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!