A new era at Brogdale is seeing the National Fruit Collection (NFC) reconnect with commercial growers. The 61ha site near Faversham was felt by many to have become out of touch and was criticised for being dedicated only to amateur gardeners.
But following a well-documented and bitter battle, in which Defra issued an open competition specification to manage the NFC, the base has undergone something of a transformation.
It was September 2007 when Defra issued the tender, the second time in that year, for the management of the NFC, following difficulties between Brogdale Horticultural Trust and the site's landlord Hillreed Land.
The University of Reading and the Farm Advisory Services Team (FAST) were winners of the bid, chosen against four others, and took over joint maintenance and scientific curation of the collections from April 2008.
Since then, there have been major strides to make Brogdale more relevant for its wealth of plant and genetic resources across thousands of fruit varieties and to play a much greater role in shaping the fruit-growing industry.
At ground level, Brogdale has expanded as a visitor attraction with a range of shops and a garden centre on site set up by Brogdale Collections, the social enterprise company created by the landlord to manage visitor access.
FAST, which gives technical support to commercial fruit growers, had already planned to move its offices to Brogdale when putting in its bid with the University of Reading.
FAST managing director Tim Biddlecombe says the two things "dovetailed perfectly" when they heard they had been successful in the tender. Since then, the move has enabled FAST to expand into on-site trials and, while maintaining the site, pick up a wealth of information for growers in the process.
Biddlecombe adds: "One of our strongest desires is to reconnect Brogdale with the commercial fruit grower. Brogdale has a wealth of information and we can look at the 500 pear varieties, 300 plums, the cherry collection of 250 varieties and more than 2,200 apple varieties and use that information like never before." There are also bush fruits, nuts and vines.
He continues: "In the past 15-20 years, Brogdale had become more and more aimed at gardeners and not at the commercial grower. We wanted that to change because we felt that what is here is of keen interest for the industry and must not be forgotten.
"We have always been keen to do our own trials. We have picked up new ideas from our contacts around the world and we are ambitious to move things forward. Before we had done ad hoc trials on growers' farms, but now we can do this and more here."
FAST has earned official recognition as being competent to carry out efficacy tests in the past 18 months allowing it to do trials for any product and the results are recognised by the Chemicals Regulation Directorate. This means the findings are included in manufacturers' data packages.
For Biddlecombe, the move to do trials at Brogdale again is a reminder of the way the site used to be run when it was the ADAS national fruit trials experimental horticultural farm. Its main purpose was to test new varieties from breeding programmes both in the UK and around the world and evaluate them against the standard varieties.
Biddlecombe says: "I worked for ADAS as an advisory officer and was based at Brogdale from 1975-77, when I was running the variety trials in pears and raspberries. Other staff looked after apple, cherry, plum and strawberry trials.
"The information from the trials was provided to growers via annual reports and open days at Brogdale. Committees of growers helped the staff to make recommendations on the value of the new varieties. I remember there was a lot of interest in new strawberry varieties but most apple growers were reluctant to move away from Cox. Now they are looking for new apple varieties, there is no independent evaluation of all the new varieties available."
He adds: "We are taking Brogdale back as a variety testing centre and, more than, that we are doing growing trials. I am the first to realise we cannot go back in time but there is so much we can do to reconnect with growers and so much we can help the fruit industry with and so much to show them here.
"We have never wanted to do breeding and compete with the research at East Malling. One of FAST's strengths is in technology transfer because we have a good understanding of the science and can put this across in a way that growers can understand and apply in their own situations. We can do great trials here and talk to growers about scientific results so they can take it on board."
Separate to FAST, Brogdale Collections has also brought in ideas to help the next generation of growers. Among its initiatives are educational packs for local schools that help children gain an interest in and knowledge of the benefits of growing and eating fruit.
FAST's trial ground at Brogdale is bringing together the staff's own new developments and international ideas and seeing how they work in practice. An Italian idea being trialled is twin-stem apple trees. Two buds are grafted on to a root stock creating two strong and equal trunks.
Biddlecombe explains: "It involves less pruning, more light reaching the fruit and therefore better colour, better sugar and they eat better. Overall, it means less thinning and more yield, with half the number of trees but the same number of trunks. Basically, they cost less than two trees but, it seems, for the same yield. We are pleased with these and think they look extremely promising."
The trees being trialled are an Italian Gala, Conference and a small range of new numbered selections bought from Italy, where Biddlecombe says they are also achieving promising results with pears.
"We are going to evaluate them this year and next year. In Italy, the trial looks very exciting and there are quite a few growers we have spoken to who are excited about these. They are keen to plant their own." He believes some growers who attended FAST's annual conference and heard about the twin stem are looking at planting them this year.
Another French-based trial, replicated at Brogdale, is looking at machine pruning in orchards and how and when to do it for maximum results to reduce labour by around 30 per cent.
Biddlecombe says: "There are some really interesting results from this.
They have found that they should prune when they have 12 leaves on a stem.
If they do it then, the stub forms a fruit bud and will crop next year. If they do it after this, the stub becomes a leaf bud, and if you do it too early you get a shoot. This trial will help us to prune at exactly the right time."
The trial is being tried to create French-style fruit walls, but Biddlecombe says it seems from various results that pruning has to be done slightly earlier in the UK, due to cooler temperatures.
"It seems eight to nine leaves is more the mark here. But with the wall, we cannot let it grow into such a dense wall due to the light levels being lower here. We must let the light through and not let it become a complete wall," he says. A spacing trial is comparing the fruiting of three varieties at different spacings.
University of Reading
The NFC's scientific curator Dr Matthew Ordidge at the University of Reading believes the research being carried out since it took over the tender will both help growers and shape the future of the industry and horticulture.
Reading is looking at the collections as a valuable genetic resource for Defra. Ordidge says: "In the medium to long term we are preserving the genetic value of the collection. We hope to preserve traits to cultivate varieties suitable for future changing climates and agronomic needs and markets.
"We do not do any breeding ourselves but we supply material to breeders. Also, because we are publicly funded, we supply all our data publicly. We are doing genetic analysis, focusing on managing the collection and starting to use genetic fingerprinting."
Traditionally, the NFC was identified morphologically, but Reading is creating the first genetic catalogue of the collection and sharing all its information. Ordidge believes this information is proving invaluable to breeders.
"We are aiming to get detailed genetic markers to start to understand the genetic diversity in the collection with the idea that the modern breeders are looking for genetic markers in the collection," he explains.
By finding out how specific genes function, this information can then be used to search for apples, and eventually other fruit, with natural resistance to pests and diseases, as well as improve fruit quality for both food security purposes and economic reasons.
Ordidge adds: "To identify the collection morphologically, it takes years. They have to wait for it to fruit and wait for three or four years to see whether they produce consistent fruit before it is a standard description. This way we can do it and put it all online as a searchable catalogue."
He points out that this would also enable them to run a screen across repropagated trees to make sure they all match. They have already repropagated the pear collection, because it became an aged collection, and are looking into the procedures to repropagate the ageing apple collection, because it has not been done since 1974.
All of the descriptions of the accessions at Brogdale and genetic analysis collated during the curational work are gradually being put on the website at www.nationalfruitcollection.org.uk.
The NFC evolved out of what were known as the National Fruit Trials, started by the RHS at Wisley in 1921, to catalogue cultivars and assess their suitability for commercial fruit growers. To many, it has truly gone back to its roots.