There’s nothing quite like the taste of a freshly picked apple, one that hasn’t been ferried miles and then sat on a supermarket shelf. Growing your own also means the chance to savour different varieties rather than just the commonplace Granny Smith or Braeburn.
In Gloucestershire alone there are 106 different apples and, thanks to work by the Gloucestershire Orchard Trust, many of these are now available to gardeners.
One grower who has been promoting these ‘heritage’ varieties is Rob Watkins, who specialises in old varieties of apple, along with perry pears and plums.
He launched Lodge Farm Trees 15 years ago when he gave up milking at his Rockhampton farm. Every year he raises around 1,000 trees with about 40 different apples and 20 perry pears at any one time.
“At some point I’ve grown all of the apple varieties,” says Rob, who is a Trust committee member.
Among the old apple varieties are ‘Margaret’, an early cropping, sweet, red dessert apple, ‘Severn Bank’, a dual purpose eater and cooker, and ‘Hens Turds’, a cider apple from Rodley.
‘Rose of Ciren’ is another Gloucestershire variety and there is the delightfully named ‘Jackets and Waistcoats’, also known as ‘Jackets and Petticoats’, which comes from Ashleworth.
“It’s a nice apple with a zingy taste,” says Rob, who also grows Christmas trees after collaborating for some years with neighbouring Mount Pleasant Trees.
Some apples, such as the dual purpose ‘Arlingham Schoolboys’, have been saved from near extinction as the original trees have long gone and the variety lives on only through grafted trees grown from them. Some of these new generation trees have now been planted back in the village.
Perry pears, which are found across the Three Counties, include the ‘Christmas Pear’, ‘Yellow Huffcap’ and ‘Merry Legs’, though whether the name has anything to do with the effect of the perry is unclear.
The trees are grown on rootstocks that Rob buys in as two-year trees and plants out in January; these are used to determine the size and vigour of the mature tree.
Budding starts in July using that year’s growth, some taken from his trees – he has planted an orchard of old varieties – the rest from trees across the county, including the Trust’s ‘mother orchard’.
All the leaves are trimmed off the cutting, leaving a small ‘handle’ on the bottom one and a 45 degree cut is made behind a bud. This is then inserted into a similar slot in the rootstock behind a bud and the whole thing is bound together with special tape. Three weeks later the two should be growing as one tree.
The following spring, Rob cuts the rootstock off to just above the graft, leaving the heritage variety as the leader.
“In the first year the rootstock will shoot out of the bottom and I have to trim it off several times during the growing season.”
Trees are sold bare-rooted from mid-November to March and a mini-digger is brought in to lift them to ensure a good root ball on each tree. They are then heeled into a bed of composted bark ready for sale.
And Rob’s favourite? It’s the well-known ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’, which originates from Gloucester and dates back to 1700.
• For more information, visit www.lodgefarmtrees.co.uk
• Gloucestershire Orchard Trust: www.gloucestershireorchardtrust.org.uk
• When it comes to planting, the process is simple. Choose a good, sunny site, that doesn’t get waterlogged and don’t replant where there’s been a fruit tree before; Christmas trees are used as a rotation crop at the farm.
• Dig a hole big enough to take the root ball. Rob doesn’t put compost or manure in as “It will act like a sump and the roots don’t like it.” Instead, he prefers to mulch well after planting.
• A stake may be necessary, depending on the size of the tree and the area around the tree should be kept weed-free. He also recommends fitting a guard if you have rabbits.