I spent last Saturday attending a ‘Pruning Fruit Trees’ course at Writtle University College just outside Chelmsford. I’ve always resisted pruning clients’ fruit trees as I feel it’s such a specialised art and I don’t want to get it wrong. The course was postponed from last January and I was keen on getting some practical tuition. Why did I have to travel so far? It was quite hard to find a course: they seem to get booked up incredibly quickly and they tend to be held for a limited period in midwinter when the trees are dormant.
The beauty of the course was that it was really hands-on. After a brief introduction, the tutor Steve Ashley took us into the grounds of the college to demonstrate the basics. Working on a mature apple tree, Steve explained that the main aim is to prevent the tree becoming so tall that the fruit is beyond reach when it’s time to harvest it. He took out several water shoots, that slim upright growth that rarely bears fruiting buds and merely congests the tree. When he removed a pretty substantial upright branch from the centre of the tree, the structure immediately looked more open. That classic goblet shape was beginning to emerge, which allows both optimum air circulation and access of light to all the branches.
In a nursery bed in another part of the grounds, we were taught the importance, when planting a new fruit tree, of not planting too deep and ensuring the graft union, where the scion meets the rootstock, is above ground. If buried, the likelihood is the more vigorous rootstock will send up suckers and, if left unchecked, overpower the cultivar. Spiral rabbit guards are placed around each trunk to prevent the cuddly but destructive rodents damaging the bark of the young trees. As for pruning a young tree, Steve removed the central upright stem, the leader, to encourage the side shoots to bulk up and create a tree with branches yielding fruit within picking reach.
Across the road from the main campus and beyond some playing fields, stands a large orchard populated with dozens of mature apple trees, many of them needing renovation pruning. Here Steve demonstrated how to remove a limb without tearing the bark. Using a bow saw with a very sharp blade, he identified the branch that was for the chop, and first made a half cut into it a foot or so above the site of the final cut: this is the undercut. On the opposite side of the branch, and an inch or so beyond the first cut, he cut half way through the limb. Then, pulling the branch towards him, it came away cleanly leaving a stepped cut. The third and final cut is just above the collar, the line where the branch meets the trunk. The cut should be straight across leaving as little surface area as possible, rather than at an angle.
At this point we formed into pairs and were let loose on the trees. As instructed, we had all taken secateurs, pruning saw and loppers. I teamed up with Sara and we worked on two trees with Steve dropping by to inspect our handiwork. To start with it wasn’t as easy as he had made it look. But we practised the step cut and satisfyingly, found it made removal of a substantial branch much easier. The trees we chose were quite gnarly specimens and had several outer limbs which turned at 90 degrees and rose skywards. These we removed taking care not to remove more than a third of the branches. As Steve said, further renovation can always be done next year. As ever with pruning, we kept standing back to look at the tree as a whole to determine what else we might trim off. We followed the 3 Ds principle of taking out dead, diseased and dying branches as well as any crossing branches which might rub against each other, damaging the bark and allowing pathogens to penetrate. We learnt the importance in early summer, after the June drop, when the tree naturally sheds some fruit, of reducing the number of fruits to ensure that what remains matures to a decent size.
Before I left the college I took a walk through the campus and admired the generous planting throughout. In a bed clearly designed for winter interest, were red-stemmed Cornus, complemented by bergenias with deep maroon leaves. In contrast were hellebores with pale mottled leaves and clumps of snowdrops. Height was provided by pollarded willows and by silver birch. Elsewhere Cornus Midwinter Fire, the multitude of stems shading upwards from pale gold to deep orange, stood out vividly against the dark evergreen of the hedge behind.
The main driveway is flanked by superbly planted gravel gardens, appropriate given the relative proximity of Beth Chatto’s famous example of such a garden 15 or so miles up the A12. It is also sensible to garden in such a style in Essex, a county with a low average rainfall. Earlier in the day Steve had explained that the gravelled borders had been designed by a fellow horticulture lecturer. Even on the last weekend of January they were looking splendid, with plenty of height and texture and contrasting shapes and heights. Stands of spear-leaved Phormium and Astelia were woven through with several varieties of grasses, giving movement to the scheme. Scaly rounded cardoon heads (Cynara cardunculus: even the name is redolent of dinosaurs) added structure and drama.
Fortified by tea and cake at the Tiptree Tea Room opposite the college, I headed home to West London, after my second trip to Essex in six months. Being able to work on the trees myself was invaluable and gave me confidence to tackle the annual maintenance pruning of a modest sized apple or pear tree. However I would still leave a major renovation pruning job to an expert.