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Once bitten, forever smitten

posted 6 Nov 2012, 03:43 by Rosemary Russet   [ updated 8 Nov 2012, 13:28 by Julie Nuckey ]

The highlight of our orchard calendar is Apple Day. Celebrated nationally on October 21, this year it fell on a convenient Sunday.  Rosemary remembers the very first Apple Day organised in 1990 by Common Ground in Covent Garden, London. The strange poetry of unfamiliar names spoke of the astonishing diversity of British apples. Tasting fruits of a more aromatic flavour than the commonly available varieties was a mind-opening experience. Ashmead’s Kernel remains favourite, though a joy of our orchard is the range of different fruits to sample at our tasting table. When asked: “Where can I buy these apples?” the answer often is they are not generally for sale. There are other solutions: plant a garden tree or two; join, or set up, a community orchard; cherish and buy unusual fruit whenever you have the chance.

Apple Day has taken root as a calendar festival – as Common Ground hoped. Their long and inspiring campaign for distinctive and local fruits awakened shifts in food culture, and, to a lesser extent, in agriculture. Orchards of tall trees continue to decline, and new orchard plantings tend to suit the intensive, and often, chemical-dependent methods demanded by supermarket quality controllers. As consumers we seem too easily seduced by unblemished fruits, and happy enough to buy the blander offerings of commercial growers who favour fruits genetically designed to retain their characteristics during long, artificial cold-storage.

Along with a growing number of apple-loving activists Rosemary has searched out, eaten, cooked and catered, and grown English apples and other fruits, during the 22 years since that first ‘one-off’ event.  Apple Day continues to be a wonderful way to celebrate and learn that variety and richness matter, and that it is possible to make change for the good. Growing and eating fruit connects us to nature and to culture, and intertwines the two to enrich our life on this earth. 

A visitor to Apple Day 2012 reminded us that October 21st is the birthday of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who lived and wrote in Nether Stowey, Somerset.

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Shock of the new

posted 23 Aug 2012, 04:12 by Rosemary Russet   [ updated 6 Sept 2012, 10:17 ]

Coming up for air from the depths of funding application hell, the lush greens of our trees, now dappled with ripening red fruits, are a soothing sight for sore eyes.  Much moisture plus the warmer temperatures of summer are the ideal conditions for the exuberance of leafing shoots on established trees (and the supercharged growth of grasses and ‘weeds’).  It looks like there’ll be plenty of summer pruning to do.  Most of our apple and pear trees were planted c.2000, and have now settled into their mature forms.  Each tree has a framework of strong branches with each branch having networks of fruiting spurs or tips.  A summer growth spurt of leafing shoots allows the tree to maximise the intake of sun and photosynthesis through fast-growing broad leaves.  These young shoots, however, do not have fruiting buds on them.

Orchard keepers enter a semi-symbiotic relationship with fruiting trees.  Left to their own devices apples trees produce small-ish fruits.  Putting the energy into larger fruit, while ‘costly’ to the tree, is a result of natural selection (up to five to eight thousand years ago) and human selection (since then)*.  Pruning out the new growth does two things.  In a younger, developing tree (and on younger growth), cutting back the leafing shoots sends a chemical message that creates fruit buds at the base of the shoot.  On established trees it returns the energy of the tree to mature, fruiting wood, while also opening the canopy up to more light and air, helping to ripen fruit and reduce diseases like scab and canker.

Day length also influences the energy cycle of trees.  We wait until at least two months after mid-summer before beginning to prune the already harvested early-fruiting trees.  This later start makes more sense in the mild climate of Southwest England.  In recent years we’ve tended to follow a pattern of pruning after harvest.  The leafy shoots on trained forms (cordon, fan, espalier) seem to give some protection against bird and other damage, though if they shade out the sweetening sun it’s time for a trim.

* For more information on the rise of the domestic apple see: The Story of the Apple by Barrie E. Juniper and David J. Mabberley, published 2009.

Eye of the Apple

posted 6 Aug 2012, 03:05 by Rosemary Russet

On a golden evening in the last week of July, five orchard members were being photographed (for a book on allotments) while harvesting loganberries and doing other light seasonal tasks such as thinning fruit.  The photographer complimented us on the impressive amount of apples – a startling comment – as this year many of our trees have no fruit at all.  The wet, windy, and cold weather we experienced in April and May fell during the weeks when most of our trees were in blossom.  Pollinating insects were discouraged by the sodden conditions – preventing the cross-pollination necessary for many orchard trees. 

It hasn’t been a total washout.  Our orchard is planted with more than 60 different apple, pear and plum varieties, ranging across the spectrum from the very early (Beauty of Bath) to the very late (D’Arcy Spice).  Such diversity ensures that, even in a poor year, some trees will do well enough.  This year it’s the turn of the earlier apples to shine, along with the handful of later bloomers that flowered during May’s brief dry spell. 

Last year’s abundant bounty was a feast compared to the slender pickings of 2012.  Harvest-share members of the orchard who eat only local-grown fruit are in for a lean year.  This direct experience of the vulnerabilities of food production may encourage an appreciation of less celebrated fruits.  In practice this means using those tart and tiny apple thinnings for jelly making, and learning to love brambles for their tenacious profusion.  And, when taking a first bite of a fully ripe George Cave apple, being grateful for its refreshing flavour, while minding its fleeting season.

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