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Apple tree arches

by Lucy Hart, head gardener

As part of the ongoing horticultural development in the walled garden, an 80m apple arch tunnel has been built along the west east central path and apple and pear trees will be planted to train over the arches this coming autumn/winter.

The walled garden was built as a kitchen garden in the late 18th century in the grounds of Fulham Palace.  At that time, kitchen gardens were often located away from the main building as they would have been viewed as a garden of production and not necessarily of beauty.  Traditionally, paths through working gardens were made more appealing for the proprietor by visually blocking off the productive beds by borders backed with espaliered fruit trees.  A series of fruit tree arches to make a tunnel would also have the same affect.

Other highly regarded gardens in Britain such as Heligan, West Dean and Eythrope have fruit arches and tunnels within their historic walled gardens, making them popular visitor attractions as well as continuing productivity.  Heligan’s apple arch represents the custom garden method of growing apple trees to provide the owner and his guests with a more pleasurable tour of the gardens.   An apple arch in the walled garden at Fulham Palace, along the central west-east axis is wonderful horticultural feature, offering visitors the chance to walk through something beautiful and home grown.  It celebrates the walk that the Bishop of London, Bishop Bloomfeld 1828-1856 for example, himself a keen horticulturist, would have made to All Saints Church each day.

Although there are no records of the walled garden at Fulham Palace having apple arches along the central axis, trees have lined these paths since at least 1869, as shown in the Ordnance Survey Map.  A painting by Jessie McGregor in 1915 shows beautifully the trees planted along the path on both sides.  In the 1990s, 22 pairs of apple trees were planted along the west east central path lining up with the gateway on the west wall (now referred to as the Meadow Gate).  The apple trees were donated by East Malling Research centre.  They are a collection of fine heritage varieties some of which are now quite rare in cultivation.

These East Malling trees are now in poor condition having not been properly maintained for many years.  Many are very one sided and leaning over.  They lack the open centred habit that encourages good cropping and tree health.  The trees are also growing into the path, making some parts very narrow for visitors.  In order not to lose our valuable apple collection, the trees have been propagated and will be replanted on the arch.

The trees have been grafted on to dwarf rootstock M26, in house.  It has given the garden apprentices and volunteers a fantastic opportunity to learn and gain practical experience on how to graft fruit trees and then to see their successfully grafted trees grow.  Material from new varieties was also donated by RHS Wisley and then grafted in-house, giving us the opportunity to grow more pears (on a semi dwarf rootstock, Quince C), the traditional choice of fruit tree for an arch.

By training the trees onto an arch, the tree canopies will remain small and not risk blocking the historical view to All Saints Church Tower.  The tree canopies will also not infringe on the productive beds of the vegetable garden and orchard and, being tightly pruned, would lessen the risk of injury to visitors by eliminating eye height branches along a walkway.  The trees will be supported by the arch and subsequently generate a less extensive root system which ultimately would have less impact on any possible archaeology.

Growing the grafted trees as an arch allows us to keep the old existing trees for a few more years until the arch trained trees become established.  This means there will still be apples ready for harvesting for Apple Day and visitors will not need to have a bare central path whilst they wait for the new trees to grow.

Fulham Palace celebrates the apple annually at its well-attended autumn garden event, Apple Day. Within the garden we grow many fruit trees.  The orchard was planted in 2014 and wall trained apples and other fruit trees were planted in March 2016.  Apple arches along the central path will provide another wonderful example of how to grow apples for visitors to admire.  With multiple seasons of interest, the apple arches should attract crowds throughout the year.  There would be the wonderful spectacle of blossom in the spring and then fruit from summer to autumn.  In late autumn the leaves will be changing colour.  In winter the fascinating trained framework will be revealed and continue to provide interest when other parts of the garden have died down. The arch will make walking through the walled garden an exciting and pleasurable experience for children, adults and private event guests alike.

This is an important new initiative for the walled garden – one that will allow us to continue to educate our garden apprentices, our volunteers, and most importantly, our public in traditional features of a walled garden and fruit tree production.