Open Orchard Heritage Fruit Project

May 2015

Preserving heritage fruit trees in Southland, and a grafting demonstration from Robert Guyton

Southland has hundreds of old heritage apple trees dotted around on farms, stations and home gardens. The Open Orchard Project has involved collecting scion wood from all of these and grafting them onto rootstock, thus preserving the varieties. More than 7000 have been propagated and given or sold to local communities to establish community orchards featuring heritage apples from their area.  Robyn and Robert Guyton have a collection of about 790 trees comprising an estimated 250 different varieties. 100 varieties have been positively identified so far. 

In the mid to late 1800’s European settlers began to arrive in Southland in significant numbers, bringing with them familiar foods including vegetables and fruit trees from their home countries. Apple trees were favoured and hundreds of different varieties were established around farm homesteads, high country stations, home gardens and in orchards that supplied local towns. Because the climate in Southland was similar to where these varieties originated, the new trees thrived. Cool temperatures meant few pests and diseases and reliable rainfall meant good growth during spring and summer, with the resultant fruit being of excellent quality.

In the early 1900’s the region became a major supplier of fruit and vegetables to communities further north and there were hundreds of orchards that thrived until the mid-1930’s when a government edict required that all apples from the region be inspected by a qualified inspector before being transported north. Since the nearest inspector was in Dunedin, most growers found it impossible to meet the requirement and so turned their attention to sheep and cattle farming.

Some orchards were cut out, others were abandoned as sheep and cattle grazed around them. On established farms and stations, homesteads disappeared and new homes were established on different sites, leaving the orchards to fend for themselves. Surprisingly, the apple trees proved very hardy and continued to flower and fruit despite having little shelter from bleak weather and the depredations of livestock. Even today there are old trees dating back to early last century in odd paddocks or old building sites.

Fast forward to the early 2000’s when Robert & Robyn Guyton wanted to establish a small orchard near Riverton. They planted modern varieties but found that these did poorly and they were advised that fruit trees didn’t grow well in Southland. However, when speaking to older members of the local community they heard quite a different story, as Robyn Guyton explains.

“They told us that apples certainly used to do well here and they suggested we should try heritage varieties. One elderly man said that he had a 120 year-old orchard that we could get cuttings from. Once grafted and growing, they did thrive,” says Robyn.

“We also learned that there were many other very old orchards around Southland, often in danger of removal or dying of old age, and so then we thought it would be great to get a sample of each of the Southland apples and grow them on our land.”

The Guytons expected there might be a few dozen varieties in total, but after an article about their venture appeared in the local paper, they had an overwhelming response and since then hardly a week has gone by without someone contacting them about an old tree or orchard.

“We had bitten off more than we could chew, as it turned out that 19th century orchards were everywhere and full of the most diverse and interesting fruit, more than we ever imagined,” says Robyn.

“So in 2007 we applied to the Sustainable Farming Fund for money for petrol and rootstock etc and for three years we were funded to travel around Southland and take cuttings, pick up apples etc. That funding ran out, but we kept on going at the same pace.”

The project was created and managed for and through the South CoastEnvironment Society Incorporated, whose charitable status enabled it to apply for SFF funding. 

The Guytons called their venture the “Open Orchard Project” with the aim of preserving and sharing all the old apple varieties they could find in Southland. As well as establishing a base collection of these trees, they would teach Southlanders the necessary skills of grafting, pruning and general tree care so that they could plant and look after their own orchards and become self sufficient in fruit and possibly supply other areas of the country. They also envisaged that orchards would be established around the region on local community land and in school grounds so that the fruit could be shared.

It has been a great success. To date they have a base collection of 700 trees with scion wood from all round the region, with possibly 250 different varieties of apple. So far Robyn has identified 100 distinct varieties, a long and involved process.

Robert grafts each one onto rootstock 793, which experience has shown is ideal for most soil types and microclimates in Southland. “In the middle of winter when the trees are dormant, we gather scion wood from the old heritage varieties that we want to save, label it, wrap it in damp paper and put it in the fridge so that it remains dormant,” says Robert. “Then in spring when the buds on the rootstock begin to develop, we take the dormant scion out of the fridge and graft it onto the active rootstock that essentially grabs hold of the scion and fuses with it. We usually make a wedge out of the scion and cut a V in the rootstock or split it, taking care to ensure that the cambium layers under the bark are in contact on one side. The graft is then sealed with soft clay or grafting tape, and as the scion wood warms up, it will begin to develop small branches.”

The Open Orchard has a site where about 400 grafted trees are grown on until they are big enough to send out to surrounding districts. In this way the Guytons, along with other grafters and helpers, have supplied around 7000 trees to the Southland community. They also supply identified scion wood to local people and those outside the region so they can graft to their own rootstocks.

Robert teaches grafting and pruning to groups around the region including elderly people who take great delight learning to graft scion wood from apple trees that their grandparents grew.

The project has helped districts and localities all over Southland establish community orchards using scion wood from local heritage trees. Riverton, where the Guytons live, now has a neighbourhood orchard planted two years ago comprising about 80 trees derived from the orchards of families in Riverton area.

“We also have a community orchard, which is a mixture of all of the different trees and that is being run under permaculture principles. On our property we have a forest garden comprising 0.6 ha of apples, pears, plums, feijoas, about 30 different types of berries, herbs and some native plants – but no lawn,” Robert says. “Instead we have planted a wide range of flowering plants, like wild celery, cow parsley and Alexanders and so on. This provides an under-storey that attracts pollinators like bees and enhances pollination and also is full of predatory insects whose job it is to deal with anything that might attack the apple trees. As well, we have some of the big leafed deep-rooting plants that mine the minerals from deep down and bring them back up to the surface, so we have set up a self-perpetuating, self-feeding, self-managing system around the apple trees.”

For Robyn, some of the romance and excitement that keeps her working at identifying apples comes from the stories around the old varieties. The first ones that arrived in Southland were brought by Captain Howell, the first settler in Southland, who had orchards planted on each of his stations. A few of his original trees were still living when the project started and scion wood was taken from them before they died out. Captain Howell brought in apple varieties from Europe and Australia. Other settlers had apples from Ireland, France and Eastern Europe as well as the Americas.

A few UK varieties that Robyn has identified have actually disappeared from the British Isles and she is in the happy position of being able to give scion wood back to UK growers to re-establish the varieties there. “The apples in our collection have mostly come from the United Kingdom, but also from Czechoslovakia and other places in Europe. also from America and Australia. Some of the apples originated in the mountains of Kazakhstan and Southland probably has a similar climate, so they have lasted really well and thrive even in abandoned orchards where they may have been surviving for 50 years or more. Modern apples need a pesticide regime and they don’t last as long,” says Robyn.

“We’ve analysed them, photographed them in natural and ‘ID standard’ formats and sampled them cooked, baked and boiled so we can select the best ones to propagate and spread back around Southland. Amongst the varieties there are early, mid and late cookers and eaters with a wide range of colour, size, shape and taste that grow well, needing little care. For example, there is a dark red, white fleshed, eating apple that can be harvested in July, thriving without care on a Blackmount farm; there is a completely white apple growing on a farm behind Ohai; and a small golden apple that has the richest smell and taste you can imagine flourishing on a family farm at Browns.”

“Some can be stored for six months and their taste just gets better. Some cooking apples go mushy without needing sugar. Others stay together for baking. Some are tart for sauce or cider. Some are very rare and may no longer exist anywhere else in the world.”

Old varieties that grow well in Southland and are popular include Keswick Codlin, Reinette du Canada from France, Kentish Fillbasket, and Devonshire Quarrenden.

The aims of the project are to ensure that by 2020, orchards and fruit trees will be abundant once again throughout Southland. These orchards will contain the diverse range of healthy heritage fruit that suits Southland conditions, people will know how to plant, prune, graft and care for fruit trees, Southland will have become self reliant in pip fruit, and several commercial operations will export fruit elsewhere.