An orchard in February doesn’t look like much, but there are promises of spring appearing – snowdrops, catkins, and swelling buds on the trees. High time to prune those apple and pear trees!
Our first task was to prune the older tree, which we’ve been gradually reshaping to a proper ‘tree’ shape (it had grown very siiiiiiideways due to the light from the south being blocked). We went at it somewhat cautiously, pruning a bit at the ends, and removing branches that crossed each other, or went too much straight up.
The variety is unknown but it produces nice eating apples.
The Hambledon Deux Ans got a bit of a trim, as did the Wyken Pippin. This latter is such a sturdy tree now, and has kind of gone sideways, so Al removed the protective frame around it. We’ve kind of decided to keep livestock out of the orchard now, as it’s clear that the fruit will always be low enough to be munched even by sheep. And the frame was very rickety. But it may be reused later.
Last year for the first time we got a couple of apples from the young Hambledon Deux-ans apple tree, planted nearly five years ago now. It was the tree that was most munched by enthusiastic young cows in its first year and I’m honestly chuffed that it’s alive at all. I put the apples in the dining room and kept meaning to move them somewhere cooler but never got round to it, and finally decided to just eat them!
All things considered, I think the apple didn’t do too badly; more than half of it was eatable, though very tart. I can see why it’s described as a cooker. Fingers crossed the tree will do better this year, though with the hazards of drought and late frost, it’s an absolute unknown quantity.
We are still rich in apples, they are literally falling off the tree now…we picked all the good apples from the “eater” in the Rumwoldstow orchard, but the Bramley in the garden continues to provide windfalls from above even after we picked the low-hanging fruit. To this end I am road-testing what I call “ginger nun”, a variant on “peasant girl with veil” (a traditional Danish recipe of stewed apple topped with fried, sweetened breadcrumbs, cream and grated chocolate).
I’ve left out the chocolate, and instead of sugar, I’ve mixed honey and ginger with the butter in which the breadcrumbs were fried.
This made use of a good-sized colander full of the better windfalls, which had a good amount of usable fruit on each. We then picked up and sorted today’s windfalls – three buckets full! – and took them to the cows on Lake Meadow.
The tree specialist in the next village sold me three new fruit trees for the orchard. They had to sit in the shed with their lower appendages swathed in bubble wrap for two days until we had time to get out and plant them. What have we got?
Pear: Winter Nelis. This is a heritage variety known from the early 19th century and its pears are apparently not a super pretty fruit, but sweet with a good flavour. And they’re said to keep into January. On the down side the tree prefers a sheltered spot and our orchard is quite exposed with the chilly meadow to the west.
Pear: Jargonelle. First recorded in 1629 but thought to be older, so a great pear for our early mediaeval orchard. It’s an early pear but to my surprise, our existing Louise Bonne and the new Winter Nelis are apparently all suitable pollination partners. The tree man knows his stuff!
Plum: St Julien. I found very little on t’internet about the St Julien as a tree in its own right, as it is so widely used as a rootstock. But the tree man said it produces a tasty green plum, and is actually one of the earliest cultivars around, so a great fit for us – and unusual, which is part of our thing. One forum post suggested the fruit is best dried, but another described the fruit as complex, sweet when perfectly ripe but potentially acidic. I am excited to let this little tree develop naturally and do its thing, whatever it turns out to be!
The Jargonelle and Winter Nelis are quite close together, and to the quince and the Hambledon Deux Ans apple, but the I couldn’t choose between these two and had to have them both, and they needed to be planted further from the place where they diseased Victoria plum was removed last year, which restricted my options somewhat. I will need to keep them relatively small but that will make it easier to pick the fruit. Anyway, more trees for the win!
Finally, the St Julien plum is so small that I decided to stick it in a pot for a year or two to gain some height, otherwise we’ll lose the poor thing in the undergrowth. This pot had dwarf beans last year which didn’t do well and anyway are an annual, so there was a handy pot with soil and no plants. I might try beans around the side this year and hope for a better harvest. They actually did better in 2019 even though the sheep got out and had a munch at them before exploring the road (and then retreating swiftly when they saw the cars).
I have finally potted all my apple seedlings into individual pots of at least 1 litre capacity. And counted them. I have 112 seedlings, some tiny, some being munched by various parasites, some growing with great enthusiasm. I lost one seedling to what I think was silverleaf fungus, and disposed of it carefully, but overall it’s a pretty encouraging collection.
Above, the back row is from apples that I found in a box outside somebody’s house in the nearby village of Aynho, labelled as Cox’s. The front row is seedlings from the tree behind the forge at Murton Park (Yorkshire Museum of Farming). Some I grew from apples that I collected last August (2020) and kept while the apples ripened – I am amazed how many germinated. Some I found as seedlings in the “village brown” and area around the tree. The tree itself was badly damaged in a fire last winter which burned down the forge and fence; the tree was alive in April but I don’t know if they’ll keep it or replace it. So I’m very happy to have scions, especially as the tree produces very tasty early apples.
Above we have the Royal Gala seedlings, grown from apples that I bought in the supermarket.
Next up (above) are the Egremont Russets, an English apple bought in Morrisons. Two at the back seem to be dying but the rest look pretty good.
Braeburns (above) again from supermarkets. The larger ones were planted last year, from seeds which had germinated inside the apple – I assume false winter experienced while being shipped in cold storage. The one at the far left is a mystery seedling which I found growing in the patio. It looked very much like an apple seedling but is now developing rather shinier leaves, so I’m going to have to wait and see what it is really!
My friend Emma brought me “Cox like” apples from Kittyfields orchard near her home in Galashiels. Above and below – they proved very enthusiastic!
And finally, at the back are the Discoveries, and the front are Cripps Red which are bonus apples – the others are mostly ones I gathered in autumn 2020 and refrigerated for a month before germinating them. The Cripps Reds are all seeds that I found already germinating inside my breakfast apples in spring 2021.
As you can tell from the photos, the garden at Rumwoldstow has got away from me. Where are the energetic nuns and monks when we need them eh? But the plus side is lots of flowers for bees and butterflies.
Returning to the elecampane, it appears to be a plant with many medicinal uses and also an edible potherb known to the Celts and Romans. It was known as ‘elfwort’. The roots can be candied or used as a flavouring; they contain up to 44% inulin, a naturally occurring polysaccharide that humans do not digest well. The leaves are apparently bitter but edible, preferably cooked; I have not yet tried this! Medically, it appears to be extra good for lung function and coughs, which is of particular interest in these days of COVID-19. Of immediate benefit is the fact that the bees are all over it.
I put in the two elecampane plants last year, and this is the first year they have flowered. I had no idea how vast they would be!
April was a drought; May was a series of rainy days! The apples, pears, damsons and plum have all flowered. The pears seem to have lost almost all their fruit, perhaps due to the frost, but the apples run a bit later and are still in fairly full flower, and the frosts *seem* to be over, fingers crossed. At present there are damsons and plums growing – better than last year when I harvested exactly one damson! The quince and medlar have yet to flower. The orchard is super full of cow parsley and looks very pretty.
The cloister garden is a bit of a jungle, but I’ve started to weed out the central area and moved some things around. I originally planted three sorrels, trying to fill the space, but they are monsters and not pretty. So I’ve moved two great clumps into my regular garden and have put in their place some of the self-seeded cornflowers and viola tricolor that I weeded out. The madonna lilies are looking good, and I have hopes that the elecampane will flower this year (didn’t last year).
I have planted some things in the “old Roman well”. Sadly only one of them (the veronica) is native but the blue flag iris is a generally European-looking thing, and the Saururus cernuus “Lizard’s tail” is one of the few plants in the shop that looked like it might cope with the situation and poke its head above the parapet in due course. Al put some scraps of pond liner on the base of the pond bucket, then concrete blocks on top, to allow the plant pots to be put in at a sensible (not too deep) level.
And we had flooding! In May! It looks different to the winter because the dock in in full growth, but there was plenty of depth for my trusty and beloved coracle. This time, I took my phone out with me, wrapped in a double layer of ziplock bags, and took some snaps from out on the water. Amazingly, I didn’t even get bitten by flies…
I spent the last week on pilgrimage to the North, staying in the Viking village at Murton Park. It was a wonderful escape from everyday life and was topped off by the discovery of apple seedlings sprouting in the area around the old apple tree behind the site of the recently-burned-down forge. I rescued a good number of them, and have added them to my apple tree stash. One seedling is a second-year survivor, which has been chopped off at some point but is sprouting well. Of the rest, four look pretty good, and three very feeble. The parent tree was badly damaged by the fire but is sprouting on one side.
On my return home, I found that one of my Braeburn pips has sprouted, which brings me back up to three after one of last year’s seedlings mysteriously died. The seed came from a pack of six apples that I bought in April from Morrisons, and unlike the first batch they are from the UK.
After six months of rain over the winter, followed by a few days of blissful warm sunshine, we’ve returned to icy blasts of north wind and drought conditions. All the trees in the orchard are alive, except for the old (probably Victoria) plum which had to be removed last year because it had silverleaf fungus right down into the roots.
Last year, most of the trees lost their fruit due to May frosts. Will the current frosts be early enough that the trees won’t mind? Only the plum and damsons are really in flower yet.
The apple seeds are germinating like anything! I now have three or four boxes with five seeds each of the Gala apples, which have proved especially keen to get going. There are at least 10 more that need planting up – but every trip to the garden to put soil in pots is a bit of a big deal while it’s so cold! I’m managing to nip out and fill about two pots a day.
The Egremont Russets started to germinate a few days after being taken out of the fridge, so around 5th February, and I have got about 15 seeds in total germinated – pretty much all the ones I’d collected, which is an impressive rate. The Cox-like apples that I took from a doorstep in the nearby village of Aynho, and the Cox-like apples my friend Emma brought me from Scotland, are also sprouting and I have a couple of pots of those. The Discovery apples have also got going. Only the apples taken from the tree behind the forge at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming have yet to germinate. These are the ones that I was most doubtful of – the apples were picked very early in August, and the seeds at that time were soft and pale green. I kept the apples for a month or so and the last ones I ate had developed dark brown seeds. I still have hopes of them, after all they’ve only been out of the fridge for a week.
Apples are of course fully hardy, but it seems harsh to put them out right now with daytime temperatures around freezing, which is why they are lining up on the window sill for the time being.
The flooded meadow is now partly frozen over, thin ice that would not support a well-grown cat, but it’s quite dramatic when the sun is shining and the snow settling on the ice.