As the growing cycle for apples and pears comes to an end with the harvest each autumn, the life cycle of a commercial orchard continues and the winter period is one of the most important times.
The darker days and longer nights mean many of us are outside a lot less at this time of year, preferring to stay tucked up inside. Our orchard team however are busy outside with much to do.
November is the time to start planting new trees. This winter we will be planting around 320,000 new fruit trees here in Kent, taking the total planted over the last seven years to well over 1.5 million. Our 25 orchards currently cover an area the same as 11 Bluewater Shopping centres including all of the car parks or 1,698 football pitches! And if you also add up all of the miles of native trees we also plant for hedging around our orchard boundaries and inside for windbreaks each year, we are proud to be one of the largest tree planters in the UK and the largest here in Kent.
Our new commercial orchards have the objective to grow as much quality fruit as possible and they have a lifespan of around 20 years. This means you will see smaller trees around 1.8-2.4m in height which are densely planted in long rows. This makes it more efficient to move our modern machinery and equipment around. We now grow more fruit per tree and more trees per acre than would have traditionally been grown in the past.
Newer fruit varieties are being grown to meet ever changing consumer demand and these are also more uniform in shape, size and colour. They also develop at the same rate, making it easier to harvest which is all still done by hand and leaving less waste.
Weather plays a huge role in the life of a commercial orchard. Trees need a period of dormancy to go to sleep during the winter months and for the leaf and fruit buds to form in the spring, a minimum number of chill hours are needed. Apples need a minimum of 820 hours and pears 620 hours at temperatures below 7.2C.
Our climate is changing and we have recently seen warmer winters with heavier rain, which can cause waterlogging in the orchards. An earlier spring or a stop start spring with late frosts can lead to poor fruit setting. Prolonged hot summers can cause a variety of issues such as premature fruit drop and root stress, whilst wetter summers can increase problems such as skin scab or cause fruit to rot. And don’t mention hail to a fruit farmer as it can devastate a whole crop in a matter of minutes.
Getting the structure and planting of our new orchards right, in our unique Goatham’s way can help overcome some of these climate issues, but that takes a significant and sustained level of investment.
Back in 2007, the sale of some of our farmland for much needed local housing in Medway provided the funding to invest back into our business. We went from farming 45 acres to 2,830 acres. Growing fruit on 25,000 trees to over 2 million trees and importantly, bringing to life new orchards across Kent.