56 The cherry on top
Henry VIII ordered cherry orchards to be planted in Kent, the garden of England, where, as Nick Hammond discovers, they continue to flourish
Henry VIII ordered cherries to be planted in Kent, the garden of England, where they continue to flourish, says Nick Hammond
The humid air hums with busy insects and a delicate perfume rolls on the breeze. In just 60 short days, these little powder-puff parcels of cherry blossom will harden to dark, luscious fruits. For Sarah Neaves and her family, it is the culmination of yet another 12 months of hopes and fears.
‘I find it very hard to describe the emotions when we reach the sharp end of the season,’ she admits. ‘There is huge excitement about the coming picking season, which always brings such energy to the farm. And there’s a fear of the unknown: bad weather, pests and disease. What might go wrong? each year, it’s a mix of trepidation and anticipation. It’s a precarious balance.’
The Neaves family has grown fruit at Little Sharsted Farm near Canterbury, Kent, since before the Second World War. Although fruit of all sorts ripen here, cherries have always been the pick of the crop. Brick earth soil and remarkably high light levels, not to mention Kent’s warm, dry climate, mean this is perfect fruit-growing country. ‘henry VIII’S gardener pinpointed the best place in england to grow cherries when he started his orchards at Teynham,’ points out Sarah, ‘and that’s only a mile and a half from here.’
After seven weeks of intense physical and emotional energy, the final cherries are picked from bare trees
For as far as the eye can see, the tunnels, greenhouses, vines and orchards dot the rolling countryside. Susan’s grandfather, Archie Neaves, grew traditional colt trees— of a number of varieties, such as Frogmore, Merton Glory, Gaucher and Early Rivers— some of which grew to 40ft– 50ft and required special ladders to prune and pick.
These evocative names still exist, but modern demands for both perfection and quantity mean subtle changes have been made with new, hybrid plants. Modern techniques have also changed the traditional image of row after row of blossoming orchards, open to the air and filled with chattering chaffinches.
Throughout most of the year, the trees are exposed to the elements. However, from April until September, the fruits are grown under the partial covering of polytunnels. Some may disapprove of this modern approach, but practicality has kept this farm viable. ‘In the past, we’ve lost 50% of our uncovered harvest due to heavy rains,’ reveals Sarah. ‘We can’t afford to take such a devastating hit—and the tunnels allow us to serve all the major supermarkets for as long as the season goes on.’
It’s a military operation to make the most of this natural surplus. There are now some 90 acres of cherries under polytunnel at Little Sharsted— Gisella rootstock that grow to no more than about 10ft and are therefore easier to maintain and harvest.
Early in the season, local apiarists move their hives into the orchards to allow the bees to create honey and go about their crucial pollination work. Even bumblebees are bought in each year—by post, in boxes—to supplement the work. The orchards are alive with insects while flowering lasts, which, in turn, brings in birds after food for their early broods.
If this brief advent of blossom is a delightful symphony for the cherry grower, picking time has a pounding rock beat. Students from near and far flock to the farm and picking starts early in the day in the tunnels, before the heat becomes too intense. Using traditional Kibsey baskets—wicker affairs that hang from canvas belts— they are able to use both hands and carry fruit more comfortably. There is little talking; concentration is key.
Locals join the happy throng, but the majority of pickers are from elsewhere in Europe, where the end of term coincides with the long picking season. During its height, 60 pickers work at breakneck speed at Sharsted Farm. After an eight-hour shift, they retire to their digs nearby. ‘They can earn good money in
a short period of time,’ explains Sarah. ‘And they always bring a buzz to the place, a real sense of purpose. They put up football nets, enjoy barbecues into the night and have a lot of fun once the picking is done for the day.’
New varieties of cherry—merchant Kordia, Summer Sun, Regina and Hertford Sweetheart—are all designed to spread the season and ensure there is always fruit to pick from June onwards. The pickers’ trays are taken to the cold store, where it’s crucial to cool them down to a low, steady temperature as quickly as possible. They’re then packed and loaded onto lorries, bound for delivery across the country—little Sharsted cherries are typically on supermarket shelves within 36 hours of leaving the tree.
By the first week of August, the end is near. After seven weeks of intense physical and sometimes emotional energy, the final cherries are picked from the now bare trees. Packing will continue for about a week more and then, as quickly as they arrived, the pickers up and leave, polytunnels are taken down and the trees pruned and allowed to rest. Workers’ quarters are tidied and the farm breathes a sigh of relief. ‘It’s a strangely melancholy place then,’ admits Sarah. ‘For seven weeks, it’s manic—with the noise, people and deliveries, we barely sleep. Then it all goes very, very quiet.’
Cold is now needed for germination —about 1,500 hours in which the temperature is below 7˚C. Nature will take care of it. In the orchards, all lies still once more.
Family legacy: Harris Neaves’s ( above) kin have been growing cherries (and other fruits) at Little Sharsted Farm in Kent since before the Second World War