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Dragon Orchard News

2012-06-28 10 26 52

Optimum Conditions for Growing Apples

We are often asked what it takes to produce a good crop of fruit and we often ask ourselves the very same question. Having come up with various responses over the years, we have now concluded that the answer largely divides naturally in half. The first half is to do with conditions that can be controlled ie selection of site, choice of rootstock, interstem and variety, care with planting, staking and protection and then skill in husbandry, pruning, mowing, fertilisation and picking. The second half concerns other variables connected with cropping, climate, flowering and set, conditions that are not easy to control. For a decent crop one hopes for good fruit bud to be set the previous summer, unstressed trees, hard winter ensuring dormancy and spring vigour, strong flowers, good pollination and enough fruit set for a medium crop.

Should you wish to choose conditions for a poor crop then 2011/2012 will turn out to be a text book example. We have experienced the following:

  • Heavy 2011 crop but drought conditions producing small low juice fruit.
  • Trees stressed as struggling for moisture
  • Poor conditions to produce fruit bud
  • Mild winter so minimum dormancy
  • Little vigour in spring
  • Weak flowering
  • Sunny March
  • Frosts in April and May
  • Exceptionally wet May with poor pollination
  • Damp and mild promoting growth of fungi
  • Heavy grass growth providing competition for nutrients
  • Thick leaf canopy cutting down light to existing fruit and making spray droplet penetration difficult

Cue lots of depressed fruit growers all consoling themselves with a pint of Tumpy at the Three Counties Show.

More Show Success

Kay Sally Vigo TrophyYou may remember that last year the Discovery apple juice won Best in Show at the Bath and West and was awarded the prestigious Vigo Trophy. Well this year the trophy was retained as the Spartan juice was judged Champion Apple Juice. Recognition indeed.

We also had some excellent results at the Three Counties in the middle of the month. Annie and I were there on the Friday, when the awards were made and I looked after the stand while she went off to the prize giving. She returned with a third for the Carpenters Croft Sparkling Cider, a first for Priggles Perry and the award for the Best Herefordshire Cider and Perry Producer. We had to rearrange the display to show off all our certificates and rosettes, plus a rather fine three handled tankard which we are still trying to figure out how to use.

photo na

Herefordshire Walking Festival

The Herefordshire Walking Festival is now well established and gives an excellent opportunity to explore the lesser known corners of the county. We usually lead a walk but also try and attend a couple of others, especially if they are in our neck of the woods. The Dragon Orchard walk this year was "The Wonder of Pigs and Apples" and the idea was to visit The Noggin, where Sarah and Will Grant keep British Lop pigs. After a tour of the current herd of some 130 pigs and piglets happily residing in varying amounts of mud, we enjoyed a tasty hog roast accompanied with cider and juice. On our return journey we explored the delights of The Wonder landslide and toasted said event with some previously secreted Chapel Pleck, before returning home for tastings, cake and tea. We were delighted that the walk was fully booked, the weather was dry and nobody slipped over on the still soggy ground.




The walks that we attended around Fownhope took us along paths less travelled.  We heard about the life of Tom Spring, the undefeated bare knuckle champion fighter of All England in the 1820s. He lived in the village and his fighting prowess brought him Royal Patronage, fame and fortune.

Our second walk was called 'Tasty Tarrington' where we visited Swan House, an award winning bed and breakfast, and had Waller's breakfast sausages served with apple juice made by Once Upon A Tree. We also met Richard Bradstock and his herd of pedigree Herefords at Freetown Farm. Their prize bull will meet The Queen when she visits Hereford on July 11th. The walk then crossed the River Frome (known to locals as the Frummy) which when the leaders had reviewed the walk two days earlier had been running bank high due to all the rain. We then reached Yarkhill Church and by chance met a man who was lime washing the interior of the tower. He told us with great enthusiasm that 8 new bells were to be hung soon to commemorate the life of Fabian Steadman. Fabian who was born in 1640 was the son of the Yarkhill vicar and one of the founding fathers of English Change Ringing and many of the peals that are still rung today were devised by him. We were invited to the top of the tower, past the old bells and out onto the roof which gave stunning views of the surrounding countryside. The church sits close to the remains of a medieval, fortified manor house and as the river Frome was in flood the moat of this former house was visible. A very fortuitous and timely encounter.moat

Mr Ps BeesDuring the May Day Bank Holiday last year David Pealing of Mr P’s Bees took the first super from the hive and spun it in our garage, so that we could actually sample the honey there and then. This year, not only was there no honey to be taken, but David has actually had to feed the bees because there was not enough flower for them to feed themselves sufficiently. April 2011 was the sunniest on record, April 2012 the wettest. What a difference a year makes.

One thing we have certainly been talking about for a year is our Orchard Trail and on Saturday 5th May we were able to take our Cropsharers around it for the first time. There is a marked map showing the shorter Gobbits Trail and the longer, hillier Hursts Trail, both named after our two orchards. On the ground there are marker posts with snippits of information on each which give an overview of Dragon Orchard and Once Upon A Tree. Simon has done a fantastic design job on the information boards and we were delighted when our neighbours, who run an internationally recognised tourism company, told us they felt there was just the right amount of information on each board. There is a QR icon (quick response) on the first board, so that the cognoscenti with smart phones can simply point their device at it and up pops the website. The QRs are also on the drinks labels and being used by many more people.

Our Dragon Orchard Cropsharers Spring Weekend over May Day Bank holiday coincides with our local Big Apple event and came at the end of a period of really heavy rain. We had just got the pruning finished and the brash burnt before it became really wet. But since then we weren’t able to get on the ground at all. We erected the marquee and got all the flags up and left it as late as possible to try and cut the grass. Once up the side of the drive was enough to confirm that even the wide low-pressure tyres on our garden mower were going to make too much mess. However, we really did not want to complain about the rain because up until then it had been so terribly dry and the trees really needed moisture to get them ready to produce leaf and flower. Temperatures had been low enough to inhibit early growth, which is just as well as there had been several hard frosts. Jo Pardoe, who farms near us, has organic cherries on the side of the Cockshoot and spent a fortnight putting up covers to protect them from hail and frost. The gales at the end of April just about shredded the lot, so that now all that remains are tatters of plastic.


Hansnett Farm

Hansnett Farm at Canon Frome is a very interesting enterprise owned and run by a fantastically creative family. They hosted us for a visit with our Cropsharers and delighted us with their interest and enthusiasm. Sue Farquhar, who moved to the county some twenty years ago, keeps and shows Shropshire Sheep and Ruby Red Devon cattle. The Shropshire sheep are being increasingly used for keeping down grass and weeds in both conifer plantations and, more recently, cider orchards. Sue’s daughter, Jo Butcher, keeps rare breed hens which produce an astonishing array of eggs of many different colours. She sells her eggs and day old chicks, as well as point of lay and is dispatching her poultry at these various different levels of development all over the country. Her daughter also has her own business, called appropriately Ellie’s Eggs and although Ellie is still young, she is turning into an eggspert entrepreneur. Guy Butcher finds his creativity through wood and the quality and sheer craftsmanship of his work does need to be seen to be believed. He has both his workshop and gallery at the farm and it is well worth a trip to savour the sheer brilliance of the work. You can also look at it online at and

The Movie Bus

cropshare 2012 057A wonderful addition at Big Apple this year was the Vintage Movie Bus. In the halcyon days of the Labour government when Anthony Wedgewood Benn ran the Department for Industry, or whatever it was called then, he commissioned a fleet of specially built mobile cinemas. Resplendent in 60’s coachwork, they sped the length and breadth of Britain bringing information about current working practices to industrial sites. Putley Parish Hall was the venue for the sole remaining Wedgie Benn Movie Bus which has been carefully restored and now shows a range of local interest old films and newsreels. Each performance was fully booked and gave a real focus for the weekend. The Movie Bus spent the night at Dragon Orchard, snuggled against our shed, dreaming of more gentle days and glad to be back in a quiet rural community.

orchard photoSponsor A Tree Weekend

Our Sponsor A Tree Weekend was held on the second weekend in May. We were blessed with fine weather, having suffered cold and wet conditions for most of the previous month and experienced a very cold Bank Holiday Monday with Cropsharers. We had an excellent turn-out of enthusiastic tree sponsors who were able to enjoy the new orchard trail in the morning, sample a delicious Dragon Orchard lunch and then go on the walk to The Wonder in the afternoon. An excellent reunion of some 35 tree sponsors.


Other Orchard Events

The last Saturday in April saw Richard Crompton running another of his photographic workshops. Although it was a cold and windy day there was just enough early blossom to capture on film. In the afternoon, a local expert brought an amazing variety of birds of prey. It is difficult to know which is the most extraordinary sight - eagles and owls flying over our lawn or them being snapped by a myriad of intrepid photographers. It was also a good test of the photographers’ outdoor clothing and for them to find out exactly what to put in all their fantastic array of storage pockets in their especially designed waistcoats.

The following Monday we were hosts to a Bulmers Foundation 'Art in the Orchard' session. This is the second year the event has been run and Dragon Orchard was asked to be a venue. Various special needs groups worked under the wonderful guidance of Green Eyed Monster, a group who specialise in creative outdoor arts. The students all contributed to a fantastic piece of sculpture and spent a really constructive time in the orchard. The expert tutoring and their enthusiasm really blossomed at Dragon Orchard and we hope to welcome them back before too long.

International Cider Competition at the Hereford Cider Museum

Simon-with-Awards-May-2012Four years ago Annie and I were in Italy with our Cropsharers and received a text from Simon with the results of the very first competition that Once Upon a Tree had ever entered. He had done rather well and since then has not been out of the medals at the competition, which is held annually at the Cider Museum. This year was no exception for as well as coming third in the medium cider, Once Upon A Tree took two firsts. One for the best dry cider for 2011 Marcle Ridge and the other for the best single variety, The Dabinett. See the latest News item on our website for more details. The dry summer last year made it a particularly difficult season but when the going gets tough Simon Day gets going.

three countiessm
The orchard is empty of fruit and the press has fallen silent after the most difficult growing and harvesting conditions we can recall. It is with some relief that I write these words as it has been a very trying year for all producers, but as a potato grower said to me recently “At least your crops grow above the ground”. Many of the potato fields have had to be abandoned as the machines simply couldn’t work and the mud on the roads has been a real problem for all concerned. However, here at Dragon Orchard we are able to grow a good range of apple varieties and some of these were fine. Plums and pears were all poor but the Kidds' Orange Red apples are excellent, as are the Herefordshire Russet, Red Devil and Tydeman’s Late Orange. We were short of some individual varieties to make our usual single variety juices, so have combined the earlier ones to make a Summer Blend and the later ones for an Autumn Blend. These are now in the bottle, labels are away being printed and they will be available by the end of November. As the ground was so wet and we had a lighter crop, we altered the way that the main cider crop was harvested, by only making one pass with the harvesting machine down each aisle. The machine could get down once without causing too much damage, but the ground became churned up if we tried to go again. So, after the first pass, the remaining apples were blown through the rows with a fan mounted on a lightweight orchard tractor and thus damage was limited, apart from the headlands. Come the spring we will flatten these out with power harrows and roll it and hopefully do a good reinstatement job. Other orchards have had harvesting machinery so bogged down they have had to be towed out and the enormous holes will have to be filled in with a JCB or a digger. Not a pretty sight. In spite of all the work and worry, it did all get done and we are glad it is now finally, as it says in the English Hymnal, “All safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin”, which have now begun with a vengeance.

three counties shop
Three Counties Cider Shop

These mid-November Wednesday evenings have seen a series of gatherings at 5a The Homend in Ledbury to celebrate the opening of the new cider shop, right in the middle of town, directly opposite the clock tower. The Three Counties Cider Shop came into being as we have been supplying more and more produce to various other shops. The Bristol Cider Shop, the Essex Cider Shop, the Real Cider Company and the nicely named Merrylegs, have all increased sales and we realised that in the three counties of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire there has not been a dedicated cider shop until now. 5a The Homend became available as the previous occupant, a sweet shop owner, has moved just across the alleyway to the other side of the Homend Mews. So after some debate and discussion, much crunching of numbers and scratching our heads, we decided to go for it. The licence was applied for and we undertook the fitting out and were able to go for a soft opening in time for the Autumn Big Apple and Cropsharers' Weekend in mid October. The shop looks stunning with the left hand wall completely covered with our wooden apple boxes, full of cider and perry bottles and backlit. On the right hand wall a fine dresser is arrayed with other local products. At the back, behind the counter, the end wall has a row of twelve wooden taps, dispensing draught cider and perry, the best the three counties can offer. Visitors seem genuinely impressed and positive and sales are on target and, like many good ideas, the simplicity and the elegance of design is what carries it through.

The Three Counties Cider Shop, 5a The Homend, Ledbury - where a warm welcome awaits.

draught cidercider jar

BBC Radio Four British Food and Farming Awards 2012


In early October we had a call from Radio Four asking us to send some samples of our products to the Food Programme as we had been nominated and then shortlisted for the Drinks Producer of the Year Award. The shortlist had been whittled down from well over 100 nominees and we were delighted to have progressed that far in such a prestigious competition. We thought no more about it but then had another call to ask us to be sure to listen to the Food Programme the following Sunday. There it was announced that the three finalists in the Drinks Producer award category were Kilchoman Distillery on Islay, the Kernel Brewery in London and Once Upon A Tree from Putley, Ledbury, Herefordshire. The judges, Victoria Moore and Pete Brown visited on the last Thursday of October and we met them at Ledbury Station and immediately took them to visit the newly opened cider shop. We then toured round the orchard, having duly warned them to bring willies and visited the shed where pressing was going on and they were able to taste liquids dispensed straight from the tank. They then sampled the finished products, finishing off with soup and local cheeses for lunch and got them back into Ledbury Station just in time for their afternoon train. Now we are off to the Good Food Show at the NEC on November 28th to find out the final result. Whatever the result, we are absolutely delighted to be the only cider and juice producer in the final and have greatly enjoyed the whole experience.

winepressFurther pressings

Five years ago in 2007, just as my mother sloughed off her mortal coil, we had just begun our very first pressing of apples with the newly purchased Voran press. Now in 2012 we have pressed our first load of grapes from a vineyard in the Cotswolds with our newly acquired wine press. The equipment has come from nearby Coddington Vineyard, which has recently changed hands. Once Upon A Tree was able to purchase the wine making equipment so our green shed is now full of shiny stainless steel fermenting kit with all the caboodle that goes to turn grapes into wine. However, the press that we have acquired has also been able to crush perry pears, which are extremely slippery and difficult to do on the apple press. It has made it a much less messy and more efficient operation and Simon has been a very happy chappy playing with all his new toys.


In complete contrast Annie, Simon and I recently visited the cider mill just outside Ledbury, which is owned by Heineken and is the largest apple mill in Europe. The scale of it is mind boggling and it can process 2,500 tonnes of apples a day. At that rate it would take two hours to process our entire cider crop this year. All the juice it produces is evaporated into concentrate, which looks, tastes and smells pretty much like thin treacle. It is so heavy that the road tankers used to transport it into Hereford where it is fermented, have to be reinforced with a massive steel frame. I always wondered what those massive tankers carried and now I know.

Simon Tests the Apples
Simon and the Sugars

Timing is everything in fruit growing and picking and was one of the main themes in Charles Bennett's Orchard Days poetry collection. He visited us for one day each month to engage with the annual round of the orchard. He said he could understand that we knew what to do but was never sure how we knew when. Much of it comes with experience but there is also a degree of intuition and also, it must be said, a bit of luck with some good picking weather. However Simon is a trained biochemist and is much more scientific when it comes to harvesting. He checks and accurately measures the sugar levels which is just one of many reasons that he produces some outstanding drinks.

National Trust Core PrinciplesNational Trust Core Principles
Browsing the latest National Trust Magazine, an article reminded me that about five years ago, Annie and I were part of a series of workshops held at two National Trust properties. The Trust was moving away from its visitors 'just looking' to have them being more participatory. Nowadays many of their properties are rediscovering their orchards and are making juice, cider and preserves to sell in their shops and using the fruit in the meals they provide in their cafes. We have also just found out that an orchard close to here that we have visited with Cropsharers has been donated to the National Trust. The National Collection of Cider Apples at Tidnor Wood has been given to the Trust by its owner Henry May and varieties from the collection are being planted at NT sites across the South West.

Worshipful Company of Fruiterers DinnerWorshipful Companies
Following the success of the Chapel Pleck becoming the Championship Perry at the Bath & West Show, we somehow found ourselves being invited to attend the Summer Dinner of the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers at the Haberdashers' Hall in London. The Chapel Pleck was used as the final toast from their ancient Loving Cup and we had to turn to guard our neighbour's back as they were partaking of the toast. All very traditional.


Worshipful Company of GardenersRecently we have had an orchard visit from the Worshipful Company of Gardeners. It was only as they were arriving that the penny dropped with Annie that they were all gardeners and might take an interest in the garden as well the orchard. Sure enough the early arrival asked about design and planting and seemed to appreciate the 'relaxed' edge of orchard ambience of the garden. Luckily it was on to the orchard tour and tastings and then they were gone. Off to visit Sir Roy Strong's garden near Ross-on-Wye!





Poets SupperCider Supper
In September 1914, just before the outbreak of the Great War, the Dymock Poets collective of Lascelles Abercrombie, Robert Frost, Wilfred Gibson and Edward Thomas and their wives were invited to the home of a Mr & Mrs Farmer for a cider supper. The whole event was recorded for posterity by the writer Eleanor Farjeon. 101 years later, the event was celebrated at Putley Parish Hall complete with a groaning sideboard of food and copious amounts of cider, as described by Miss Farjeon and re-enacted for us by Mary Fielding. A splendid time was had by all and Jackie Denman's rendition of Gibson's "A Golden Room" sent us into the night deeply aware of the plight of many people travelling across Europe in 2015, as well as a poignant reminder of 1914.

Ripest Apples by Roy PalmerSweet Cider Time/Ripest Apples
Soon after we moved back to the Shire, we were introduced to Roy and Pat Palmer, one of the most creative couples we have had the pleasure to meet. Roy died last year and a glowing obituary in the Guardian revealed what an extraordinary knowledge he had of folklore and music, especially pertaining to apples. When the Big Apple Association planned its publication of Ripest Apples, to celebrate the English apple, Roy was the obvious choice to edit the work. As a celebration of his life, there are two events planned over the Big Apple Harvest Weekend. On Saturday 10th October, the vocal group Serenata are presenting an evening of music and readings entitled "Sweet Cider Time" at 7pm at the Hellens Great Barn. The following morning there is a Ripest Apples Walk with readings from the book which leaves Westons Car Park at 9.30 am on Sunday 11th October.




Bin TipperBin Tipper
I'm not a bin tipper
I'm a bin tipper's mate
And I'm only tippin' bins
Cos' the bin tipper's late

This lesser known gem of Shire poetry reflects the long celebrated theme of moving apples from storage box to mill. For the last 7 years, the shovel has been the preferred method, and then this was improved by use of a small elevator. Mid season last year saw a radical change with bins being tipped using a forklift truck but 2015 sees the arrival of the Bin Tipper itself. This well handy piece of tack coupled with a conveyor belt is set fair to save many sore backs and arms. And give more time for creative poetry!




As I drove out of the gate early this morning, the low temperature indicator on the car sounded for the first time this season, letting me know that it was 3 Centigrade. The mist had formed in the valleys and did not burn off until coffee time. Such mornings always remind me of returning to school for the new academic year. The smell of drying hops and orchards full of ripening fruit used to assail my senses as I stood waiting for the school bus with an air of trepidation hanging heavy. However no school for me this autumn morning. A quick visit to the gym and back to a very busy orchard.

Laying concreteConcrete and Drains – essential underpinnings
Production is increasing at Dragon Orchard so a certain upgrade in infrastructure is required to cope with all the processing. We have acquired new milling and pressing equipment which has necessitated more hard standing and a re-ordering of the drainage around the buildings. The groundwork contractors arrived last week and in 6 days have completed the job and are putting the finishing touches to the yard and drive. We have been blessed with good weather and positive problem-solving workers who took great pride and care on the project. I still find the skill of a practical digger driver a joy to behold and when it will result in a smoother operation, a real delight.


September Weather
Thus far, late summer/early autumn have co-operated to help alleviate the rancour of a wet winter and memories of a dark cold spring. By the beginning of May we had already had a normal year's rainfall with stressed trees and despondent growers. The orchard finally dried out and with some gentle overnight rainfall in summer and a warm September, the fruit has ripened nicely. However it is now falling early and we have had to do a sweep to pick up the cider fruit to clear the orchard floor before we shake the trees properly in a few weeks time. Simon reports the best quality grapes for years and pressing has already begun with high hopes of 2014 becoming a vintage year.

 Bin Shifter

Bin Shifter
I often reflect – as I often do – that much pleasure can be gained from the simple things in life. Our ancient and ailing Fordson Super Dexter tractor recently gave up the ghost and is now passing into the safe hands of Ken Traherne, our trusty agricultural contractor, to keep him occupied during the long winter evenings as he rebuilds the engine. Its demise left us with no means of shifting bins and pallets around the orchard apart from the very heavy and unwieldy Manatu. Cue Agricultural Engineer Don Harris who has a genius for small projects. Don reckoned he could sort us out and he has welded together a custom built bit of kit that works a treat. I asked him to put his sign on it and told him that when he passes from this world, it will become a collectors' item. When you are next at Dragon Orchard, look out for the lifter resplendent in British Orchard Green with Don's red signature.

 Handmade Scotch Eggs

Handmade Scotch Egg Company at Pixley
As you drive past the Trumpet towards Ledbury, 6 businesses have changed hands or been set up in the last couple of years. Is this following a national trend of new entrepreneurship? The Trumpet Inn itself has had a change of landlord. The Trumpet Corner Tearoom and Gallery goes from strength to strength and the owner Katie Rolfe has just entered a new partnership and recently got married. The pear orchard opposite Munsley WI Hall has been bought by Haygrove and half of the pears have been taken out and replaced with strawberries. Ledbury Real Ales are in demand at local pubs and Will Chase of Chase Vodka has acquired the Verzons country hotel The latest newcomer has taken over at what was Roots at Little Verzons, where we had a good visit with Will & Meg Edmonds a couple of years ago. The Handmade Scotch Egg Company who showed us round their factory at the Hop Pocket have moved in and opened The Nest with a café and small deli shop and invite customers to walk in the orchards. They are using the premises for pre-production to give them more space at the factory. Another visit in store for next year, I think.


Our most exciting Orchard event this year – well actually our most exciting orchard event ever – has been the wedding of our elder son Patrick to the delightful and gorgeous Emma in mid August. The bride and her bridesmaids stayed over near Eastnor and travelled to the wedding on the Weston's Cider tractor and trailer, visiting the Cider Shop in Ledbury along the way. After minor adjustments from a rather windy journey, they processed up the orchard through the aisle between the Blenheim Orange trees.
The ceremony itself at the Big Hug was wonderfully, thoughtfully and lovingly devised and delivered by our younger son Hugh, resplendent in a red top hat, bow tie and bare feet. The area was transformed with small marquees, bunting, sails, strawbales, fire logs and a firebowl. There was a Tea Tent, a "Chill" tent, a Photo booth and even an Enchanted Wood with flying paper cranes – all put together by Patrick and Emma and friends. It was a magical occasion and brought family, orchard, Shire, love and life in a most fitting and wonderful combination.

Wedding 2Wedding 1Wedding 3Wedding 4Wedding 5Wedding 6


A Peaceful Passing
Ann's sister Sue arrived to stay last week while we were up in Birmingham at a Hugh dance performance. She wanted to stretch her legs after her drive and took herself up to see the pigs. She found a very recently expired Ivy or Ivory, the cream coloured Kune Kune, just lying on her side in no distress. The other pig Sundance, asleep in the straw, hadn't even noticed. We looked up Ivy's registration and found she was 14 years old, so not a bad innings. I related the tale to the contractors the next morning and before I could ask, the digger driver said "You'll need a hole dug then won't you". So Ivy now resides peacefully under a damson tree near the hedgerow up above the pig shed snuffling in an even bigger orchard.

Also laid to rest in his orchard last weDoug Joinerek was the inestimable Doug Joiner. We have visited Doug and his partner, Gudrun several times over the years in Clissett Wood and Childer Wood and we saw Doug with his Heavy Horses at the Three Choirs Vineyard in May 2013. Doug has had heart problems but did not let that slow him down until his untimely passing on September 8th.



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