Autumn is crunch-time for apples

Thu, Sep 24, 2009, 01:00

URBAN FARMER: After years of decline, home-grown apples are returning to the back garden, with growers branching out into old native varieties

IT’S TIME TO bid a less than fond farewell to the rain-soaked summer of 2009, and welcome instead what Keats famously called “the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, for autumn has definitely arrived. And nothing captures the bittersweet quality of this season more than the sight of a craggy old apple tree and the sugary smell of its fruit.

In the OPW’s walled kitchen garden in the Phoenix Park, there are no such ancient specimen trees, but instead a selection of young espalier-trained apple trees will be planted this month at either side of the double herbaceous border. Over time these will be pruned and trained by gardeners Meeda Downey and Brian Quinn to form a formal, neatly-trained apple “fedge” (a fence/hedge cross).

Using espalier, cordon or fan-trained apple trees in this way is a clever, space-saving method of growing fruit trees. In even smaller spaces you might consider the miniature step-over types, which with regular hard pruning can be kept at a dainty height of just 60cm. Urban farmers and apartment-dwellers will also be interested in the dwarf-bush or container-grown types, which will suit those with very limited space or small balconies.

The eventual height and spread of all these different types of apple trees, from the smallest to the largest, is mainly determined by the type of rootstock onto which they’re grafted.

Stepovers and dwarf bush types, container-grown specimens, espalier, fan and cordon types are grafted onto a variety of rootstocks, including M27 (very dwarf), M9 (dwarf) and M26 (semi-dwarf) while larger, more spreading apple trees are generally grown on MM106 (semi-vigorous), MM111 and M25 (both vigorous). Other factors such as the local climate, soil conditions and the particular vigour of the chosen variety will also play a role, for apple trees do best in a fertile, well-drained but moisture-retentive soil in full sun.

Perhaps the main downside of the smaller, more formally- trained types is that they’re demanding as regards regular, careful pruning and are also less tolerant of poor growing conditions. Such specific requirements make these types of apple trees a more labour- intensive option than the larger, traditional trees, which are easier to maintain, and will tolerate more average soil conditions.

But it’s a sad fact that many of these large apple trees, once a feature of so many of Ireland’s back gardens, have slowly disappeared over the last number of decades, falling victim to property developers or simply dying from neglect and old age.

Thankfully that’s now all changing, as the country’s gardeners begin once again to rediscover the pleasures of home-grown apples, and in particular those of our native varieties, many of which have been rescued from the brink of extinction. There are two people in particular who have played a key role in preserving this diverse pomological collection for future gardeners, and they are Dr Keith Lamb and Anita Hayes.

As a young man in the 1940s, Dr Lamb travelled around Ireland on bicycle, identifying and documenting 70 rare native varieties of apple. With the encouragement of Dr Clarke of UCD, Lamb also took scion wood from each variety, from which he propagated young trees that were planted in the grounds of Albert Agricultural College (now DCU). Sadly, that orchard was bulldozed in the 1970s but, by a stroke of luck, duplicates of many of those collected varieties had also made their way to the UK, to the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale Farm in East Kent, where they survived unscathed.

It was 1991 before another young agricultural student called Anita Hayes (with the help of Dr Michael Hennerty of UCD, now retired, and the late Peadar MacNeice of the Armagh Orchard Trust) discovered that much of Lamb’s precious collection of native varieties still existed. Hayes and MacNeice travelled both to Brogdale, and then all around the country, collecting scion wood from other native varieties.

“We were the foot soldiers and we covered thousands of miles, searching out ‘lost’ varieties,” remembers Anita Hayes. “But we received huge help and encouragement from local people, historians, farmers, landowners. It really showed the power of people working together.”

The young trees they propagated were then planted in UCD, where they now form the Lamb Clarke Historical Apple Collection. Anita Hayes subsequently went on to found the Irish Seed Savers Association (ISSA) in 1992, an organisation that has put much time, effort and resources into rediscovering many more native varieties of apple.

The ISSA collection, which has its home at the ISSA headquarters in Capparoe in Co Clare, now numbers over 140 different Irish apple varieties, an amazing achievement given how perilously close many were to becoming extinct just a few short years ago.

So, if you’re contemplating creating your own mini-orchard, you now have the opportunity to celebrate the native Irish apple in all its diversity while helping to conserve a unique pomological gene pool for future Irish gardeners. The ISSA catalogue gives wonderful descriptions of all the different varieties, which vary hugely in flavour, colour, size, flowering and fruiting times and even in their resistance to pests and diseases.

Consider, for example, the Ard Cairn Russet, a dessert variety once widely grown throughout the country’s orchards and which has a firm, sweet flesh and a golden yellow skin often flushed with carmine. It’s also a good storer, meaning its fruit will keep well into early spring.

Or there’s Widow’s Friend, another dessert apple that was commonly grown in the orchards of Co Armagh and which produces a crisp tangy fruit that tastes of strawberries. Many of the other native varieties listed by ISSA evolved to suit local growing conditions and are named after the areas in which they were first discovered. Thus there are varieties like Cavan Wine, Kerry Pippin, Ballinora, Kilkenny Pearmain and Leitrim Red, all wonderful examples of the rich variety and biodiversity of the native Irish apple.

Aside from local growing conditions, there are also a few technical things to keep in mind when choosing the varieties of apple you’d like to grow, such as what type of apple you prefer (cooking, dessert, cider or juice) and which pollination group it belongs to.

While a few are self-fertile, most apple trees require a couple of nearby pollinating partners, which are other varieties that flower at or around the same time and allow cross-pollination, and thus fruiting, to take place. This is particularly important in more isolated gardens, but less so in urban areas where there are often (but not always) a few apple trees in neighbouring plots that will do the job for you.

There are four basic pollination groups, and most apple varieties can be pollinated by one from either the same group or from those immediately before or after it. Triploid varieties are trickier, needing not one but two pollinating partners while the opposite can be said of family trees. Here, between two and four different but compatible varieties are grafted onto the one rootstock, resulting in a single, self-fertile tree with a prolonged cropping period.

While this type of tree technically seems to make sense as far as the space-challenged urban farmer goes, there’s something about it that I, for one, find strangely off-putting. Perhaps it’s a bit too close for comfort to those animal chimeras like the “geep” (a cross between a sheep and a goat) that scientists produce as a result of their strange experiments. Far better in this case, I think, to stick with tradition.

Check out the ISSA website’s shop ( for a list of available native varieties or ring them on 061-921866.

The ISSA will be holding its Apple Harvest Day on September 27th at its headquarters in Capparoe, Scariff, Co Clare, where visitors can sample the different varieties and learn all about making home-made apple juice, apple cider and vinegar. Guest speakers will include Dr Hennerty. Free to ISSA members or €5 admission charge to non-members.

All ISSA apple trees cost €22 for non-members or €20 for ISSA members with postage and packaging extra. All trees are one-year-old maiden whips and are available on a variety of rootstocks. Check with ISSA for further details.

*The OPW’s Victorian walled kitchen garden is in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Café and Ashtown Castle. The gardens are open daily from 10am to 4.30pm

*Next week Urban Farmerin Propertywill cover growing turnips, including turnip-tops for spring eating

Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer