In recent years we have done a lot of work restoring old orchards. These orchards are worth saving as they are very valuable in terms of biodiversity, amenity, food source, genetic diversity and heritage. Their “veteran” trees may be hollow and top heavy, presenting a unique challenge. Here are some things we have learnt along the way, and below, some advice from our consultant Bob Lever.
Reaching for the top
At Lady Gilbert orchard in Harrow, west London, the 90 year old veteran fruit trees have grown up to 10 metres tall, having had to compete for light with oaks, chestnuts and hornbeams. These gangly old trees are at risk of toppling over, so we had to remove weight from the very top. That meant standing on top of ladders with 4m pole saws and arms at full stretch — using muscles we had forgotten we had!
Having the right tools makes a difficult task a bit easier. We use adjustable tripod ladders and sharp new saws. Another useful tool is a hook we put on the end of our extendable poles. One person uses it to hold a branch steady while someone else saws, and to remove the pruned branch from the canopy if it gets stuck.
Lean on me
As these old trees cling to life, they provide habitat and food for many species such as fungus and beetles. We found the the beautiful black headed cardinal beetle at Lady Gilbert, and the very rare Orchard Toothcrust at Horton Country Park.
We worked with quite an unusual orchard in Hendon, north London, which was planted in the 1970s. It was managed like a commercial orchard, with the apple trees planted close together in rows on very dwarfing rootstock. It was pruned in the spindle shape, with the grass below treated with herbicide. After years of neglect these trees grew out of shape, becoming top heavy, putting a strain on the small root system. So our priority there was to remove weight high up to reduce the centre of gravity to make them more stable.
We asked our project consultant Bob Lever, aka ‘Orchard Bob’, what were the key considerations when pruning old fruit trees:
“The first work you do to an old fruit tree is attempt to correct structural defects that have occurred as a result of a period of neglect. If you take a big old apple tree for example. As time passes, the tree grows hollow and the branches grow longer and heavier, and so the risk of the branches breaking or splitting the tree trunk increases”.
“Restorative pruning is often about diagnosing which branches might be about to pull the tree apart if left untended. It is usually dealing with weight reduction, and sometimes height reduction. The object is to try to extend the life of the tree, usually for landscape, biodiversity or amenity reasons. It is not usually to enhance fruit production, although that can be the case if the tree is healthy and responds well to the pruning”.
“Formative pruning is akin to teaching your toddler to stand, walk and run. Restorative pruning however is a bit like helping an elderly relative down the stairs and then settling them into a comfy chair”
Find the whole story on our chat with Bob Lever, our all-round orchard maestro in our blog here.