As autumnal tints continue to briefly colour parts of the garden, it’s time to record one of the successes of this year’s exceptionally dry summer.Growing apples successfully at 800 feet, with annual rainfall of up to 83 inches (2012), was always going to be challenging. (I even tried planting several different grape cultivars after much research, but ripped them all out 3 years ago after the optimism of warmer summers with global climatic change, morphed into acceptance that much wetter summers might accompany any rise in temperatures in this part of the planet. Only one had ever yielded any edible fruit, growing, as they were, in the open air.
But the 50 or so apple cultivars which I’d begun planting 16 years ago as half standard trees, and then added to, with a bigger range of trees trained in a spiral form around tyre pillars (filled with rocks), have hung on in there. And since a blog is very selective, failures are easily ignored or forgotten – it’s the success stories one remembers, as with much in life.
We were indeed fortunate to have a wonderful grower and grafter of old and local varieties nearby, to help us out with suggestions (Paul Davies of Dolau Hirion, Capel Isaac. Click here for Paul’s website), as well as my standard reference source – ‘The Book of Apples‘, by Joan Morgan and Alison Richards.
The concept for much of the ‘orchard’ was that rock filled stacks of 4 tyres would provide a heat store to prevent blossom frost damage, and aid fruit ripening. As lichens began to colonise the easterly and northerly rubber surfaces, Fiona had a brilliant idea this year, of planting a pink flowered silver foliage Lamium maculata along the easterly border of tyres, to aid cutting and management of the central grassy path.As well as being a great early season nectar flower for bumblebees.
Getting into all those awkward paired, convex spaces where the tyres meet, with a lawnmower, is tricky. We’d started planting other forms of Lamium between the tyres with much success as ground cover, and nectar appeal, about 3 years ago. The apples are planted in the ground outside the tyres, and early on can be trained to screws in the tyre wall. Later on some simple bent iron rod loops pushed into the top tyre, with attached vertical wires which run to the upper tyre surface, enable the spiral form of training to be continues, as the tree grows. Managing such trees is very easy for both pruning and fruit picking, as the trees can be kept to a limited height, and it does mean that a lot of cultivars are packed into a fairly small space, being planted about 3 tyres apart. The intervening two, double depth soil filled tyres, are great for plant propagation and appropriate ornamental plant cultivation.
Many of the apples have been fruiting fairly productively for a few years now, though as always some have performed better than others, and some are regularly biennial. Some succumb to scab badly, and until this year one cultivar, ‘Leathercoat’, hadn’t ever produced a single apple. Even this russeted apple of local provenance at last managed half a dozen fruit this year. However, the 3 pear varieties which initially produced a few fruit, have now become so diseased that I fear they will need removing.
Brown’s apple above, on a half standard tree.
This year has indeed provided a Welsh apple grower’s dream conditions. A mild winter and spring, lower than usual summer rainfall and most importantly, a dry and sunnier than usual September for fruit ripening. Most apples have now been picked, and even without managing to do my usual late June fruit thinning, the fruit are bigger and better than ever.
The stars this year are the ever reliable early ‘George Cave’, ‘Ellison’s Orange’, ‘Yellow Ingestrie’, ‘Keswick Codlin’, ‘Asmead’s Kernel’, and ‘Brown’s apple’. The latter was planted as a cider apple, but since I’m now pretty much alcohol free, I was pleased to see that not only did it look fabulous with a heavy crop of large, red skinned, blemish free fruit, but also the fruit are edible, if a little tart. This, because it falls within the full sharp category of cider apples. Cider apples are grouped as sweet, sharp, sittersweet or bittersharp, according to the fruit levels of tannin (below or above 0.2%), and acid (below or above 0.45%). Many culinary apples will tend to be quite sharp (acidic), without the levels of tannin that produce the bitter astringency of a bittersharp cider apple. A skilled cider maker will use a variety of apples to blend their preferred flavour, but at least I didn’t plant too many bitter forms, since they have little use beyond true hard (alcoholic) cider production.
It’s also been a year in which some old Welsh cultivars have fruited well for the first time, including ‘Perthyre’ (a productive large green fruit, which though a little bland, again can be eaten from the tree, though mainly used for cider production); ‘Twyn y Sherriff’, ‘Pig Aderyn’, a pretty red striped eater/cooker, as well as the ever reliable early ‘Bardsey’ apple – a single parent tree having been found growing on the island off the North Wales coast. (Click here for images of the parent ‘Bardsey’ tree and where it grows, and click here for a recent RHS article on heritage Welsh cider varieties. Click here for descriptions of many Welsh cider apples and more information about the Welsh pomona of the Welsh perry and cider society).
When we first read about ‘Bardsey’ we figured it would be tough enough to grow in our climate, and so it has proved. Not the most vigorous, it might benefit from growing on a different root stock to the one we selected all those years ago, and now long forgotten! But the ‘Bardsey’ apples are always the second earliest dessert variety for us, and interestingly the jays seem to prefer them to all our other fruit. (Addendum – in most later years, we’ve lost the majority of our early forms to families of jays, before other landscape fruits like Sorbus, blackberries and acorns distract their attention).
I still have to make apple jelly from ‘Frederick’, another old Welsh cider cultivar which always produces a light crop, of deep mahogany skinned fruit. This year, I shall combine it with the deep red apples from our, so far, single crab apple – the appropriately named variety ‘Gorgeous’.
‘Grenadier’ usually performs well, though strangely not this year, ‘Arthur Turner’ is a successful early cooker, though not a very productive form. ‘Keswick Codlin’ is highly productive, though has a biennial tendecny with us. ‘Lane’s Prince Albert’, ‘Edward 7th’, and ‘Royal Jubilee’ contribute as well, though again don’t fruit well every year. This year’s star cooker has been ‘Lord Derby’.
What all of this listing confirms, is that as with many aspects of gardening, different cultivars will perform better in some years than others – the wider the range, the less risk of complete disappointment, and with ever more variable weather from one year to the next, there is real merit in preserving local cultivars which should thrive in your own locality.
However, now that many of the trees are fruiting well, we have a glut of larger ‘fancy grade’ apples, and never manage to pick them all before a few have fallen. But I’ve discovered that turkeys love chopped apples, so any fallers or blemished fruit get chopped and mixed with leek leaves and if they’re really lucky, hard-boiled egg. As a consequence, they still come rushing towards me at feeding time. Fiona’s lipstick neck marks are gradually fading – a necessary aid for their second session of wing feather clipping to keep them on site. (For clarity’s sake, this is applied from the stick, not the lips, though Fiona does indeed like the turkeys, almost as much as I do).
We’d already decided to reduce our chicken numbers – they’re just not as much fun as the turkeys, and having reared a few dual purpose Light Sussex as table birds, found them a little disappointing. But ever alert to strange livestock noises, I couldn’t ignore the cacophony penetrating the thick stone cottage walls yesterday during a day of unrelenting rain. By the time I made it up to the runs, the yellow legged buzzard had already devoured a significant part of one of our black hybrid hens. Initially I thought the buzzard was trapped in the pen – it struggled to take off, clattering into our Colditz like overhanging perimeter wire mesh. Only later did I see the carnage in the pen corner.
In a flurry of beak and talons.
If you click here, you can read that we’re not alone in having had problems with buzzards taking hens. Rain or not, we’ll be out this morning trying to rig up some strung out CD’s as deterrents to further attacks. Failing that, more overhead netting, I guess. I fear that the chicken got caught in a corner from which there would be no escape from a determined raptor. Such obvious unsettling predation, meant that the adjacent turkeys even declined their tea time treats, preferring to hunker down behind the coop.
The initial bulb planting was completed on time, only to find, too late, our spring time notebook of suggestions for areas of supplementary bulb improvements. We mustn’t be alone with such disorganisation, since almost to the day, a follow up late order catalogue from our bulb supplier arrived. The upshot is another heavy box to work our way through, before the bulbs shoot. Our biggest effort this year has been on the magic terrace garden, where although the soil is almost non-existent, the smashed-up concrete and shale from previous internal excavations have created a really level, and free draining substrate. Inspired by the hugely diverse flora in some of the most nutritionally poor environments on the planet – think Western Australia, and the fynbos vegetation of South Africa’s Cape province, together with the number of species per square metre in a vibrant hay meadow, we’re going for broke to see just how many bulbs can co-exist and thrive, with the existing perennial plantings, and hopefully create a floral tapestry of great diversity and flowering period length. So, additions this year have included Muscari latifolium, Camassia esculenta and Crocus speciosus ‘Conqueror’, in addition to additional Crocus tommasinianus, Nectaroscordum sicculum and Tulipa ‘Flaming Purissima’, which we already know work well in this location. Whether the bulbs, and their foliage, will co-exist harmoniously, remains to be seen. Since planting here involves using a digging bar, it has meant going over some sections at least 4 times and hopefully avoiding too much pounding damage to the unseen bulbs already lurking beneath the surface. In addition, the successful germination of just a few of the flattened, black papery seeds, from selected Agapanthus seed heads, from last year’s scattering, means that at least 3 continents’ bulbs will have to try to thrive in multicultural harmony cheek by jowl.
Already the Crocus speciosus have delighted us with a few glorious flowers in sunny September, before the heavy rains of late have battered them to the ground. They were always going to be an iffy choice, but even a few Crocus flowers at this time of the year are special. As with many of our choices we scour the catalogues for both an appealing flower and a cheaper price, which usually, but not always, indicates a more vigorous and garden worthy plant.
We look forward to next year to see if the floral baton passes seamlessly from one bulb to another as the year unfolds.
As, optimistically, has been planned.
It’s also that time of the year when the greenhouse gets prepared for winter. Another bumper crop of tomatoes from home saved seed, with the star performers being the cherry tomato saved from ‘Sophie Jane’ (SJ) fruits bought last year. They grew more vigorously and cropped as early as any other varieties, with more tasty fruit per truss. Though I have to say that through poor labelling, I managed to give away most of the other varieties, which have been performing admirably in the gardens of fellow Cothi Gardeners! Although selected for hydroponic commercial cultivation, SJ are obviously just as happy in the compost coming out of the reactor, which is all they’ve had here. But this year I started to remove flowers and lower leaves from early September, and removed all the plants towards the end of September to make room for the Cymbidium orchids which have spent the summer outside. Needless to say the Miscanthus stems used for training the tomatoes, have been recycled as brilliant kindling, and the flexi ties await untying on a long distance journey, for use in year number 3.Cymbidiums require distinct night cooling from mid summer onwards to initiate flower bud formation. By the time the plants are inside the greenhouse, the die has been cast for any flowers during the winter, including how many individual flowers will form on any of the flower spikes. But it’s around now that I excitedly look for the first hint of flower buds forming at the base of the pseudobulbs.
You don’t grow Cymbidium orchids for their foliage, so the prospect of at least some flowers to brighten up dull winter’s days inside are thrilling. A trip to the National Botanic Garden’s orchid festival was another treat at the beginning of September, with new angles always being seen on familiar views.And the two mini Phalaenopsis acquired there, are still blooming weeks later, with more flower buds forming to continue a display into the new year. They’re obviously thriving in the warmer temperatures which we now enjoy in our recently insulated kitchen. We can hit the magic 18 degrees C for successful Phalenopsis growing for much of the time now, and low light levels aren’t a problem for this orchid genus.
We took advantage of the dry weather at the end of September to double shred the pruned off Hellebore leaves with the lawnmower, a little earlier than usual, and this provided the initial charge for the greenhouse heating compost heap. (See separate pages for much more on this topic. Click here). With mild weather forecast for the weeks ahead, the extra temperature isn’t really needed yet, but it gets me back in the swing of regular top ups, and compost shifting. And as I’ve mentioned in recent posts on this topic, I now view the brilliant compost which the system creates as being just as valuable as the heat generated and captured during the decomposition process.
Those of a tidy bent will reflect upon my own modus operandi in the greenhouse, (and elswhere). But I include this image to show again the perforated silver air ducting which I use to spread warm air from the insulated compost heap (outside the greenhouse back wall), around amongst the plants. In fact I shall add another section to this to avoid having to step over it as I enter the greenhouse, for those concerned about risk assessments. Also of note is the switch to a flexible hose ( X-hose), for tomato watering. I’ve retained the 5 gallon water containers as heat stores, but the X hose is infinitely quicker and easier on the back, than tipping those heavy containers of warmer water into watering cans. (Click here for all the other posts I’ve written about heating a greenhouse with an insulated compost heap).