A couple of recent television programmes on orcharding have made me think about growing some fruit trees of my own. The first dealt with a Hawkes Bay organic apple grower. He grew under the biodynamics system and mainly sold his apples to high priced markets in Europe.
The second showed a cherry and apricot grower in Otago who had ripped out all his apple trees. He said the reason for doing this was the poor returns from apple growing, which he believes stemmed from his competitors in Chile and South Africa being able to get their produce to market much cheaper than he could.
This made me think about the long-term future of export apple growing, and made me think that it might be, as he thought, an unsustainable business. The price of oil is only going top rise, and the cost of transport will rise accordingly. That will affect the profitability of apple growing, making it a more economically marginal activity, and the result of the will, presumably be, the removal of a lot more apple trees as growers exit the market.
As they go the price of apples will undoubtedly rise, and the financial imperative to grow apples will return for the home gardener. After all, it is not that long ago that every hoem garden had a little orchard with one or two apples, a couple of plums, and maybe a peach tree. Certainly, the garden I grew up in had most of the above.
Gardens are smaller nowadays so we might need to think about growing in a space-saving way. Fortunately, apples are very easily to grow in a constricted space, by being espaliered.
To start with, select the ground for your tree. Apples are very adaptable and will cope in most soils. If you have heavy clay soils you might want to add lots of humus to the soil and plant the trees in a raised mound. Similarly, if you are planting in thin soils, you will need to add some humus. Either way, for the home garden it is best to buy dwarf trees. Your local nursery will be bale to advise which rootstock is best for your area.
If your trees are to grow against a wall or fence, you will need to stretch some wires over the surface for the espaliered plants to grow along. Bear in mind that the framework for your tree will become very woody and it may be difficult to paint behind it, so it might pay to place the wire about w15 cm away from the wall.
If you are planting in the open you will need to make a framework to stretch the wires along. I think the best method is in the open if that is at all possible, as the trees and the resulting fruit will be much healthier in the full sun, and with the breeze moving around them.
The trees you buy will probably have one main stem with a few lateral shoots at a lower level. The centre shoot should be trained vertically, while the two lateral shoots should be tied at about a 45-degree angle, unless they are very green. The angle is to allow the shoots to develop a little before you train them back to horizontal. This is usually done in the first winter after planting.
The following season a further two laterals are tied to the next set of wires, and so on until three layers have been formed. The top can then allowed to sprout a fan of foliage and the shaping is complete. Remember to keep the branches at least 30 cm apart as this will allow plenty of light to get into the tree, fostering good health.
Apple trees grown in this manner do not need a lot of feeding – in fact, too much food can be a real problem – so remember to feed sparingly. Remember too that apples fruit on second year wood, and older, so do not prune out all the old wood.
What variety to plant?
I thin k the answer is to plant some of the varieties that you cannot buy in the shops, as you will have a much more interesting range of flavours to experience.
For example, there are the wonderful apples bred by James Hutton Kidd in Greytown in the 1930s. The best known of these is undoubtedly ‘Gala,’ and it has to be said that a tree-ripened home-grown specimen of this variety is a different beast to the insipid variety you will find in the supermarket.
‘Freyberg’ is another of Kidd’s apples, with the most amazing taste of aniseed on tree-ripened fruit. This flavour deepens if the fruit is left on the tree as long as possible. The flesh is yellow and sweet, the skin light yellow.
If you prefer nuttier flavours try ‘Egremont Russet.’ As the name hints this has a yellow skin, usually almost covered with brown russet. Your average supermarket buyer would blanch at the thought of the appearance of this apple, but it has a lovely sweet nutty flavour. I like it when it is almost over-ripe as the flavour is more intense and complicated.
‘Lobo’ is an old Canadian variety. It has light yellow skin, flushed red often with russet. These large fruits are brilliant for cooking as they take on an almost frothy texture, and they eat well too, but store them for a while as they tend to be a bit sour straight off the tree.
A friend brought me some of their heritage varieties last summer. The most amazing of these was the large and colourful, and appealingly named ‘Peasgood Nonsuch.’ This old variety is huge, with bright orange yellow fruit splashed with red. The fruit are firm and tender, and although they can be eaten raw, they are best used for pies and tarts.
I tell you, you’ll only need one apple to make a pie with this variety.