Blossom Time in the British Orchards
Orchards in spring are a dazzling drift of blossom — from the lichened cider apple trees of Devon, the plum plantations of the Midlands and the rows of tall cooking-apple trees in the Fens to the neat ranks of apple and pear trees in the south east.
From April to May each year some 26,000 hectares (65,000 acres) of English orchards come into flower. The first tree to flower is the plum, followed by the pear, cherry and apple. All these can be seen in turn in the major fruit-producing areas of Kent and Sussex. In Essex and Suffolk the main contributor to the show of blossom is the dessert apple. Plum blossom is of special interest in Worcestershire and Warwickshire, where thousands of visitors throng to the plum tree parishes in spring. There are also sizeable areas of plums to be seen in blossom in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Gloucestershire. In Herefordshire, Somerset and Devon there is a special emphasis on perry pears and cider apples. But behind the lovely mass of blossom lies a great deal of hard endeavour.
Apples occupy the largest acreage and are usually grown on the same farm as pears. If you draw a line on a map linking the Bristol Channel to the Wash, the majority of apple and pear production lies to the south east. The reasons for this are partly historical. Over the centuries invaders and other visitors from the Continent brought improved agricultural techniques to this area and monasteries, castles and large homes near London often had their own orchards.
Attempts to grow dessert apples, and particularly pears, commercially further north and west of this area have not always been successful because of the climatic limitations.
Soil and site
Whatever the district, all fruit trees need well-drained, deep soil; so you do not find orchards on thin chalkland, heavy stagnant clay or gravel. The site is equally crucial. It is unusual to find orchards above an altitude of 100m (330ft) and there are few to be seen at the bottom of valleys.
High ground is likely to be windswept and the soil eroded by centuries of rainfall. The valleys, where the soil may be deep as a result of erosion from the land above, are vulnerable to spring radiation frost — particularly dangerous to fruit crops. On clear, cold, windless nights there is no cloud cover to prevent the loss of heat radiated from the ground. As the warmer air rises the colder, heavier air flows downhill into the valleys, so blossoms on trees in low-lying places freeze, while fruit crops on land which is higher — but not too high — escape the frost.
The most efficient fruit farms are therefore on good soil, on gentle slopes, with reasonable shelter from prevailing winds. It is sometimes difficult to find the perfect combination, and many growers on less than ideal sites have to protect their trees from devastating spring frosts.
It is now too expensive to burn oil ; but if you are in a fruit-growing district in spring, you may see an astonishing sight at dawn, after a frosty night. Acres of trees may be covered with long icicles — the result of continuous sprinkling with water.
At first glance this may seem a strange thing to do, but the technique is based on a beautifully simple piece of physics. When water is changed from the liquid to the solid state, heat is released; if this slight increase in temperature can be, as it were, trapped close to the blossom, the internal temperature is kept above the critical level at which cell destruction occurs.
Springtime, so pleasing to most of us, is an anxious period for the grower. Even if the blossom escapes frost damage, it must be pollinated and the ovules fertilised before the fruit will set. Some varieties set fruits with their own pollen. But for all practical purposes most tree fruits, except some varieties of plum, will not produce full crops unless they are fertilised by pollen from another variety.
Insects, mainly bees, are the chief pollinators, and bumble bees are the most active natural pollinators of all. They work fast, and from the grower’s point of view they are very welcome because they forage during cold weather. But there are just not enough of them to cope with the spring profusion of blossom. The grower therefore introduces hives of honey bees at a minimum of one large colony, which may contain up to 15,000 bees, per acre and arranged in groups to encourage a wider flying range.
Bees are fascinating creatures, and honey is delicious. But it is an odd paradox that the sophisticated technology of modern fruit growing should be dependent on such unpredictable agents. It is likely that before long the effects of pollination, which result in the formation of seeds and fruits, will be achieved by using synthesized plant hormones. But that time has not yet been reached.
Plums, and their close relatives damsons, are more tolerant of colder climates and can be grown successfully further north on heavier soils. The plum orchards of Worcestershire and Warwickshire are particularly attractive in early spring, but all too often the brave show of white blossom is not followed by a satisfactory harvest. In fact the plum crop tends to be erratic, fluctuating between glut and scarcity. The main problems are early flowering and cold springs and the consequent failure of the fruit to set; bird damage to buds during winter — the main culprits being bullfinches; and disease, especially the fungus disease known as silver leaf.
Research workers are now looking for later-flowering varieties, improved and acceptable methods of bird control, and possibly even the control of silver leaf. One idea being pursued is to introduce another fungus antagonistic to silver leaf and so prevent the silver leaf organism from gaining a foothold.
Because plum growing has been largely unprofitable there has not been the same trend towards the intensive planting that you find with apples and pears. Generally plum orchards still consist of the traditional half-standard trees, designed to prevent heavily laden but slender branches touching the ground.
Cherries offer a contrast. There are two distinct types grown. The better known sweet cherry grows on magnificent full-standard trees, perhaps planted 12m (40ft) apart, sometimes with sheep grazing beneath. This is the most demanding of all fruit trees and can only be grown satisfactorily in the deep brick-earth soils, largely in Kent. Starlings and other fruit-eating birds flock from miles around, so sweet cherries must be grown in large enough units to justify scaring devices and ensure enough fruits for both birds and growers. The odd explosions you can hear in cherry orchards are in fact from ‘cannons’ used for this purpose. The other cherry, the acid Morello, is grown on small bushes and the fruits used for processing.
Pests and diseases
An orchard full of pests may be a paradise for the naturalist, but it is a disaster for the grower. If pests are supplied with apparently limitless host plants, they multiply speedily and often outstrip natural parasites and predators. In a neglected orchard the leaves may be pale and dispirited, because the juices have been sucked out by mites and aphids, or are tattered as the result of champing colonies of caterpillars. Shoots may be crippled by mildew, and the fruits invaded by maggots or scab fungus.
The secrets of successful fruit growing is to work with nature to produce healthy crops, which in practice means the careful use of chemicals to protect the trees during the growing season. This ensures that as far as possible the beneficial insects in the orchard are unharmed.
The future for fruit growers as a whole presents problems as they strive to increase both production and income to keep pace with rising costs. The major factors include the cost of labour, particularly for pruning and picking, suggesting further mechanisation, and the use of growth control agents.