It is that time of year when you suddenly become aware of a change in the atmosphere. I noticed it last month, a subtle difference in the light and in the smell of the air. The leaves on the trees were also showing their first signs of turning, battered and weary after the summer, slowly beginning to lose their grip on the branches. Although the growing season is coming to an end there is plenty to look forward to and in our garden the apples are continuing to ripen. As the late summer sun’s gentle golden rays laid low over the orchard I decided to take a walk around looking at the different varieties.
The orchard is a mix of heritage English and Welsh varieties, many chosen for their disease resistance. One of the first apple trees we planted was Ashmeads Kernel, a very old variety from Gloucestershire with a matt russeted skin. This has been an excellent apple, healthy even in our damp air and despite catalogue descriptions to the contrary, a regular heavy cropper. The fruit has an intense rich flavour which is best when stored and allowed to mellow. We have found that they keep well into March making it a brilliant apple to have in the orchard.
The apple tunnel is now in its third year and doing better than I expected with most of the trees having filled their alloted space. All the trees are on MM106 semi vigorous rootstocks allowing them to provide the at least four tiers to the espaliers that I wanted. Although having one variety would give the most impressive blossom display, the original idea of the tunnel was to allow for a range of varieties to be grown in a small space. The downside of this means that the blossom appears at slightly different times. One of my favourites from here is Orleans Reinette, an 18th century French variety, with a rich flavour that develops with storing. We also planted Winston and Suntan alongside grafts from some of our existing trees like Bardsey, Lord Lambourne and Grenadier.
Two of my favourite cooking apples are the very large yellowy green Reverend W Wilkes and the unusual shaped Catshead apples. Reverend W Wilkes tends toward biennial cropping and has not produced any fruit this year, and therefore is not recommended to be the only apple in a small garden. Catshead, however, is both reliable and disease resistant and is regarded as one of the oldest english apples dating from the early 17th Century.
There are so many interesting and beautiful varieties of apple, very few of which are available to buy in the shops. It is a shame that we have become so disconnected from nature and from food that the small blemishes, russeting and interesting shapes have somehow become unacceptable or unpalatable. Flavours range from hints of strawberry to pineapple, from sharp to sweet and colours from yellow to the deepest crimson. Many supermarket apples are flavourless and most probably soaked in chemicals.
As I walk round I also notice how each tree has its own individual character partly determined by its genetics, guiding its vigour and habit but also the pruning cuts that i have made in its formative years. Catshead prefers to spread in a languorous manner while Ashmeads Kernel rockets upwards, constantly reaching for the sky. Weather, animals and human hand have all played a roll in a story that i can read in its branches and bark. The names are as individual and interesting as their stories, Court Pendu Plat, Pig Yr Wydd (Goose’s Beak), Cornish Gillyflower to the strange sounding Puckrup Pippin, which far from causing a sour expression, is named after the area by Puckrup Hall near Tewksbury. Some names are descriptive of the fruit, some dedicated to the discoverer or nurseryman and some are comically monikered like ‘Slack ma girdle’.
Generally it has been a very poor year for apple crops in this area, a late frost and bad weather at blossom time meant that many trees were bare of fruit. The pear crop was good with Beurre Hardy once again proving to be healthy and reliable, the Conference pear next to it, however, looks in very poor health in comparison.
Both cider trees cropped well this year and all the fruit was donated to the Brymbo Heritage Orchard Project to make a small batch of cider along with a mixture of apples from some of the other trees.
Soon the leaves will have all dropped and the fruit either picked or rotten and it will be time to think about pruning once again.