The pruning is now complete for this year. I didn't remove much wood in the end, just a few laterals in the wrong place, and most of the leaders needed tipping back to encourage strong growth and more laterals to break along the trunk. This light pruning work is very satisfying, but you have to constantly remind yourself to only make cuts where absolutely necessary. There is often a temptation to prune too heavily just for the sake of it, or the belief that the ideal tree shape can only be achieved by drastic tree surgery. Much of the remaining work to create a good tree shape will involve the tying down of upright branches in the Spring, and allowing the older trees to bear a small crop of apples. This should prevent the trees from growing too vigorously, and will also help to bring the more upright growing branches into fruiting, since the spurs which will eventually bear a crop of apples tend to form on horizontal growing branches.
Whilst working in the orchard the air was busy with the to-ing and fro-ing of Blackbirds, Blue Tits and Robins, all welcome visitors, particularly the Blue Tits which flit around the trees removing the many over-wintering bugs. Most days at this time of year we see Pheasants in the orchard, usually a rich chestnut and golden cock accompanied by a harem of flighty hens. They're a lovely sight, and they always do their bit by hoovering up insects and grubs from the grass. One visitor we are not so keen to see is a rabbit which has set up home beneath our neighbours garden. It loves the new grass in the orchard, and regularly makes a nuisance of itself in our vegetable patch during the Summer. I'm now hoping for a return visit from the young Sparrowhawk which dined in the orchard this Summer. The bird must surely be experienced enough to tackle a rabbit by now, but in the meantime it's just as well we took the advice of experienced orchardists and protected all our young trees with wire guards. Rabbits seem to have a particular liking for the bark of young apple trees, and whilst pruning I made sure that all the guards were in good shape, with no rabbit-sized gaps in evidence.
The hardest task was clearing the growth of weeds and grass from around each tree. Semi-dwarfing bush trees like these do not appreciate competition for nutrients from grasses and weeds, so it's essential in the early years to prevent this growth from encroaching around the tree. To be honest, I haven't tried hard enough to maintain this in the orchard, and I'll need to deal with this more rigorously next year, but an hour or so of hand weeding on a frosty December day has made a big difference, and I now feel all is ready in the orchard for the coming Spring.