This is an instructional blog about how our partner community groups can reduce their tree guard height, allowing the fruit trees to spread their limbs nice and wide for good shape. Guarding young trees during their vulnerable establishment phase is crucial to successful tree planting, especially in the city where tree snappers, kickers, biters, absent-minded fiddlers and pilferers abound. Where rabbits and deer are the main culprits in a more rural setting, here Staffordshire Terriers and Homo Sapiens take their place, making fruit tree cultivation quite a challenge. At The London Orchard Project, we use a guard system which was recommended by local arb expert, ecologist and all round tree champion Russel Miller of the Tree Muskateers, a consultant of the project in its early stages. These are made up of two 8ft stakes, each bashed a generous2 ft into the ground (which those of you who wielded the pile-drivers during planting day will remember by the calluses on your palms) then caged with two pieces of heavy duty wire fencing.
These make for pretty hefty guards that resemble each tree’s own little Fort-Knox…so not the prettiest…or the cheapest (each costing us several times the cost of a tree). However, they do their job well, for even the more determined tree assassins tend to give up, leaving the trees to find their feet in peace. Establishing trees in the city is a feat in itself, and the fact that the London Orchard Project have about a 98% success rate with these guards is something to be proud of in itself. Indeed when I attended the recent ‘Trees in the City’ conference in April, vandalism of new, young trees was a key issue, and other tree planting groups and local authorities were impressed with this record and took notes on design. As an added bonus, the stakes become a refuge for beneficial predators; as they begin to be weathered, their splits are occupied by woolly aphid-munching earwigs and holes can be drilled into them for solitary bee habitat. However, they do have a major set back. During the formative pruning of a young fruit tree, we’re looking to create a network of wide-angled branches, that allow for maximum sunlight and airflow as well as easy picking. This can be tricky with this guard shape. Indeed, in some of our earliest orchards, where the community group did not get round to reducing the guard height early enough and where that formative pruning task always got put on the back burner, the trees were limited to the confines of the cage. So, they’re not exactly textbook in their forms, and branches rubbing continuously against the metal has caused wounds. One response could be to raise the canopy, so that the first lateral branches begin above the height of the guard. But this would produce a ‘standard’ tree, not ideal for the semi-vigorous rootstocks we’re using, and not ideal for easy harvesting. So now, from the onset we are encouraging groups to reduce the guard height as soon as they feel it is safe to do so, when the threat of vandalism has subsided (once the new tree is not so new, and an established part of the scenery). Also, by cutting holes in the cage sides to allow good, wide-angled branches to protrude through, we can begin to create good canopy shape for optimum tree health and fruit quality. As our model is to empower communities to care for their trees through upskilling (as a tiny team of 4 part timers it’d be impossible for us to continue working on every orchard we plant…and unsustainable) we’ll be creating more practical/instructional blogs like this one. So, here is the step by step guide on how to reduce your guard height and allow your trees a bit of breathing space, featuring the amazing Core Roots team.
Step 1: Decide how low to make your guard, based on where your main scaffold lateral branches start (good, wide angled side branches which will form the main structure of your tree canopy). This height depends on how the grass around your trees is to be managed. Use some decent wire cutters to cut around the guard, cutting the wire at the top to enable it to be folded down (see photo) as the cut edges are very sharp. For this reason, be very careful when handling the metal. Another option is to cut them down to the required height, then take off both sides of the cage and turn them upside down before hammering back on. This would mean the nice and tidy end is at the top, so you don’t have to worry about sharp bits (you’ll then have to cut a new weeding hatch at the bottom as the original will now be higher up). How low you make the guard will also depend on the vandalism threat at your particular site. Hopefully the trees are now an accepted part of the local scenery and the threat will have subsided.
Step 2: Fold down the wire around the guard to prevent injury
Step 3: Cut holes in the guard to allow any other good branches to spread out. Ensure that the edges are safeguarded and that branches don’t rub by attaching some old bicycle inner tube with cable ties.
Step 4: While you’re at it, make your weeding hatch safer by using the inner tube technique
Step 5: Step back and enjoy the sight of a newly released fruit tree canopy! And cross your fingers that those branches will still be there tomorrow! If you can stash the offcuts somewhere safe and let us know you’ve reduced your guards we’ll try and collect them at some point, but remember that they’ll have sharp edges where cut, so be careful!