Creating an apple orchard

IT seems like there should be hardly anything to it, inspiring bold ambitions to take charge of any old patch of unloved land.

But creating an apple orchard is probably not for the faint-heartened, at least according to the head gardener at one of Scotland’s most impressive apple orchards – Priorwood Orchard, located next to the now ruined abbey in Melrose, in the Scottish Borders, and run by the National Trust for Scotland.

If it’s not a pruning regime that dots between six buds on a branch and four, and perhaps during the summer but absolutely during January or February, it’s ensuring there is sufficient cross-pollination to avoid the fruit equivalent of in-breeding.

And then there is the fertility of the soil. Although David Millar believes that apple trees are pretty tough and not particularly choosy about soil conditions (indeed, he is part-way to deliberately degrading the soil across some parts of the site, ahead of planting a wild flower meadow) – he nevertheless believes that what you put in, in terms of soil condition, you are almost certainly going to reap.

Priorwood is notable for its sheer volume and also its history. Some 70 varieties of apple tree are on display, with the oldest – Court Pendu Plat – believed to have been brought into Scotland by the Romans, who established a fort barely a mile away, at Trimontium.

Around this time of year, it’s less about the fruit and more about the blossom, which makes the apple tree something of a gift that rarely stops giving.

And when the delicate flowers ‘go over’ and assuming that they have been pollinated – ideally from a different variety – the next phase is buds turning into fruit – either into an apple that is for direct eating (an ‘eater’) or one that is best used in cooking (a ‘cooker’), because of its tartness.

Priorwood has approximately a 60:40 split between eaters and cookers.

Of course, there are varieties of apple tree that have been cultivated, by the industry, comprising a combination of genetic varieties, so that one part of the tree has the capability of being pollinated just fine by another, the pollinator being most likely a bee – darting from one flower to the next.

Checking out just what type of apple tree(s) to plant is all part of the necessary early research, ahead of breaking ground.

David’s advice is simple. He begins: “I get asked a lot, what variety would I recommend, and it’s simply not possible. My taste is individual to me, so my answer is always to try different apples for taste and take it from there. When most eating apples are harvested – around September or October – many ‘apple fairs’ take place. We host one, here, annually, in Melrose. There is another, near here, at Harestanes. And it provides people with the opportunity to taste, and also ask to questions. 

“If you want my honest opinion, if anyone has the ambition of setting up an orchard, I’d research the option of including other fruits, such as plums. If your orchard is to be just apples, you need to be aware that you might end up with a crop that is simply too much to handle. We sell our crop to visitors – we operate a bag-and-‘honesty box’ system, so we rarely have to compost much of our fruit.”

David has been head gardener at Priorwood for five years. And he confesses that, when he first arrived, he was familiar only with a few of the varieties there.

“You are always learning,” he continues. “My background was working in ‘kitchen gardens’, so I probably knew of about a dozen varieties when I came here. It wasn’t completely daunting, it wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do. Of course, different parts of the country have their different, local varieties.”

He adds: “Many people will think an apple orchard is a nice thing to have, which, of course, it can be, if the orchard is managed well and looked after. It can be great seeing all your hard work – that has been done over the winter, such as pruning and standing on a ladder when it’s cold and wet – come good later on in the year, when you are, as it were, harvesting the fruits of your labour.

“If you are prepared to do the work, it will be very satisfying. I love my work and it’s personally very rewarding when you see it all come together.

“If you are still determined to go ahead, then don’t overstretch yourself – start small. If you have a group of people involved, then hopefully that group would get bigger, to make the sharing of jobs easier. 

“You don’t have to begin with a massive number of trees, some of which can, of course, be trained against a wall, which, as well as being a good support, will have the benefit of holding some warmth during the winter. Also, it will help with an earlier blossom and, in turn, will allow the apples to be harvested that wee bit quicker.

“The kitchen garden idea is about providing a steady stream of produce during the course of the year, so that’s why I would recommend apples being part of a mix of fruits to be grown. Apples are ready for cropping – you apply a slight twist when gently removing, otherwise you can damage the tree – pretty much during a two-week period and you can easily find yourself with a glut.”

Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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