Monday, 20 May 2013

orchard progress...

Traditional orchards are increasingly rare and treasured places. They are important for wildlife and are a biodiversity action plan priority for our county.

Old orchards give invertebrates lots of nooks and cranny's for refuge, feeding and breeding. They can also be home to heritage varieties of apples - many of which are being lost as old orchards are cleared for agriculture or building.

plantain and cowslips
Discovering our own orchard, buried beneath twenty years of brambles, seedling oaks and sycamores and suckered blackthorn and cherry was a great surprise. We only guessed there were fruit trees when we saw blossom on the Google Earth images!

So, in managing the newly-discovered orchard first came the arduous business of clearing so many years of neglect. We had hoped to run pigs beneath the reclaimed fruit trees to help clear roots but weren't able to arrange this. Clearing by hand, it had to be!! Native grasses naturally recolonised the ground beneath the trees during the first spring but little else of floral interest arrived in the first year. We pruned the gangling and twisted boughs of the trees, removing 25% of the branches in January 2012 and again early in 2013. We cleared recolonising grasses from the base of each tree to allow water and nutrients to more easily reach each trees' roots. I scythed the grass in the high summer 2012 and carted the dried hay away. This took nutrients out of the soil so that vigorous grass growth didn't crowd out any delicate native wildflowers that might put in an appearance.

Cowslips (primula veris) were brought from our nearby allotment and have flowered well in their first year. Crocus and narcissus have proved successful too, with more to be added ready for next spring.

We are compulsive seed collectors and have distributed the seed of oxeye daisies (leucanthemum vulgare), knapweed (centaurea nigra)  and wild geranium (geranium sanguinium).

yellow rattle seedlings?
And I was delighted to see possible evidence that yellow rattle (rhinanthus minor) seed cast in the summer of last year looks to have germinated. I marked sowing positions with stakes and by each stake we now have similar leaves emerging. Could they be yellow rattle? I hope so, because this plant plays an important part in traditional hay meadows - which is what we are trying to achieve beneath our fruit trees. Yellow rattle is a grass parasite and thus weakens grasses, allowing wild flowers to grow without the competition of coarse grasses.

Two tiny cider apple trees (in anticipation of Cordwood Cider!)

and a greengage have been planted in the spaces left after moribund damson and plum trees were removed. Linda and Trev bought me a Golden Hornet crab apple too, which is in especially good flower, in this, its first spring with us.

We are garlanding our trees with climbers and have planted honeysuckles and roses to scramble through the branches. Not only will these look lovely and add to the charm of the orchard, they will provide a late nectar and pollen food source for insects. We have seen a solitary soprano pippistrelle bat flittering above the apple trees in the twilight. Let's hope that the increasing floral diversity of the orchard provides more food for birds and bats and increases their numbers too.

The weather last year was awful for our venerable apple trees. This late spring sees blossom on each of the trees.

We sat in the orchard today having our lunch, watching a male chaffinch singing in our 'Lane's Prince Albert' apple tree. He was joined in song by a dunnock, a wren and several blackbirds. We remarked on the relaxing qualities of birdsong as our neighbour's motor mower roared into action on the other side of the fence..

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