Another Autumn, another post about apples…

Every year the apple trees prove to be the most reliable of fruit and every year the Jonathon proves to be the most reliable of varieties. It was introduced in 1864 in the USA. It appeared in Australia at some point before I was born, because I remember this being THE red apple of my childhood.

The orchard in my garden is about fifteen years old. The apples are dwarfing rootstock and we keep the trees pruned so that ladders are not required to pick the fruit and so that they can be individually netted against the rosellas and the crows who would be happy to eat them all.

The Jonathon is my standout favourite allrounder. It is the one in the orchard that doesn’t miss a year. The one that we eat fresh in abundance and cook with the most. The one whose fruit keeps the longest in storage, where it retains its flavour and texture the best. I remember it fondly from childhood and now in middle age it contributes a delicate sweetness and character to the cider we make with it. An all round champion, for me at least.

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There is always an outer layer of apples on the tree that are ruby red, an eternal image of fecundity and good health. Then hidden in the silvery green leaves are the pale green apples. You would think they are a different variety. Because the skin has not been touched by light, the anthocyanins have not been triggered into action and so they stay green, but they are still sweet and they are still delicious, but I tend to bundle the green kind into storage and the bright red ones are served up fresh.

Apple trees can have a variety of fungal problems, the Granny Smith in the same orchard is a tragic victim of scab (Venturia inaequalis), for example, but Jonathon seems to be pretty much blemish free at least here.

Part of the regular orchard maintenance in the lead up to the harvest is to gather up windfalls, then after the harvest and throughout Autumn and early winter, the lawn is kept short, the clippings gathered up, with all the leaves that have fallen, and taken away to be composted. We probably should burn the leaves, to make sure any fungal spores are dispatched. But we are conscious of the problems of air pollution and make sure the compost made with the clippings from the orchard are used as far away from the apple trees as possible. Breaking the leaves down quickly can certainly reduce the numbers of fungal spores that persist into the following year to reinfect the tree.

The other great pest, for the apples is the European wasp. I have seen them in their hundreds attacking the ripe fruit, biting holes through the skin and then eating the flesh from the inside out until nothing is left but the papery skin, a shell, a husk. It is a sure sign that the fruit is ripe, however and a good alarm to say hurry up and pick them before the wasps do.

I’m protective of this tree as you might have learnt. And I know not everyone will share my passion. I wonder, though, whether particular apple varieties have this affect on other gardeners. What’s your favourite?

Sweet Daphne

Daphne was a water nymph (Naiad) who caught the eye of Apollo. He chased after her. To avoid God knows what injury, she sensibly turned herself into a bay tree (Laurus nobilis), which Apollo mooned over thereafter. This is an archetypal representation of the pursued and the pursuer in relationship: if they’re running away from you and never turn around to chase you back, then they’re probably not that into you, as the saying goes.

When it came to giving a common name to this family of precious shrubs from Asia, it was no doubt decided that as the leaves of some of the species resembled the bay leaf and as the beauty of many of the species resembled an irresistible Naiad, that this is after whom it should be named.

A favourite of home gardens in southern Australia, the sweet daphne (Daphne odora) outshines all other winter flowering fragrant plants. Its spicy citrus fragrance is distinctive in the cold air and when brought inside in a generous bunch the warmth empowers the scent. Whenever I catch a whiff, I am transported back to my grandmother’s South Gippsland garden.

The inflorescences come in bundles of white flowers and each flower is made up of four tepals (petal and sepal combo), and each petal is backed with cerise. They are usually borne amidst the leathery green foliage from July to September. There are varieties that have variegated leaves and some with pure white flowers.

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They are known to be a little bit fussy. I would say good drainage in acidic soil with an easterly prospect, if you can find the space, is best. Others suggest dappled light. And give it a very light tip pruning every year and pick many bunches as gifts and to cheer up the house. This will help it to stay in some shape. For they can become unruly and untidy if left to their own devices. It will need to be fertilised too, so that the leaves stay glossy and green and not lank and yellow. A regular supply of water in dry weather will help it to stay strong and resist attack from such pests as scale.

In design it is best used in a mixed border. It is not a very interesting plant to look at for most of the year, so it is good to have something more fascinating to look at in the vicinity, but don’t let the daphne be overpowered by other plants in the summer months, as it will restrict its growth and flower production the following season.

And have them growing somewhere where you walk past them every day, so that its scent can astound you each day of winter and transport you to the moment you were first aware of it as a garden plant.

Oh my word, it’s apple picking time…

“The ripe, the golden month has come again … and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run…” Thomas Wolfe

I don’t know much about York Imperials, but I do know that Cox’s Orange Pippin is one of the best eating apples in the world. It has a vivd sweetness that is relieved by a pleasant sourness that with the crunch and ooze of the first bite, brightens up your palate. Eating fresh apples is such a pleasure. I have eight different varieties growing in my orchard and I love moving from one tree to the next at this time of year munching and comparing sweetness and colour and texture and flavour of the Cox’s with the Snow Apple and the Jonathan and the Red Delicious. It’s not an expansive collection, but it is full of the varieties I love.

Adam picks with the help of Elaine, every single apple from the tree.

Adam picks, with the help of Elaine, every single apple from the tree.

There are eight apple trees in our orchard, which means a lot of apples. More than we can eat. More than we can preserve, store and eat. As the trees have slowly matured over the years, I have been noticing the increasing harvest sizes and have been wondering what to do with them. Giving them to a food charity is one option (and I plan to give some of the bounty to Open Table https://www.facebook.com/opntbl/info?tab=page_info). Cider is the other option.

The back of the old ute with our crop of Cox's ready to head to Margaret and Peter's.

The back of the old ute with our crop of Cox’s ready to head to Margaret and Peter’s.

My friends Peter and Margaret are excellent home gardeners and they too have some lovely apple trees such as ‘Lord Lambourne’ and we have been talking for a while about turning these luscious fruits into something a little bit more alcoholic than apple pie and apple strudel. This year, after discovering the most wonderful shop in Melbourne, if not the world, Costante Imports in Bell Street Preston, where we purchased the appropriate equipment (<http://www.costanteimports.com.au&gt; No, don’t check them out yet, we’ll never see you again), we decided that the only thing holding us back was inaction.

So we acted. The following photos tell the story of how we picked, cut up, scratted (i.e. crushed) and pressed all the apples from my Cox’s Orange Pippin and how eight hours later we put the caps on two carboys that contained all up 62 litres of apple juice ready to be fermented into cider. There are a few scientific sort of things we had to do after that. I will let you find out that stuff online, as we did, because I am sure that others can explain the process far better than I can.

The cows were very happy to feast on the apples that were too damaged to press.

The cows were very happy to feast on the apples that were too damaged to press.

The cutting of the apples.

The cutting of the apples.

The scratting of the apples.

The scratting of the apples.

The pressing of the apples. See the lovely juice flowing into the bowl. It took a lot of elbow grease. Margaret proved to be the best presser of the three of us, I will concede.

The pressing of the apples. See the lovely juice flowing into the bowl. It took a lot of elbow grease. Margaret proved to be the best presser of the three of us, I will concede.

This is Peter's photo of the carboys that contain the juice, which now, thanks to the addition of some brewer's yeast, is busily fermenting.

This is Peter’s photo of the carboys that contain the juice, which now, thanks to the addition of some brewer’s yeast, is busily fermenting.

So that’s one tree taken care of. I have good crops on at least five of the remaining apple trees. I am not sure if we will make another batch of cider this year, but I will definitely be storing a good selection of the rest of the apples in boxes in cupboards and sheds, to keep me going for the next five or six months (they keep really well in cool dark places in shallow boxes).

So the York Imperials might delight the cider makers of Virginia, but in South Gippsland, Cox’s Orange Pippins are our first choice for cider making. For now at least. We will be planting some actual cider apples this year. But that’s another story.

Until then, enjoy your apples and enjoy this poem by a Melbourne born poet who knew that apples, like all of us, can improve with age.

 “A dish of apples, two are large and smooth,

The third smaller. Its skin, my fingers learn,

Has just begun to wrinkle. So I choose it:

The fruit inside is likely to be sweeter.”

Philip Martin from Fruits of Experience

Water

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Gardening in South Gippsland is a pretty easy business compared with much of this arid continent. We have reliable rains regularly throughout the year and really only have to water consistently from mid summer through to early Autumn and even then we can be lucky and have the occasional downpour that perks everything up. Like we have had in the past few days.

Nevertheless, when you are gardening on the top of a hill and you have free draining volcanic soil as your growing medium AND when you are prone to high thirty degree celsius temperatures (or worse) for days on end, supplementary watering is necessary especially for vegetables and some perennials and of course if you want the grass to stay green.

I am fortunate, in that I can pump water up from a dam and give everything a good soaking a couple of times a week (in the evening so that it has a chance to soak in). Then I top up the vegetables with hand watering from a tank, in between times. Also, I take steps to make sure that the water stays put for as long as possible. I mulch and enrich the soil with moisture absorbing humus in the form of compost and manure. I have also planted low hedges around the vegetable garden and trees out in the paddocks to help to minimise the wind.

How do you keep your garden growing over the dry spells?

Boxes of Dahlias

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Where do you stand on box hedges? Do you view them as a classic staple of formal gardening or a lamentable gardening cliche that were old hat when Vita Sackville-West was a lass?

Probably, from the above photograph, you have worked out where I stand. My vegetable garden at Clear Springs is defined by these rustling lines of deep green. Box although haling from the Old World are as tough as any native in my garden and will forgive me when I don’t get around to clipping them. I can hack back inches and still they reveal glossy green foliage that look like I had planned it this way all along. It looks great all year round and is happy to take the supporting role to the more spectacular floral offerings, like the dahlias, calendula and artichokes that you can see in the photograph.

And now allow me to mention the dahlias. My grandmother grew them: a great big fat row of them that ran the full length of one of Pa’s vegetable gardens. No two plants were the same variety, the flowers all astounded me as a child. Their colours and shapes absorbed my fascination.

I grew some myself in my first little garden. Dainty white pompoms. I thought they were a miracle.

And as I grew up, I realised that they were not terribly fashionable so kept my interest in them quiet, unless it was for the giant tree dahlia, which was somehow ok according to the horticultural fashion police of the time.

But in my wonderings and observations of old style productive gardens of the inner urban migrants of multicultural Melbourne, I noticed that these proto-cottage gardens were usually adorned with a splendid example of a dahlia. Usually the most garish and strangely coloured dahlia known to science. There might be quite a few plants, but of the one variety. Frugal gardeners dividing and multiplying a specimen that they love. Makes sense.

And thus my own little row of dahlias. One variety that I acquired as a gift fifteen years ago. It has grown in the same place pretty much since then and unlike my industrious grandparents, who dug and stored away the bulbs every year so that they wouldn’t rot, mine have remained untended and undivided. That is, until now. Only a few months ago I divided and replanted about half the bulbs in a little row, expecting them to grow into great big shrub like creatures before flowering in the late summer.

However, the division must have somehow stimulated their urge to flower and low and behold I had a lovely little display for Christmas. The combination with the calendula pleases me greatly and not just for the serendipitous nature of its creation. What would the fashion police say? Hopefully, by now I have learnt not to listen too much to the pronouncements of these mythical creatures.

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Happy New Year!

Rosy

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When I arrived at ‘Clear Springs’ in classic spring drizzle, the colours of the seasonal blossom and flower glowed brightly in the mute light, against the grey sky. It was Thursday and ahead of me lay four days in the garden, before I had to go back to the city and to work. And in front of me, on a grassy path, lay Mme Alfred Carriere. She lay sadly beside the verandah post she was supposed to be attached to. She looked like a badly broken limb: at the wrong angle and disconcerting.

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An instant sense of guilt came. I had meant to prune all the roses on my previous visit, but had only managed to trim a few of the bush roses, daunted no doubt by the mammoth task of thinking out and tidying up the vigorous old lady of the climbing rose world. My failure to act meant that she was too top heavy and the wires that supported her buckled in the heavy winds.

My initial dread subsided somewhat when I discovered that she had slumped rather than snapped. I figured I could reattach her.

It didn’t take long.

Once righted, she stood proudly again and I picked a few of the exquisite buds that were beginning to open and enjoyed the rosy fragrance from the cream flowers, so palely stained with pink, the margin of the outer petals a wrinkled, cerise edge. These colours usually bleach away in the bright sun, but this grey day had kept the precious colours vivid.

Wintry

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The days are getting longer. But it is still winter. The plants grow, but slowly. Broad beans (Vicia faba) have been growing steadily since we planted them in May. And they are flowering their sweet, cream flowers that promise the fruit that is to come. I planted the broad beans in three rows, fairly closely together so that the plants support each other as they grow. Nearby I grow a small crop of garlic, another of my favourite winter crops. All in a bed of rich red soil that I have tried valiantly to keep weed free over the course of the winter. I wish I could keep the whole garden like that. Elsewhere the cape weed and blue pimpernel are also thriving. That will be a job for another day, when the days get longer still.