RG 2008 January

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8289401_8cd6453906_s.jpg This page is part of The Cidermaking Year by Rose Grant

January , 2008



Top Grafting

We are getting some useful discussion going here about orchard work and the timing could not be better. I'm looking forward to seeing Stephen's pruning videos. Pruning like grafting is one of those subjects where it is always possible to learn something new.

I mentioned my worries about top grafting the other day. I want to change the variety of some of my trees to make better use of the ground that they occupy. It is such a good idea if it can be made to work, since all those years of stem building are not wasted. However I was somewhat nervous about cutting the whole top of the tree off in order to do this. Now thanks to a suggestion from Dick I've had a very useful email exchange with a cider friend of his, also in Colorado.

Dick's friend has successfully converted an orchard of over 100 table fruit trees to cider varieties by top grafting. I was encouraged to hear that he did just cut the tops clean off and then insert a number of scions around the periphery of the cut off stems. He thoughtfully included an excellent link showing a picture sequence of the technique that he used. I am including it here for the benefit of anyone else who may be contemplating a bit of top rework. http://www.ncw.wsu.edu/treefruit/graft/

I think you will agree that these pictures are worth a lot more than 1000 words! There is but one addendum. It is not now considered necessary or desirable to nail the scions. Presumably the elasticity of the plastic grafting tape is sufficient to ensure that everything is held firmly together.

The way of cutting the scions and uniting them with the stock looks a lot more promising than the cleft grafting method usually recommended when the stock is larger than the scion. I can't wait to have a go at it when the good old sap is rising again!


Orchard work completed

I'm glad that I made a big effort last week to complete the weeding and pruning in the orchard. It was very satisfying to see all the trees looking neat and tidy, each in its little round bed of well rotted horse manure. As each one received their New Year bonus, I had reminded them that the company is going for growth this year. There is no excuse now that the Couch opposition has been eliminated, at least for the time being. I've no illusions concerning the determination of Mr Couch with his greedy tentacles encroaching on our efforts. I may need to employ Roundup next time.

The reason I'm feeling so smug is that the January monsoon has started. The fields around the village are becoming impassable. The first of the heavy showers had started towards the end of my manure collecting. The muck heap is on the far side of the field next to my orchard. Collection involved a number of journeys with the tractor and trailer on a diagonal route across my neighbour's field and I became concerned that the tyres were churning into the pasture. Fortunately I was finished before the ground really got sopping wet. Then to my relief, the heavier rain since, has had a sort of healing effect on the embarrassing scars.

The trailer I bought for towing behind the Landrover to collect the apples has now come into its own with my little Fordson Dexta in the orchard. With the mesh sides removed, it is perfect for collecting the prunings to take to the bonfire heap as well as for getting the manure. I've really enjoyed the use of it during the recent spell of orchard work. It is so nice to poodle around the orchard on a little old tractor on a sunny winter day, doing some useful things. I'm sure the Queen herself could not feel happier riding in her golden coach and it must be so bothersome having to continually wave to people.

Another problem arose today. The considerable use of the tractor has used up what was left of the diesel oil in the barrel I keep beside the barn. I took the barrel to Dorchester to be refilled. Now I need to be able to get the Landrover up to the orchard so that I can roll the barrel out of the back of it and on to the trestle next to the barn. Since I got home the weather has worsened and there is no chance of getting it up there now. The bottom of the orchard will be like a bog. I'm faced with the prospect of having to drive everywhere with an immovable 200 litre barrel of oil in the back of the car until the weather dries up!

I will need to exercise some ingenuity because on Wednesday I will be driving over to Alf's Wassail at Three Legged Cross. Got to go, I've promised to provide the cider! Alf likes his drop of cider. You may remember that he is the Squire of Bourne River Morris, it is he who officiates at the crowning of our May Queen and whose merry troupe delight us with their dancing under the blossom. Alf is also a stickler for tradition and insists on wassailing on the actual Eve of Old Twelfth Night. I always go for the Saturday afterwards being careful each year that the 'Eve' has not clashed with the Saturday I have in mind. It is most important that Alf and his friends can also come to my Wassail. Alf is vital to the ceremony since he brings his shotgun!


Wassail week

Both Alf's wassail on the Wednesday and our own on the Saturday went off very well indeed, the weather much to our surprise being kind on both occasions.

There was a memorable happening at Alf's this year. The usual ceremony of the gifts to the tree and the guns was completed and then to everyone's surprise a troupe of girls singing the Gloucestershire wassail appeared from a dark corner of the orchard. They stopped by the wassail tree and their lead singer raised a toast to Alf and thanked him for the many happy wassails that he had held at his home. I thought this was really lovely and certainly appropriate, for yet again the evening that followed was indeed a very happy and jovial occasion.

I expect that all wassails vary somewhat in the way they are carried out, though the gifts and invocation to the tree are a common core. I know for example that in the Three Counties they light 12 bonfires at some of the events there. I can't imagine doing this at my own wassail, but I do like to get everybody singing and have made a number of laminated 'hymn sheets' that are handed out as people arrive. It makes a bit more of the short event in the orchard if a wassail song is sung before the tree ceremony takes place and then another is sung after the guns have been fired. We start with our own 'Houghton Wassail' which is sung to a rather obscure carol tune and finish with the 'Charminster Wassail'. The latter is also a 'home made' from another Dorset village and is sung to the definitive Gloucestershire tune. The problem with doing this is that people can't be expected to remember tunes that they have not heard for a whole year, so the singing can be rather hesitant. This year I asked two ladies, who had thoughtfully brought their recorders, to remind people by playing through a verse of the tune before singing commenced. This proved to be a good idea and the singing was the best we have had yet. The darkened orchard is a magical setting with many of the trees bearing candle lanterns. Of course this does take a considerable amount of preparation, so I do like to make the most of it!

Most of the wassailers found their way back to the cottage afterwards and Frances and I were then very busy making sure that they all received a glass of mulled cider. After that they were left to their own devices to squeeze through the crowd for a top up, or for a glass of draught from the keg on the kitchen table. Appley and cheesey eats were laid out on the dining room table. As usual the large pieces of Cheddar and Dorset Blue were soon decimated and folk then tucked in to the apple pies and Dorset apple cakes. We had a good few varieties of the famous Dorset apple cake this year as a number of kind ladies each made one to bring as a donation. The emphasis was, as it should be, very much on the apple.

The action then moved to the sitting room where we sung Linden Lea as the ashen faggot log was placed on the fire. We are fortunate to have several good fiddlers and a lady guitarist and this year a chap came with a box base. The same happens at Alf's, wassailing just seems to attract good musicians! This is always my favourite part of the evening. There is plenty of cider being drunk and much joyful singing. It is an excuse to get out my two handled cider mug and sing along with the wassail songs, drinking songs and folk songs. This year we even made the village ring to some good old Irish numbers like The Wild Rover and The Black velvet Band! I wished it could have gone on all night, though I dare say others living nearby were glad that it didn't!

I've come to realise that from the cidermaker's point of view Wassail is a key point in the year. The superstitious old orchard ritual is a good excuse for a bit of fun and it serves well to brighten up the dour month of January. But I see it actually as a harvest festival. The picking of the apples is all very well and is a very fine thing in the Autumn, but it is not until this time of the year that the cidermaker starts to see what the result of it, will be. I find that at Wassail time the cider has virtually finished fermenting (keeved cider excepted) and it is possible to get a good idea of what the finished product will be like in the Spring. Like last year, I've been pleased to find that the blend is already pleasant to drink even though not yet fully clear. The fact that 11 gallons of it was drunk and enjoyed at my Wassail made it seem very much like a harvest celebration to me!


Calcareous soils

Re Knights Treatise Michael wrote:

"I was interested in Rose's comments about the section on calcareous soils,and the statement that such soils produce the strongest liquor.My orchard is on the southern slopes of the Woolhope Dome,and is on very thin Wenlock limestone-I think since the soil bands change regularly up the slope.My soil seems yelow/brown thin clay(at best 12")over gradually incresed sized limestones as one digs deeper.Indeed it is very difficult in places to dig a suitable hole for planting as it involves levering out some of the stones. Consequently some of the trees have hardly put on any growth after about 10 years,although some others are nearly fully grown.However one thing I have noticed is that,apart from 2007,my gravities tend to be consistently higher than mentioned in the literature and usually all above 1.060.A few years ago my Kingston Black juice was 1.076,which led me to purchase a new hydrometer since it seemed rather too high.Also,in my neighbours cottage on similar soil,a mature perry pear the size of an oak tree produced juice in 2006 with a gravity of 1.083,which we are drinking now and really feels like wine.So I think that there is something in the comment in Knight's treatise that calcareous soils produce strong liquor." Michael


How interesting! It would seem that you have the very type of Herefordshire soil that is praised by Mr. Knights for its cider. How sad that fine old pub, the Crown in Woolhope only sells gassy Stowford Press in such a good cider area. It is always one of my favourite haunts when I'm in the area for Big Apple events (and I know it is one of Roy's too!) Last time I told them they needed to get some of the real local cider, but I think my plea fell on deaf ears.

I read your posting with especial interest because your land has much in common with my own. The digging of planting holes is a real excavation job. When the shallow top soil is removed, something like a pick axe is needed to break up the chalky rock that lies below. I always plant M25 rooted trees if possible, so as to get maximum vigour to try and offset the very slow growth rate. I read about planting distances when I first planted and spaced my trees 15 yards apart. I've since interplanted so they are now only about 7 or 8 yards apart, but I will be long gone before their canopies intertwine. I'm envious when I read about the amazing growth rates encountered by Stephen and Andrew.

It may well be that quality compensates for hard won quantity. My Dabinetts gave 1066 this year. When Andrew queried this, I too nearly rushed out to buy a new hydrometer! I probably would have done had I not seen the usual early season readings in the 1045 region from that same instrument. Over the years I have also noticed that cider from my own land always drops clearer than that which I've made from apples I've imported from the better growing clay loam areas.

I will now be interested to compare my own against imported apple pH readings for a given variety when I press again. Perhaps all that alkalinity in the soil does have some effect. It has certainly been heartening to realise that for all its difficulty, calcareous soil does have its compensation

Michael again:

Thanks for your reply, Rose. Your soil does indeed seem similar to mine.However,I think that yours has a chalk base,whereas I would describe mine as limestone based;when digging holes for the tree planting I come across medium sized rocks which I would not describe as chalky but fairly hard limestone

I also am very interested in your comment that your ciders clear quickly,and rather quicker than the apples you buy in.


Yes, Michael the subsoil is chalk as we are situated on the lower slopes of the Dorset Downs. Certainly a softer form of Calcite than limestone but it can be very rock like. In some parts of my orchard I have had to hack out some large hard lumps of the stuff just to get a planting hole to a depth of 18 inches. The walls of our cottage are made of it and are 2 to 3 feet thick. Chalk has a tendency to develop worrying cracks but remarkably the place is still standing after 300 years, so it is quite tough stuff really.

Like yours, the soil is very free draining so I also have to stagger round newly planted trees with a watering can in dry summers. I was also struck with the similarity of your cider making to my own. I have just racked the whole lot. The Sg varies between 1003 and 1010 from tank to tank and the cider is still hazy, though definitely clearing. This is usual and like you I find that it usually clears by the end of March. I never use filters either.

As for drinkability, I enjoyed my first pint of it yesterday evening. It seems to be similar to last year and already tastes OK so I have put aside 60 litres for Wassail. Nobody worries about cloudiness in mulled cider!

I was amused to hear about your vines. Having a south facing slope, I once nursed an ambition to turn it into a little vineyard, or at least part of it. It is what comes of reading those paperbacks about Provence et al. I got as far as planting 50 vines and also saw the error of my ways. Not only did I get fed up with all that training and pruning but there was negligible satisfaction. I was a lousy winemaker. Of course the biggest problem is that it all happens at the same time as the cider. I soon realised where my priorities lay!

> It now seems better to me to get the ciders off the
> dominant lees deposit earlier,so as to avoid any possible spoiling.

I agree! This is my philosophy too, even though I say good bye to about 100 litres of potential cider within the khaki sludge that I wash out of the tanks. I think that it is a price worth paying in the name of ultimate quality. From what you say it sounds as though you could have a Ph low enough not to need SO2, but just as I do, you have blended as well as racked. Are you sure the Ph is still at a safe level with reference to Andrew's guide? At this stage of the proceedings I add another 50 ppm SO2 for safety's sake. I once had the film yeast gremlin that somehow got into one of my tanks during maturation. It did not spoil the cider but it was hard to make sure that little bits of the film did not end up in someone's pint glass! SO2 is valuable insurance against this and any other little nasties that could be waiting in the wings.

> There was an additional reason this year as I had some
> trouble with a number of very small flies(1mm) getting into the juice
> during pressing for some of my ciders and these have now come out by
> racking.I was a little worried at pressing time that these might be
> 'vinegar flies'-I put the pomace on my compost heap,which is only
> 25metres from my press,and wondered whether the flies had come from a
> previous batch.So,I am still not quite sure if or when to add sulphite
> to my 30 litre plastic fermenting vessels,or whether to wait until I
> start to transfer the cider to my usual 5 litre glass storage jars in
> March,with a rubber bung or an airlock?

These are the wretched fruit flies that can bedevil cider making especially early in the season when the warmth of summer is still lingering. Luckily I had very few last season but in 2006 there were swarms of them. They really got on my nerves. They hovered in a cloud above the press relishing the scent of the juice. Many more had plunged down on to the sides of the cheese where they seemed to be stuck lifeless from their orgy of feasting. I thought my cider was doomed having read ominous warnings about vinegar fly. All I could do was to filter the juice leaving the press by means of a net curtain sock to prevent them getting into the cider. Even so, a few managed to drown themselves in the vat as the juice was pumped in from the press receiving tank. I worried unnecessarily. Vinegar flies they were not and the cider was not spoilt, or perhaps saved by the SO2. I'll never know.

I have found that these flies are attracted to rotten apples. Part of my problem was selecting out the bad apples in the ciderhouse just before milling. Things have got much better since I made sure that this is done well away from the milling and pressing area.

> I was surprised to hear that you did not have any success with your winemaking

My problem was a lot to do with selecting the wrong varieties of grape. Chardonnay never ripened properly and I had to use lots of sugar. My red grapes, Triomphe D'Alsace do ripen OK but I dislike the flavour of their wine. Even Tesco's cheapo Aussie red is much nicer!


Michael wrote:
> During this period does the SO2 gradually come
> out of the cider,especially when the cider warms up?Consequently is it
> necessary to replenish the sulphite when I finally transfer the
> clarified cider to demijohns,and at that stage would be safe to firmly
> close the demijohn with a rubber bung rather than airlock?

In fact most of the sulphite added does not do anything useful because it it bound to fermentation products within the juice, or 'locked up' as I understand it. Around 1 to 2% of the dose added, is available as free SO2 for the purpose of bacterial control and the full or partial killing of wild yeasts . This free SO2 decreases as fermentation progresses until fully bound by the increasing level of byproducts.

As I use natural yeast I only add enough sulphite for a partial yeast kill immediately after pressing. (The actual amount added depends on the Ph of the juice, in accordance with the table on Andrew's website). It is an inexact science especially as I have no means of measuring the free SO2. This is why I like to add a little more at first racking to give a margin of safety.

I add no more after that. In my opinion, if the cider is clean and tastes good when fully fermented, then the free SO2 has done its job and the danger period is over. All that is then required is hygienic storage with particular attention given to the exclusion of air. I may be wrong but I see no point in further sulphiting at the bottling or boxing stage. Nothing so far has given me reason to change that view. I would hate to be able to taste sulphur in the cider and so think that any degree of 'overkill' is to be avoided.

Orcharding advice

Josh asks:

My small cider orchard (< 100 trees) was just planted 10 months ago, all on standard (antanovka) stock, and generously spaced (25-30 feet apart). I'd like to train them to keep them as close to the ground as possible and thought I might solicit any advice that anyone might have. My idea was to clip off everything within 3 feet of the ground (what I've been told is the "fungal zone"), but what about leaders and laterals? How aggressive should I get with these young trees?

Rose replies:


What ever your desired outcome for your trees may be, my advice would be do not get aggressive with them two soon. As a newbie orchardist 15 years ago I bought a number of two year old 'feathered whips', as they are known in the nursery trade. I wanted these to become tall standard trees and could not wait to trim their feathers off thinking that it would encourage the leaders to take off heavenwards with a greatly increased rate of growth. It was a big mistake. The little trees had not had long enough in the ground to get properly established and their growth rate was severely checked by my drastic pruning. Two of them actually died!

I mentioned this to a nurseryman some months later and he nodded sagely and said. 'Yer needs to keep a good few of em feathers as sap drawers'. I still think of him when I'm pruning young trees nowadays and always leave a good few laterals even though they are below the finally desired branching height of the tree. If I know that they are eventually to be removed I cut most of them back to two buds from the stem. Their 'sap drawing' function is thus maintained whilst at the same time allowing extra encouragement to be given to the untrimmed wanted laterals higher up. After another year or so the laterals that were trimmed back can be then cut fully back to the stem, taking care to leave the growth ring or 'shoulder' from which they have emerged.

Your decision regarding the pruning of the leader and upper laterals will depend on the shape of tree you wish to go for, ie open centre (goblet shape) or pyramidal (Christmas tree shape). Here again do not be too hasty, let the growth get well under way first.

Stephen Hayes' Apple tree pruning videos


Well done, Stephen!

It is so much better than all the text books to actually see the job being done. I liked your commentary too, fully up to Gardener's World standards! Monty Don's job is going spare, I believe.

I also got carried away by the subsequent videos and learnt an awful lot about oil palm cultivation! A few years ago I drove past umpteen miles of them either side of a motorway in Malaysia and wondered what the heck they did with them all. Thanks to Stephen maneuvering me on to youtube, I now know enough to farm them, if we had the climate.

It did make me realise how fortunate we are with cider apples, apparently the oil fruit yield is only 19 to 22%. No doubt the value per litre is a lot higher though. Pity I can't put a few palms in a corner of the orchard; might get enough juice to run the tractor.