Apples are one of the crops I associate most with this time of year. Almost every garden will contain at least one tree, (and if not, it really should). For the biggest harvest, it’s best to have two different varieties that flower at similar times. This will give more successful pollination as some apple varieties are unable to pollinate themselves. In Hampstead Garden Suburb, near where I live in North London, every house had two fruit trees planted when they were built. A survey of the trees 100 years later, in 2009, revealed at least 45 different varieties still growing. This is just a small selection of the 2200 varieties held in the National collection at Brogdale. – http://www.brogdalecollections.org and a drop in the ocean compared to the 6000 different varieties thought to have been grown through the years in the UK.
The apple has come a long way from their wild relatives, Malus sieversii, who’s small fruit first attracted the attention of mankind in Central Asia over 7000 years ago. It has followed our spread around the globe and is now a grown across Asia, Europe and North America. It has put down deep roots, and is now part of many of our cultures and traditions. They have are celebrated through history, from the Roman goddess of the harvest, Pomona, to the creation story and the tree at the centre of the garden of Eden.
Anyone who’s garden contains a mature apple tree will be familiar with the abundance of fruit that usually occurs around this time of year. The only trouble is, most apple trees will produce considerably more than most of us will be able to eat or store. So what are we to do with all those apples?
The garden I take care of is blessed with apples. The land was once part of an orchard many years ago and some still remain. We have 6 small Trees of various dessert varieties, and three grand old veterans whose gnarled old branches are heaving under the weight of their large ‘Bramley-esque’ fruit at this time of the year.
Over the past few weeks I have been picking the apples as they ripened (five laundry baskets full this year) and last week they were sent off to the local press. For a small fee, the apples are prepared, squashed, pasteurised and bottled. I have just sampled some of this years product and I can confirm it was a great vintage.
The unsettled weather in spring meant that pollination wasn’t as good and the crop wasn’t as big as last year. The late summer sunshine helped to ripen and sweeten the apples though, and the finished product was excellent. Some trees do have a tendency to slip in to biennial fruiting, giving heavy crops on alternate years. Judicious thinning of the fruit in summer to just one or two per cluster will help the trees to produce good crops more consistently.
Unfortunately, not every one has access to a local press as we do, so projects are being set up around the UK to help people to deal with the glut of fruit in the autumn. Abundance – http://www.abundancelondon.com is one charity that hopes to help people deal with their gluts. By getting communities together to collect fruit from under-utilised trees they hope to cut waste and reduce our dependence on imported fruit. It is thought we currently import around 90% of our fruit in the UK, so just harvesting what we already have can contribute to reducing the air miles of our food.
The Orchard Project http://www.theorchardproject.org.uk/ is a charity, set up in order to create, restore and celebrate community orchards. They started in London but now have groups active across the UK. They offer training and support so local people can make the most of the harvest in their neighbourhoods. A quick glance at the map of my local area revealed a network of orchard spaces throughout the city. These can have a massive impact on the local environment, providing beautiful blossom, tasty fruit and strengthening the communities they help to support. Orchards for the benefit of the community is a fabulous idea. It helps to bond the small, tightly-knit communities that are able to unite at times such as the harvest to share a common interest and work toward a collective goal from which every member of the community benefits. Surely this is a vision of utopia.
Orchards don’t just provide food. Traditional orchards, with widely spaced trees of varying ages, are also great for the environment. They often comprise of several different ecosystems, such as woodland, hedgerow and meadow. This creates a vibrant mosaic of habitats which can be home to a huge range of bees, butterflies, birds, bats and beetles. They are vital for acting as a green corridor to connect together fragmented habitats within our landscapes. This type of orchard can be found in most areas of the UK, although the majority are in England. Over the past 10 years The Peoples Trust for Endangered Species has been working to map the remaining orchards in the UK. They identified over 35,000 sites in England and 7,000 in Wales. Their work revealed that around 90% of traditional orchards have been lost since the 1950’s. This is mainly from either neglect or development.
I fondly remember spending my summers as a child camping in the orchards that surrounded my village, and in the Autumn snaffling a few of the fruit. The produce became like currency between the villagers, who exchanged their surpluses for the produce they wanted. These orchards have since been lost as the land was developed as housing. Whilst we can never turn back to clock, I would like to think that the orchards we plant today will provide plenty of fruit for our ancestors to go scrumping for in years to come, just as we did.
To find an orchard near you visit their interactive map at – https://ptes.org/get-involved/surveys/countryside-2/traditional-orchard-survey/orchard-maps