Saving Warner’s King
Thank you to our Hucking Orchard volunteers, Allen Goodwin and Raymond Kenward, for submitting this article for Whittle.
The Orchardist constantly frets. If it’s not Silverleaf on the Victoria Plums then it’s canker in the Worcester Pearmain, and if by luck it’s neither of these then it’s Leafspot on the Champion quince. From time to time the orchardist sleeps well, but even then he or she is likely to wake up to new worries.
In 2012, in the first stage of a project suggested by local residents and generously supported by the Woodland Trust, the first trees were planted in the Hucking Community Orchard on the North Downs in Kent. The ten new orchardists of Hucking learned that fruit trees are not like other trees, but are grafted onto special rootstocks in order to control their size and make them more disease resistant. They learned how to graft, how to identify apples, how to prune, and how we might cut a meadow with a scythe if we had a month to spare. At first, they did all of this with thorough-going enthusiasm and a consummate lack of skill. After a year or three they became a little less unskilful. But all the while, during this happy phase of early learning, a hidden enemy lurked nearby, watching our every move with its beautiful brown eyes, lovely grey fur, funny long ears and chisel-like incisors.
Naturally, each fruit tree was given protection from rabbits, in the shape of a plastic spiral protector. And for five and a half years they proved effective. But then the plastic broke down, the protectors became brittle and they fell apart. And then the rabbits made their move.
Not long afterwards, during a routine assessment of the orchard to of the orchardists noticed that some of the tree protectors had disintegrated, and they discussed replacing the protectors, perhaps making their own. And then they noticed that some of the trees showed signs of being gnawed by hungry chisel-shaped incisors. And then they came across a tree, a Warner’s King (a variety of cooking apple discovered near Maidstone around 1700) that had been gnawed all the way around its trunk. It had been ring-barked, dooming it to a slow but certain death. At this sight, one of the orchardists plucked at his long beard, while the other cried silent but manly tears. Then they raised their fists to the dark and stormy sky and shouted in unison.
Or something like that.
Anyway, they researched the matter and formed a plan. First, they made a moss bandage, shrouded in plastic, and wrapped it around the tree’s wound. This was to keep the wound from drying out until a permanent repair could be made. The repair was to be a bridge graft, a vertical bridging of the stripped ring of bark with a living twig. If effective, the tree has a way of transporting water and nutrients from the soil up into its leaves, and sugars and minerals from its leaves down to its roots. With this in mind the two intrepid orchardists cut two suitable one year-old dormant twigs from the tree itself and made flesh-to-flesh joins which they made firm with a hammer and gimp pins.
Each of our orchardists likes to imagine that it is the other who fitted their twig upside down, rendering it useless, and each of them likes to think it was their own bridge that held firm for several months before it fell off. And both of them like to think that the bridge that fell off had been of use while it lasted. And perhaps they are right.
Proud of their small success but embarrassed by their larger failure our two orchardists showed the sick tree to their pruning tutor, the excellent Mr John Easton of Maidstone. Taking pity on the orchardists, but more particularly on the injured Warner’s King, he offered at once to help. He praised them for their application of a moss bandage and their attempt to make bridge grafts, then proposed that as a belt and braces approach they might, this time, not only replace the failed bridge grafts, but add a couple of inarching grafts. An inarching graft involves planting a new rootstock inches from the injured tree and joining the vertical stem into healthy tissue above the bare girdled trunk. Now the orchardists let the Warner’s King develop suckers. A sucker is a vertical shoot from the rootstock, and usually these would be removed, but in this case the sucker was to be bridged. They were in luck, and a substantial sucker grew quickly, and by the time the two orchardists met with John Easton it was three feet in length. The orchardists helped make a new bridge graft with the sucker, then planted two new rootstocks and make inarching grafts from them, pinned all the joins in place and sealed them with wax. Then they wound rabbit-proof fencing around the tree and went home.
A year later the three grafts look secure, and the Warner’s King is safe. It smiles at the world and thumbs its nose at the rabbits, who shrug their shoulders in resignation.
The orchardists have, with practice and John’s advice and example, developed the glimmerings of competence. And they eye the 105 healthy and handsome fruit trees in Hucking Orchard with immense satisfaction.
But of all those trees it is the Warner’s King that causes them the greatest satisfaction.
Please note, because we wish to save these poor orchardists from embarrassment their names can never be published.