Fruit and Nut
|Growing Cider Apples|
The basic site requirements for a cider orchard are as follows:
Altitude under 200m
Shelter from severe winds
Well drained fertile soil with pH of 6.0 -7.0
Rainfall less than 1400mm per annum
No air frosts after the trees begin coming into flower (usually around mid-May)
Within these very broad parameters some qualification is needed. While most commercial orchards are situated at altitudes of under 150m, on warm sites apple trees will succeed at 250m or more. Shelter is non-negotiable, but windy sites can be transformed by planting shelterbelts to the west and (if the site is very exposed) to the south too. It's a waste of time planting fruit trees if the blossom is going to get blown off by wind, or if the site is too hostile for bees and other pollinating insects to do their work. However, on very sheltered sites, for example on small sites surrounded by taller trees, there can be a problem of under-ventilation, which raises humidity within the orchard and consequently increases the risk of disease.
While apples trees do best in soil with a pH of 6.0-7.0, soils on the acid side can be easily modifed with ground limestone. Alkaline soils can be made more acidic with the addition of mulches of wood chip or bark, particularly those of coniferous origin.
Drainage is non-negotiable. The upper 50cm of soil in the must be free draining. An easy rule of thumb is to dig a 50cm deep hole during the summer after heavy rain. If the hole holds water more than twenty four hours, the drainage is inadquate. The same test in winter is a little more complicated to assess as dormant trees can tolerate higher levels of water. But if the hole holds water after five successive dry days, there are likely to be problems. Where the intended site is clearly too wet, remedial drainage should be undertaken. If this does not improve soil conditions sufficiently (for example, where the site is on top of impervious clay), the only possibility for growing fruit trees is to grow on large mounds. In the case of apples, trees on M111 roostock should be chosen where the site is known to be wet .
Precipitation should be viewed in the context of drainage. While many growers in Ireland or the UK would be horrified at the thought of an annual rainfall of 1400mm, the Hardangerfjord region in Norway* produces a large tonnage of apples and cherries (and some plums and pears) and here the annual precipitation is in excess of 1500mm. The upper limit of tolerance for apple trees in Norway is probably more like 3000mm per annum (!), which is wetter than anywhere in Ireland. But with higher rainfall comes the increased risk of tree disease. To combat this every effort must to made to reduce orchard humidity (for example optimising ventilation within the orchard by planting at lower tree densities and keeping hedging and shelterbelts well back from the trees) and also to reduce soil water content. Saturated soils are low in oxygen and this will inhibit growth as well as increasing the risk of collar rot. To summarise: a well drained site in a high rainfall locality will consistantly out-perform a poor site situated within a much drier region.
Soil depth should be a minimum of 400mm. On stony/gravelly sites with shallow soil, the depth can be increased by excavating down to 700-800mm with a machine and backfilling with a mixture of the original material combined with compost, and planting the trees on 1m wide, flat-topped mounds approx 15- 20cm high. It is best to layer the bottom of the hole with stones. The mound is to compensate for eventual settlement. However, this method of deepening the soil will not work where the surrounding subsoil has poor drainage (see hole test above) as the hole will simply fill with water.
Sloping ground is generally benficial as it allows cold air to drain away. This is particularly advantageous during the flowering season, when blossom is at risk from frost. While the commercial growers will face difficulties on slopes too steep for tractors, this is not so much a consideration for the small grower. Around some of the Norwgian fjords, old orchards can be found on precipitous slopes that in Ireland would be dismissed as unsuitable for any sort of crop. However, on the steepest slopes, terracing would be highly desirable. One of the advantages about planting orchards on steep slopes is that it makes use of otherwise unproductive land.
*The Hardanger region, along with other fruit-growing regions in Western Norway, was visited by Andy Wilson in 2013
Rows are traditionally planted north to south, with the space between the rows normally several metres wider than the space between the trees in order to provide adequate light and to permit easy access. However, where slopes are steep, contour-planting the rows across the slope is much more practical, even if this means planting on an west to east axis. Where planting is across the slope, the gap between each row should be generous. If tractor access is required, provision must be made for this. Trees should be staked and well mulched, and the area immediately around each tree should be kept well weeded for 3-5 years while the tree gets established. The lightweight square stakes sometimes sold as 'tree stakes' are completely useless for staking fruit trees - a round 3 inch (75mm) fencing stake should be used instead. The tree should be attached to the stake using a tree tie. The tie should be manufactured of rubber or soft plastic. Ties made from hard plastic are likely to damage the tree. Where rabbits or hares are present, the trees must be protected: either by using rabbit guards or by making the whole orchard rabbit and hare proof.
Yields and Markets
Cropping begins at 3-4 years. Maximum production is reached at 10-15 years. Yield is dependent on many factors including rootstock, choice of cultivars, planting density, soil, aspect, shelter, degree of maintenance, and micro-climate, and will also vary from year to year. However, as a rule of thumb, a well tended orchard of trees on MM106 will yield in excess of 50kg per tree. At a modest density of around 20m² per tree, an orchard of trees on MM106 will give around 8-10 tonnes per acre (20-25 tonnes per hectare*). Wholesale prices for cider apples vary enormously, with the lowest price paid by the industrial-scale cider producers. Here, quantity always trumps quality. Hand-picked apples of vintage cinder variety may command only the same price as supermarket-reject Bramley's Seedling (a cooker routinely used to bulk out cider washes) or cheap apple imports. In a glut year the wholesale price may be as little as €100/tonne. However, the artisan cider producer who makes cider solely from juice rather than from a mix of juice, apple concentrate and added sugars (as is the case with large-scale corporate cider product) will expect pay a premium price for top quality fruit of named cider varieties, perhaps up to €300/tonne.
Of course, many small-scale growers will be intending to use the fruit themselves for cider production. As a rough guide, one tonne of fruit produce 500-650 litres of juice. An acre of well-maintained cider apple trees can to expected to provide around 5000 litres of juice per annum. By way of comparison, the potential (Irish) market for quality craft cider is something in the region of 1 million litres per year!
*The Teagasc estimate is 25 tonnes per hectare
Information for the intending perry pear grower