The brightening

Cold days persist. Snow may still fall in the hills and on the tablelands. But as anyone who is spending time in the garden will tell you, things are starting to move. It is pre-spring, that brief period between deep winter and true spring when Muyan, the silver wattle (Acacia dealbata) blooms. The lemon yellow and silvery green of its flowers and foliage are colours bright in my mind’s eye, which I see through still, chill air, beside flooding creeks and rivers. An early plant that stirred me to awe: how I wondered at its flowering amidst the bleakest of days. It is far too large for any garden and is prone to fall apart or just drop dead full of borer, but you might be lucky to see it flowering along the river still. The photograph below was taken along the Yarra River (Birrarung) as it flows somewhere through Kew and Abbotsford. Penleigh Boyd painted this yearly phenomenon further up at Warrandyte and elsewhere. Someone once referred to them as scrambled egg paintings. I can see why.

Acacia dealbata

For if there were any colour that could represent this season, at least in my garden, it would have to be yellow. The first daffodils, the other early flowering wattles, some of the Kniphofias, even the Aeoniums, all send out striking yellow flowers at this time. Less stridently, but still apparent in late July and throughout August, there are primroses and phebalium and bulbinella, all cheerfully proclaiming the season. I lost my primroses during a few hot years when I didn’t water the ornamental garden. I lament their loss, but don’t pine for them.  Phebalium squamulosum, the forest phebalium (not much of a common name, I’m afraid), on the other hand, a small shrub native to south eastern Australia, has proven to be much longer lived in comparison. Tucked in amongst Mahonia, Phormiums and Plectranthus, it holds its own against theses bigger brutes; its bronzy foliage waiting quietly for its moment of sunshine: stars bursting from brown buds.

Phebalium

You might not be like me, confusing the native bulbine lily (Bulbine bulbosa) with Bulbinella (Bulbinella spp.). Both members of the Asphodelaceae, they are bright and cheerful and can cope with less than favourable conditions. I am growing the former in a client’s nature strip in Northcote and the latter in my unkempt ‘meadow’ in South Gippsland. Bulbinella is a much showier beast, with more gold in the flower and the composition of the flowers seem to make them vibrate with colour, a stunning display on a smaller scale than a Kniphofia, a plant it usually reminds me of. The little bulbine lily in contrast is a clearer yellow and more modest, but no less delightful, especially amongst the kangaroo grass and the vanilla lilies of a grassy woodland. I hope to grow more of it.

Bulbine Lily

I have grown many wattles over the years, many of them have flourished and passed away. One of my favourites is the sticky wattle Acacia howitii, which lives up to its name having leaves rich with a gum like secretion. I haven’t found it to be very long lived. On the other hand Acacia floribunda, I can’t kill. Even when I chop it down with a chainsaw, it will burst back to life vigorously from whatever stump I leave behind. The most successful wattle in my garden though is the Snowy River Wattle, Acacia boormanii, which has become a relatively long-lived thicket ( it must be about eighteen by now) that shows no sign of weakening. It suckers, hence the thicket, but in such a gentle and unprepossing way. It is probably only a bit over two metres tall where I have it. It comes out a little earlier even than Muyan, a yellow froth of blossom amidst the dark, dark green foliage. A perfect plant to edge a country garden with to provide protection and create a microclimate amenable to more fragile plants within.Acacia boormanii.jpg

So much yellow, it’s hard not to be cheered by it and the lengthening days.

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