November contents: Storing Apples...... Fabulously Fruity Festive Treats..... Pruning grapes is an urgent job..... How to Prune unruly Grapes..... How to take grapevine cuttings - the easy no-fuss way..... On 'Buying Irish' or local...... Reminder - time to plant bare root trees - what to do if conditions aren't suitable?.... More thoughts on Rootstocks...... Choosing Varieties
It's a delight to pick out a daily treasure from among the 14 delicious varieties currently in my recycled old freezer 'apple store'!
It's a standing joke in this house that if you stand still for long enough then 'She' (meaning me!) will probably recycle you! I have to admit I am a big fan of recycling as much as possible and I often tend to hang onto things 'just in case' which can cause a few space problems occasionally! One of the things I've often found though is that if I throw out something which I've hung on to for years - the very next week I'll find the perfect use for it and then will no longer have it!! Possibly a form of insecurity? But it's often amazing how many things can be re-purposed with just a little imagination and ingenuity. It's not only frugal but also very satisfying being able to re-purpose something rather than just throwing it away thoughtlessly as so many people do!
One of the things I never throw out is old fridges and freezers that aren't working and can't be mended - which is always the preferred option. Their uses are myriad! While they may not be the most attractive items in the world and are definitely not as beautiful as those expensive 'artisan'-crafted, wooden slatted, apple stores - they make fantastic rodent-proof, well-insulated, variable humidity apple stores among many other things. This year I've put many of the eating apples into my late mother's old upright freezer, which finally broke down only about 3 years ago after being fixed several times over the last 25 years. It was the perfect excuse to buy a much-needed new, far more environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient one. Re-located into a cold outhouse this old one is perfect for storing smaller numbers of eating apples that ripen at various different times - from their picking time in October up until April. It also houses some of the less-damaged windfalls in a separate drawer - some of which need checking over daily.
With only a few of several varieties, I've arranged different varieties in each of the drawers with the earliest ripening at the top, so that the rising ethylene gas given off by the ripening fruits doesn't set off the others off into ripening too. In the past I've learnt that this is something that can happen if you have many different varieties with different ripening times stored together. The drawers are easy to pull out to inspect them and check for any fast-ripening or damaged ones which could rot quickly if left in there and also damage others. This can happen no matter how carefully one picks them - even wind can bruise ripening apples while still on the tree and this may not be evident at the time when they're just picked. Another thing to remember is that apples are living things - not every apple will ripen at exactly the time or keep for the same amount of time - depending on the weather conditions while it is growing. This year in particular I'm finding that a lot of varieties aren't keeping as well due mainly to the long drought we had in the summer - although some of the later ripening ones have not been as affected. I wonder what weather 2019 will bring?
G.K.Chesterton once said "To learn how to value something - imagine losing it". This is so true and applies to so many things - but for me - especially to orchard fruit like apples, as I've often mentioned. For about 20 years since our neighboring farmer started growing cereals, the poor trees in my original orchard
adjacent to his property had been affected by the spraydrift from the hormone weedkillers which he used every spring. The result was that all their flower buds dropped off. So - no apples! Having been brought up with an abundance of old heritage varieties, I missed them desperately - especially since the apples available in supermarkets are just tasteless, sugar-filled orbs, with tough, often bitter skins. This year however was different. With oilseed rape growing on the other side of the hedge to my orchard, the weather was a bit odd and the spraying regime was not the same. As a result, Nature worked her magic, the irreplaceable bees have done their job well and I now have enough tasty apples stored - both eaters and cookers - to see me through until at least the end of March, or even April .
Every day one of these treasures is picked out carefully, polished and admired like the jewel which it is for an hour or so - then to be consumed at lunchtime with much appreciation! There are so few things in life that one can lose and then regain. I am so deeply appreciative and grateful for every single one of these delicious apples, with all of their complex aromatic flavours, for along with them come so many precious memories that encompass my whole life. I went to a very interesting lecture on scent years ago, that was given by an expert from the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens to the Irish Garden Plant Society - he explained that scent goes directly to the limbic system, and is in fact the first sense that we gain at birth and normally the last sense that we finally lose. That explains why scent can be so evocative for us. G.K.Chesterton was indeed a wise man, who understood that some things are worth more than money. In fact - money can't buy these apples. If you want to eat them - then you will probably have to grow them yourself - because you definitely won't find them in any shops!
Plumptious homegrown raisins soaked in Brandy
Fabulously Fruity Festive Treats
If your friends are anything like mine - they love receiving delicious gifts that you've put a bit of time, effort and love into making. Apart from the usual homemade chutneys, jams, sloe or damson gins etc. which take a bit longer to produce - there are many other delicious concoctions which are really luxurious treats that can be made at even quite short notice for Christmas presents. One present I love making, because I enjoy eating them is a jar of plumptious raisins, sultanas, dried apricots or perhaps sour cherries (delicious with smoked duck salads!) soaked in some suitable alcohol - which will complement it and you can vary to taste. One I love making, because I grow a lot of peaches here, is semi-dehydrated peaches, soaked in peach brandy or Schnapps! Fruits preserved in a rich syrupy alcohol makes the perfect complement to accompany Christmas pates or terrines, ice cream or can be use to make really special bread and butter pudding, rum babas or other desserts - or even perhaps some extra-special muffins! You can vary the size of the potful for any occasion - I often take a small pot of something if I'm going to lunch or supper at someone's house, so I always have a stock of them handy and also use them a lot here for various things as they're so much better than using plastic! Something homemade is also so much nicer than a small box of chocolates obviously bought at the last minute at a petrol station on the way! I'm sure there isn't a cook or food lover on the planet who wouldn't be impressed with such a thoughtful and delicious gift!
This year I left Autumn Royal, the latest seedless grape to ripen here, until it was almost falling off the vine before semi-dehydrating the berries and then soaking in brandy, because I happened to have quite a lot handy, but you could also use sherry or any other alcohol which takes your fancy. You don't have to own a dehydrator either - you can simply buy really good quality organic, unsulphured dried fruit and soak it for a couple of weeks in the alcohol, giving them a stir or a shake every so often. It's important to always use unsulphured fruit as many people are sensitive or even severely allergic to sulphites. Organic dried fruit is normally unsulphured, which may mean that it doesn't keep quite as long depending on it's sugar content (which also preserves it) but if you need to keep it for very long you can freeze it without problems.
However, if you don't have a couple of weeks, here's a great way to cheat time and make them overnight - which is almost as good! Just put whatever dried fruit you're using into a saucepan - anything from raisins, sultanas, dried peaches, apples, pears - the possibilities are endless and you could also make some really great combinations from fruit which isn't homegrown (mango in peach liqueur is one of the ultimate), cover with brandy, rum, gin, vodka or whatever is your alcohol of choice, bring to just simmering point, turn off immediately, cover and put aside to cool. Repeat this twice more, then let it get completely cold before decanting into a sterilised storage jar. To sterilise jars, I put clean, dry jars into an oven heated to 100 deg centigrade, leave for 10 minutes, then switch off and allow them to cool down a bit in the oven before removing. Don't take them straight out and put them down onto a cold surface or they may shatter. Let them cool completely before filling with the soaked fruit. Then just seal, put on a pretty homemade label and a bow - Happy Christmas!
You can use any sort of sealable jar, or buy suitably gift-sized practical storage or Kilner jars very cheaply - only about €2.50 suitable for a really decent-sized present. These are endlessly useful after the jar has been emptied of it's contents - so I'm sure the recipient will be most grateful! Or if you're a hoarder like me, who keeps pretty jars for future use - you may already have some unusual and attractive storage possibilities. Dried fruit preserved in this way will actually last for years - becoming even more delicious. But I doubt it will last long in the household of most food lovers!
Pruning grapes is an urgent job - after the winter solstice things soon start to wake up again!
Pruning grapevines is really the most urgent job polytunnel fruit to do now - as soon as the leaves have died back and are falling - the earlier the better because we don't know what the winter weather will bring! Once we're in December it's a job that's so easy to forget with all the hectic preparations to be done for the festive season and then the New Year! Don't leave it until late December or early January because if we have a very mild winter, as many have been recently, the sap can start rising early - particularly with the warmer environment and soil in a polytunnel. If you prune when the sap has started rising you can seriously weaken, or may even kill a vine. While you're pruning you could even turn some of the lengths of wood that you've pruned into new plants by using them as cuttings as described below. Then you might have some young vines next year to increase your stock or give away as Christmas presents to other gardeners! You can also twist the pliable pruned lengths into a base for making a lovely Christmas wreath for your own front door - or as a thoughtful home-made present for someone else!
Pruning vine side shoots 2-3 buds from main stem or rod as it's known.
Vine cuttings from this year's pruning, lower one prepared ready for propagation.
Last year's rooted cuttings, ready to tip out, gently separate and pot up.
How to Prune unruly Grapes
People so often panic about pruning vines and as a result do nothing - just letting them ramble and go wild everywhere! The then become a tangled, unproductive and often disease-ridden mess with long leafy shoots growing everywhere very fast! This is a problem I'm often asked about. I know it looks really difficult to know where to start when you're surrounded by a tangled mess of shoots and branches growing wildly all over the place! Believe me - I've been there! But even if your vine is a real mess like many I've seen - it really is easy to rescue it and untangle the mess - especially at this time of year! Whatever you do to it at this time of year - you can't possibly kill it. But if you delay and leave it too late until the sap is rising fast - then you just might!
I now grow almost all of my vines in 'T' shapes - with branches or 'rods' as they are known branching out either side at the top of the 'T' - and trained along the sides of my polytunnel at about one metre high. Training like this means that they have a good length of stem for producing the side shoots or 'spurs' which will produce the grapes. As vines come into leaf late - in April - they don't shade any other crops grown this way. They're also within easy reach to pinch back the soft green side growths which will grow out from those fruiting spurs regularly over the summer - you will need to do that continually over the summer prevent another mess. Unlike woody growth, soft green growth can be pinched back at any time of year and the vines won't bleed. This is the best way to keep them properly under control, after their original pruning.
Growing them along the sides also makes use of every bit of tunnel space very productively. I don't recommend training them overhead as some people so - because doing that will shade any crops underneath and also be extremely hard to reach and difficult to deal with when they need lots of 'pinching out' of fast growing excess leafy shoots etc during the growing season in order to produce decent grapes. Grown my way they're always within easy reach and jobs don't become a major production - involving stepladders and a lot of time. (Been there - done that - fallen off the ladder!) The way I grow them is far more simple and it's far easier to keep under control. Believe me I get more grapes than I know what to do with every year - and you'll be lucky to get any if you let them become a mess - because that restricts the air circulation too - which means any bunches that do develop get disease and go mouldy!
If you're starting with a new vine then just prune at the top at about one metre or slightly lower, and next year allow two branches to grow out either side. These will be the beginning of your permanent main 'T' shaped framework. However - if you're starting on a mess - stand back and look at it for a while to 'get your eye in' and then select one or two of the strongest woody branches to be the main stems from now on, one to train either side, and then just prune any other growth back to two buds from those two main stems. The buds on these side growths from the main stem - or 'spurs', as they are called, will produce your bunches of grapes next year, and every year after that. You can alternatively just grow them as a bush if they're in a pot and allow 5 or 6 side shoots to grow out from the main trunk to form permanent branches that will produce one or two bunches of grapes each. It's up to you - vines are very flexible and will do whatever you want. The one thing you must remember is to keep on top of the pruning all summer too. It's not rocket science - dead easy! Keep it simple is my motto - and it works for me. Believe me - you won't regret doing it - just be brave!!
While I'm doing this year's pruning - I'm going to take some cuttings of the Flame Seedless grape in the east tunnel. After looking a bit 'iffy' for a couple of years - only producing one or two bunches - it's finally decided it likes it here, has at last settled down and cropped really well again this year. It's a very late variety, ripening throughout October depending how warm the autumn is, so it really stretches the grape season well. We're still eating the last bunches fresh as they keep really well in a cool larder or airy cool place. This year I've left two bunches of Flame hanging on the vine - hoping that in that way they may possibly keep until Christmas - we will see! They're still looking good so far - so I'll keep you posted! The other grape that has a long season is Lakemont Seedless, we're still eating the last of those fresh too. I also freeze lots loose, for throwing into smoothies or just eating like sweeties out of the freezer when I open it for something else - they're irresistible!
The last fresh grapes of the year. Lakemont Seedless and Flame Seedless
How to take grapevine cuttings - the easy no-fuss way
You can use some of the pruned material as cuttings to make more vines using newly ripened wood from this year's growth. Just choose pencil thick (or more) hardened (brown and woody) shoots that you've just pruned from this year's growth, with three good buds on. You'll need a pot or bucket of old, free draining, firm gritty compost - no need to break it up or fork it over. I usually use one of the containers that grew aubergines, tomatoes, or something similar, as the nutrients will have been used up. You don't want to put cuttings into nutrient-rich compost as this can deter them from rooting. Cut off whatever now dead plant was in there before obviously - tomato, aubergine or whatever! Then just push the cuttings/twigs down firmly into the compost around the sides of the pot or container, about an inch or so from the sides, with the lowest bud buried, the middle bud just at or just below the soil surface, and the top bud about 3-4ins or 10cm above the compost - ensuring they're the right way up - naturally! Water them in well, put them somewhere fairly shaded in the tunnel like under the staging and forget them for a couple of months. Alternatively - you could put the cuttings into individual long 'vine' or rose pots to start with - but that's a lot of bother when not all of them will 'strike' and form roots. Probably 80-90% of them should strike. In spring, when they start to show signs of growth, water them carefully every so often - but never over water as they may rot before they have formed proper roots. Protect them from any early frosts with fleece. Then there's nothing else to do until next winter - apart from occasional watering so they don't completely dry out. Then you can tip them out and separate them gently, potting them up individually into a nice, free draining compost.
Dead easy! That's next year's Christmas presents for nothing - from something you would otherwise have just thrown away! Now that's what I really call saving money!! Another frugal idea I came up with a few years ago was to use the long bendy prunings to make decorative wreaths. The long pliable shoots wind easily around each other and can be secured with a little raffia or string - then you can decorate them with whatever you feel like. Pine cones, berries, seashells or even cookies or other little gifts. These make another lovely Christmas present that can be re-used year after year! It beats expensive shop-bought ones!
On 'Buying Irish' or local
Talking of which - I'm often criticised for not exclusively promoting Irish nurseries and garden centres. That criticism is unfair however, as I do promote them whenever they offer reasonable value and a good choice, as anyone who has been reading this blog for long will know. One of the reasons I started this blog, some years ago, was to share the the money saving tips I've discovered over the years with other gardeners. After more than 35 years of being a keen organic gardener growing your own food, and seeking out the best value in what you don't grow - you learn quite a few good tips! While I'm all for supporting Irish business as it benefits all of us - I don't support anyone who tries to take advantage of the the 'grow you own' boom to rip people off, either by charging double the UK price, or supplying inferior products just because they can if they have little or no competition here! I've always looked for the best value. That's important when you're trying to feed a family a healthy organic diet on a limited budget, whether you're trying to grow it or buy it. Organic choices can be more expensive - even when they don't need to be.
Some cynical retailers, particularly some of the supermarkets, still seem to think that eating healthily and buying organic food is a 'luxury lifestyle choice' by well-off nature lovers, who will tolerate constantly rising prices. The reality is actually very different when you have a small child who very nearly died from multiple allergies - like I had years ago. We've always avoided all household chemicals, and always had to buy any organic food which we couldn't grow ourselves for that very reason. (Certainly not a luxury lifestyle believe me - holidays were a rarity too!).
Similarly - some nurseries and garden centres seem to have that same attitude towards people who want to grow their own food. I was looking around the fruit catalogues recently to see what new varieties there were - and came across an Irish garden centre charging double UK prices for their fruit trees! Now maths has never been my strong point - but even I can count the difference between fruit trees that cost 45/49 euros here plus delivery - and exactly the same fruit trees that cost 25 pounds sterling (that includes a generous currency conversion) plus delivery from one of my favourite nurseries - Ken Muir's in the UK. I've been buying plants and trees from both of them for over 30 years - and I can honestly say they currently have the greatest range of top quality fruit available at the most competitive prices, as I've often mentioned before. Sadly Deacons Nursery in the Isle of Wight closed last spring which I'm very sad about. I bought the trees for my original orchard from them and they have always had the widest variety of trees too. They also had the best catalogue, which I would read like a novel! My annual treat was always to choose one or two new varieties from them - hence I now have over 100 different varieties! As I've often said - apple trees are like stamps - the more you have the more you want - there is just no end to their variation and beauty.
Here's another cost cutting tip if you're ordering from the UK and happen to have a convenient friend in the North of Ireland - cheaper UK postage applies naturally. Not only that - if 'Brexit' happens which is still not certain - it may be the only way to get some varieties of fruit in the future!. If you live near enough to go and pick your stuff up from there - it works out cheaper. Planting the trees will more than offset the carbon if that bothers you! (you could car-share the shopping trip with a pal to buy organic goodies there that you won't get here too! Again - I know all the stuff about buying Irish - but when Irish shops sell what I want to buy - then I will! If it's not available here - then I will buy it somewhere else. I keep on asking for things here but some shops just can't be bothered! Some supermarkets and shops get away with charging exorbitant prices for a very restricted range of produce just because they can!! 'Every little bit helps' - but mostly their profits!!) When it comes to plants - in these days of EU wide plant certification, there are no worries about plant health importation restrictions or other problems. In just one or two cases you may possibly contravene plant breeders rights, by bringing certain potato varieties here which nurseries won't send by mail order to Eire - but my blog is also about saving you money and recommending the best varieties to grow from experience.
It's time to plant bare root trees - what can you do if conditions aren't suitable?
The season for bare root tree planting is really on us in earnest now and nurseries are starting to send out their first orders. If you're thinking about ordering bare root trees or fruit bushes - get on with it fast or you'll be at the back of the queue and get the tail end of the nursery stock early next year! If you've already ordered some - when you trees or bushes arrive get them into the ground as soon as possible. Anything you can plant now while the soil is warmer will get a far better start than anything planted in the New Year after a lot more wet weather as long as the soil is in good condition when planting. If you can't plant for a few days because of frosty weather - then unwrap the plants, put them into a sack or bin bag somewhere frost free like a garage or shed, and fill loosely with compost or put damp newspaper around the roots so that they don't dry out. They'll be fine for up to a couple of weeks like this - particularly if they're in compost - but don't leave them any longer or they may suffer. If you think you may have to leave them for much longer than that then it's a good idea to bring in some soil now to dry out - either into your tunnel or greenhouse or even a garage. You'll need about enough to mix half and half with a good peat-free organic compost or recycled organic potting compost. If you pot them up into large pots using this mix they will already be acclimatised to your soil. If you're not sure how much just measure it out into your pots according to the number of trees you will have to plant.
It can be surprising to see that even dormant, apparently dead-looking plants will still be doing their job of trying to grow at the roots - with tender new white roots growing out from the existing brown ones trying to find some soil. Trees are never doing nothing - unless they're actually dead! The new young roots are very brittle and can easily be knocked off when handling or planting. This is why it's so important to get them either into the ground or into large pots of the soil mix as soon as possible after arrival. If the roots are miles too big for the pots then find bigger pots - never wind them around. If one or two of the roots are only just too big then prune those back slightly so that they just fit in. If a root is cleanly pruned then it will start to make several new roots out from the tip in just the same way that branches do. I've found that on the M26 root stock trees are very happy in large pots, until you have time to plant them out when weather conditions are more suitable or in spring. If you add micorrhizae onto the roots as well when potting them up, then they will start to make nice root systems. Also don't forget that the 'graft union a minimum of 4 inches or 10 cm above the soil' still applies - whether you're planting into the ground or into a pot. It's astonishing how many tree sold in garden centres are potted up too deeply by people who should know better!
I described my normal method of planting last month's Oct. diary - but something I forgot to add was that if you're on a seriously heavy clay soil where water can tend to lie on the surface a bit in winter - it's also helpful to add a few shovelfuls of grit or pea gravel to the planting area too - working these into the compost/soil mix which is going back into the hole and then working it in around the roots. The pea gravel is almost more important on a heavy clay soil than adding compost to the mix. That's one of the things I learnt from well-known plantswoman Beth Chatto many years ago. Adding too much compost or manure - even if it's really well rotted - can often be a really bad thing. It can lead to poor drainage and soft, sappy growth caused by an excess of nitrogen, which can then make plants much more susceptible to disease.
All plants are grateful for good drainage - roots need air or they can rot - particularly in our often wetter climate here in Ireland. Unless they're bog plants, they don't like their feet constantly wet, and the vital microbes that live in the soil around their roots can't do their job of making nutrients available to the plants in those conditions. Pea gravel or grit is cheaper in bulk bags and it's permanent - so if you're making a long term investment in good fruit trees then it's well worth buying some. Unlike compost or humus - grit doesn't gradually disappear - it's there forever. It doesn't matter where you use it in the garden - everything seems to love growing in it - and it opens up the structure of the soil permanently. It's well worth going to the trouble of digging it in when you're preparing the soil, particularly if you're on a heavy clay soil like we have here. You will only have to do it once - and you won't get the chance to do it again. It will also raise the level of the soil slightly which is another plus. Our winters seem set to become wetter in future with climate change - so take that into account whenever you're planting anything permanent.
I always find this time of year so exciting. As a keen 'pomologist (fruit lover) I just have to plant one or two new varieties each year - particularly as I've started to plant a new orchard as a shelter belt around the hen runs (good excuse!) - actually hens love a bit of shade and shelter whatever the weather.
More thoughts on rootstocks
Roots are the foundations of the plant - and just like building a house - if the foundations are not good then sooner or later problems will arise. If trees are planted badly, on the wrong sort of soil, in poor conditions - or if they're on the wrong root stock for your soil and climate - that can lead to poor root development, with diseases becoming more of a problem or perhaps the whole tree collapsing when carrying a heavy crop of fruit! That happened to me many years ago - when in my innocence I planted a couple of trees which I now realise were obviously on M9 root stocks - having been assured by the nurseries I got them from here that they were M26 - ha! After a few years when the tops were heavy - a couple fell over in a gale as the roots weren't vigorous enough on that particular rootstock. After 30 years, those trees are still small, miserable, disease-prone and never produce more than half a dozen apples. You learn by your mistakes - but those were expensive ones! Always ask what root stocks the trees are on - before you tell them which you want! M26 or the slightly more vigorous MM106 are by far the best here, and recent trials at RHS Rosemoor Garden in the west country of the UK have proved that M26 will grow quite happily and be productive for many years in pots or containers. I'm still reserving judgement on the 'Coronet' grafted apples in the ornamental potager until I've grown them for a couple more years! So far, I'm not at all sure they're very healthy in our damp Irish weather!
The variety 'Red Windsor' pictured here (on the 'Coronet' rootstock) was bred from Cox and is said to be more disease resistant. I suppose it's a bit soon to judge as I only planted it 4 years ago. It does have a very good flavour - but also has some scab so the fruit wouldn't keep as well as it should. It's early days - so we shall see! I used to recommend 'Holstein' or 'Queen Cox' as the best Co alternative., but there's a new kid on the block so to speak! Herefordshire Russet is a daughter of Cox with the same wonderful flavour but even better keeping qualities as Cox's Orange Pippin. Unlike C.O.P. it's very disease-resistant and keeps for longer too - until well into January. It's the most deliciously crisp and aromatic apple, which only needs one other tree for good pollination - usually not a problem in most urban gardens. Holstein's drawback is that it's what is known as a 'triploid' apple. That means it has no good pollen of it's own so it needs two other pollinator varieties. 'James Grieve'' - a nice, slightly earlier eating apple and 'Grenadier' a good early season cooker - are good pollination partners for it. In fact they are good pollinators for many other apples. If you're choosing pollinators - always check that they are in the same pollination group (flowering time). Any good nursery catalogue will always tell you this. Some nurseries are also selling what they call 'Self fertile Queen Cox' now. I haven't tried it personally but even if it is - apple trees will always crop better when another nearby tree is flowering at the same time, as pollination is far more reliable.
Buying bare-root trees is always much cheaper - and all types of fruit will generally establish far better planted this way. Some varieties of fruit are available in pots in garden centres, but there's very little choice of varieties, and they're often potted incorrectly - with the root stock too close to the top of the compost. The graft 'union' which looks like a large bulge on the stem must be 4in/10cm above the top of the compost - otherwise the variety may be able root out into the soil - by-passing the dwarfing rootstock - which means you lose the benefit of that. They're also often in peat composts which means they don't establish as well because the roots are used to pure peat or are going round and round in circles as they are restricted in the pot, and many available here are not good varieties for our climate either. The other thing is that if you're a bit late ordering and the plants aren't sent out until Feb/Mar.- then no matter how well they're packed, if they're delayed at all the plants may begin to shoot, and if the package is handled roughly these shoots can break off as I've already mentioned. Some carriers are better than others, but it's far wiser to order in plenty of time so they travel while they're still completely dormant, rather than when preparing to grow any minute!
Most mail order fruit nurseries now sell fruit trees as first year feathered maidens or 'whips'. They're much cheaper (often a third of the price) and establish much better as the roots are younger and primed to react more quickly because they have far more growth hormone in their root tips. Feathered maidens are just a single stem with possibly a few small side shoots and with roots which are generally about 30cm across their total width when spread out. I know it's tempting to plant larger ones bought in containers from garden centres, so you'll have a crop sooner, but in actual fact the others will very soon catch up and then overtake them within a year or so. I know - I've done it!
Often many of the trees in garden centres are already badly 'pot bound', with too much root going round and round in circles in the pot, and at least every other one I see is also planted at the wrong depth in the pot - often with the graft union too close to or even - unbelievably - under the surface of the compost! The graft union is the swollen 'scarred looking' bit above the roots, which should be at least 4in/10cm or more above the roots and surface of the soil/compost, otherwise the variety may eventually root past the graft union - particularly if growing in long grass, and then you will lose the dwarfing/fruit producing influence of whichever root stock the variety is grafted onto, and for which you are paying most of your hard earned cash! Again - buying bare-root trees avoids this danger.
In Ireland and other similar damp climates like the West Country in England, I think the M26 rootstock is definitely best for most purposes - or MM106 if the variety being grafted is a weaker grower. Both the M9 and M27 very dwarfing rootstocks are much weaker, as I've often said before. Both of those were developed in the warmer and far drier East of England, for 'super perfect' growing conditions, and how many of us can provide those, particularly in these times of unpredictable stormy and wet weather caused by erratic climate swings? Most of the books written by fruit 'experts' these days seem to be written by people living in the East of England too! It's one of the things I find really annoying, that these 'experts' rarely, if ever, take account of the fact that our local climates can differ vastly from region to region, or even within individual gardens! In Ireland, even in a small garden I would plant on M26, as it will tolerate a less than perfect soil, will produce very good crops and can be pruned to keep it whatever size you want, even trained into cordons or espaliers - or the MM106 which is just slightly more vigorous and often better for a wetter soil. M26 is fine for most varieties and easily kept within bounds, or trained by pruning.
Do make sure that wherever you buy them, they can show you proof of not just the variety, but also the rootstock!! (In my experience - garden centres rarely can - and most look at you as if you've got two heads if you ask them what rootstock the trees are on!) Johnstown Garden Centre are very good for fruit trees, they import them from an excellent nursery in the UK and can reliably tell you what rootstock the tree is on. You can also buy trees mail order from a reputable Irish nursery. I was looking at the Future Forests website recently - they seem to have a good selection of trees on M26 and MM106 and are based near Bantry, Co. Cork. www.futureforests.net I haven't personally got trees from them but they seem to have a good list of trees on M26 & MM106 and they also give their pollination groups - which is important, as to get the best crops they must be compatible - flowering at similar times. I checked out a couple of friends who got trees from them in the past and say they've been reliable. They also sell some Irish Heritage varieties - but the few that I've tried so far have been a bit disappointing flavour-wise. Being an essentially practical person - I want an apple that is not just delicious but produces well, keeps well and is as disease-free as possible. Each to his own.
On the subject of pollination - I'm not mad about those so called partner pollinating 'family trees'. In most garden centres where I've seen them - they haven't been pruned properly and the specific branches carrying the individual varieties were not clearly labelled. Or even in some cases actually not labelled at all! Most people find it difficult enough to understand the intricacies of apple pruning at the best of times - but with those family trees it's a nightmare if they're not labelled - as not all varieties have the same habit of growth, so they could quickly become an unproductive, chaotic mess if you're confused and so do nothing at all!
Grafted 'family' trees are very expensive too. Buying two or three feathered maiden/first year whips on M26 would cost about the same or even less and take up exactly the same amount or even less space grown as cordons. The would also eventually be far more productive! Even in a tiny garden you could have quite a few different varieties, spreading across the apple season, if you grow them as sloping cordons against a fence.These would take up only the same amount of space as one or two 'family' trees.
I received an email some time ago asking me to recommend three apple varieties, an early season for eating off the tree, a mid-season variety and a late keeper. I can only recommend those I've grown myself and therefore know will grow well in our often difficult Irish climate.George Cave is my earliest apple - often ready at the end of July with a crisp, 'ciderish' flavour. 'Discovery' is a beautiful late August/Sept-ish ripening apple, with juicy aromatic pinkish flesh, which stays really crisp and good for eating all through September. 'Katy' (pictured here) is another very reliable, huge cropper, deep red and ripening around the same time, but it needs to be eaten almost straight off the tree, as after a couple of weeks of keeping it tastes like nothing, with a bitter skin if it's been picked too long! Apple juice made from a fresh picked combination of the two is a fantastic, beautiful deep pink colour, delicious and freezes well if you have room. It also combines very well with juice of the early cooker 'Grenadier', a heavy cropper, which will pollinate both the other two and also many other varieties. 'Grenadier' is a cooker which cooks to a lovely froth, with a good flavour, but loses it's good acid flavour quickly becoming tasteless if kept after mid-October - which is the whole point of 'cookers'! Apples that ripen before the end of Sept. won't keep at their very best for longer than a couple of weeks at most. 'James Grieve' is a late Sept. early Oct ripening dual-purpose cooker/eater, crisp, juicy and a good pollinator for many others also.
The later keeping apples are normally picked mid-late Oct. depending on the season
and how early you get severe frost or gales. It also depends on how long the birds will leave them alone! Blackbirds and thrushes can be an absolute pest - they know the exact
moment the fruit is right to pick - going straight for the pink coloured bits! You spend all your time encouraging them, feeding them all winter - and that's how they repay you!! Good mid-season ripening apples are 'Holstein or Queen Cox'
(exactly the same flavour as Cox's Orange Pippin - but three times the size - much healthier and more productive - but it's a vigorous triploid so not suitable for training but makes a beautiful bush tree about 15ft/4m-ish high on M26), Herefordshire Russet
I've mentioned, Kidd's Orange Red
pictured here are good, or 'Egremont Russet. 'Bramley's Seedling'
is my mid-season cooker of choice, which we all know. Picked at the end of Oct. it will keep until Feb or even March in cold storage.
Good very late eaters would be 'Ashmead's Kernal', a scab-resistant, heavy-cropping crisp russet, picked end Oct.- ripening end Dec. It keeps really well until the end of Feb. and also 'Tydeman's Late Orange' again picked end Oct. ripening end Dec., which will keep until April. Both of these last two are actually mouth-puckeringly inedible until after Christmas! A very good late keeping cooker or dessert apple is 'Annie Elizabeth', also resistant to scab, which has a good acid balance and flavour. That's ready end Dec. and often keeps as late as the following June! I grow a lot more varieties as I planned my original orchard carefully in order to have my own apples for as much of the year as possible. So I'm sure I've left some good ones out! I find them utterly irresistible and very addictive - so I just keep finding more varieties that I want! The one thing that's particularly important to look for in our Irish climate is scab-resistant varieties, as our damp, mild winters encourage it. Apples with scab won't store - so this is very important for the late keepers. There really are far too many varieties to list here - again - a good fruit catalogue is worth it's weight in gold!
You can take hardwood cuttings of many other fruit bushes now - as soon as the leaves have dropped. Just stick them about 2/3rds int the ground somewhere well-drained and sheltered and leave them alone for a year. By then they will normally have made good roots. Very easy! Prune out old fruited canes of blackberries and loganberries now and tie in the new ones grown this year, to stop them being damaged in winter gales.
DON'T start to winter prune apples until all the leaves have fallen. Then clear up all leaves and any 'mummified' fruits to stop diseases re-infecting and possibly spreading next year. This is much easier to do by just mowing closely under the trees and the clippings can all be composted. Save any younger pruned shoots as they are rich in potash. Burn them when dry and save the ash.
If you've had problems with winter moth caterpillars damaging fruit - put grease/glue bands on the trees NOW. These are available online from The Organic Gardening Catalogue UK - or ask in garden centres. I find that hanging bird feeders in the orchard is also a good idea - the Long-Tailed Tits in particular appreciate them there - being such shy birds. They also seem to do a great job of pest control - I only had one or two apples this year with any codling moth damage. And watching and listening to the Tits going about their business is a total delight anyway - as they process round the trees in little troupes of 5 or 6 birds, making a giggling sound just like silly schoolgirls as they do so. I could watch them all day!
I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and many years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's very satisfying and also most complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work. But if you do happen to copy it, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would mention that it originally came from me. Thank you.