How to Choose Your Apple Trees

Choosing which apple trees to buy can look confusing.

Don’t worry.

Have a quick read before you just nip down to B&Q.

Size
Don’t muddle up the size of the plants you buy, with their size once they reach maturity.

First off, let’s talk about how big they will grow to. Will grow to. Apple trees are not grown from seed. In order to keep them true to type, they are grown from a cutting (“scion”). The scion is grafted on to a “rootstock”, which determines how big the tree will grow. It also accelerates its fruiting. Different rootstocks give you different terminal sizes of tree. We mostly sell apple trees on two, MM106 (or “M106”) and M25 (not the motorway).
M25 will give you a tree up to 6m tall after 10 years. It’s the size we see in Somerset in traditional cider orchards. These trees spread to over 5m, so need to be planted from 6 to 8 metres apart. They need relatively little management, but will need harvesting with a ladder!
MM106 is the size we sell most of for gardens. This rootstock will produce a tree up to around 4m, with the same sort of spread. Reckon on planting 4 – 5m apart.

Apple trees
Old Orchard. Lovely.
We usually sell apple trees as maidens – that is, one year old “whips” which look not much more than sticks. We also sell 2 – 3 year old “bush” plants, which have had some pruning. Generally, the smaller trees are when they’re planted, the quicker they will get going, the better they will establish and the longer they will live. They’re better value too, particularly when you take into account the haulage and planting costs of bigger plants, which will also need staking. Normally, fruit trees on the rootstocks we use won’t need support other than a cane initially.
People do sometimes want older trees, however, which are sometimes possible to find. Usually it’s because they want fruit quickly. You will have a reasonable crop of apples from a tree which is 5 or 7 years old if a tree is on MM106 or M25. The bigger the tree will grow to, the longer it will take to fruit.

Use

Choosing your apple tree - cider
Cider Ahoy!
What do you want your trees for? Remember that mature apple trees will produce a lot of apples. A lot. You may want to keep them for eating, or turn them into juice. You might want to make your own cider, or have penchant for vast quantities of apple crumble. Apple come in three types; cookers, eaters and cider apples. Some varieties will do two jobs, but probably less well than a specialist. If you’re going to make juice, you can use a combination.
Some folk sometimes get round to harvesting their apples at all, and just like the blossom. Fair enough – you can find some really beautiful varieties.

Pollination

Choosing Your Apple Tree
Crab Apple ‘Dartmouth’. A Beauty.
People can really get their knickers in a twist about pollination. Fruit trees generally need another compatible tree nearby to facilitate pollination and, thence, fruiting. By “compatible”, it also has to be an apple tree, and one which is flowering at the same time. A few trees are even “triploid”, meaning they need two other cultivars. If this sounds like a palaver, these varieties have a lot going for them, so can be worth persevering with. “Normal” trees will just need one friend. This should be a tree in the same or adjacent pollination group – i.e. it will be in flower at the same time. If you’re in any doubt just buy a crab apple; they flower for ages and will pollinate virtually any apple. Something like ‘Dartmouth’. Lovely blossom too. And there’s the jelly.

Geography & History
Apples are part of our history. No, really. You can still buy a descendant of Isaac Newton’s apple tree. Many areas of the UK have their own apple tree varieties, sometimes properly old, which will have done particularly well there. Hereabouts in Somerset we are surrounded by cider trees, which flourish in our heavy clay and wet, warm winters. There are lovely eaters further east which do well in lighter soils and lower rainfall. It’s worth doing some research to find out if you have a local apple, and seeing if you can at least squeeze it in somewhere.
Changing weather patterns in particular mean it’s not impossible to grow heritage varieties in non traditional areas though. We grow apples from East Anglia, which do pretty well.
Don’t be afraid to chose old varieties. If you can only find them to buy with difficulty, it doesn’t mean that they’ve fallen out of favour not because they taste bad. Generally it’s because they don’t travel or store well, or look odd. Maybe they don’t crop reliably or heavily. Does that worry you? These are some of the most trouble free, beautiful, healthy trees you can find.

Jam Today

Earlier this summer a copy of Holly Farrell’s The Jam Maker’s Garden arrived for me to review. It has sat in the catering department’s in tray ever since, but now jam making time is upon us we dug it out. What a delight.
Holly FarrellThere’s a peculiar pleasure in growing and using your own produce. You can square that if you have to process it in some way. I made three small pots of beeswax polish from the cappings left over from this year’s honey harvest; fantastic.
Holly Farrell is quick to understand this. She also points out other joys of jam making – not just the delight of eating them! Enjoy the tastes of summer and autumn through the winter and the connection they make with the local – what the French would call – terroir.
There’s a lot more than celebration about this book, however. It covers “garden notes” as well as “kitchen notes”, so deals with growing the fruit you’ll cook too. Some sensible advice in this section, although I find people could always do with more help about what varieties to plant and in what volume. Everyone always plants too many apple trees and under-plants soft fruit, for example.
Rose Hip SyrupThe kitchen section is great. It’s clearly laid out into vegetable and fruit sections. The recipes are easy to follow and many highly original. Carrot jam looks delicious!
The book promotes some more obscure fruit as well – Medlars do well here and I grow them principally for their blossom, but now we’ll be making medlar fudge. I Can’t wait.

Hedgerow Harvest

There’s never a really good time of year to flail a hedge, but it’s particularly galling to see so much hedge cutting going on at this time of year.

04140-00386-058

It could be why the prodigious bounty of our native hedgerows tends to be over-looked, despite the fad for foraging. Sloes, hips, haws, elderberries and blackberries have all been excised from the hedges around us, which have been neatly cut as they are every year. It’s a real pain; armed with a variety of recipes we always look forward to raiding nature’s larder at this time of year.

Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) Eating berriesIn the past folk used to collect apples, berries and nuts from hedges as a free supplement to their diet, but for many birds and mammals this food source is rather more critical, of course. And flailing hedges like this doesn’t just impact on larger animals. It’s not surprising the Brown Hairstreak is such a rare butterfly; it lays its eggs on young Blackthorn plants. There’s no chance of them surviving an annual flailing; populations will be wiped out in a single year.

Current best practice is to cut in late winter to a height over 2m in a three year rotation. Like roadside verges, management regimes tend to be over zealous.

That’s not quite true – best practice is to lay a hedge, although that’s a time consuming manual business and is often not a practical answer. I’m a sucker for hedgelaying though, and lay all the hedges we have around our patch in Somerset. Follow the link to find out why.

Heritage Apple Varieties

There’s a misconception that “heritage apple varieties” is a euphemism for poor apple varieties. It’s true that heritage apple varieties are now difficult to find, but that’s sometimes for the wrong reasons.

Heritage apple varieties
Alfriston: a proper apple
Don’t get me wrong; two hundred years ago there were a lot of pretty poor heritage apple varieties about, and most have disappeared unmourned. It might be interesting to stumble across one, but you couldn’t recommend growing it. These apple trees could be unhealthy, yields irregular and their fruit indifferent. That’s why the Victorians were so typically diligent in improving the cultivars available; many of the apple trees we sell date back to that time. They’re cracking trees with gorgeous fruit, often particularly good for the region where they were raised.
So why, I hear you ask, are they not better known or more widely available? These apple trees are not better known because you can’t buy their fruit. Where could you taste a St Edmund’s Pippin or a William Crump to understand why you just HAVE to grow one? Because they’re not better known they’re not more widely grown. Between them our suppliers – most of the remaining quality British fruit tree nurseries – sometimes only graft 10 trees of our best heritage apple varieties annually. No-one knows this rich and tasty part of our heritage exists.
You can’t buy heritage apple varieties because the food industry has moved on – or rather, changed. 21st century retailers are not looking for taste or local appropriateness (you’re having a laugh!). They need apples with thick skin which won’t get bruised while transporting them over long distances. They need apples which don’t look ugly and which taste sweet. They need heavy cropping trees and reliable yields. They need apples which store for long periods before they hit the supermarket shelves. Very long periods. Put these requirements together and you have a limited list of cultivars. It’s improbable that any of them actually taste any good and a miracle that any are heritage apple varieties. These days, the only way you will get to taste our most exquisite apples is to grow them yourself.

Why Pears?

I’ve always struggled to persuade people to plant pear trees. Everyone says the fruit can be perfect but more often it’s not; the pears are hard as nails then, when your back is turned, they’ve gone soft and get mangled by wasps. We inherited a couple of pear trees in our old house and I presented the (bullet like) fruit to Caroline to work a culinary miracle with. She did, and we’ve planted Bristol Cross, Catillac and Onward at our new place as I was so impressed. I thought I’d ask her to reveal her secrets…

If you’re lucky enough to buy or pick pears that are perfectly ripe nothing can beat eating them as they are, but if they’re rather on the hard side then all hope isn’t lost. In fact they’re just what you need for making jars of mulled pears, perfect for Christmas presents as well as for your own larder. They’re delicious with cold meats or you can use them to make a wonderful pear tarte tatin.

Mulled Pears: Makes 2 x 1 litre jars

Pre-heat oven to 150, heat the jars before filling

125g granulated sugar
500ml cider (I prefer using dry or medium – we use the local Bullbeggar cider made by friends in Lamyatt)
2 kg pears – not too ripe or they won’t keep their shape
Small handful of cloves
Cinnamon sticks
Star anise

Peel the pears whole with the stalk attached, place in a bowl of lightly salted water to stop them browning. When all are peeled cut them in half and stud each with a couple of cloves. Pack them tightly into warm, sterilised jars (I put my jars into the washing up machine and run a hot quick cycle just before using them). Add other spices – cinnamon stick, star anise, juniper berries.

Mix the sugar with 500ml of water and slowly bring to the boil to dissolve the sugar. Add the cider and bring to the boil. Pour over the pears. Cover the jars with lids but do not seal. Place the jars on a baking tray, not touching each other, and place in the oven for an hour. Remove carefully from the oven and seal the lids. Leave to settle and cool until the next day. They will then keep for up to a year.

 

Pear Tarte Tatin: serves 6 – 8
Pre-heat oven to 180

1 x 1ltr jar of mulled pears or approx 6 pears (not too ripe)
1 packet of puff pastry
100g of unsalted butter
125g caster sugar
12” frying pan with metal handle as it needs to go into the oven or tarte tatin tin

Melt the butter in the frying pan, add the sugar sprinkled evenly. Core your pears and quarter them lengthwise. Arrange the pears in the pan core side up, squashed together as tightly as possible as they shrink during cooking.

Continue cooking until the sugar and butter caramelise – you want to get it to the lovely brown caramel colour. I find it takes much longer than I think it will, but be careful as it changes from caramel to burnt remarkably quickly! Remove from the heat.

While the sugar is caramelising, roll out the puff pastry so that it is slightly larger than the pan. Place the pastry over the pears and tuck the edges down. Cook for approximately 20mins until the pastry is golden. Turn out onto a plate – this is easier than it sounds, be brave – place the plate on top of the pan and turn upside down. Make sure you hold tight and be careful as it is very hot. You can serve it straight away but I prefer to leave it and have it warm. If no-one’s looking add some really good vanilla ice cream.

My favourite recipes for preserving and bottling fruit are found in:
Jams, Preserves and Edible Gifts by Sara Paston-Williams
River Cottage Preserves, by Pam “the jam” Corbin
Gardener Cook, by Christopher Lloyd

 

 

Newsletter No. 19: November 2011

Much to do, as ever. We’re starting to ship fruit trees, which reminds me, belated congratulations to R.V.Roger, one of our fruit tree suppliers, who not only won a Gold at Malvern this year but also the coverted President’s Trophy at Harrogate. Good job guys – a fiver well spent!

New Products
We’re launching a new range of solitary bee and bug boxes. Like other sales through the website we’re donating 50% of profits to a charity partner, in this case the invertebrate charity Buglife. We generally stay clear of selling “stuff”, as opposed to seeds and plants, but well designed bug boxes do work and engage people’s interest. They’re attractive too, which is important to us; promoting biodiversity doesn’t mean the garden has to look like a biohazard. The boxes come in 4 different sizes, working up to the regal Buggingham Palace, and are priced from £21.50 inc. VAT and P&P. They are individually made in a small workshop in Dorset from locally sourced materials.

Shows
We are planning to be at the following shows in 2012 with our spiffy new signage – hope to see you at one of them:

Ecobuild, ExCel Centre, London
20th – 22nd March
Chelsea Flower Show
22nd – 26th May
BBC Gardener’s World Live, NEC Birmingham
13th – 17th June
Game Fair, Rutland
20th – 22nd July

(Social) Media
Unlike Tom Archer’s footballing pigs we’re not a social media sensation, but as I write we’re a gnat’s breath away from 1,000 mostly sane and mostly interested followers on Twitter. The 1,000th follower of @Habitat_Aid wins a packet of Meadow Anywhere wildflower seeds. I’m also on LinkedIn and failing to understand Facebook properly too, so there are lots of ways of staying in touch with us. Oh, and, of course, the blog toddles on – latest offering is a guide to planting native hedges.

Fruit Tree Management
The next of our orchard management days is on the 19th January. Tutored by well-known nurseryman Kevin Croucher, this one day course is an invaluable and practical introduction to establishing and caring for traditional fruit trees. Sign up now to avoid disappointment!

Which Fruit Trees Should I Grow?

I want to grow some fruit trees, but where do I start? I don’t understand pollination groups or rootstocks, or the difference between a stepover and a cordon and a maiden and a bush. Help!

It’s a familiar cry. Folk quickly get bogged down when they’re shopping for fruit trees, as there are so many varieties and options open to them if they want to do things properly, rather than nip down to the nearest B&Q and end up with the wrong type of fruit tree. I’m faced with the same problem at the moment as we consider the possibilities for our new garden, so I went back to basics…

I like these…

1. Which fruit do I/we like? Grow the fruit you want to eat! Delicious they may be to some, but I’m not very keen on Medlars – so there’s absolutely no point planting them. Although it’s easier said than done these days, try to find different varieties to taste. Although they’er not West country varieties, I’m a big fan of the apples Ashmead’s Kernel and St. Edmund’s Pippin, which we’ll be planting; I originally tried them at a local farmer’s market – no way would you find them in a supermarket.

2. What am I going to use the fruit for? Is there a keen cook in the house? If there’s someone who wants to make jams and flans it will not only influence the varieties you buy, but also the volume of fruit you can deal with. You’ll also need appreciative consumers. You might not like cider, but everyone loves home made apple juice – which you can freeze as well as drink fresh. An orchard sized apple tree can produce something like 1000lbs of fruit – that’s a lot of apple juice! If you have several of one type of fruit, make sure they ripen at different times and/or that you’re buying a variety that stores well.

3. Do I want anything else from my fruit trees? You may have secondary considerations to think about, maybe aesthetic. You might want particularly attractive blossom, of a certain colour and/or timing, or you might like nice looking fruit. In the Mann household there are other considerations too – I like early flowering varieties for my bees, which leads me to looking at more exotic options like Almonds.

Big trees for a good workout

4. How much space do I have? By grafting onto rootstocks of different vigour you can have a tree of the same variety but very different size. Obviously, you’ll get less fruit from the smaller trees, but they can be a lot more convenient. We only sell varieties grafted on larger rootstocks – see here for details of sizes and planting spaces – but you can find really dwarfing rootstocks or, alternatively, “cordons”, which can be planted under a metre apart. You can buy trained forms as well, to grow up walls and along paths.

5. What are the local conditions like? It’s no coincidence that we are surrounded by apples as we have heavy soil and wet weather, which puts paid to Quinces, for example. Perry Pears do well hereabouts too, which explains why Babycham was made down the road. Plums, on the other hand, prefer lighter soils. They will stand the wind though and, consequently, work well in exposed sites or around the edge of a mixed orchard, where they will protect other trees. By way of contrast pears need sun and shelter. If you’re not sure what will do well in your own garden, do some research. Have a look around to see what’s growing close to you, and find out if there are any trees which have either orginated from the area or were widely grown.

6. Do I need to think about pollination? Mostly not. Apples are easy; there’ll generally be another apple or crab apple within a quater of a mile to act as a pollinator. Most plums and gages are self fertile. The only tricky customer is the pear, most of which are self sterile, so will need at least another tree in the vicinity. If you’re worried consult a pollination list, but I suspect the most important thing you can do to encourage pollination is to encourage the pollinators.

7. How big a tree should I buy? This is a different question to any consideration about rootstocks. You can buy a one year old “maiden” tree, which is little more than a stick, and if it has been grafted onto a vigorous rootstock it will grow into a tree over 4m tall in no time. It’s tempting to buy as big as tree as you can find; you’ll get fruit quicker and it will look more impressive where you need it to. On balance, though, try to avoid it. It’s not so much the obvious cost differential as how well the tree will develop – you’ve got a much better chance of successfully growing a long lived and healthy tree from a small sapling as from a larger tree (say 6 foot and over) that’s been wrenched out of the ground to get to you. You won’t have to stake it or dig a whopping big hole to plant it in, and it has a much higher % of its root system intact. Simples. Within a few years the sapling will overtake the bigger tree anyway. Don’t – whatever you do – buy some fancy semi-mature or even mature fruit tree. It will cost you a fortune and it will fall over.

I’ve put a tentative fruit tree order in for this autumn’s bare root planting season. I’ll be getting the trees from me, if you see what I mean, but if you don’t buy your trees from Habitat Aid please use a specialist British nursery.

The Bloody Ploughman Redux

Here’s the answer to the fruity murder mystery I posted a couple of weeks ago – how many heritage fruit trees are there in this who dunnit?

The Bloody Ploughman

They found the dead boy in the parsonage just after the coronation of George V. I remember it because I went to Ascot with my mother and nanny to see the new Queen, and came back tipsy after too many Gin Martinis. James Grieve, the young ploughman, was in the potting shed, where he had been beaten with the heavy rock which now lay beside him. There was a distinct aroma of brandy about, which had been spilt on some sacks, and signs of a struggle, including a broken hoe.

The harvest festival party was the night before and many of the revellers had stayed on, including the party from the big house, who had been enjoying Lady Henniker‘s hospitality. Lord Lambourne, back home from service in the Middle East with the Grenadier Guards, had found the body. His spartan exercise regime took him on a jog around the village shortly after sunrise, and when he passed the forge he noticed a trail of blood leading under the parsonage gate on the opposite side of the road. He called for help when he found the dead youth, and old Fred the blacksmith came running. Fred was the butt of a great deal of ribbing from the jesters in the village. He was known to his friends as the Cornish Giant and to his enemies as the Missing Link. Anyway, he fetched Doctor Hogg from Sandringham, but even the great man couldn’t do anything. He did notice a curious feature of the killing, though; someone had left a cat’s head close to the body, covered by what seemed to be green custard.

The delicious Annie Elizabeth, local coquette, was the main suspect. James had rejected her advances in favour of her rival in love, the wealthy Ruby Thorn, renowned Beauty of Bath. Nothing was ever proved, however, and soon after the murder war broke out. Lord Lambourne went on to become a pilot in the RAF and was badly wounded trying to escape from his cockpit at the climax of the Battle of Britain. Ruby met Lord Derby (the Olympic gold medal winner) at the Yalta Conference, and the Reverend Wilks married them at St. Cecilia‘s after the war. Annie Elizabeth died on Victory in Europe day in 1945, some say of a broken heart. Others reckoned it was the cider.

How did you get on? I think the total was 52 fruit trees, mostly perry pears and apples, though I might have missed the odd one…

The Bloody Ploughman

How many fruit trees are there in this story? Mostly varieties of apple, but with some others thrown in for good measure. You can count a variety more than once if it is repeated.

The Bloody Ploughman

They found the dead boy in the parsonage just after the coronation of George V. I remember it because I went to Ascot with my mother and nanny to see the new Queen, and came back tipsy after too many Gin Martinis. James Grieve, the young ploughman, was in the potting shed, where he had been beaten with the heavy rock which now lay beside him. There was a distinct aroma of brandy about, which had been spilt on some sacks, and signs of a struggle, including a broken hoe.

The harvest festival party was the night before and many of the revellers had stayed on, including the party from the big house, who had been enjoying Lady Henniker’s hospitality. Lord Lambourne, back home from service in the Middle East with the Grenadier Guards, had found the body. His spartan exercise regime took him on a jog around the village shortly after sunrise, and when he passed the forge he noticed a trail of blood leading under the parsonage gate on the opposite side of the road. He called for help when he found the dead youth, and old Fred the blacksmith came running. Fred was the butt of a great deal of ribbing from the jesters in the village. He was known to his friends as the Cornish Giant and to his enemies as the Missing Link. Anyway, he fetched Doctor Hogg from Sandringham, but even the great man couldn’t do anything. He did notice a curious feature of the killing, though; someone had left a cat’s head close to the body, covered by what seemed to be green custard.

The delicious Annie Elizabeth, local coquette, was the main suspect. James had rejected her advances in favour of her rival in love, the wealthy Ruby Thorn, renowned Beauty of Bath. Nothing was ever proved, however, and soon after the murder war broke out. Lord Lambourne went on to become a pilot in the RAF and was badly wounded trying to escape from his cockpit at the climax of the Battle of Britain. Ruby met Lord Derby (the Olympic gold medal winner) at the Yalta Conference, and the Reverend Wilks married them at St. Cecilia’s after the war. Annie Elizabeth died on Victory in Europe day in 1945, some say of a broken heart. Others reckoned it was the cider.

A Little Outing

A quick trip to the Marches last week to visit a couple of folk and the Malvern Show. I’m not going to mention any of my normal Show gripes, but concentrate on the positive. The nice thing about the trip was the strong sense of what Common Ground would call “local distinctiveness”. It’s part of the world that hasn’t sold its soul.

I got off to a good start by visiting Jenny Steel in Shropshire to have a catch up over a coffee, and thence to Plant Wild, outside Leominster. Plant Wild is the brainchild of Keith Arrowsmith and Suzanne Noble, who are growing and harvesting native plants and seeds. Keith, like me, is a refugee from an altogether different world. Fingers crossed we might work together and we can sell their locally harvested meadow seed mixtures.

Overnighted at the Three Horseshoes in Little Cowarne. The Good Pub Guide rarely lets me down, and I’m always amazed with the quality and value our best independent pubs provide. Local produce – food and drink – the watchword. Lovely Wye Valley Bitter and fantastic draft cider from Oliver’s, which as it turns out is just down the road. And some bloke came in and bought a round of a Becks and three Carlsbergs. Sigh.

Set off for the Malvern Show with some trepidation on Saturday – my thoughts on Gardening Shows are well documented, so I won’t go over them again. Gorgeous day though, and had a lovely time. Spent most of my time in and around the “Good Life” tent to avoid the tat. Met up with Ian Roger, my main fruit tree supplier, whose amazing display of traditional apple varieties won him a Gold medal. He was even more chuffed by the response from the punters to his stand. More Perry and Cider tasting, of course; particularly liked Severn Cider’s Perry and Cider – good luck to you.

This Bloke Walked into a Pub with a Szechuan Pepper...
Bravura performances by Mark Diacono and that Joe Swift (he should be on TV), and John Wright. Mark and John were promoting their new books, which are rather good. EVERYONE with an interest in food and the countryside should read them. God knows, we all need a bit of inspiration at the moment. I wonder if social historians of the future will talk about a River Cottage movement and its impact on food. And what nice people, too. Talking of which, there were various bloggers about, including Veg Plotting and the Patient Gardener, who it was nice to see – albeit briefly. I wish I could have stayed longer for a proper chat.

Heavy HorseTo cap a fine day – and before I got lost in the ludicrously unsigned carpark – I was asked to sell Perry Pear trees at the show next year. Delighted to, especially if it means another stay in Little Cowarne. I wonder if I could sell some local seed for Keith and Suzanne too. Oh – and I almost forgot – here’s a heavy horse photo for my mum.