|1. Badly placed branch of 'Tickled Pink' apple growing up through crown of the tree - arrow showing direction of adjustment
||2. Branch on 'Tickled Pink' with water-filled plastic bottle attached. The angle can be adjusted by squeezing out water
Summer Prune by the Seat of your Pants - NOT the Textbooks!
Gardening 'by the seat of our pants' and not by the textbook - is something I've been advising since I first started this blog 11 years ago, and the recent weather proves that this is becoming increasingly more important every day. We can't just slavishly follow the standard advice given in old textbooks which were written decades or even centuries ago, when weather patterns were much more predictable, and before our weather became increasingly erratic due to climate change. Despite this many 'experts' still seem to be lazily quoting from those old books, rather than thinking independently, and adapting their advice to prevailing conditions now. This year our weather has almost seemed to have gone crazy again! We had what used to be normal June/July hot dry weather in March - and then quite the opposite - freezing cold temperatures with -6 deg C in late April and May, with blazing heat and drought all of this month! This means that in some cases, depending on where you live and the weather you've had in your locality, the side shoots on apple trees - or fruiting laterals, as they are more correctly called, may not have ripened fully enough yet to summer prune, as they put on a lot of soft new growth after the torrential rains arrive in June. When they will be ripe enough, only you can judge yourself - as this will depend not just on your area, but the weather you've experienced this year and even possibly the variety and how well-established it is. It truly is 'seat of the pants' time for making decisions!
When the new shoots at the base of laterals or sub-laterals carrying first 2-3 buds/leaf joints feel really firm and woody and no longer pliable enough to bend - then they should be ripened enough to prune. If in doubt, leave them for another couple of weeks to firm up. If you do it too early - additional later soft growth may develop which you don't want, but you should be safe enough to prune if you do it by late August. This helps to promote the formation of flower buds for next year. As it's the side shoots or laterals which carry the flowers and subsequently fruit, the aim in pruning an apple tree is to develop a good open, cup-shaped framework of main branches, carrying fruiting spurs, or clusters of fruit buds, which develop from the sub-laterals. Occasionally you will get side shoots about 6-8 ins or 20 cm long which terminate themselves naturally in a fruit bud - you'll recognise this as it's round and fat rather than pointed. You can leave those unpruned as they won't put on any further extension growth, but will carry fruit next year instead.
Sometimes you may find a new, long vigorous shoot growing very upright from the main trunk of the tree, not from the existing branch system. You don't want that growth crowding the centre of the tree, and even if you prune it it will still grow in the same direction - but if the shoot is well placed, where there is enough of a gap or space lower down for it to form another main branch, you can weigh it down to almost horizontal, as you can see I have done in the picture of the young 'Tickled Pink' tree above with a water-filled, recycled plastic bottle. You can vary the weight of this according to how much you want to lower the branch and how supple it is. Doing this will encourage the branch to form fruiting spurs next year, which you can summer prune the following year as I've already described. The incredibly skilful kitchen gardeners of former centuries used to do this with lead weights which clipped neatly onto branches to train fruit trees into wonderfully intricate shapes - but try as I might, I haven't been able to find a supplier for these anywhere. Perhaps it's because lead is so expensive now - or too toxic?
Commercial chemical apple growers nowadays limit growth and promote fruiting buds on apple trees by using extremely toxic, growth-retarding sprays.... not what you want in your apples! Anyway, when you have your branch lowered into position and the wood has set firmly into shape - no longer springing back up when you remove the weight - during the winter you can then prune it back by a third or half to encourage further new growth from it's tip. Again - think about the cup shape you want the tree to have in a few years time, with well-spaced branches to allow for good air circulation to prevent disease. If you're not sure about the shape, take your time - always take a few steps back and have a good look at the shape of the whole tree - before you prune in the wrong place! Think of it as tree sculpture!
The 'June Drop'
Apples should by now have done their age old 'June drop' - a self-thinning which often doesn't normally happen until early to mid July in Ireland, due to our wetter climate. But this year after the hot spell in March and then severe frost in April/May there were fewer fruits on the apples anyway. Then due to drought many apples dropped some or even all of their fruit very early. It really was a tragic sight to see so many tiny fruits on the ground! Luckily the rain has come just in time to save the remaining ones I hope - although apples will again be very scarce this year! If yours haven't dropped their fruit and fruits are still overcrowded - thin them out, taking off any misshapen, scabby or damaged ones first. In some cases where they have enough soil moisture available, trees could still have up to five fruits or even more on each spur - thin these to just one or two every 3-4ins/10cm. Don't let young, newly planted trees crop too heavily - as this can encourage some to start 'biennial bearing' where the tree may only crop well every two years. Some varieties like Ashmead's Kernal and Bramley's Seedllng are more prone to doing this than others.
When the bottom third of lateral/side shoots from branches has ripened - in other words really firmed up, feels 'woody' and is no longer easily bent, then you can summer prune. This encourages the wood to ripen more and produce flower buds for next year's crop. Make a cut slanting down and away from the leaf joint about two or three buds above the basal leaf cluster. I don't normally summer prune here until the end of July or August, as with our often wet summer, wood isn't usually ripe enough until then. Don't prune the main branch leader (end) shoots of branches, that's a job that's done in the winter - in order to stimulate extension growth. Keep trees watered well in this dry weather we're currently experiencing and also well mulched, to retain moisture and discourage mildew.
A few years ago I recommended a book called "Pruning and Training" by Alan Titchmarsh. I still think it's an excellent and comprehensive book with plenty of good photographs and diagrams - ideal if you want information on pruning a wide variety of fruit as well as trees and shrubs. I wish there had been a book like this when I was first learning about gardening - it would have saved a lot of trial and error! Alan Titchmarsh is a Kew-trained, qualified horticulturist, who really knows his stuff - unlike some of the unqualified presenters of current gardening TV programmes, who often broadcast totally incorrect information without even bothering to research what is glaringly obvious they don't actually know! I think that people presenting gardening programmes should have a really 'in depth' horticultural knowledge if they are advising people what to do - not just be visually attractive and confident TV presenters! There is an old saying - "It is a wise man who knows what he doesn't know - and a brave one who admits it" - they should have the humility to learn what they don't know before often advising others wrongly! But if you don't want to buy a book on pruning - free fruit catalogues can often be a mine of information - the one from Deacons nursery on the Isle of Wight (now sadly gone) had particularly good illustrations! They also had lots of incredibly temptingly named, wonderful old varieties - I do hope that some other nursery took over their collection when they closed down. Sadly Read's Nurseries are now closed too - and they had the National Fig collection. It's such a pity that the range of varieties available to gardeners seems to be narrowing all the time - just when it's ever more important that we have a diversity of varieties to choose from, given the unexpected challenges we may face with climate change.
How to Grow Fabulous Figs!
It's another good fig year in the polytunnel - all the varieties have been enjoying the sun and heat in there and we've already enjoyed many of them. These delicious fruits, which have been valued since ancient times, are super-healthy for us to eat. They're chock-full of vitamins, essential minerals and gut-friendly fibre. The early 'breba' crop, which formed on last year's ripened wood and overwintered as tiny figlets in the leaf axils, are all ripening fast in the fruit tunnel now - and it's very tempting to eat too many of them!! Breba comes from the Spanish word 'breva'. I haven't got quite enough fruit to justify using the dehydrator yet, as they're so nice to eat fresh - but I'm hoping there could be an autumn glut later on, judging by the vast amount of small fruit already forming nicely on this year's shoots. I might even try making a fig liqueur - I had the idea for doing that the other day, when I was making peach Schnapps with the early peaches. That way I could preserve the figs for eating with cheese perhaps and also make a fabulously rich and slightly naughty mouthwatering drink or ice cream! Finger's crossed! They'll definitely be getting even more TLC from now on! I get a lot of questions about growing figs - so here's my guide. As I've learnt from experience and lots of trial and error rather than books - this may not be identical to anything you may read in the 'expert' textbooks - but this is what I've found works for me here - in often damp and sunless Ireland!
Figs are always expensive fruit to buy - even the non-organic figs in most shops here are around €1 each! They are really easy to grow though, if you have a very warm spot in the garden - or even better a polytunnel or greenhouse. I don't grow them in the ground, as they can become too vigorous and produce little if any fruit. They will fruit well in relatively small tubs, although naturally they need a little more care when totally dependent on you for their food and water. I grow all my figs in tubs of various sizes - gradually moving them on in size every couple of years, depending on how old they are and how congested the roots. It's really important at this time of year to keep all figs in containers constantly moist - never saturated - but at the same time never drying out completely either.
It's also important to feed them regularly so that they can develop all of their fruits. If you let them dry out completely they will drop shrivelled, small fruits about 3 weeks later when you've already forgotten that you may have let them dry out at some point! If you water erratically, letting them dry out too much and then later drenching them - any fruits that have already developed may split and be ruined before they ripen. Remember - evenly moist is key - and they need both regular watering and feeding now, to develop this year's crop. They depend on you for their food supply if they're in pots. I feed them with Osmo certified organic tomato food at every other watering now - but stop feeding once the fruit is ripening. I start to feed again later when the autumn crop is developing on the new green shoots made this year.
|Figs Dauphine, richly-flavoured Sultane, & again Madeleine des Deux Saisons
||Figs Rouge de Bordeaux, Précoce de Dalmatie and Madeleine des Deux Saisons
Figs in containers must never be allowed to wilt - so they need regular attention, but they're worth it! If you're not sure they need watering - then scratch the surface of the compost with your finger - if it feels and looks moist then don't water. If it's dry and the compost is shrinking away from the sides of the pot - then water quickly! On the other hand - wilting if the compost feels wet means that the roots are in trouble and may possibly even be rotting. That is almost certain death to a fig - so if in doubt - then don't water! Figs outside need very little feeding or they may grow too leafy and less productive even with their roots restricted - but again keep them watered and mulched, as if they are growing against a wall they can dry out very quickly in hot sunshine. I've never managed to successfully ripen figs outside here - but some friends only a couple of miles away, nearer to the coast and lower down, have a fig tree that ripens fruits every year - although, in my opinion, not enough to justify the space it takes up - even though it does look very ornamental and Mediterranean-like! (It's OK - they don't read my blog!) You really need a very sunny, sheltered spot with some root restriction for much success outside here. In the warmer climate in central or southern UK - many varieties will fruit well against a warm wall. We used to have fabulous figs every year against a warm, south facing old brick wall where I grew up on the edge of the Cotswolds. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I love them so much - their taste brings back so many childhood memories. The grown-ups often wondered why there were so few in the school holidays! We always blamed the birds!!
I have over 15 varieties now (lost count!) all of them are slightly different - and all of which ripen at varying times - which altogether give me some fruits most days during the summer. I grow them all in my standard mix of half organic peat-free compost/half garden soil with a small handful of bonemeal and seaweed meal when planting. I also dust the roots directly with 'Rootgrow' mycorrhizal fungi when potting on or planting - this definitely helps to develop the vital symbiotic fungal threads they need to help their roots to access more nutrients. I always put a few broken up bits of polystyrene (from those horrible un-recyclable plant trays that bedding plants come in and kind friends land on me periodically - saying "You recycle stuff don't you?....Thought you'd like these" - Bless them!). These are useful for important extra drainage in the bottom - and are a lot lighter than heavy gravel! Don't over pot them to start with - just move them up gradually to 15 litre pot size or they will produce too much leafy growth at the expense of fruit. If you keep the roots fairly restricted - they will form sides shoots without pruning and fruit earlier in life. If they are over-potted and produce too much growth in summer, it helps to prune back branch leaders to about 4 leaf joints of new green growth beyond the last fruit. It's on this growth that next year's baby figlets will form in the autumn. Figs don't need pollinating - their flowers are actually inside-out and are the lovely fleshy part that forms inside the fruits.
Fig 'Violetta' - ripening overwintered fruits at bottom picture, autumn fruits developing above on this year's growth.
Several people have asked me to list all the fig varieties I grow - so here they are. As they are easy to propagate from suckers or cuttings, I have several Brogiotto Nero - one a small tree-size in a huge tub and three of its offspring, in 15 litre pots. All the others are also in 15 litre pots. Rouge de Bordeaux, Sultane, Dauphine, Bourjasotte Grise, Brown Turkey, Califfo Blue, Violetta, Madeleine de Deux Saisons, White Marseilles, Brown Turkey, Panachee, Icicle (for decorative leaves not fruit), Bornholm and Precoce de Dalmatie (thought to be variants of the same Danish Variety. I also have a couple of unnamed varieties - one given to me by a friend which originated in an old Co. Meath walled garden here in Ireland (I think possibly Brunswick), one other and three plants of one variety that I picked up just labelled 'Fig' for €5 in a garden centre sale. That find was the best of the lot - with massive blue-black fruits similar to those huge ones that one sees sold in shops. If I were to recommend only one variety as I've been asked to many times - then Rouge de Bordeaux or Dauphine are I would say possibly the most productive and easiest to obtain of most of these apart from Brown Turkey - which you see recommended everywhere and but doesn't have anything like the rich flavour of either! All of them in my experience will produce two crops per year in July and then Sept/Oct in a polytunnel if well looked after.
Figs aren't bothered by many pests here. Scale insects may be a problem on bought-in plants - but brushing those with melted coconut oil kills them by blocking up the pores in their shell which they breathe through. That generally gets rid of them permanently. I also keep an eye out for small rodents and blackbirds - as they really love them! So do wasps in the autumn unfortunately!
It's another fantastic fruit year!
Melons raised up on pots ripening.
Last year's warm autumn ripened the fruiting shoots and wood really well on pretty much everything - so there's been masses of blossom on all kinds of fruit. We're already enjoying summer's abundance! Strawberries, gooseberries, currants, raspberries and even blackberries - both in the tunnels and outside - with figs, apricots, cherries and peaches undercover in the tunnels and cape gooseberries just starting to ripen on last year's over-wintered plants in tubs. The earliest grapes in the fruit tunnel are almost ripe too. Rose Dream and Summer Red are a little sweet and insipid for my taste - but they make good sultanas when they're dehydrated. Although it may seem a bit of a luxury to some people using a tunnel mainly for growing fruit, it ensures that I get good crops here in my very windy, often cold and wet spot, and we can enjoy all of our harvest undamaged (apart from wasps that is!). The vines in particular are protected from the weather, warmer and the blackbirds can't reach them since I finally discovered how to keep them out, but still let the bees in!
The only fruit that no pests have discovered so far are the Cape gooseberries or golden berries - and there's only so many of those you can grow as they take up so much room! They're far too vigorous to grow in the ground, but really appreciate the warmth of the polytunnel - where I 'm growing them in large tubs, which reduces their vigour slightly. I like to have the broadest range of fruit possible all year round. Variety doesn't just stop one getting bored with too much of the same thing, but it also ensures there will always be some kind of fruit available which gives us a good range of important healthy phytonutrients. In many fruit growing areas like Herefordshire, fruit like cherries and strawberries that birds love, are all grown in tunnels now. They have sides that can be lifted for ventilation and pollination as and when necessary. It's my dream to own one of those if I ever win the lottery!
Give thanks every time you see a bee! - Pollinators are vital to fruit growing
The other thing I've been talking about since I began this blog 10 years ago, and in fact long before that - is that we must do everything we can to help pollinators. That's not just about growing pretty flowers for bees, or not using peat composts - it's also about helping other pollinators like moths, butterflies and other insects. It's also, and most importantly, about NOT using pesticides of ANY sort. There should be no need for pesticides in an ecologically well-balanced organic fruit garden or orchard. There is NO pesticide of any sort which kills insects but doesn't harm bees - so please would people stop saying that there must be an organic one? Pests in an organic garden or orchard are kept down to a manageable level by beneficial insects and birds hunting them for their food, or sometimes by using clever things like pheromone traps for codling moth.
There should never be a situation where you try to 'get rid of' all insects of any kind - remember - BEES ARE INSECTS TOO! This is something I am constantly asked about and it makes me so angry! If you have an insect problem - then look to your methods of growing, or perhaps the variety you are growing, and asking if it is suitable for your conditions - rather than looking to kill things! The late physicist Prof Richard Feynman was a great fount of common sense and had a wonderful phrase - he said that "the job of a scientist is to listen carefully to nature, not to tell nature how to behave" - that is something I've always felt should apply to organic gardeners too!
|Bumble bee on orange blossom in the tunnel
||Without bees we wouldn't have so many healthy citrus fruits
Fostering a balanced ecology with plenty of biodiversity in our garden or farm is something that ALL of us gardeners and growers can easily do. And supporting the products of organic farming is another way of supporting pollinators, as it does the same but on a larger scale. That way we CAN all make a huge difference - not just to pollinator health - but also to our own. If we don't buy crops that are grown with pesticides, then everything we buy makes a difference to bees and other pollinators, as well as all other biodiversity somewhere -. Here's an article which was published in the Guardian newspaper last year which makes pretty frightening reading for those who haven't thought about this problem before, and take most of our food crops for granted. The article seems to give more importance to the lack of habitat and climate-change as being the main causes - but in fact both of those are in a large part due to the monocultures of industrial chemical farming. It's PESTICIDES which are without question the cause. We could replace habitat tomorrow - but if we don't stop using pesticides - bees, insects and all the associated biodiversity which depends on them won't stop disappearing! .
Most people by now appreciate that bees pollinate about 2/3rds of the food we eat either directly or indirectly - so without them we would be very hungry! Sadly there is a huge amount of money invested in producing and promoting pesticides by the multinational chemical companies. These pesticides actually disable and kill bees - so this causes bitter divisions between those who believe that we can't possibly produce food without pesticides - which is patently rubbish since humanity ate and evolved for millions of years before they were invented - and those who know without question that they are destroying not just bees but endangering all of biodiversity. This has become so bitter recently that even genuinely neutral but extremely concerned scientists such as Prof. Dave Goulson - professor of biology at the University of Sussex are being attacked by the so-called Big Ag pro-pesticide lobby who naturally want to continue profiting from their bee-killing poisons! Dave specialises in the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and has written a number of terrifically informative books on bees. Of course Big Ag's natural reaction to anyone questioning the safety of their pesticides is that 'attack is the best form of defence' - just like the poisons that they peddle! Here's a link to an article which demonstrates this very thing - https://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2017/07/17/syngenta-bayer-ceh-study-neonicotinoids/
The summer fruit season is in full swing now, mostly thanks to the good offices of the above bees! It's really difficult to keep up with all the picking and preserving as well as the watering and the rest of the garden work - especially with this year's heatwave and drought! I'll be so glad I did though, during the long cold winter months when we all need plenty of vitamin C and other health-promoting antioxidants to keep winter colds at bay! Freezing fruit is by far the best way to preserve all that freshness. Making jams adds a lot of unnecessary sugar to fruits and the cooking destroys much of their nutrients, so we eat very little jam here - hardly ever in fact. We prefer our fruit straight and fresh mostly. Taste buds get used to the natural flavours of fruit without sugar very quickly. Anyway - if you're a jam maker and can't live without it - you can easily just chop and freeze the fruit to make jam in the winter when there's more time - a nice job for a cold day!
A mixed fruit and kefir smoothie made from either fresh or frozen fruit is just the way we like to start the day any time of year. A handful of mixed berries and nuts, some kefir and full fat milk, blitzed in the blender with a little raw unfiltered organic honey if necessary and anything else you like to throw in. That is an ambrosial breakfast - fit for the Gods! It looks like there'll be a huge blackberry crop again this year - the bushes are absolutely smothered with several different sorts of bumble bees right now - everything from really tiny to huge! All carrying huge orange pollen sacks on their hind legs. I'm so thrilled to see them. The loud sound of buzzing is amazing when you walk up the garden to the tunnels at midday currently. There's already a huge crop developing, and a couple of the Himalayan Giant x wild bramble hybrids I've developed for earliness and flavour over the years are already starting to turn colour and ripen very early due to the warm weather. There are also masses of bees in the tunnel right now - pollinating the Cape gooseberry (golden berry/physalis) flowers on the plants grown from seed this year, and we're already eating the ripe fruits on last year's overwintered plants.
I'm so grateful for bees - and we all should be - as without them we would have no fruit crops or indeed many other healthy foods like almonds. There are quite a few nests in various places in the long tufts of grass around in our wildlife meadow and new orchard now - as well as solitary bee nests in the dry raised bank of the bee and butterfly border at the north end of the polytunnels. A few years ago a swarm of native honey bees moved into the roof of my late mother's old cottage opposite my back door. I was so thrilled to see them - and they must think this is a pretty good spot with all the fruit blossom and other flowers. They do a great job of pollinating everything. I felt we'd been given the 'beeswax seal of approval' !
So much of the intensive agriculture all around us has wiped out the habitats that they naturally depend on like hedges - and food plants they need like wildflowers. Bees really need our help to survive - and it's in our interests to make sure that they do! We tend to take them for granted - but without all of their hard work - there would be very little fruit or many other crops for us to eat. Nuts like almonds, and fruit like apples, pears. plums, oranges and lemons for instance entirely depend on pollinators. That more than ever proves that we must do all we can to help them. We certainly do everything we possibly can to help them here - by growing everything organically without sprays of any kind - organic or otherwise, by providing lots of nesting sites like dry sand and gravel mounds, piles of dry logs under hedges and bee hotels for overwintering habitat, and also by growing lots of flowers that provide both nectar and pollen all year round - even in the tunnels. It's especially important to provide flowers in winter for bees that don't hibernate. They will often come out to forage on mild winter days - and if they don't find some food - they may use all their energy and die. There are lots of winter flowering shrubs and flowers you can plant to help bees, but in wet weather it really helps to grow some winter flowers in greenhouses and tunnels too - where they can forage in the dry. That way they remember where the food sources are - and will keep coming back time after time - helping to pollinate all your crops.
Pollinators are all industrious workers, so there's already a great crop on the earlier fruits - and there promises to be an enormous crop on all the varieties of cultivated blackberry - which are the proverbial 'hive of activity' at the moment! Blackberries are one of my most valuable staple fruit crops, as they freeze fantastically well and are so useful. I froze about 80 lbs last year, and we should have enough for smoothies and puddings until the next crop starts to ripen in August. We already have the earliest ones ripening in the fruit tunnel now, where I allow just a few to grow at the edge - keeping them under strict control! My late mother brought her Himalayan Giant blackberry with her when she came to live with us in the late 1980's. It's the very best-flavoured blackberry if you have the space for it - and the time to keep a very close eye on it! The small cutting she brought with her now covers about 1/8th of an acre! It's hybridised over the years with the native ones in our hedges thanks to the bees, and has produced some very good new varieties, some earlier, some with a more 'bramble'-like flavour. Gerry Kelly my co-host on our 'Tunnel to Table' feature on his Late Lunch radio show begged one off me a few years ago - I did warn him that it would look very innocuous for about a year until it got it's feet under the table and felt safe - and that then it would take off! Being kind-hearted though, he planted it in a choice south facing spot in his lovely fertile veg garden - some people just don't listen. When he was here for our last programme he told me I was right - that it had started looking just a wee bit scary! It has a habit of creeping up on you quietly while your back's turned! I told him to move it even right now and not to leave one scrap of root behind - even a tiny thread!
Talking of fruit in tunnels - the raspberries on pots are doing incredibly well and are already ripening their second crop of fruits this year! Each year they keep repeating and giving us tasty ripe raspberries up until Christmas! I also have some pots of black raspberries in there too, to keep them away from birds, as I didn't have any room left in the fruit cage! The fruit I got from them last year had a really intense flavour - rather like the raspberry boiled sweets I used to be able to get as a child. They're supposed to be exceptionally high in good phytochemicals - but they're a bit pippy though - and mine tend to fall to pieces when they're picked. I still have an open mind about them, which is why I have them in pots - as in addition to the pips - they're looking dangerously like the invasive Rubus Cockburnianus which is taking over the place wherever I haven't got time to control it by cutting it down! There are 'celebrity gardeners' endorsing them - but then they're paid to do that! That's again why I don't take ads of any kind on this blog - then I can be totally honest and tell it like it is! I think that's what people really want - not expensive celebrity endorsed stuff that's a complete waste of space? I would never use weedkillers of any sort to try to control them even if they did work - and I doubt they would on the aforementioned rubus! A non-organic friend of mine - who still uses Roundup/glyphosate despite my pleas - can't control it at all either - even with an absolute arsenal of toxicchemicals!
Raspberries can often need picking over twice a day on hot days - at this time of year they can ripen astonishingly fast.
When summer varieties have finished fruiting, I cut down the fruited stems to ground level immediately, give them a general purpose organic feed, water it in well and mulch with something like grass clippings, to encourage new stems to grow for next year's production, and to keep weeds down and moisture in.
Autumn 'primocane' varieties, which will carry another early crop on last autumn's fruited canes, have been cropping for over a month now. When those 1 year old canes have finished producing fruit, cut them down immediately to give the young stems already growing which will carry this autumn's fruits more room to grow. The previously widely available varieties - 'Heritage' and 'Autumn Bliss' can become invasive weeds and don't have half the flavour of newer variety Brice, and another which I planted on Joy Larkcom's recommendation - 'Joan J' . They both have a wonderful flavour - Joan J in particular seems to have a little more acidity, which you really need for that 'full on' raspberry flavour that's lacking in the older rather insipid autumn varieties. The berries are huge too and it's very vigorous and productive. I started them off in pots when they arrived and left the newly planted canes about 18ins/45cm high so that I could try just a few early fruits to see what the flavour was like and also to see if they were worth planting - they were!
This autumn I'm looking forward again to a plentiful autumn crop of the really huge, mouthwatering 'Joan J' berries you can see pictured here - both in the tunnels and outside. It's definitely the best flavoured of any of the autumn ones I've tried yet and I can't recommend them highly enough. 'Joan J' also freezes exceptionally well. 'Brice' would be a very close second though. In general the autumn fruiters are much more healthy, vigorous and productive than the summer fruiting varieties, and also much less fussy about soils, so if you don't have a lot of room - grow the autumn fruiters which will crop well twice pretty much anywhere - giving you twice the value from your space. They'll even grow well in containers as I do in the tunnel - but are thirsty and need regular watering and TLC. Definitely a possibility though if you don't have much space in the garden. Last year I trialled a new autumn raspberry - a variety called Erika - and so far it's looking vigorous and very promising. The flavour compares well with 'Joan J', and it's very productive.
Raspberry Joan J size comparison with 1 euro coin
Tayberries and loganberries are also ripening now. Tayberries have a wonderfully rich, almost scented 'raspberryish' flavour and grow like weeds. Both of these two and also blackberries will grow in a shady place or on a north wall - a very useful attribute which means that even if you don't have a sunny garden - you can still produce lots of your own fruit. Or if you want to extend the season by a few weeks, put one plant in a sunny spot and another on a north wall or shady spot, as long as it has good soil and good top light and is not overhung by trees. I get a lot questions these days from people living on housing estates with ever-decreasing sized gardens - but if you're really determined to grow your own food - nothing will stop you! I lived in a house with a tiny garden for a couple of years, more than 38 years ago, but still managed to produce masses of fruit and veg. in containers. Currants, gooseberries and Morello cherries will also all grow in a north facing spot, as well as 'Conference' pears and some apples. Again, any good fruit catalogue should tell you which varieties are most suitable for particular spots.
Strawberry Fields from the past!
Old white strawberry - name lost in the mists of time - possibly a Chiloense hybrid?
Another old variety I grow was given to me many years ago by my dear and very much missed friend the late Dr. Wendy Walsh - the well known botanical artist - who used to live nearby and had a lovely old walled garden. It has a pinkish-white berry, similar in size and shape to other regular strawberries, with a delicious 'pineappley' flavour. She didn't know it's name and said it had always been there in the garden. I'm guessing from looking at old fruit books and botanical plates that it is Victorian, or possibly earlier. The Victorians bred a great many varieties as they had a fascination for endless variety in all fruits - as have I. That's why I've kept it going for many years - and I would hate to lose it, so I gave some runners several years ago to a friend who I knew would also treasure and keep it, just in case.
Josef Finke of Ballybrado House in Co. Tipperary had a similar looking variety, which I remembered seeing in the old Victorian walled garden there, but he grubbed it out many years ago, saying it was like a weed everywhere. It is indeed vigorous, seems disease and virus-resistant and is clearly a great survivor. A living relic of the past - I wonder who bred it and where? I would dearly love to discover it's name if anyone knows anything about old white varieties, of which there were once many. As you can see from the picture taken a couple of weeks ago, when very ripe and almost falling off it turns the very palest, most delicate pink and is very attractive mixed with other varieties. For the time being, I shall just go on calling it 'Antique White', until I discover it's true identity. A fragarian mystery if ever there was one! Some years ago - one fruit catalogue announced a NEW strawberry called Snow White. It looks identical to this one I've had for 30 years!
Grapes need regular feeding and watering now too as the bunches are developing fast. Never let them dry out too much or the skins may split if you then go and drench them! You can grow them very easily in large bucket-sized containers, training them on a single stem or rod, around a framework, in a spiral fashion works very well, and being containerised means that you can protect them from the birds and bring them inside for their flowers to pollinate properly - which doesn't happen if they get wet when flowering, It also helps to ripen them if they are late varieties like 'Muscat of Alexandria' or 'Flame' - both fantastically flavoured, very heavy croppers but very late so won't ripen outside here in Ireland, even against a south facing wall. Grapes in containers need watering almost every day now while they are swelling their fruits, particularly if they are in a greenhouse or tunnel. I'm also feeding these at every other watering now - again with the useful high-potash Osmo tomato feed. All the vines are carrying huge crops. Promising lots of lovely fruit for eating fresh, for dehydrating and freezing!
Grapes grow really well in containers, and growing them this way allows you to grow many different varieties to spread the season in quite a small space. It's very hard to find organically grown, chemical-free grapes for sale anywhere - and even if you can - they'll cost an absolute fortune! In the picture here - the seeded grape 'Bianca' - growing in a large pot, is trained around supports in a spiral but with so much foliage and fruit it's difficult to see the support! 'Bianca' is an early variety, ready in mid-late August, and is one the first of my grapes to ripen.
Lakemont seedless grape climbing over south doorThe grape Lakemont Seedless is now taking off even more
and venturing up over the door at the south end of the larger tunnel. As this is space which is normally wasted in most tunnels I'm delighted to encourage it! I like to have every possible inch of my polytunnels filled with fruit flowers or veg! On entering the tunnel we're met by an incredible curtain of grapes - a lovely sight - especially since they are so delicious dehydrated! Yummy scattered over winter salads, and irresistible straight from the freezer in snatched handfuls! I freeze them because they don't keep well semi-dehydrated and I don't want to dry them out completely. It's an excellent variety - totally fuss-free and if you only have enough space for one - it's happy everywhere, easy to grow, doesn't need any tedious thinning and above all - is utterly scrumptious!
Other General Fruit Care
There shouldn't be too many greenfly and other pests around in the garden if you've carried on feeding your birds to keep them around - the sparrows and blue tits deal with most of them here - they're always busily hunting around the garden. If you do find a lot of greenfly - it's often a sign that either you are overfeeding your plants, leading to a lot of soft sappy growth, or that the plants are stressed in some other way - perhaps the growing conditions aren't quite right. Healthy, happy, organically-grown plants are rarely bothered by any pests in my experience, as they can produce their own defences. The secret of organic gardening is to achieve a balance of everything - both pest and predator. In the healthy ecosystem that you are trying to achieve in an organic garden, you should always see a little bit of everything - but never enough of any one thing to seriously damage crops. Growing lots of flowers among crops helps by attracting beneficial insects, looks wonderful, and also attracts pollinators. Correct growing conditions and thorough good housekeeping - removing diseased or dodgy looking growth as soon as possible, should cope with most problems and prevent themt spreading if you do have any.
The main thing to remember with all fruit at this time of year, apart from picking (which I'm sure you don't need any advice on!) - is to keep everything watered in dry spells and keep mulching to reduce competition from weeds, reduce evaporation and keep roots cool and moist which all fruits appreciate. And also to keep the birds out! Check fruit netting regularly to make sure there are no holes in it - I caught next door's cat climbing up my fruit cage the other day, and found some of the netting pulled down leaving a gap which birds could easily have got in. If there's even the tiniest chink in your fruit cage armour - those crafty blackbirds never miss a trick and don't wait for an invitation! Today I spent ages chasing a particularly persistent young one out of the polytunnel - as soon as my back was turned - it was in again! There's plenty of fruit for them outside - but some - like some humans (not you dear readers) are just plain greedy!
Remember - Nature could easily live without us - but we can't live without Nature!
Nature doesn't have the big PR budgets that must be paying for the multitude of seemingly innocuous/impartial (not!) journalists to write the endless 'pro-pesticide & GMO/anti-organic ignorance' articles I'm seeing so much of online right now! Nor does it pay for certain minor celebrities - (indirectly paid by those same chemical companies) who say they are 'pro-science' - unlike the 'organic ignoramuses' - like me! Nature relies on us folks - ordinary people like you and me - to spread the word that we MUST protect it with every fibre of our being. Nature is vital to the future for our children and their children - just as much as it was a vital part of our past.
I'm often asked to write articles for some publications, and also to accept 'editorials' (so-called) for this blog. I want to make it quite clear why I don't allow anyone else access to write any articles for my blog despite the large number of email requests that I get - and I also refuse advertisements. Some may well be innocent - but some - especially the more flatteringly admiring ones - may well be Trojan horses. And quite apart from that - the fact is that I don't know anyone else who can write about organic growing from more years of practical experience than me - and whatever you may think about my occasionally odd ideas - at least they're mine!
(P.S. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)