Topics for June/July: Fruit growing in a time of climate change..... The first fruits of summer..... Can you have Strawberry Fields forever? .....Should you replace strawberry plants after 3 years?..... Raspberries.....
Self-pollinating plum 'Guinevere' planted last year has set a great crop having luckily just missed the severe frost
Fruit growing in a time of climate change
Judging from my experience of the last 40 years of watching the increasingly erratic weather patterns undoubtedly associated with climate change, growing many varieties of fruit will become increasingly difficult in the future. As not all types of fruit will produce reliable crops any more due to unpredictable extremes of weather and I think that definitely the most sensible thing to do is to hedge one's bets by growing as wide a variety of health-giving fruits as possible. I think every year will be slightly different. The erratic weather will often mean that there will be some years in which some varieties of tree fruits like plums and apples which flower early in the year, swelling their fruits in gentle spring rains may be a disaster - as they have been this year. Some of the plums in the recently planted plum orchard were an absolute picture after the unseasonably warm weather in March brought them into flower far too early - but I had high hopes that they would set some fruit - especially the Damson 'Blue Violet' and the plum 'Guinevere', as they are both self-fertile, but appreciate another tree flowering at the same time. The Damson however was fully open just as we had that severe frost of -6 deg C in early May - so that was sadly done for! What a difference just one unseasonably cold night can make - in some cases wiping out any chance of a crop from some trees for another whole year!
The 'Guinevere' plum mostly escaped the worst as it wasn't fully open until a few days later - so has set a good crop for a young tree which I may thin some more if I'm not feeling too greedy! I planted both of them last year, having acquired them from the wonderful Frank Matthews nursery in Herefordshire - via Johnstown Garden centre here, so I haven't tasted either yet. My only regret now is that I didn't get at least two Guinevere before Brexit finally ended the chance of getting any more fruit trees from the UK - as it looks like being a reliable-cropping variety with an upright and compact habit - ideal if you only want one tree..It's also said to keep much better than other plums in cold storage, which will extend its season of use for a few weeks - definitely a plus.
This year many of my apples were also badly affected by the severe frost in May despite good weather and plenty of bees when they first came into flower. Egremont Russet, one of my favourites, was the worst affected being literally frozen solid by that late severe frost. Some of its too tender new growth was completely killed off and I shall have to prune back all of the damaged and dead growth this month to fresh new growth. Normally in July, after the fabled 'June drop' - which the old gardeners always talked about, they would select and thin the remaining fruits. This year I won't have that task - there will hardly be any to thin - and almost none at all on some trees! That means that those few that remain will be so precious that I shall cover them all with the small netting supermarket vegetable bags which I get some friends to save for me - they are brilliant for deterring the Blackbirds and Magpies which greedily peck at all the fruits as soon as they notice them changing colour! The Guinevere plum is all green at the moment and quite difficult to see on the whole tree, as the picture above shows, but it will also have to be completely covered as soon as it starts to look like ripening, with a new netting-type sturdy fleece I got from Fruit Hill Farm - I just hope the weather won't be too windy once the tree is covered, or it will act like a sail! But as I said previously, the weather can be very unpredictable now - so fingers can only be crossed! . I feel sorry for the poor birds which are just as desperate for healthy food as we are - but there are plenty of fruiting shrubs which I planted for them in the woodland strips surrounding our 5 acres years ago, and I can't give them everything!
Last year - at the end of May on examining the apple trees in the new orchard, I found that due to cold, wet and windy weather at pollination-time, some had pollinated badly and were bearing very few fruits, whereas other varieties which flowered slightly earlier, had obviously missed that and had set many fruits. I was very worried though, and rightly so it transpired, knowing that since March we'd had a complete drought - and you can't water an entire orchard - even if there wasn't a hosepipe ban! You'd need your own water supply or lagoon - actually we did have our own water supply for our first few years here. The hill we live on - appropriately named Spring Hill on old maps - has many springs which never ran dry even in the hottest summer - including a sparklingly clear one at the rear of our land where it separated our 5 acres from our neighbour. It was so clean when we first came here that we often had eels travelling up it from the estuary a few miles further down the coast. Sadly, as I've often mentioned here on my blog - since our intensive farmer neighbour bought the land adjoining us, about 10 years afer we moved here - that water supply has now gradually become so polluted with pesticides and artificial fertilisers that it now resembles a lifeless open sewer - so cannot be used for watering anything any more, and we had to fence it off so that livestock could no longer drink from it!
Looking at the trees in the middle of this month - I found that almost all of the trees carrying fruits had already dropped them - with at most only 5 or 6 fruits on some - and none on others! Unfortunately it seems to be the later-ripening, long-keeping varieties which keep to Christmas or even early spring the following year that seem to have been the most affected. Many of these would all have flowered at around the same time, and are the varieties which I rely on to fill my winter apple store. This is why it's so important to choose your varieties carefully if planting a new orchard or even just a tree or two so that you have a good range of trees that not only overlap their flowering times and will pollinate each other - but also have diverse ripening times, depending on your needs. We had wonderful crops from the new orchard for three of the last five years, and also from the old orchard on the other side of our 5 acres, near our boundary. There were almost no apples in the old orchard last year, and this year there are none! The trees that are carrying the most fruit this year are a few earlier ripening ones which won't keep more than a couple of weeks, Red Devil, Charles Ross and the slightly later Christmas Pippin (which only just about keeps until Christmas!).
I try to be philosophical and not too down-hearted though, and to always find something to cheer me up and encourage me to keep going - even in the most disappointing of circumstances. This year, yet again, it's the Sea Buckthorn which is looking fantastic - the berries so crowded along the branches that they reminded me of swarms of bees when I looked at them a couple of days ago. Although the picking and processing is without doubt the least fun and most painful of ANY fruit, even blackberries - they're also one of the most healthy, and are chock full of nutrients, so I'm always glad to have them in the freezer for immune-boosting and incredibly delicious winter smoothies tasting like a cross between Seville oranges and mouth watering orange sherbet. I always compare picking and processing Sea Buckthorn to being a bit like childbirth - absolute hell at the time but with very enjoyable results afterwards!
Fruit growing has always been a long-term investment - but many years ago when I planted my first orchard, that investment was a far more reliable one. Now it is much less certain, and I believe that the only way that we will be able to grow enough fruit to supply a healthy diet in the future will be to rely on growing as wide a diversity of cultivars of different fruits - not to rely on huge mono-cultures of any one specific cultivar of cherry, apple. plum or whatever the type of fruit may be. Only that way can we ensure at least some fruit - whatever the weather may throw at us throughout the year! If we grow a wide variety of fruit - even despite lack of rain or severe unpredictable frosts - we may have some fruit - but not the reliable seasonal supply we used to be able to rely on.
Just as farming needs to revert back to being the sustainable, organic, diverse, carbon-fixing systems of many years ago, before the age of vast, chemically-grown, carbon destroying mono-cultures - so horticulture needs to change too, including fruit growing. Only that way will we be able to continue to reliably grow food into the future.
Mixed berries - Nature's precious midsummer jewels.
The first fruits of summer!
Above is a bowlful of the early mixed berries and cherries that we're enjoying from the polytunnel right now before the outside ones are ripe. There are raspberries Erika, Joan J and purple one Glen Coe, Tayberries, blackberry Reuben, Alpine (or wild-type) strawberries, also Albion, Mara des Bois, Gento and Old White strawberries, and Morello cherries. I grow a wide variety in the polytunnel so that there is almost always something to pick no matter what the weather is like outside - or how ingenious the birds are!
Some of the more exotic top fruits like figs, potted dwarf cherries and early peaches are just starting to ripen now too - a little later that most years due to the lateness of the season - and it's really beginning to taste like high summer now! The ever-reliable perpetual-fruiting strawberries were the first fruits to produce berries in early May - but we've been eating fruit of all kinds for several weeks now as you can see above. The weather has been really hot during the days for most of the last few weeks - although the nights have been very cold. Some nights have been really chilly, and today the weather is windy. Luckily though - with the protection of the polytunnel all the berry crops in pots will continue to crop well if kept well-watered - so they are definitely worth the space they take up! The peaches are looking promising too. Keeping all fruit well watered and mulched will be most important in hot weather now - as the first thing to go is the fruit if plants are stressed by any dryness at the roots. Due also to the good summer last year - there are a lot more bees around too - doing their vital job of pollination. As I'm constantly saying - growing flowers for bees and other pollinators is a good idea everywhere in the garden, including and especially in the fruit garden. Without bees - we wouldn't have a lot of fruit or nuts such as peaches, apricots, almonds and raspberries, to name just a few. Bees are vital to almost 3/4 of our food supply, so we need to encourage them and look after them by not using pesticides, particularly now that they're in serious trouble, being in decline in many areas.
Tunnel-grown strawberries Albion, Gento, Christine & Malling Centenary - which have been cropping since early May
Well maybe not forever - but certainly from May until November if you grow some of the perpetual (or ever-bearing) varieties in a polytunnel! I ordered 'cold stored' runners of a new variety of 'perpetual' strawberry - from Ken Muir's Nursery last month by phone (I like to try at least one new variety of something each year). The beautifully established plug plants (with flower buds!) arrived quickly by post (you can't beat that) and are now already settling into their new home! They will fruit very soon - not too long to wait to try a new variety!
Apropos the 'buying local' principle by the way - I always try all the Irish nurseries for plants first (more in hope than expectation!) Usually they have very little choice of varieties. The - 'couldn't care less' - "You can put your name down, and we might have it if we remember it next autumn" - which I've had from some nurseries is an attitude that doesn't really do it for me! Helpful, efficient, informative and knowledgeable (rare) service is so much better if you want people's return business! So many of the nurseries don't even sell the varieties that are best suited to our climate!
Should you replace strawberry plants after 3 years?
Some people say you should replace strawberry stocks after three years but personally I think that's unnecessary if your plants are healthy. It's perfectly alright to continue to propagate from healthy plants. This year my old favourite Gento seems even better than ever - thoroughly rejuvenated and enjoying the five star treatment it's now getting in the east tunnel and the last few weeks of hot weather! It has been producing wave after wave of huge delicious fruits and has been flowering continuously since early May! The most important thing with strawberries is to ONLY EVER propagate from the most productive plants which are fruiting well, with perfect looking, healthy leaves - not twisted or blotched with yellow, which might indicate virus. Then you can't go wrong. It's also a good idea to move them to fresh ground every 3-4 years.
We've been enjoying the first of our strawberries from the tunnels for over a month now. We had a taste testing recently and decided that meltingly delicious Gento was still definitely tops for flavour - with Albion coming a close second, Mara des Bois next, then Malling Opal and the much vaunted old French variety Gariguette after that. Christine and Malling Centenary came last - good flavour but not that sensational - and I want sensational in strawberries! Malling Centenary is the one set to replace Elsanta - which I don't grow because I think it's completely tasteless - sadly that's the one sold in many garden centres! Malling Centenary is summer fruiting - but a huge cropper with a pretty good taste and also good disease resistance.
Gento is an old variety I've mentioned before - which was bred in France in the early 1960's - and my stock came as runners taken from plants growing in the garden where I grew up over 40 years ago. I took some runners from the plants growing in the kitchen garden there, when my now grown-up children were toddlers - and the plants I have now are the much-propagated offspring of those original plants! I would hate to lose them - they're such a lovely connection to that magical garden, every inch of which I remember so well and visit so often in my daydreams. Most of it, including the 6 acres of wonderful diverse orchards which I played in as a child and where I saw my first Robin's nest. are now sadly lost forever under a ghastly housing estate - like so many other long lost old gardens!
The golden berries/cape gooseberries now ripe on last year's overwintered plants come ready-packed by Nature in their own, protective little 'designer' paper cases! Cape gooseberries are actually tender perennials and are worth trying to keep over winter if you have room for them, in order to get an early crop. I'm also growing a new variety this year, from The Seed Coop - called Schonbrunner Gold. Although it was only sown on the 20th March - it's looking very healthy and vigorous, already flowering and I'm very pleased with it. Once they start to produce fruit, the productive bushes will keep on flowering and fruiting all summer and autumn in the tunnel. They'll be ripening from late July/August onwards, and the fruit will keep in their little paper cases for months in the salad drawer of the fridge.
Don't worry about the cream! Just enjoy the bountiful harvests of summer
The latest scientific thinking on that is that all dairy products are actually good for you! I always thought they were anyway! And of course all organic dairy products, including cream, are naturally far higher in good Omega 3 fats than non-organic, so that means they're even healthier! The fat in dairy products is where most of the nutrients are. If you're worried about all the calories - then just work them off with all that weeding and mulching!! Actually though, I think creme fraiche is much nicer than cream anyway - it's even better for you than ordinary cream - as it's also probiotic, and especially so if you make it at home more cheaply using kefir grains. Try making an ice cream with just strawberries, homemade creme fraiche or yogurt, a little sugar or organic Stevia drops and a dash of lemon juice - it's heavenly! Yum! That's for when you get fed up with them straight, or dipped in melted 99% dark chocolate of course - and that's not just healthy - but it's positively medicinal in fact, with all the healthy polyphenols in the dark chocolate!!
Really the best thing about growing your own organic fruit is that you can eat it properly ripe and still warm from the sun - while it's super-fresh and mouth-wateringly good! - Enjoy!
(Please note. 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. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)