Some gardening tasks are a necessary chore. Others are a real pleasure. Which tasks fall into which categories depends, at least partly, on the temperament and interests of the gardener. For me pruning fruit trees is a pleasure to be taken in small bites, eked out over the winter. I nearly finished the pruning of our twenty four young apple trees a month ago, but I saved the finishing touches for later.

I learnt to prune forty years ago on a fruit farm in north Essex. The farm took on one student a year on the understanding that hard work in all weathers would be expected in exchange for minimum wages but plenty of learning opportunities. Perks of the job included free accommodation in a small caravan in the apple orchard and weekend use of the farm van, an ancient, green Morris 1000.

Ken, the farm foreman, was a man of few words but great patience. If he resented having to train up a new student each year he never gave voice to that feeling. I can’t remember the words he used to explain the pruning process, just the quiet way he moved in to point out a problem or to sort out a tangled tree. The sorrowful look he gave if you made a wrong cut was something to be avoided.

Because I learnt to prune by watching rather than listening I don’t find it easy to put the process into words. The apple orchard at Lark Hill Farm was composed of blocks of different varieties, planted at intervals over thirty years. The older trees, on traditional rootstocks, were reaching a stage where they needed substantial pruning to open up congested growth and to remove diseased branches. The youngest trees were still at the formative stage, where pruning was all about establishing a well balanced framework for future growth. At either extreme the objective was to produce an open, vase-shaped form,  allowing light and air to circulate freely. The big, characterful, older trees had deviated from that ideal over the years. They seemed to have their own ideas about the form they would take and pruning was a matter of compromise and cooperation.

 

Our small orchard is on a north-east facing slope so doesn’t get the sun at all in early January

The vigour of a fruit tree depends on the rootstock onto which it is grafted but the branching and fruiting pattern depends on the variety. All the trees in our young orchard are grafted on the same, semi-dwarfing rootstock. The oldest trees are now six years old – planted four years ago as two year plants – and they’re now showing distinct characters. Each of the six apple trees in that first row is a different variety. Their different growth habits might be attributed to individuality if it weren’t for the similarities to their younger siblings in row three. The trees in this row duplicate the planting of the first row and you can pick out the matching pairs, even in winter, by the angle of their branching, the thickness of the twigs at different levels and the placement of the fat, fruiting buds. I can’t put a spotters guide into words but, once you know what to look for, the differences and similarities soon start to seem obvious.

 

In spring the colour of the blossom is the most obvious difference between the different varieties

Lark Hill was a small farm with soft fruit, vegetables and a few arable fields as well as the orchards, so pruning wasn’t the only winter task. There were dull, wet days spent grading apples in the pack house and finger-chilling mornings of sprout picking but, at least in memory, I seem to have spent most of the winter in the orchard. Pruning all day is tiring but satisfying work. At the end of each cold day’s work I stoked up the caravan’s little wood stove with logs from the previous year’s pruning and fell asleep to the sound of hooting owls. By the time spring came and the caravan was surrounded by clouds of apple blossom I had decided; I wasn’t ready to put down roots yet but one day I would plant my own orchard.

 

None of these trees look like a text book example of good pruning, but they’re heading the right way!

If you clicked on this post looking for a tutorial in pruning fruit trees, you’ll find a helpful guide from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) here.

And if you’ve read all the way to the end of this post hoping to find out the location of yesterday’s mystery travel photos, Ruth and Tish were both right about the standing stones; they’re part of the extraordinary megalithic alignments at Carnac in Brittany.  The other photos were also taken in Brittany, around the river port village of St Goustan.