There’s something very satisfying about walking around 100 acres of orchards with a fourth generation apple grower.

You hear all the snippets of information which tells the story of these amazing trees.

In fact, you probably hear a lot more than what you bargain for when you’re walking around with Sammy MacNeice.

You will all have heard of Sammy before. Sammy is Greg’s father. He loves a good walk round the orchards here at Ardress in County Armagh where we make our award winning Irish cider.

Sammy MacNeice in the orchards at Ardress where Mac Ivors Cider Co Irish Cider is made

The two of us are squelching along as the ground is so wet due to the rain last week. The leaves are also falling and Sammy explains that the orchards are now resting.

“They have given up their crop,” he says.”The crop has been forfeited to the winter and to storage.

“What happens now is the next stage of the operation which is the pruning. This is a process we commence every November and the earlier we start the better. Some farmers like to leave it until the apples have fallen. For us pruning starts now and will continue for three to four months right through to March and possibly into April.

“This is essential work in order to shape the tree and give the tree a boost. A lot of the vegetation is extension growth but it does not produce new growth. It’s our job to try to initiate new bud growth.

“The growth generates new timber for first class apples but we remove about 80 per cent of that growth during the summer.

“This is a lot of work to undertake but it is crucial. Staff have to be trained to ensure they understand what can be left and what needs to be removed.

“We tend to prune the trees into a normal umbrella shape but the days of apple picking and pruning with ladders is over. We grow our fruit low down so trees are only between one to two metres high. With that in mind we go through all of our orchards and keep them in good condition and good shape.”

Sammy MacNeice in the orchards at Ardress where Mac Ivors Cider Co Irish craft cider is made

This land is very special. It’s full of heritage. And as Sammy said recently, we are caretakers of the land. It’s our job to leave it in a better state than we found it.

And of course every good job requires the right tools.

“We have over 100 acres so it’s a long process and we need to ensure we use the right tools. For us,  using hand saws are better because you tend to see the tree as you walk around,” Sammy says.

” We use a range of tools and again these have to be chosen carefully, for example, mechanical pruners are fine but they can cut out a lot of timber unnecessarily.

“We also use snappers which are hand operated secateurs type tools which are used to cut wood up to an inch thick. The saws then can be used to take out the heavier branches.

“We try to operate on three to four pruners working through the winter. It’s difficult to get people to do this. It’s a highly specialised job and I tend to take the lead on it because it’s a crucial stage of apple growing and cider production.”

The orchards at Ardress, Co Armagh where Mac Ivors Cider Co is made - Irish cider

As Sammy says, for the next few months, the pruners will be clearing out the old and making way for the new buds. Everything begins to happen in April and the buds begin to swell. Leaves begin to form and blooms are initiated. It’s a very critical time.

But, before blooming comes pruning. It’s also over the next few months the apple growers will analyse the soil to find out if there are any deficiencies.

Sammy says the entire process is a 12 months of the year job. And while most people are familiar with the blossom and the harvest seasons people are not so familiar about the hand labour intensive process which takes place during the late autumn and winter months.

So, it’s wellies on, tools at the ready and it’s time for Sammy to lead us out into the trees which need so much care over the next few months.

Let’s hope Greg has a few in the fridge for us when we finish this little lot.

  • If you have any tips you would like Sammy to answer about pruning apple trees, just drop us a message on Facebook and we will see what we can do.