In the Apple Orchard

Basket of Howgate Wonder apples on display at Waterperry Gardens’ Apple Weekend
© Karen Andrews

An Apple Weekend without apples is odd. Apples were in short supply at Waterperry’s Apple Weekend. The apple deficit did not stop Rob Jacobs, Waterperry’s Horticulture Manager, from giving a fascinating apple tour with a wealth of information and good humour on orchard care, rootstock, grafting, production and juicing.

Waterperry’s promising Apple Weekend sign above the Rural Life Museum © Karen Andrews

Severe Late Frost

The British weather has always been unpredictable. What would the British use as an icebreaker without it? Climate change seems to be making the British climate even more unpredictable. Blossom time is the most vulnerable stage in an apple orchard. A late frost decimated this year’s autumn apple crop at Waterperry Gardens, near Wheatley in Oxfordshire.

They knew. Experienced growers recognise the signs of a crop failure within 24 hours. It happened at Waterperry in 1979 and 1997. They stood in the orchard shaking their heads at the tell-tale brown inside the apple blossom ovaries. That severe late frost cost 80% of the expected crop.

Frost Experience Counts

The effect of frost damage on the apple orchard did not seem consistent. There were sometimes apples at the end of a row. This seemed counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t these trees have had greater exposure to the frost? Rob Jacobs explained the importance of airflow against frost damage. Even more surprising was that growers spray blossom with water to protect them from frost. The practice is an experienced grower’s pre-emptive strike. Sprinkling water forms an ice shield.

Frost irrigation to protect Apple Blossom. © Cydonia via Pixaby

Apple Harvesting

Rob Jacobs demonstrated how apples were harvested in the past and today. The apples are still picked by hand. He demonstrated by wearing an old sack holdall. Unbruised apples are precious. They will command the optimal market price. Brown, bruised, windfall apples are only fit for cider and scrumpy. The picker takes great care to ease each apple from the tree by supporting it with by the palm of the hand and rolling upwards. Contrary to popular belief, there should be no twisting action. The picked apples are eased from the holdalls into crates. No dropping apples from a height is allowed.

Harvest Ergonomics

The holdalls may not have changed significantly over time, but the need for ladders has changed. Pickers would have been constantly up and down ladders in the past. Ergonomics has come to apple harvesting. Chris Lanczak, the Orchard Manager, spends his time constantly training branches down to a pickable height. It came as a surprise that old growth does not produce the best-tasting apples. A better crop grows on the younger growth that has been trained down. All the best apples would be high at the top of the tree otherwise.

Pruning Apple Trees

An apple tree with vigorous growth will not be a productive tree. Vigour does not produce flowers. The Orchard Manager prunes every five shoots down to just two. He prunes out the top growth and works with a central leader system. Normally, there are just 4 productive branches. The branches are weakened by being bent down and this forces bud production.


The apple may seem like a quintessentially British fruit, but the origins of Malus domestica are in Central Asia, around modern-day Kazakhstan. Apple trees do not grow well from seed in our climate. They need 28 continuous days of frost. Apple seeds need this long dormancy phase. Despite this year’s severe frost, such a prolonged cold spell rarely occurs in the United Kingdom. British apple growers prefer to grow apple trees from rootstock, rather than trying to recreate the dormancy phase using stratification.

Rootstocks have the additional advantage of helping to keep apple trees short. A rootstock is the stump of a related species with an already established root system. Another tree is grafted onto the rootstock. At this point, the tour got technical. Apple rootstocks are given numbers and an initial ‘M’. They start at a miniature M27, then go to M9, M26, MM106, and up to M25 and M11 at the very large end of the scale.

Apple rootstock sizes. © CC Quercusrobur

Different apple tree cultivars have different characteristics. The apple grower can use the choice rootstock to control the height and vigour of his chosen apple. A Cox seedling can be very willowy. By contrast, a Bramley seedling is bigger and more vigorous. An apple grower goes down a size in rootstock to get an even tree.


Rob Jacobs demonstrated how to graft one apple tree onto another.

The slither is placed liked a stained-glass window on the other twig and bound to it with plastic tape. The bud is left completely covered for 4 weeks until the cambium layer grows over the graft. The success rate of such grafts is 98%. Two years later, you have an apple tree ready for planting out.
© Karen Andrews

Planting Distance

An orchard manager also has to consider the planting distance between trees. Blenheim Orange, Oxfordshire’s most famous apple, is a vigorous tree. When it was not thriving at Waterperry, Chris the Orchard Manager decided to take out every second tree. The extra root space resulted in twice the crop from half the original number of trees. Chris is also working on a long-term project to graft all Waterperry’s apples onto a single tree.

Apples for Christmas

While Waterperry’s autumn apple crop was disappointing this year, we saw the Christmas crop still ripening on the tree. Rob Perry recommended that if we were to plant our own apple trees, we select a mix of early, mid- and late season varieties.


We left the orchard to see the new juicing machine. The best juicing apple varieties are not always the best eating apple varieties. Great care is taken to ensure that no rotten, brown apples are juiced. The only additive is ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to prevent browning. The bottled product is pasteurised.

Apparently, apples are best stored in a fridge between 2 ºC and 5 ºC (not in a fruit bowl). It was sad that the brilliant apple tour ended in the almost empty juicing, storage and fridge areas. Perhaps the laden pear trees will compensate in part for a disappointing apple harvest in 2019?

Pear trees laden with fruit. © Karen Andrews

Waterperry Gardens seems a great, child-friendly day out. It has a playground and lots of imaginative touches. Lots of young families were enjoying the Apple Anagram Game during my visit. And there’s the Great Pumpkin Hunt to look forward to over the half-term holidays.

Waterperry’s wicker apple den is popular with young children. © Karen Andrews

Apple weekend without many apples turned out great. As all good gardeners know, there’s always next year.

Apple varieties on display at the Waterperry Apple Weekend. © Karen Andrews

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Photography used from other sources is via Creative Commons licences and is credited and linked to the originators.

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