Pruning Fruit Trees in Whyke

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There are only 30 possible branches to prune in our new orchard in Whyke. On pruning morning Peter May from Brighton Permaculture Trust comes to show us how. We get through in no time at all, despite canker on one of the trees, and a lack of labelling as to which apple variety is which. We discuss what to do about attack by woolly aphids, which turns out to be feeding the tree with seaweed and chicken manure, and cutting out the damaged shoots. Peter hasn’t seen the Whyke Community Orchard before but comments on the amount of work that it took to lay the winding path! When we’ve seen all that could be seen, and Peter has demonstrated pruning on our year old trees, it’s still only 10.30am. Luckily there’s another orchard within 5 minutes walk that needs our input.

We walk over to Kingsham School to the orchard planted on the school field there. Twenty one assorted pear, apple and plum trees have been planted between 2000 and 2012. All of the trees need tree guards, as they are showing strimmer damage at the base of their trunks. Some apple trees have brown fruit rot, seen by the fruit rotting on the branches but still clinging on now the leaves have gone. This is a fungal infection and so should be treated with caution so as to not cross contaminate the trees. We will prune these trees last, and remove the dried fruits to be burnt rather than composted. One tree needs rebalancing as it’s growing sideways with a prop that’s in danger of being pulled out of the ground. Another needs its rootstock suckers cutting back. Several more need care to manage the splits in their boughs. Peter shows us how to make decisions about pruning, which branches to cut completely, where to shorten and when to leave alone. He encourages us to cut the maximum height by cutting out branches in rotation, leaving some branches to be cut in successive years so that the tree would still remain an attractive shape. We have plenty of chance to apply this knowledge on the apples and pear trees on the school site. The plum trees will wait until the summer to make sure that the dreaded silver leaf curl doesn’t get a chance. Clearly it’s different making the decisions for ourselves, rather than watching Peter, but his maxim seems to be ‘leave it for next year if in doubt’. This is the sort of work that only gets learnt by trying it, so we give it a go. I guess he sees many very enthusiastic pruners, as he is called into help in orchards he’s supplied trees to all over Sussex.

The school orchard trees need more that the two hours allocated with Peter May, so we will go back again next weekend to finish the job using Peter’s instructions. Five of us each will take two trees a piece, and try to channel Peter’s instructions. With a bit of conferring between ourselves we will get into the swing of cutting off crossing spurs, allowing light to all branches and making cup like structures of the trees. Including barrowing the cut branches to the other end of the site we will finish within two hours. To discourage any more strimmer damage we take the creeping grass off each tree pit, so that amenity maintenance personnel don’t have to get close to the trees to cut the grass. I suspect that it will still be a good idea to invest in mesh guards for each tree in case the weeding falls behind again. As the light is so very good on Sunday, the afternoon in the orchard is sheer pleasure, despite having to make decisions and exert a bit of energy to get the secateurs working. I’m glad we have had the opportunity to consolidate Peter’s instructions and practice more pruning.

Many thanks to Kingsham School for inviting us to try out this skill on their trees.