Building an orchard

New Orchard Site

New Orchard Site

Depending on your perspective and philosophy of life, our activities in the croft garden can be viewed as ground breaking experiments, eccentric follies or totally bonkers. On a wet November afternoon when I’m moving barrow loads of sand from one part of the garden to another I know exactly which applies. However, I was promised an orchard and that was what I was going to get come hell or high water and that is what I got – all three!
A coastal headland on the north-west tip of a Hebridean island is probably not the ideal location for an orchard. Apart from the howling gales, the climate is perfect. If you can mitigate the effect of the wind and get the soil into good condition, provided that you subscribe to the delusion that anything is possible, the impossible is possible sometimes.
I would like to claim remarkable foresight, but I suspect it was pure serendipity that the part of the garden destined for redevelopment was probably the best place for our orchard. Sheltered to the south by the fruit cage and to the north by the existing Olearia shelter belt, with a 5ft fence and a newly planted Olearia shelter belt to the east and another 4ft fence completing the boundary, it is one of the more protected parts of the garden. Although most of the severe gales roar in from the Atlantic from October to March, we can get a howler at any time, so some addition measures were needed to protect the trees during the growing season. Predictably the Head Gardener had the answer: training the trees as three-tiered espaliers against a series of parallel fences in avenues.
So it really was a case of building an orchard – or rather the infra-structure for the fruit trees. Planting on either side of the internal fences there is enough space for 12 trees. A gravel path runs between each set of fences with the trees planted in deep borders under-planted with bulbs and herbs. This part of the garden has been used for growing vegetables so the soil had been improved by regular applications of well-rotted manure and seaweed. However, the top soil is only about 18 inches deep and thereafter it is pure sand. To give the trees a good start about 18 inches of sand was excavated from each extra-large planting hole and replaced with garden compost .
The trees were planted in late November and after settling were pruned to just above the first wire ensuring that there were three good buds pointing in different directions near the top of the stem. Provided all goes to plan, the top three buds will form the leader and the two laterals which will be tied-in next winter to form the first tier of the espalier.
It was tempting to choose some of the lovely old varieties, however as our conditions are far from ideal, there had to be pragmatic compromise. So we ended-up with Bramley’s, Newton Wonder, Egremont Russet, Blenheim Orange, Cox’s Orange Pippin and Spartan, all on dwarfing root stocks.
It is now April and the trees are beginning to show green leaves and whilst there is not quite a “host of golden daffodils”, there are bright splashes of  yellow to break up the harshness of empty borders and expanses of fence. It is perhaps a little too “National Trust” for my taste and not the orchard of my dreams; however, as the garden is surrounded by fields of wild flowers was just a matter of taking the trees into intensive care. It is a wonderful gift and I’m looking forward to my first apples, golden or otherwise, in about three years hence!


In a Vase for Monday: Sheltering from the Rain

Narcissus: Hawera, Baby Moon, Little Witch, Tete-a -Tete

Narcissus: Hawera, Baby Moon, Little Witch, Tete-a-Tete

This is my first contribution to the Rambler’s In a Vase for Monday meme. I promised a contribution before Easter and, as Easter is late this year, I’ve just scraped in. I like having a small posy of flowers in the house, so my tardiness has been a lack of flowers and foliage rather than commitment. Although there have been pots of bulbs flowering in the polytunnel, I decided to stick to the idea of using material from the garden. So this is my first posy of the year – a small glass of dwarf narcissi from the cottage garden.
I belong to the “a nice bunch of flowers in a vase with a bit of foliage” school of flower arranging rather than the floral art academy. Although with my shortage of material perhaps something more akin ikebana would be more appropriate.
So I have a “nice bunch of daffs”, which also have a lovely delicate scent, sheltering from the rain on my windowsill, the next step is the photography. It is far more difficult  to take a decent photograph of a vase of flowers than I had imagined . I was so captivated by the individual flowers that it was difficult to concentrate on the vase as a whole. First a few trial shots and then a tweaking of the arrangement, followed by elevating the glass to avoid the window frame, then setting the focus so it was soft but not blurred and finally attempting to preserve the translucency of the flowers by adjusting the light . Sometimes reproducing simplicity can be horribly complex and I began to feel in need of a cup of tea.
Not bad for a first effort, but definitely could do better on all counts, although I did grow the daffs, which after all are the stars of the show.

Fantasies and Follies

Garden of Hesperides

The Garden of the Hesperides c.1892,Frederic Leighton (1830-1896). Lady Lever Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool

Some of us have a fantasy garden, perfect soil with the perfect climate for whatever we wish to grow. There are rolling acres extending beyond the horizon, an unlimited supply of labour and of course a bottomless pot of gold. The reality is a constant battle against the elements, unspeakable soil, plagues of pests, invasions of rampant weeds and back-breaking hard work. So why do we do it? The reasons are as many and as varied as there are gardeners, but I suspect it is because we are dreamers at heart.
I have always longed for an orchard, not a few scrubby old apple trees at the bottom of the garden, but a field filled with venerable gnarled trees, producing Hesperidian golden apples, growing in a mist of wild flowers. I was obviously exposed to too much romantic poetry at an impressionable age.
To be more pragmatic, I like apples, the old-fashioned kind with a crisp texture, a little tartness and a complex flavour with subtle hints of nuts, honey and citrus. In this part of the world it is a case of  la recherche du temps perdu and the probability of my finding a hero to send on a quest to Hesperides in search of golden apples is probably equal to finding a box of  Roundway Magnum Bonums in the local supermarket.
Fortunately dreams do sometimes come true, but perhaps not always in the way one envisages – the old Chinese proverb of being careful for what you wish for usually applies. Now in my case I ended-up with two heroes, not the golden youths of classical literature, but then I passed the goddess stage some time ago too! Last October our friend Bill arrived with a bag of small green apples grown in his garden some 10 miles to the south of here. He was carefully interrogated by the Head Gardener on the history and techniques of growing apples in the Outer Hebrides while I munched blissfully transported by visions of apple boughs heavy with blossom unaware of what was to come.
Part of the croft vegetable garden was scheduled for redevelopment – Grand Designs part 2, and my original request had been for a new herb garden. However, in the time it takes for the Head Gardener to look wistfully into the distant horizon and get out his measuring tape I had the blueprint for an orchard. My old and well-beloved hero was going to build me an orchard.
Did he succeed or did he spend the winter in the shed building an ark?