Hutchinsons’ Enhanced Light Interception Orchard System (HELIOS) - The Fruit Grower

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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, and the other in Herefordshire. The project sets out to explore how orchard design can be improved to capture more sunlight, and thereby increase yield, but balanced against establishment costs, and being mindful of likely future developments in mechanisation, such as robotic picking and mechanical pruning.

The project stems from work done in New Zealand by Stuart Tustin, who is based at Plant and Food Research in Hawkes Bay. Stuart proposes that yield potential is ultimately a function of light utilisation, and that current orchard systems will always fall short of their theoretical maximum yields as they significantly fail to intercept a proportion of the available sunlight.  HELIOS seeks to evaluate his theory in practice, and under UK conditions.

To put this into context, clearly orchard design and tree configuration have evolved over time. When Hutchinsons began supplying the fruit growers of Wisbech 80 years ago, typical commercial orchards would be planted with ‘half standard’ trees at 30ft by 30ft (48 trees/acre) and probably interplanted with soft fruit in their early years. Progressive growers would have been planting open centre bush trees at 15ft by 15ft (193 trees/acre).  By the 1970s intensities increased, and Cox on MM106 planted at 7ft by 12ft (518 trees/acre) was commonplace. By the 1980s, three and four row beds on 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, spaced at 3.5m between the rows and 1.0m-1.25m between the trees. Cordon and espalier tree types have been understood and grown in gardens for many years, and perhaps provide a clue for the way forward. A Simple planar canopy with little depth can be manipulated to intercept more light and promises amenability to increased mechanisation.

The trial orchards also include the evaluation of novel tree configurations on M116 rootstocks supplied by FP Matthews Ltd. This rootstock is of special interest because of its drought, phytophthora and woolly aphid resistance. It should also have a positive influence on reducing canker, due to improved root health, and fruit quality and size for all Gala and Braeburn clones. It is more vigorous than M9 so is being evaluated as both ‘laydown’ trees, resembling a single guyot grapevine, and as intensively planted spindle trees, but without the support or expense of a wirework trellis. The sites also host the first UK plantings of several varieties from the Netherlands based nursery Carolus.

Growers will have opportunities to view the trial sites and learn about the development of each of the systems in years to come. Look out for your invitation or speak to your Hutchinsons agronomist about arranging a visit to HELIOS