Christmas Orchard Catch up and thanks

To all you lovely people who bought a tree (or more) last year

 I have been writing this update to you in my head ever since we started planting the trees last November. I had so wanted to keep you all updated about the trees and life generally here on Burmieston but the words stayed in my head rather than ever put down on paper. Fingers crossed that finally this will be sent!
The trees have been an illumination into how the best made plans have the most surprising results. It has been a year of extremes, with the latest being Storm Desmond. But it has been weeks now where the ground of the orchard has been absolutely waterlogged – so much so that there is more water than mud. It must be aquaplaning as you walk through the orchard. This time last year the ground was already beginning to freeze so we tried to get some of the trees in. It’s a complex process and we have gotten better with it since. The photo below shows the necessary bits and pieces.

The trees arrived like little twigs, baby 1 year old stock that needed a bit of cosseting. We got them from down the road The Apple Tree Man in Bankfoot. He and his wife who rund Plants with Purpose have a very interesting business concentrating on  fruit trees that grow well up here and plants that will nurture both you and your garden. Their blog and newsletters are always inspriring.

You will notice the round stakes – not square (amazingly difficult to source) which mean less damage in these harsh winds. There are also plastic tree guards to protect against rabbits and then some sheeting around the base to act as a weed suppressant and a bit of a mulch. Oh and the tree ties. I chose some great ones made out of hemp and considering how many have gone flying off into the unknown I’m really glad they weren’t made out of plastic. All of the above came from Tom’s Tree Ties all the way down in Kent. I still need to perfect my tree tie tying! (Try say that quickly!)

You can see the hole is round and we did initially put decomposed manure from the steading in the hole. Our more recent planting has been into square holes with no soil improver or manure following James Wong’s advice in his great book Grow for Flavour. In it he argues that by doing this we will encourage the roots to grow out, making them stronger and able to access more nutrients. I get quite excited about practical advice based on sound science rather than just tradition.
We didn’t seem to have much damage by deer, but there was evidence of some chewing. And then in May we decided we needed help to keep the grass down. The rate of growth in the spring and summer was unbelievable! There were not enough hours in the day, petrol in the strimmer or life left in the scythe to keep on top of it! So we bought 24 geese to add to the 2 we had been given and planned to house them in the orchard. A high fence would keep out both the deer and the foxes, killing two birds with one stone you could say.
geese pic1
Except it was more like killing 45 trees with 26 geese! We soon learnt that geese LOVE the bark of young trees. Luckily we spotted it early and Olly went into super tree-guard maker mode. We have bits and pieces around the farm from the previous owners so Olly coddled them together and came up with a final brilliant and simple design. The main frame is made of large mesh fencing wrapped in a circle for strength, with a secondary layer of chicken wire mesh around the first to stop the geese’s slender necks from reaching the branches. The finer mesh has a narrower height so by putting this at the top, the geese can still reach the grass at the bottom of the trees ensuring they aren’t outdone by the very competitive grass. Finally the geese and the trees could live in a symbiotic rather than parasitic relationship.
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The winds, the snow, the frozen ground, the nibbled trunks ….I thought it all combined in a less than ideal situation. Some had leaves that went brown, withered and fell off. A neighbouring farmer suggested planting chives round the bases of the trees as a form of nourishment and ‘tonic’ if you will. And the trees have all flourished. Some are taller than others, some have more lateral branches, but even those we had given up for dead have stuck out fresh leaves. It has been a lesson for us both.
There is no fruit yet – apart from a few damsons that burst on the branch and some hazels I am yet to work out how to get into. But it is too early to expect any. We have friends in Edinburgh who bought the same age trees and have had apples – but their trees are in a more sheltered spot, espaliered against a sunny wall. It just shows you how the same plant will behave so differently in different conditions. I believe ours (or yours to be more accurate) are investing in their root systems and will fruit when they feel ‘safe’. The amount of water logging over the last month does worry me though. I can only hope that as the trees roots trickle through the heavy clay, they will help to improve the soil structure.
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As I have watched the seasons pass, the importance of the soil underneath us has become pretty apparent. It was wet last winter so we dug land drains around the Steading to better direct the flow into the burn. And boy did the drains flow – even when it wasn’t raining. Water just poured off the hill behind us, seeping out of the even heavier clay on the north side of the Highland Boundary fault that runs straight through our patch. Before the drains I had thought we would need some kind of a water feature to incorporate the quantity of water in to the landscaping. But then it eased and we thought it was under control. Now again though the water is flowing. In the orchard I am back thinking about a water feature to work with the water. Merely diverting it all into the burn will create later issues of higher water erosion along the banks and more flooding downstream. So perhaps we can create a pond? But perhaps without a liner to enable the water to seep in…but will that then mean it will seep out in the dryer summer….As you can see more thinking is needed.
The pond though also links to thinking about improving the ecosystem within the orchard. Of course we want to do this all over Burmieston but we have to start somewhere and I want to give those trees the best environment as possible to flourish in. The high fence around it can act as a structure for plants to grow up against and hold on to in times of adverse weather so I have planted a rose – a Golden Guelder and a crab apple so far. I didn’t think they would be tasty to the deer or geese so didn’t protect them and they have already been munched. Lesson learnt – plant them on the inside next time so they are at least away from the deer. We have more rosa rugosa ordered to make a kind of hedge or wind screen. the chives will continue at the bases of the trees and somewhere I read about planting hellebores or Christmas roses at their base to encourage pollinators. I need to read up a bit more about whether sheep or geese eat them though as they are poisonous. Ideally some form of forest gardening would create the levels of flora and thus fauna but it needs to work well in its establishment with our livestock. The thinking cap is whirring.
The orchard would not exist without you. Everyone who bought a tree has contributed to a more diverse little corner of Scotland. Yes it’s on a tiny scale, but the benefits are already being realised. Carbon is being absorbed and fixed into the soil, water run off is slightly abating thus reducing (if only minuscule) the torrent of water going into the Tay, there is more food for insects and birds to live on. And all this is down to you.
As well as expanding the ecology of the orchard over the next year, we will also be planting trees and hedges around the rest of the farm. No funding is available as we are too small to qualify as a ‘farm’ under the Rural Development rules, too small for the Woodland Trust’s tree scheme and our planned hedges wouldn’t be linking two existing areas of habitat for their hedgerow scheme. So if you, or a friend would like to sponsor more trees please let us know. This time they will be a mix of woodland species so birch, beech, hawthorn and so on. We are now also VAT registered so if anyone wants to do it as part of a business we can provide a VAT receipt and I can invoice you through Paypal. It’s early days so details are not yet determined.
So all that’s left is to repeat a heart felt thank you to you all and wish you all a very merry Christmas and all the best for 2016. May it be filled with joy and laughter and stay warm and dry.
xxx Keesje, Olly, Billy and Inja

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