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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.



Harvest begins

Recently we have had some perfect autumn days that linger in the memory, to make up for the lousy summer. Harvest has begun and activity around the cider shed is hotting up. Last week we started pressing our first juice of the year, the Discovery which although it has a fantastic pink colour, the sugars are 20% down on last year. This is due to the lack of sunlight and the poor uptake of potassium due to the wet conditions which all slows the ripening process and the starch is not converted to sugar. This week the next batch of Tumpy Ground cider has been sent off to be put into bags and hence into box, along with the Worcester apple juice for bottling. The grass keeps growing as if it were April and has to be cut often to get it short enough for the harvesting machinery. Another of life's little balances.

Shows and Stuff

The show season is also upon us and there was great excitement when Kay attended Carfest where she rubbed shoulders with Chris Evans. He was a very good host coming round to all the producers for a photo opportunity. Ludlow has been and went and the re-scheduled Welland Steam Rally was last weekend. These will be followed by The Malvern Autumn Show, September 29th and 30th, The Big Apple October 13th and 14th and then our local Hereford Food Festival on the last weekend in October.

5a the homendThe Three Counties Cider Shop
Once Upon A Tree trade customer base is growing with the Midlands Co-Op Group and Countrywide stores now stocking our products and quite a few who focus on Tumpy Ground Draught. Among these are two specialist cider shops in Bristol and Essex, who have been doing good trade in the last year or so but there is not a similar outlet anywhere in our region. Well there will be now - 5a The Homend in Ledbury recently came up for rent, a small double fronted unit in a prime position right in the middle of town. We signed the lease, have applied for the licence and have begun to fit it out. We will sell Once Upon A Tree products but also feature a range of draught ciders and perries and probably a Wye Valley beer as well as other local cider producers. We plan to open in early October. Watch this space.

The Winery
When we originally set up Once Upon A Tree, part of the plan was to offer contract wine making at some point as a service to small local vineyard owners. Three Choirs deal with larger amounts, but do not have the capacity for smaller producers so their grapes usually end up in one ubiquitous pressing. However Coddington Vineyard has just been sold and the winery there will be used for the new owner's vintage car collection. We have purchased the wine making equipment which will need to be moved over to Dragon Orchard very soon so we will be able to carry out the whole wine making process. As you can imagine, this has initiated a massive move around to sort out our storage capacity, rather like an elaborate parlour game with some crafty moves we are still contemplating.

The Legacy of Bees
As a group of people interested in fruit production we are all aware of the role of honey bees in our orchards. The challenges facing managed bee populations are understood and research is relatively well funded. We recently attended a talk organised Putley WI given by The Bee Guardian Foundation, which totally changed our perception of these creatures. There are over 20,000 species of bees, including many living underground and in cavities, as well as in nests made from petals and leaves. Over three-quarters of our food depends on pollination and wild bees are an essential part of this, especially bumble bees which are able to operate at lower temperatures than honey bees. The hypodermic syringe, the microscope, sweetness, light and modular building techniques all owe their origin to bee technology and our future on this planet is closely linked to theirs. We are planning closer links to The Bee Guardian Foundation and hope to organise a talk at Dragon Orchard in the New Year.

68e72d7a196411e3a4d822000a1f924b 7After one of the the worst years for apple production in living memory, there has been a great deal of uncertainty about the 2013 season. A late cold spring led to much anxious speculation about the set of the blossom. However there are now predictions of a ‘bumper’ harvest in 2013 … whatever that may mean. The Ledbury Reporter rang Annie a few weeks ago to seek her views and for once actually managed to accurately quote her as being ‘cautiously optimistic’. Early signs are encouraging but we won’t count our apples until they are all in. My Mother used to wisely remark ‘there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip’.

We have been able to pick a good few plums and have just finished making jam and chutney with the Czars. There has been another excellent crop of greengages and we had enough to send 75 x 10 kgs trays off to a local wholesaler in Evesham. Their flavour is really intense this year with the right balance of acidity and sweetness. We have also gathered in the Kirks’ Blue and Yellow Eggs. We are often away when the plums ripen as one never knows exactly when this will happen. It is good to be here and be able to pick them at the right time and get them into the cold store so we can extend the time we can make use of them for making preserves.

We are now picking the Discovery for juicing this week. The mill and press have been dusted off and made ready for a busy crushing season over the next 3 months. With a good bit of sunshine this summer, the sugar levels in the apples are better than last year. Despite that last year’s Discovery juice did win top prize again at The Bath and West Show in June.




Feline assistance

This summer we have had two new additions to the occupants of Dragon House in the shape of ‘Simone’ de Beauvoir and ‘Edith’ Piaf, both Snow Bengal cats. We have adopted them from a young itinerant cello playing friend of ours who has had to move to London Town to seek ‘fame and fortune’. She performs with Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo and has just set up a quartet (yet to be named) with three other women. They have already secured an advertising engagement with Cadburys, so should be making an appearance on our screens at some point. The cats have settled in very well and have rapidly made the orchard their home and are even helping out with the apple picking. It seemed a little unfair to inflict this new situation on Zeiki, the aged German Pointer, but they seem to have sorted out their differences and mostly ignore each other.




repairsThe Big Hug receives running repairs

Two horrible wet winters and a soaking summer in between have not been kind to the strawbale wall known as the Big Hug in Dorothy’s Orchard. It has taken quite a battering and has developed some large cracks and the odd hole which has been expanded and extended to create temporary living accommodation for a rodent or two. We called upon the expertise of Steve, our wonderfully adaptable orchard worker and Jack of Many Trades. He along with his son and daughter had an end of summer day in the orchard and have done a sterling job raking out the cracks, filling the holes with straw and applying a base layer of plaster. This has now been covered with a smoother top coat and will be ready for limewash in another week or so. This may have been accomplished around apple picking but we might need a work party at the Harvest Weekend in October.

Ledbury in the news

On Saturday 7th September an article appeared in the Weekend section of the Times entitled 'A Weekend in … Ledbury'. The author Richard Whitehead wondered if this was just what David Cameron had in mind when he appointed his ‘shopping czar’ Mary Portas. He liked the bookshops, delis and butchers but was particularly impressed with what he deemed the "magnificent Three Counties Cider Shop that lets you taste from a huge range of local varieties before you buy”. So on your next visit to Ledbury remember to enjoy the rustic magnificence that is the Three Counties Cider Shop.

dorothys orchard box labelTwo new draught ciders

Of particular interest in the Cider Shop are our two new draught ciders. Following the success of Tumpy Ground, there has been demand to widen the range which Simon has now answered. The blend of Kingston Black and Somerset Redstreak known as Kingston Redstreak is now available on tap alongside a new cider which is our first attempt to produce a cider from a blend of dessert apples. Known as Dorothy’s Cider, this is a fine dry cider made with fruit from Dorothy’s Orchard. Simon has created a lovely label with the geese of which my Mother was particularly fond. She would have loved it.


spainCider Club - up and running

Following the launch at the Crown at Woolhope at the last Big Apple in May, the Three Counties Cider Shop Cider Club is up and running. The inaugural meeting tasted the winners of various competitions and Simon devised a tasting and scoring matrix to be filled in by the participants. A fascinating evening and the Once Upon A Tree range featured highly in the overall ratings. The next meeting is on September 18th when they will be visiting Dragon Orchard and walking through the excellent crop of cider apples and discussing harvesting and production techniques. This will be followed by a tasting of Spanish ciders brought back from Simon's recent excursion to the Asturias and the Basque country in search of the esteemed ciders from Spain. Olé!

Apple blossom looking strong this year
May Musings

"Orchard Days" the Dragon Orchard book of poetry featuring poems and photographs from each month of the year, is a focus of seasonality like no other. We often use it during orchard tours, but this year we are seeing the largest discrepancy we have ever had between what is in the book and what is in the orchard. For the Spring Big Apple Blossomtime Weekend at the beginning of May we only had a little pear and plum blossom to show, but now the dessert apples are in full flower and the cider just coming on song.

Due to the late season, an item about it even appeared on BBC breakfast television and I ended up doing three pieces live to camera in the orchard early one morning. The satellite truck appeared in the gloaming and erected its dish and the reporter arrived later by taxi. In between takes we nipped in to Dragon House to warm up and eat breakfast and by 9am we were all done and dusted. That was my second consecutive early start as the previous day had been May Day itself. The forecast was good so I went up the hill on the evening of April 30th and, as it was cold but clear and still, I slept out just below the top. The following sunrise was fantastic and I was able to admire the Morris sides, return home and go for a bike ride all before breakfast.

Jean Nowell and Jackie Denman are presented with Wassail BowlsSipping Cider

The May Day weekend is when the Big Apple Cider and Perry Competition is held and this year marked the 20th anniversary of The Three Counties Cider and Perry Association. The two organisations have done much to raise the standard and profile of craft cider making and Jackie Denman and Jean Nowell who have been key players in this process, were presented with traditional wassail bowls made from local sycamore. However, the unusually cold spring meant the competition entries were down as producers struggled to ensure the cider and perry Cider Club Posterhad finished fermenting. Even now temperatures are 10 degrees below the norm but maybe a long slow fermentation will produce high quality drink.

The Cider Club

One way to keep abreast of all things cidery is to "Taste, talk, meet, eat, make and drink" the alluring strap line of the Three Counties Cider Shop Cider club which was launched at the Blossomtime weekend during a Cider event at The Crown Inn at Woolhope. Full details are on line or contact us direct for further information.

Victoria Westaway Willow SculptureWillow Sculptures

Over the last few weeks Dragon Orchard has been enhanced by some wonderful willow sculptures designed and made by Victoria Westaway, a willow worker from Cradley. Her giant cider apples, Dabinett The Ram, Willow Wassailers and Children at Play and Reading Boy sitting on The Big Hug have added a superb creative element and have been hugely enjoyed by all who have visited. Do have a look at Victoria's website

Visits East and West

One of the many delights of our Cropsharers' Weekends, besides the fantastic food and marvellous company, is the variety of enterprises that we are able to visit. The MayWorking Horses at Three Choirs Vineyard Day Weekend was no exception and we ventured both east and west. Our eastern foray was over the county border to Gloucestershire as far as Three Choirs Vineyard. This is where our Cider Maker Simon Day was brought up and he still has family connections. We went to see a demonstration of horses working in an English vineyard which they believe is a first in this country. The display was part of the British Festival of the Working Horse and headed up by Doug Joiner, who we have visited at Childer Wood in the past. The demo raised many environmental, sustainability and green issues and could prove to be a serious future trend. Doug reminded us of the old saying that if you leave a tractor out for a year it will rust away, but if you leave a horse out for a year you might possibly get another one.

Martin Sobell with his Big Apple AwardOur western perambulation led us along the meandering Wye Valley, past Holme Lacy and the wonderfully named Cottage of Content to Whitethorn Farm, home of Carey Organics, run by Martin and Rachel Sobel. They have transformed what was a potato field into an Organic Farm producing an amazing range of fruit and vegetables with a newly planted cider and dessert orchard. Martin went to great lengths to explain his philosophy and gave us a fascinating and absorbing visit. He freely admits he would be more efficient and profitable if they were to specialise but that is not what they choose to do. We all left full of praise and admiration but fully aware of the need for total attention to detail, of small profit margins and the large amount of risk and other uncontrollable factors at work. We were delighted to be the bearers of the good news that he had won first prize for his medium cider at the Big Apple competition.

The new goslingsAnd then there were four - but now there are three

Our goose population has fluctuated over the years from natural wastage, fox attacks and the vicissitudes of life on the pond. We acquired a new goose earlier in the year as a companion to our Brecon Buff gander and they have been happily hanging out and she has been sitting on four eggs. Well, now two have hatched and the family of four have just popped out for an evening constitutional. Parents are being properly protective, we have just invested in a bag of chick crumb, so watch this watery space.

STOP PRESS. The four are now three - the missing one we think the victim of a predatory raid from a carrion crow. However the remaining gosling is thriving although the crow is not as I got out the 12 bore to even up the odds and reduce the threat.

Ledbury Ox RoastLedbury Ox Roast Weekend June 1st & 2nd

Sixty years ago in 1953, Ledbury was one of only a handful of towns given Parliamentary permission to roast an Ox to celebrate the Coronation of Elizabeth 11. This year 2013 there is to be a whole 60th weekend given to commemorating the anniversary. Saturday 1st June is Ledbury Community Day with over 50 local groups strutting their stuff and showcasing what they do. This is to be followed on Sunday 2nd June by a Food, Drink and Craft Festival right in the middle of the town with the Ox Roast as its centrepiece. The full programme is on the website and it promises to be a truly memorable occasion. To be sure of a slice of the beast you will need to purchase your ticket in advance either in person in Ledbury or online.

Pruning has now finshed for this year, the heaps of prunings will be gathered and burned.
Winter pruning is essential to let light and air into the orchard canopy.

Winter pruning, carried out when trees are dormant, is one of the most important seasonal orchard jobs. It is essential routine maintenance, necessary for the health and vigour of the trees and also helps maintain overall orchard hygiene.

Trees are basically powered by sunlight and for fruiting trees this is one of the most crucial elements in how they perform. Many pests and diseases flourish in still, damp conditions and so good air flow is vital in providing control systems, especially against scab and mildew. Keeping the canopy open to allow ample light and sufficient air is a key management principle. My father used to sum this up in the maxim that when he had finished pruning a tree he should be able to throw his hat through it.

A second principle is as simple as ABCD. This signifies that you should Attack Broken Crossed and Diseased branches. Broken branches can let in disease and may damage healthy growth. Crossed branches will interfere with light and can cause rubbing and damage bark and anything diseased needs to be removed and burnt. In older orchards dead wood can be left as it can provide excellent habitat for many species and help maintain good biodiversity.

The third basic reason for winter pruning is to ensure the vigour of the tree. If the tree senses it is under threat or attack it will be stimulated or encouraged into a positive reaction. It will be reminded of the basic need to reproduce, encouraged to throw fruit bud and hence more fruit. Its reaction will depend on its root stock, age and condition, but as a general principle winter pruning will encourage or maintain the vigour of the tree.

So, if you remember to “Throw your hat”, go for ABCD and balance the vigour of the tree, you are well on your way to understanding the Principles of Pruning or The Art of Farming Light and Air.


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