In The Gar­den

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Tom Coward Tom Coward is head gar­dener at Gravetye Manor, West Sus­sex (www.gravetye­manor.co.uk)

Tom Coward’s best ap­ples and pears

LAST sea­son, we had an ex­cep­tional fruit har­vest, but we need to keep ex­pand­ing the range. Chef has a special pas­sion for pears, but the ripe fruit is such a frag­ile, messy thing, it’s hard to buy them ripened to full flavour—they must come from the gar­den. To ex­tend our crop, we’re plant­ing new trees of Beurre Hardy and Doyenne du Comice, trained as fans against the gar­den wall.

These two va­ri­eties are known to have the best flavour in our cli­mate and, by grow­ing them as re­stricted forms, we can give them the at­ten­tion they need to pro­duce the high­est qual­ity fruit. Train­ing, blos­som thin­ning, sum­mer prun­ing and fruit thin­ning can take time, but you reap the re­wards from the ef­fort.

The same is true with ap­ples. Cor­dons and es­palier sys­tems both work well in the art of grow­ing the per­fect ap­ple. We have many free-stand­ing trees, but this year, we’ve planted a new av­enue of ‘step-overs’ to frame our veg­etable beds. These are grown on a very dwarf­ing root stock, M27, and trained in a T shape along a wire, 18in from the ground.

Pre­sen­ta­tion is re­ally im­por­tant, but we never want to spray our fruit, so we only grow scabre­sis­tant va­ri­eties for the fruit bowl. Ra­jka, a beau­ti­ful red ap­ple from the Czech Repub­lic, has proved to be one of the best late va­ri­eties and Red Devil is an ex­cel­lent ear­lier one, with never a blem­ish of scab. How­ever, the tasti­est ap­ple we’ve grown in re­cent tri­als is Here­ford­shire Rus­set, which has a beau­ti­ful golden skin and com­plex sweet flavour. We were so pleased with it, we’ve just put in 30 new trees.

We grow nearly 100 dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of bush, tree and cane fruit, each se­lected by Chef for a spe­cific pur­pose, so keep­ing ac­cu­rate records of what we have is re­ally im­por­tant. Pre­vi­ously, our la­bels were made from tin strips punched with a let­ter stamp, which might have lived in the pot­ting shed since Robin­son’s day. These la­bels are full of char­ac­ter, but aren’t very clear or durable, so, re­cently, we made the de­ci­sion to in­vest in pro­fes­sional printed la­bels of the sort used in botan­i­cal gar­dens, from IP En­grav­ing (www. ipen­grav­ing.co.uk).

On each, we’ve recorded the fruit va­ri­ety, plant­ing date, coun­try of ori­gin and, where ap­pli­ca­ble, the root­stock on which it’s grafted. They cer­tainly give an im­pres­sion of or­der and or­gan­i­sa­tion!

A good time to put these la­bels out is dur­ing winter prun­ing, when we have the op­por­tu­nity to inspect each plant in de­tail and re­view the crop for im­prove­ments. Most of this work can be done any time the plants are dor­mant. It can be a use­ful job to save for bad weather, when the soil is too wet or frozen to be worked, but cold numb fin­gers and sharp se­ca­teurs can be a bad mix.

The nicest time to prune fruit is at the very end of winter in the first warm days. The spring may not have quite ar­rived, but the weak sun is a plea­sure on the face and you can feel the plants be­gin­ning to wake as they’re trained.

Each fruit va­ri­ety has its own tech­nique of prun­ing and it can seem like a lot of com­pli­cated in­for­ma­tion to take on. Over the years, the gar­dener gets to know his plants like old friends and the prun­ing can be done with lit­tle con­scious thought. How­ever, we still, af­ter all these years, reg­u­larly re­fer to our trusted copy of the RHS En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Gar­den­ing to keep us on track.

Af­ter all prun­ing is com­pleted, it’s al­ways good to give the fruit a feed with some bone­meal and ap­ply a mulch of well-rot­ted or­ganic ma­te­rial—one of the nicest things you can do for your plants. Mulching will help keep mois­ture in the soil and weeds out and, as it breaks down, it helps to im­prove the soil as the plant grows. Mush­room com­post or com­posted bark both make ex­cel­lent mulch ma­te­rial and have the ad­van­tage of be­ing ster­ile, but I pre­fer us­ing our own home­made or­ganic com­post, which, I like to ar­gue, is one of the most im­por­tant in­gre­di­ents that goes into Chef’s Miche­lin-star menu.

Es­paliered fruit trees can be an at­trac­tive as well as use­ful el­e­ment of the kitchen gar­den

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