we’ll get lots of fruit this year”. She’s particularly looking forward to the Ribston Pippins when they are ready, saying “it’s one of the parents of Cox’s Orange Pippin, and it’s a slightly sharper, slightly larger and slightly more russet-y apple. It’s one of my favourites”. Thanks to Fiona for passing on her pruning know-how, as well as providing useful handouts and the use of a sturdy stepladder to reach the highest branches.

We all look forward to the fruit ripening later in the year – the fruit is shared between anyone who’s contributed to the upkeep of the site during the year. In the meantime, feel free to check the label attached to the tree which lists the variety and when it will be ready to eat, maybe getting some inspiration for some fruit trees to add to your plot in the future.

Want to know more?

Fiona recommends the book “RHS pruning and training” (by Christopher Brickell and David Joyce) for a comprehensive manual.

For a more general read about orchards, the alchemy of grafting, and the discovery of new varieties, Jo recommends the book “The Apple Orchard” (by Pete Brown)

You might be interested in reading about a local apple variety, the Jesmond Dingle, grown from a pip by another allotment holder in Jesmond.

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