In 1664 John Evelyn wrote ‘Generally all strong and pleasant cider excites and cleanses the Stomach, strengthens Digestion, and infallibly frees the Kidneys and Bladder from breeding the Gravel Stone’.
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The Cider Apple Orchard

Foxwhelp, Tremlett’s Bitter, Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Brown Snout, Michelin, Chisel Jersey, Ellis Bitter, Sweet Coppin...
...are all names of different cider apple varieties. Though there are more different types than there are days on the calendar.

The rolling pastures of England that lie to the west and south-west are dotted with cider orchards, snowy white and pink when in Spring blossom, and multicoloured in Autumn when the trees are laden with apples of all shades of red, green and yellow as the harvest begins. It’s been the same pattern for centuries. The soil and climate here are ideal for growing cider apples and orchards are now also established in Wales and in other areas of England.

The taste for cider has been rediscovered; sales are growing strongly and with this success has come a greater demand for good quality cider fruit. Farmers and land-owners throughout the region have responded to the challenge and some 8,000 acres of new orchards have been planted in the last decade. It’s a farming success story.

The life of a new orchard begins with the preparation of the land and the marking out of the rows ready for planting. The planter pulls out a furrow, the machine operator puts in the trees at the set distance apart and the machine replaces the soil around the roots. The rest of the planting team follows behind, firming the soil with their heels and ensuring the tree is straight.

In today’s orchards, the young trees should have at least six branches, or feathers as they are known, to ensure early cropping. Grass seed is sown and the herbicide strip is prepared to control weed growth at the base of the tree so that its roots may enjoy the full benefit of Nature’s nutrients. The young trees will have their first pruning at the end of the first year to create their shape and conformity.

This is how the orchard is established. The care and attention it receives over the following decades will govern the yield. Well maintained orchards will produce a crop of 15 tonnes (or more) to the acre. It had been assumed that after perhaps thirty years the yield from an orchard would decline and ultimately it might become uneconomic, however, in recent years improved practices in orchard management are preserving the productive life of many orchards and maintaining or improving the yields achieved. 

The big job through the winter for orchard workers, and a key part of orchard husbandry is pruning, essential to contain the growth of a tree and to achieve the right balance of growth to fruiting potential.

To everyone’s delight, Spring arrives and the orchard literally bursts into life. First the dormant fruit buds turn into a blaze of blossom. The beekeeper moves in his hives so that the bees will pollinate the flowers to ‘set’ the fruit.  

In Summer, as the fruit grows, the orchard will be carefully monitored for pests and diseases. Integrated fruit production techniques are practised to encourage natural predators to control pests and so keep to a minimum the amount of spraying. The careful pruning done early in the year now allows a free flow of air and light to reduce the risk of disease.

The cider season changes yet again.  We’re into Autumn, that season of mellow fruitfulness, and the fruit is now heavy on the bough.  Harvesting, once a back-breaking manual task, gets underway as the early varieties ripen in late September; Ellis Bitter is prominent in the newer orchards.  Then follow the established middle season varieties, such as Somerset Redstreak, Tremlett’s Bitter, Dabinett or Michelin. By November, the late varieties are being harvested, including Chisel Jersey, Brown Snout and, if it is willing to leave the tree, the stubborn Vilberie.

The objective of the grower is to deliver to the Cider Mill a regular supply of clean, quality fruit fit for pressing.

Like most farm tasks, apple harvesting is now mechanised. First the tractor-mounted shaker moves along the rows; clamping onto each tree trunk and vibrating. The apples fall in a shower.  Along comes the harvester, a set of front mounted rubber paddles sweeping up the apples in the aisles between the trees.  Then a blower, akin to a giant hair drier, blows the apples that might otherwise escape from under the trees into the aisles for a second sweep by the harvester. In minutes a tonne of apples is in the trailer and on its way to the washing station before delivery to the Cider Mill.

The role of the grower, who has nurtured the apple from budded graft through several years of growth until the orchard is mature, is over for another year.


Managing the orchards

Most cider apple growers follow good Integrated Pest Management practices; a carefully selected spray programme together with tactics to encourage natural control agents to help with pest control.

Fortunately cider fruit need not be visually perfect, more outward blemishes can be tolerated than for eating apples. This allows growers to spray less often while targeting their sprays more effectively at those pests and diseases which actually reduce crop yields.

Many growers are shrewd enough to manage their hedges and field margin habitats to increase the success of animals and bugs knowing that many will be the natural predators of orchard pests that might create a problem in the orchards.



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