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The Family Orchard: a personal story

Our orchard has been in our family since my grandparents, Ma and Pa, bought the neighbouring farmhouse in 1977. It’s as traditional as they come in terms of small farmhouse cider orchards and has become part of our family. The farmhouse, we had to sell off when Ma and Pa died. But of all the people that viewed the house, none were interested in the orchard other than perhaps to remove the trees and have it as a pony paddock. This made our decision easy; we split the orchard off, and kept it when selling the house.

It’s only a small orchard, a couple of acres, planted on ridge and furrow. It wasn’t as though it was worth much money in fact, but it meant a lot to us as a family.

We call our orchard the ‘secret orchard’; it’s away from the road, up a slope and you’ll only know it’s there if you know it’s there. But in all honesty it’s no secret at all. We share it far and wide, celebrating weddings, birthdays, holidays and apple pressings with friends and family. We used to do the occasional wassail too, but after one ‘blessed’ tree was almost immediately struck by lightning, thought it best to let that tradition off…

Varieties

At some point, curious about the trees in the orchard, Ma asked the neighbour what varieties they were; he had worked on the farm all his life, and had apparently helped plant many of them. It was great to finally put names to trees; the lovely dual purpose in the corner was Tom Putt, the delicious red eating apple near the gate was Beauty of Bath.

Beauty of bath?

Except of course they weren’t! These were just their best guesses at the time, and we have slowly been uncovering their identity through apple day identifications and books ever since. Given many of these trees will be ultra-local varieties, or perhaps even unnamed/un catalogued Devon cider apples we are resolved to the idea that some will forever remain a mystery to us.

What we have found out:

  • The tree that has been on its side for as long as my mum can remember turns out to be a variety called Major. A bittersweet cider apple common in old farm orchards in Devon, that makes a lot of sense. He’s slowly losing limbs, and had a bit of a run in with some rabbits a couple of years ago, but still bears fruit that we try to include in our cider pressings. We’ve taken a new graft from some of the scant new growth, so a new young Major stands watch over the crumbling old one.
  • The tree with the large apples that really thud to the ground as they fall is Tale Sweet. Or at least we think it is. It makes a lot of sense, as Tale itself is just a couple of fields away as the crow flies, it’s another (mild) bittersweet cider apple, and juices really well.
  • The small tree we have always known as ‘mum’s favourite cooker’ grows apples that greatly resemble Bramleys. They are bulbous and irregularly shaped, they look, taste and store like Bramley, and when cut open they even just have one seed set – a characteristic of the variety which is triploid and doesn’t set seed well. However, the tree is tiny, just 10 foot high when Bramley trees tend to be huge great lumbering things. An old photo cleared things up when we realised this was no full tree, but merely a branch that had re-rooted from a fallen tree long since rotted away, although it doesn’t properly explain why grafts taken from this tree suffer similarly low vigour. A mystery!

But knowing the varieties isn’t the be all and end all to our enjoyment of this place. Our cider making is hobbyist at best, and really what we love about the orchard is having a wonderful space to share with others. The truth is, the orchard feels most alive when it’s got people in. Orchards are man-made habitats, and whilst they are also astounding for wildlife, they need us. Not only that, they need management. And for this they need purpose.

Like our family, a lot of people own orchards accidently. We aren’t cider makers, it just came with the house my grandparents bought all those years ago. It was people that brought purpose to our orchard; and through people, we discovered how special these places are.

The burden of management

But for a few years the management was more than we had bargained for; it seemed to need constant care and attention but we weren’t getting enough back from it. The grass constantly needed cutting, thistles pulling, trees kept falling to gales and becoming smothered by rough grass, nettles and brambles. We adopted some orphan lambs at one point thinking it would help us keep the grass, ever threatening to scrub over completely, in check. While it worked for a while, predictably, the sheep were a lot more work than the grass cutting ever was! So when the last one died, almost 12 years later, we decided that would be the end of our sheep experiment.

It is easy to see how orchard management can slip our priorities; ours fell into slight disrepair when the large cider making companies stopped buying the apples from small orchards. With no market for the apples, the land can feel pointless, even the often underutilised fruit can feel wasted and inconvenient. Picking an orchard full of apples is no small task, and with no outlet for them even this family tradition faded to near disappearance. It’s a sad reality that faces many old orchards although the more recent and welcomed resurgence in craft cider and small scale production is certainly helping turn the tide.

Surprise snow putting pause to a tree planting weekend

Experimenting with cider

For decades we’d had a traditional apple picking every October, a Morris dancing team joined us each year to help and it would be a great social gathering. But after we lost any market for the apples it lost steam, and shrunk to mere handfuls of people. It was my ever creative, ever experimental father that changed the fortunes of this orchard. He bought our first small cider press which added wind to its sail, a new and exciting element which gave the whole event purpose again. Not only did we spend a soggy weekend on our hands and knees picking apples, but we got to do sorting, chopping, scratting, and pressing. Bliss for those that like the efficiencies of a good production line. Of course we also got to experiment with blends in the press, and each of us would go home with a demijohn or more to ferment.

a circa 1990 approach to health and safety – send the kids up to hand pick the storing apples

Our ciders never tasted the same from year to year. Sometimes they were crisp, fresh and light, sometimes they had that heft, an almost chewiness. Of course we never remembered which apples went in, even if we did know the variety name to begin with, so we merrily made random cider year after year. Sometimes, if we were diligent, some brew would last long enough to be shared around the fire at the next years picking event. The fire has always been a highlight of the weekend. We share food, booze and sing silly, increasingly filthy songs long into the night. Once again it was people that made it so very special.

Looking to the future

Apple picking, again a firm favourite in our calendars, triggered a renewed interest in the orchard in general. We have taken grafts from all the old trees to fill in some of the gaps, added a few extra varieties that we’ve found along the way, and we’ve started rejuvenating the old trees which hadn’t had much pruning for a couple of decades.

In the last 5 years we have grafted and added over 30 new trees. It turns out grafting is much easier to do than you’d think, just a bit of cutting and sticking really! And it gives enormous satisfaction when, like Dr Frankenstein himself, you create a living thing from two (or more) separate parts. As well as grafting new trees from scratch, we have experimented with ‘top working’, where you add new variety branches to an established tree, and I may even have got carried away, as you do, and started a ‘naughty’ tree. Now to understand this you just have to cast your eye over some of the old fruit variety names; some are a little smutty, some are downright rude! I am creating a single tree that hosts all the rude or silly variety names I can get my hands on, from Nobby Russet, Merrylegs and Hangydowns, to the Honeyballs, Slack-ma-girdle and even Cummy Norman. 

Tree shaking is still our best harvest method

Nature

Silly names aside, our main focus is keeping the orchard for wildlife. It has always been filled with birds, bugs and butterflies and almost certainly got me on my path to working in wildlife conservation. It may seem bizarre that a man-made habitat can be so rich with wildlife, but the magic combination of open grown trees, undisturbed pasture and scrub plants is like ecological dynamite. Fruit trees are particularly incredible; unusually for a hardwood they start to form central decay quite early, sometimes after just 40 years. And whilst this might sound like a terrible thing, this decaying wood in living trees happens to be one of our rarest and most precious habitats, home to some pretty incredible species. The Noble Chafer is one such beetle, and it specialises on the central decay of fruit trees. As such, it is largely confined to areas that have long orchard histories. It is a beautiful iridescent green colour and we have not yet been lucky enough to find any in our orchard, but we live in hope.

Hollowing trees aren’t scary! It’s a natural part of the tree aging process, fantastic for wildlife

We have added bird boxes, dormouse boxes, and owl boxes. We have been restoring the perimeter hedges through laying, and have planted another wildlife hedge along what used to be the garden border. We mow strips into the long grass to help the local barn owls hunt, leaving much of the rest to grow and set seed. We keep piles of dead wood, and keep our old trees going as long as we can manage, long after they have fallen in a gale. We never collect all the apples the orchard provides (even if we stood a chance!) which means it is always filled with redwings and fieldfares over winter, gorging on the remnant fruit. We have a hornets nesting somewhere in the orchard each year, which isn’t as scary as you’d imagine, more a sign that there are plentiful insects to support such a voracious top predator. We have breeding song thrushes, tree creepers, gold crests, woodpeckers, and tawny owls, as well as the more usual wrens, robins, blackbirds and all sorts of tits.

Daily barn owl visits keeps the vole population from doing too much damage to the new tree roots

Such a small patch of land, yet it is so teeming with wildlife.

But of course no matter what we do to keep this little haven in its best shape for nature, it is also influenced by the wider environment; by those that farm the land to either side and of course our changing climate.

In our 44 years of looking after this site, the ripening season for the apples has got progressively earlier, which seems to have accelerated in the last decade noticeably. Some of the trees are really struggling with the changing climate, particularly the rain/drought cycle that has become ever more pronounced, and the trees are starting to get a bit crispy at the top and struggle. We do what we can for the trees, for the orchard and all the wildlife within, but some of it is simply out of our control. I plan to graft future trees onto seedling rootstock instead of commercial; I hope that perhaps the structural variety that these will bring to the roots of our future trees will offer some protection against the uncertainties of the future.

In the mean time, I am half way through planning our upcoming apple picking weekend. Mum is making soups, I will get the cob pizza oven ablaze for supper, and we will try to remember which combination of apples we pressed last year that made such a delicious brew…

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Megan grew up in her family orchard in East Devon, where she began learning about the wonderful world of wildlife and ecology. Now working at People's Trust for Endangered Species, she specialises is habitat conservation, particularly traditional orchards, wood pasture and hedgerows

2 Comments

  1. Lisa says

    Such a lovely article I can really relate to! Given me renewed intentions to graft some ageing trees of mine. I’ll be on the lookout for a Noble Chafer now!

    Liked by 1 person

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