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Top-Grafting: An Adventure

There’s a walnut tree at the back of my parents’ house, which my dad and I planted in the year 2000. It borders the field behind their garden, is tucked neatly into the yew hedge that frames the back garden, and was a replacement for an old ash tree that had died just a few metres in front of that spot when we moved into our home in 1999. Fast forward 23 years and I’ve grown up and moved out, but whenever I re-visit, it gives me great pleasure to look at that tree – now three or four times my height – and think that I had a small part in ensuring this marker on the landscape is here in this little spot of West Norfolk. Now, imagine multiplying that tree-planting satisfaction by 1500. Then picture changing the top two-thirds of each of those trees to another type of that tree; bringing old varieties not seen grown at scale for decades, if not a century or two, back into commercial production. It’s a bit like a barn-find of a fleet of old Morris Minors; the digitalisation of an old Pomona for folk to read again in 2023; or the restoration of somewhere like Park Hill in Sheffield, for people to live in again. Nostalgia mixed with a catalyst of hope and optimism to reinvigorate something against the odds of the prevailing winds at the time. It’s happening right now, at Ross on Wye Cider & Perry Company in the village of Peterstow, Herefordshire.

I’ve just returned from a long weekend at Broome Farm, meeting up with Albert Johnson and his Dad, Mike. Ross on Wye Cider & Perry Company is under their direction and leadership, and the UK Cider and Perry scene is much the richer for their astounding number of Single Variety releases in Bottle, BIB, and keg each year. It’s my third year visiting them in Springtime, and why do I go at this time of year you may wonder? Partly to marvel at the emerging apple blossom. Partly to soak up the atmosphere of this special place. Mostly to help with their top-grafting project. We use little cuttings from different varieties of apple trees, and after a bit of chainsawing and precision penknife work on the original tree, bond this new variety to the top of the original and create a clone. I started helping out with this work in 2021, and just like that walnut tree I mentioned at my parents’ house, it brings me great satisfaction to see a 90% success rate on the grafts I’ve helped with so far – seeing them grow from 10 cm sticks the year they were first grafted, to 2m – 3m high shoots, proudly growing towards the sun, and in a few years’ time producing apples for Albert and Mike!   

On my second day, the heavens opened and decided to tip it down for neigh on six hours solid – that was a day to help bottle an upcoming release inside the cider barn. As the evening drew in, the rain lifted, leaving the orchards and meadows surrounding the barn with a petrichor aroma that invited us out into the orchard we had been intending to work in that day. It was the magic hour, and the perfect time to ask Albert and Mike some questions about the work being undertaken in this orchard. 

CR: Hi Albert and Mike, we are in the Harry Masters Jersey orchard on your farm. Is it called that, or does it have another name?

Albert: It’s called Oak Meadow because there’s a big oak tree just over there (2/3 of the way through the orchard from left to right, when viewed from the Cider Shack). The orchard was only planted in 2001, so before then it was a meadow.

CR: What kind of size is this orchard?

Albert: 11 acres with 64 rows of trees. Well, I’ve somewhat aggregated that…it’s slightly more, but some of them are half rows, so I’ve tallied them together.

CR: You remember helping your Dad plant these trees back in the turn of the new Millennium?

Albert: I would have been 7 or 8 when we were planting this orchard, it’s the only orchard which I can picture in my mind being involved in the planting of. That would have been squaring the ground for the tree, putting the tree in, and then laying the turf back on top.

Mike: With my spade!

CR: And Mike, what was the context of planting this orchard back then?

Mike: Bulmers had given me a contract to plant it, so we planted it with the intention of delivering all the fruit to Bulmers. It was only years later that they decided they didn’t need that much bittersweet fruit, so they paid me to rip up the contract. 

CR: In the early noughties, farmers and orchardists of a similar size were still being asked by Bulmers and other macro-scale cidermakers to plant tree varieties like this?

Mike: Yes, Bulmers were great back then. We had a contract from 30 years of the date of planting to take all the fruit and never take the price down more than the average price over the previous three years. So, it was a brilliant contract which gave me the encouragement to borrow the money and plant the orchard.

CR: Back then, before you planted the orchard here, it was just a meadow?

Mike: For sheep or cows or whatever we wanted to put on it. In fact, when I was much younger we used to grow potatoes and barley on here too. I ploughed it and cultivated it at different times. Anyway, I think it’s rather nice now that it’s just an orchard. 

CR: This 11-acre site then became an orchard in the early noughties and has remained as such. At what point did you decide to change you mind as to what apple varieties you wanted to grow in Oak Meadow?

Mike: Once we lost the contract. We didn’t need this many Harry Masters Jersey apples. We were looking at it and thought actually there are some great apple varieties that we don’t have enough of, so why not convert these rows to those varieties, rather than grub up the orchard and replant – which would have been quite expensive at the time. It’s all about cashflow in the end. We’d already experimented with grafting, that we could take the tops off these HMJ trees, put something else on (a different variety), and in 5-10 years we would have a tree that would just be producing that fruit.

CR: Have we got a row we can walk down to see the difference in growth patterns from 5-year-old growth of the scions, down to 1 year old?

Albert: Yes, the row of Yarlington Mill trees over there.

CR: How has the process been since starting that grafting activity?

Mike: Albert has moved back in and changed it slightly to producing all sorts of different varieties.

CR: Was it always the intention to have each row as a different variety of apple?

Albert: It’s still evolving. Until you have actually grafted the tree over, it’s a limitless possibility of what you might be using that row for. One row, we have Brown Snout in, and that’s my favourite apple, so I’m sorely tempted to add another row in because I like it that much. This year we’re planning on adding in another 25 different new varieties. So that would be more than a third of the entire orchard added to if we reach that number this year. It may be the case that we don’t allow all those varieties to have one row each. We’re heading into the unknown by adding in new varieties on a commercial scale – nobody is currently making single variety cider from some of those apples, so there’s very little knowledge out there in terms of how these varieties grow in the UK in 2023. We’re doing it because we’re interested in that discovery. It may be the case that with some, we end up with half a row being one variety, and the other half another one, so we end up with as much diversity as possible. 

CR: In 2023, how far into the top-grafting project of Oak Meadow are you?

Albert: To be honest I’ve lost count, but I think the total number of rows that we have at least started top-grafting is around 25 out of 64. In the first year, back in 2019, we added in 13 different varieties. Almost all of them we manage top-graft half a row of trees. One of the rows, Knotted Kernel, we grafted the whole row, because that is an acclaimed variety which they used to grow here in the Old Orchard. But those trees are all long since gone, so I’ve never tasted a single variety Knotted Kernel cider. Kate, a cidermaker from Canada who spent a year with us here in 2016, reckoned the best cider she’d ever had from us was a Knotted Kernel SVC. On that basis, we’ve now got the full row of that variety, and maybe that’s a candidate to have another row of in the coming years. On the other hand, some apple varieties won’t produce a cider on their own of particularly interesting character. If they’re a Sweet, or a very Light Sharp, it may be the case that we don’t really want around 800 bottles of that a year, so there’s no need to graft a whole row of that variety.

CR: Tardive Forestier for instance?

*Chuckles from Albert and Mike*

Albert: We don’t know yet at this stage. Last year was the first year that the trees we first top-grafted over produced enough fruit to make a cider from. Unfortunately, what happened with that fruit, we probably harvested it 7-10 days late. Although the cider tastes nice, we could tell when we were pressing the fruit that they were overripe. And when you’re pressing overripe fruit you’re going to end up with a cider that isn’t as expressive and intense and as fruit-forward as it should be. That’s a problem that we’ll keep encountering as we haven’t with any of these varieties before. Most cidermakers in a given year, from a Single Variety point of view, they might make 2 or 3. We’re seriously proposing to be making 50 or 60. That means we have to be harvesting each of these varieties on the specific day when you’ve got the maximum amount of ripe fruit available. It offers a unique challenge for the upcoming cidermaking seasons.

CR: Are you building a logbook of the properties of each variety in terms of blossom, fruit set, harvesting times and more?

Albert: Yes, I founded the website OurPomona.org. It’s a crowd-sourced database on apple growing, with specific regards to cidermaking. One of the main aspects of the site is that you can put in the first and last date of the harvest. Over time, as more of this data gets collected, we’ll know the window of opportunity when we need to pay close attention to this orchard. Every year it will vary by 4 – 7 days, dependent on the year’s meteorological conditions. But it should give a good indication of when we need to be paying particular attention to specific varieties. 

CR: Looking now at Ashton Brown Jersey, top-grafted on to Harry Masters Jersey in 2019. 

Albert: When top-grafting you’re grafting one variety onto a different variety – it’s as fundamental as that. All commercial apple trees are grafted in this way, cloned onto different rootstocks. What we find is that some varieties grow better in a top-grafted system than others. Also, the base tree that you’re top-grafting on to can impact results as well. For instance, I’ve worked five trees which I top-grafted scions onto Ashton Bitter as the base tree, and although they’re doing OK, the bark, the ring layer where the cambium area of wood was to be exposed was about 1cm, maybe even 15mm deep. Much deeper than what we’ve been working with on the Harry Masters Jersey trees. So, when you pull that bark back, away from the tree, it’s much thicker and thus more brittle. That’s one challenge. Another challenge, with this time the variety, Ashton Brown Jersey, if you look at the top-grafted part of the tree, where the scions have grown up and away from the Harry Masters Jersey base. Look at how much of the growth from that scion is outside and above that central trunk. Because this variety doesn’t seem to want to grow directly up from the tree, it grows out and up from it’s union, it make it’s a lot more susceptible to being blown over in the wind or when the scions are only a year or two old, even a bird landing on it could knock it over. If you look down this row you can see four trees marked with hazard tape around them, which means they need re-grafting. They may have been fine for a few years, but as the union healed in this outwards and upwards manner, as the branches grow bigger, that union can sometimes tear open.

CR: Is that because you’re aiming for the central leader growth style here?

Albert: It’s not that. It’s because in this row, we’ve gone for the combination of Ashton Brown Jersey grafted onto Harry Masters Jersey, and Ashton Brown Jersey scions want to grow somewhat away from the trunk, rather than straight up. If we walk over here and look at the Knotted Kernel, they are great examples of top-grafting where the scion grows straight up, and over the trunk, into the middle of the tree. It’s a much stronger union. 

CR: These rows of Ashton Brown Jersey and Knotted Kernel are the first ones you grafted then, and they form complete rows?

Albert: Yes, all the way down to bottom of the row.

Mike: You’ll see some of the trees in these rows are younger on the top. We used pruned branch growth from the trees at the top of the row, as the scion wood for the few trees further down the row.

Albert: And Jack, you did those newer growth Ashton Brown Jersey trees with us back in 2021. As well as Yarlington Mill, Brown Snout, and Porters Perfection in that year. 

CR: Very proud to have helped! Let’s walk down and look at those trees that were top-grafted in 2021. It’s great to see scionwood that was 10cm when we top-grafted them in, now at about 2m in height from the HMJ trunk. Could you strengthen these branches by reducing the height on them over the next few years?

Albert: With this variety, I don’t think height or thickness of the branches is the issue. It’s just the nature of how this variety wants to grow – outwards and upwards. Let’s look at the Brown Snout trees: the scionwood here has grown straight upwards and also formed a union with the base of the Harry Masters Jersey which covers the trunk area we exposed.

CR: You’ve released some Brown Snout SVC recently from fruit you had to buy in. But now you’ve got a row of trees here, around 26 on this slightly shorter row, means you don’t need to go searching for growers of these varieties you’ve read about in books – you can just come out here an harvest them from your own orchard!

Mike: It’s nice to have the fruit absolutely. The difficulty initially can be if there’s a rare variety you’d like, in that first year of top-grafting you may have only been given a very small amount of scionwood to use. So, whilst you can graft over one or two trees, you need to wait a while for those trees to produce enough new wood to use for top-grafting further down the rows. Some varieties which might end up making a really interesting cider, you may have to wait 5 – 10 years initially before you even have enough fruit to make a barrel of cider. But equally, that’s what we’re looking forward to. It gives us lots of interesting possibilities to look ahead to.

CR: A lot of cidermakers have “their” varieties that they work with – they may talk about the effect of the weather on the fruit from year to year – but it’s usually a defined, set number of varieties to work with. You’ve set yourself up here for a journey of continual discovery with many different varieties. That must be quite fun whilst you’re still working with Foxwhelp, Dabinett, and Bisquet.

Mike: Yes, and for Albert, I imagine it will be fun for him to introduce these other varieties, new to us here in this orchard, to guests and customers of ours in the future.

Albert: Every year, even if you work with the same varieties, you find interesting new things about them – they always behave differently, even if you know their background. What we are going to have by the end of the next decade in Oak Meadow orchard is a whole bounty of different varieties of apple, that all have their own unique flavour. Although our basic intention is the make a Single Variety Cider from each of them, to showcase their flavours to others, and to share with them the richness of different options that can come from those flavours. It will also give us an amazing palate of flavours to weave into certain ciders that we’re making and to use them in different ways. Our cidermaking at Ross On Wye is always evolving. If you look at the pressing records from 10 years ago, a lot of it was blended cider. We were buying in dessert apples from our neighbours as we didn’t have as much of our own fruit to use. It was only 6 years ago that we were still selling apples to Bulmers (now owned by Heineken). In 10 years time I imagine things will be different again, part of it because we are building this big library of flavour in this orchard.

CR: Will you set out this orchard a bit like a library with each variety labelled at the top of each row? 

Albert: That’s the intention yes. We won’t do a library blend from it as there are plenty of other ciders out there that have 60+ varieties of apples in them, and they lose their identity a bit as you can’t pick out the different varieties in them. What we find interesting is making a blend with 2 – 6 varieties, in proportionate quantities that you can feel the individual input from each of those varieties. A project we’ll be launching in September is our Solera-style cider – showcasing varietal impact and the impact of time of cider. It will feature Foxwhelp from 2017, Ashton Bitter from 2019, and Somerset Redstreak from 2021. We’ve bottled half of it, and maybe what will happen with the other half is in 2025, when we next release an offering from the Solera, we will have blended in some Brown Snout from these very trees this year. And so we’ll keep adding to that Solera with different varieties, giving a different flavour as the years go on. Oak Meadow orchard builds us a living spice cupboard of 64 different flavours that can be chosen to add something unique to a cider.

CR: How do you both feel on a personal level, looking back to 2001 when you planted this Oak Meadow orchard with Harry Masters Jersey, compared to what you’re doing with it in 2023? It must be a nice feeling to still be working together, and working in this orchard – even if the varieties within it are changing?

Mike: When I planted it, I never expected that Albert would be here working with me. I thought he would be a politician or something. It’s lovely to have him here, bringing in new ideas and innovating. And I’m getting past doing that, I’ve done all that for years! It’s fantastic. Let’s face it, we have this whole field of Harry Masters Jersey which is a terrible variety to press. So it’s quite nice to end up having a bit less of it.

Albert: From my point of view, it’s very bittersweet. What we have here is 11 acres of trees, more or less in their prime at 22 years of age. The amount and quality of fruit they produce is fantastic. But it’s too much for us to use. The way we want to make cider, in a good year this one orchard would produce 2/3 of all the cider we want to make. And we’re interested in having diversity. But there isn’t a market to sell these apples to. The price of apples in the UK is in the gutter. Shipping apples is also very inefficient. So, what is to be done in an orchard where we can’t use or sell the fruit? We have to do this. The period of time when we can top-graft is during blossom, when the sap is rising in the tree and the bark is pliable. It means that every year when we graft, we’re reminded of how wasteful a process it is. We’re cutting trees down which would produce a bounty of fruit each year that hasn’t got a home. By converting the orchard, we’re making it useful again, but it’s still kind of a shame that we have to do it. When I think too much about what the orchard is that we’re doing it to, it reminds me of how cider in the UK is falling on its face. Industrial cider has undermined orchards and apples so much that we have to do this ludicrous project where we top-work 1500 trees to new varieties. There’s a reason hardly anyone else is doing it. The only way that it makes sense is if you look at it from the fact we want to find joy in our lives, joy in the cider we make, wanting to experience the myriad of flavours you can get from different apples. That’s what I focus on.

CR: What about comparing the version of yourself back in 2001, helping your dad and family plant this orchard, to you here now in 2023?

Albert: I never expected to come back and be involved in the farm. I couldn’t have predicted that I would be here or that we would be doing this project of top-working. I find the joy in it. I’m immensely privileged to be able to do it. I enjoy being out here working with trees. We do things at Ross On Wye because they make us happy and we find them engaging. The top-working project is a huge project which absolutely keeps us engaged. To make cider that no-one else is making on a commercial scale. To preserve historical varieties which no-one else is growing on a commercial scale. In that sense, we’re essentially doing research on old varieties which may be very important as the climate continues to change. The varieties which we grow a lot of: Dabinett, Bisquet, Harry Masters Jersey, there’s no guarantee that in 10 years’ time they’ll still grow really well. These new varieties give us options. 

CR: I think it’s a very worthy cause to pursue and another great USP to your cidermaking here at Ross On Wye.

Albert: It’s going to look awesome when the whole orchard is top-grafted and finished, and you will be able to look down at such a diverse array of fruit. I’ve been calling it in my head the 2040 project. It won’t take until then to do every tree, but by then every row will have trees that are fruiting. It’ll be mind-blowing. 

Varieties top-grafted into Oak Meadow orchard so far (with more to come this year)

Brown Snout, Ashton Brown Jersey, Knotted Kernel, Porters Perfection, Styre Wilding, Tanners Red, Chisel Jersey, Kingston Black, Red Styre, Hagloe Crab, Lambrook Pippin, Cherry Pearmain, Dymock Red, Belle Norman, Not-Balls Bittersweet, Tremletts Bitter, Sherrington Norman, Griffy Damm, Ecarlatine, Eggleton Styre, Cider Ladies Finder, Morgan Sweet, Peau de Blaireau, Cwm Maddoc Beauty, Stantway Kernel

To finish, a music video of musician Onika Venus – filmed in Oak Meadow orchard in 2022, at the tail-end of that incredibly hot summer we experienced here in the UK, just before the fun of RossFest22. You can catch a view of the original Harry Masters Jersey trees, their grafted counterparts in the neighbouring row, as well as the titular oak tree of the meadow. It also just happens to aptly epitomise the sense of joy that Albert and Mike both strive to keep ablaze in their lives:

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An MA in Creative Writing can truly lead anywhere! Making Cider since 2020. Enjoying Whisky since 2011. Call Me By Your Golden Noble.

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