A Partridge in a Helpful Pear Tree

Like 99.99% of the population I’ve never seen a partridge in a pear tree. There are hardly gazillions of partridge around anymore and there are even fewer pear trees. I don’t understand why, as pears have so much going for them. I’m particularly fond of them because they’ve got something for all, from humans to everything else down the foodchain.

Pears as edible fruit are a bit tricksie. They’re either hard as bullets or the wasps have got them. Do not despair! Mrs. Mann has discovered the answer – mulled pears. Yummy. If you’re not talking about edible varieties but rather Perry Pears, then power to you. A good Perry is a delightful and rare thing, and like a MazzardPerry Pear is a handsome ornamental tree.

Fruit needs pollinators. Where local ecosystems are in a mess, as in places in the U.S. or in China, they’re imported in vast numbers. Millions of honeybees are driven across the States to pollinate almonds in California, blueberries in Maine and citrus fruit in Florida. But it’s a two way street; fruit trees are excellent news for bees too. They produce masses of early blossom, ergo masses of early pollen and nectar for hungry honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees.

And not so early blossom too; a well-chosen mix of “top fruit” and soft fruit can provided huge amounts of forage from February to May. The Victorians grew apple varieties like James Grieve as much for their beautiful blossom as their fruit. Pear blossom too is spectacular in early spring.

This is one of the reasons why orchards are great for wildlife – and not just because of their blossom. Different types of fruit tree decay at different rates, but they all give up the ghost quicker than our native trees, which means habitat for all sorts of interesting and endangered goodies. Pyrus (pear) decays relatively slowly, then Malus (apple), and quickest of all are Prunus (cherry, plum, etc.). A mixed orchard will provide saproxylic flora and fauna a wonderful range of niches to thrive in.

These include the Noble Chafer, who is a lovely little chap but endangered. There are also the moth caterpillars which eat fruit tree leaves, for example. Then there’s the six invertebrates associated with Mistletoe, which itself thrives in orchards. Further up the foodchain it’s no surprise that bats and a wide variety of birds love orchards, especially insectivorous and cavity nesting species.

The traditional orchard floor is rich in fungi rather than wildflowers, as its soil tends to be too rich for a diverse sward to develop. That itself makes it a valuable resource for wildlife. That’s true particularly in the autumn when covered with windfalls which are a boon for late butterflies and birds like thrushes and Blackbirds (“Colly Birds”), together with small mammals like Hedgehogs. At Habitat Aid’s HQ we have an area where there are fruit trees with an understory of fruit bushes. Many orchards used to work this way. The gardener’s happy – it looks interesting and it’s low maintenance. The cook’s happy – all sorts of interesting culinary opportunities. And as for the wildlife… biodiversity is first cousin to utility as well as it is to beauty.

The best time to plant fruit trees is now. The bare root trees we sell are not only cheaper but will also do much better than pot grown, and are best planted over the winter when the plants are dormant.

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.






Cider for the connoisseur

Press at Hecks
We had a barrel of 2008 Bullbeggar left over, so we thought we should bottle it before the 2009s arrive. Hecks of Street have been hugely helpful throughout our community cider project, and didn’t let us down today.
Perry on tap
What nice folk and, furthermore, Perry producers, who are buying some extra trees with us from the liquidators at Scotts. We picked our way through tonnes of apples and barrels piled high in their impossibly crowded yard to bottle and pasteurise 350 bottles of Bullbeggar and see the old vintage out. These will be available to the lucky burghers of Castle Cary at our village stall on Saturday, gales permitting. Some say that if Parker ranked ciders, the 2008 Bullbeggar would be a 95.