Introducing HELIOS - Rob Saunders - South East Farmer

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Hutchinsons Enhanced Light interception Orchard System (HELIOS) is a ground breaking 10-year project that consists of two trial orchards planted this spring, one in East Kent, the other in Herefordshire. The project sets out to explore the question of how orchard design can be Improved to capture more sunlight and increase yield, but balanced against establishment costs, and also mindful of future developments in mechanisation such as robotic picking and mechanical pruning.

The projects leads on from work done in New Zealand by Stuart Tustin. (based at ‘Plant and Food Research’ in Hawkes Bay).  Stuart proposes that yield potential is a function of light utilisation and that current orchard systems fail to intercept a proportion of the available sunlight.  HELIOS seeks to evaluate his theoretical work in practice and under UK conditions, says horticultural expert Rob Saunders of Hutchinsons.

Rob says: “to put it in context, orchard design and tree configuration have evolved over time.  Eighty years ago, typical commercial orchards were planted with ‘half standard’ trees at 30ft by 30ft, (48 trees per acre), probably inter planted with soft fruit early on.  Progressive growers would plant open centre bush trees at 15ft (193 trees/acre).  By the 1970s intensities increased, and Cox on MM 106 planted at 7ft by 12 of (518 trees/acre) was commonplace.  By the 1980s, 3 and 4 row beds of spindle trees on M9 were planted.  Some still exist, but challenges with weed control and fruit colour have led to the almost universal adoption of ‘single row post and wire’ orchards, 3.5m between the rows and 1 to 1.25m between the trees.  Cordon and espalier tree types have been grown in gardens for many years, and perhaps provide the way forward.  A simple planar canopy with little depth can be manipulated to intercept more light and promises to be amendable to increased mechanisation.”

The trial orchards also incorporate novel tree configurations on M116 rootstock, which claims drought, Phytophthora and woolly aphid resistance.  Due to improved root health and vigour, it should reduce canker.  It is being evaluated as ‘laydown’ trees resembling a single guyot grapevine, and intensively planted spindle trees without the support of wirework trellis.

As well as planting systems, the sites hose the first UK plantings of varieties from the Netherlands nursery company Carolus.

Growers have opportunities to view trial sites; watch out for your invitation, or speak to your Hutchinsons agronomist about a visit to HELIOS.