Barking up the wrong tree

A few years ago we planted an orchard of fruit trees, mostly apples that had a fighting chance of thriving at our altitude (1000ft above sea level) and on heavy wet clay – not the happiest of climes for fruit growing. Over the past few years the maidens (baby one year old grafted trees) have had their formative pruning done by Tom the Apple Man who’s expert knowledge and ruthless stripping of fruit buds made the trees grow into strong little trees. Last year which was about the fifth season and we actually had a really decent harvest of apples.

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Some of these were stored and labelled for eating and cooking over winter – we still have a few left that are quite good keepers, although the shorter lived ones have long since gone to Petunia the pig. I crushed and juiced the rest and the bottles of juice are frozen to store. I’m not too keen on cider, it makes me get funny red “panda” eyes from the alcohol for some strange reason. I have made apple wine in the past but again, not we’re huge homemade wine drinkers. And we do really like home grown apple juice. We enjoy it either chilled as plain juice or in winter, mulled on the wood burning stove with star anise, cinnamon and cloves and a splash of something cheeky (well I do anyway).

It’s not the prettiest of juice – in fact if I’m being honest, it looks rather like the offering of a horse suffering from persistent cystitis. It tends to put off the uninitiated when proffered. “Oh just a….little bit” people usually say anxiously regarding the recycled 4pint milk bottle (handy for freezing) containing the thick oxidised cloudy liquid. Mostly they are converts after a couple of sips – it really does taste wonderful; sweet, tangy and full of body in a way the stuff in a tetrapac box could never compete with. The sharper cooking apples tend to make the better juice. Eating apples can be a little too sweet and with less acid in makes for a slightly insipid flavour. I like to blend them to get a balanced juice between sweet and tart but it’s fun to have single variety juices too.

I’m also a big fan of baked apples. It’s something that other members of my immediate family don’t seem to share. But my Grandpa apparently understood the appeal of tucking into the warm, fluffy appleyness and being a chip off the old block this is something I am happy to have inherited from him. I like to stuff the hole where the core is removed with mincemeat or sometimes dates, pecans and maple syrup and bake it like that. A good dollop of greek yoghurt and I’m content. Mmmm…. One of our trees, Annie Elizabeth (that’s the variety, we don’t actually go around naming all our trees like Eddie Stobart lorries in case you’re wondering…) grows monster sized apples and greedy as it sounds these are the beauties I go for when it’s time to bake me an apple. I’d happily have one as my supper. Although it has to be said that Bramley’s fluff down better than Annie does, as do Golden Noble – oh to have the choice. It’s so exciting to grow your own food and be able to pick the varieties that suit certain types of cooking and dishes rather than be restricted to using a generic “apple” “potato” “tomato” etc. If such statements make me a grow-your-own snob, well if the chef’s hat fits then I’ll wear it. I like food, I like cooking, I like the whole experience of bringing nourishing tasty food to the table from it’s beginnings as seed or cutting to it’s semi-recumbant sated reflections of the meal once consumed.

Our baby orchard has done well.

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Until a few weeks ago when by a combination of unfortunate factors, my sheep and the apple trees met. Animals and plants do not always mix very well. Especially in circumstances when you and the animals have different ideas for the plants. We humans had plans for the orchard to continue being nurtured and harvested for hopefully most, if not all, of my remaining life span. My sheep on the other hoof, viewed them merely as a tasty snack whilst they waited for some more grass to grow and didn’t give a toss for the next 40+ years.

They ringbarked about a third of the trees in a very, very short period of time. Oops…

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This one hasn’t been completely ringed but several of them had lost bark all the way around. Not a pretty sight.

Trees can take a little bit of abuse in terms of damaging the bark. But the tree’s nutrients rely on it’s version of a circulatory system running just under the bark – if that system is completely girdled by removing the bark around the trunk of the tree then it’s nutrient supply from leaves to roots and back is cut off and eventually it will die. Without being a botanist I could see that the 20 minutes of happy munching had done some serious damage to the work of several years nurturing the orchard to this stage. Not to mention the expense.

When we rang him, Tom was able to advise us to take cuttings from the trees and keep them cool either in the fridge or stuck in a pot of damp soil in the dark

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until March when he would come to perform “bridge grafting” to try and save the trees. This involved grafting the cutting (scion) from below the damage to bridge the gap in the bark

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and then graft it back in above.

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Apparently you do one bridge graft per inch diameter of trunk so for these young trees two or three bridges should hopefully be adequate to restore the supply.

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On this particular tree the root stock had sent out shoots (the larger branch growing up from the base) which are normally removed as the rootstock is more vigorous than the scion grafted onto it and would take over but here Tom was able to use this to graft back in – although obviously any branches that grow off of it will have to be removed.

On larger trees more bridge grafts are required and Tom showed me some photos in his book where a large tree had been girdled, presumably by some wire embedded in the bark as can happen where trees are used as part of fencing boundaries. The before picture showed all the little bridges neatly grafted in and then some time later when they had formed strong unions and thickened out – it created a quite marvellous structure, gnarled columns of grafts and looking like something out of The Lord Of The Rings. Maybe the Elves of Rivendell were dab hands at bridge grafting to make their trees contort into sinuous shapes…

Tom and his assistant Andrew assessed the trees and spent the best part of the day grafting the scions in. In some cases they were able to pin the scion into the T cut in the trunk to secure it before applying grafting wax and in other places they had to simply bind the scions in with tape. Hopefully they will all form strong unions soon and save the trees from slowly dying out. My mother did a grafting course with Tom and had 100% success with her little trees and so hopefully we can graft some more onto suitable root stock as an insurance policy against losing the parent tree although Tom seemed happy they would do well now and hopefully they will not be set back too much by this winter’s unfortunate incidence.

Needless to say I feel very sheepish – and measure will be taken to make sure the pesky critters really can’t get through the fencing in future…

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Yes, you!! ;0)

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