Apple growing, a cautionary tale.

I have an allotment. On it is a large fruit cage, taking up a third of the plot and in which I grow, reasonably successfully, soft fruit. I have raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, blueberries,  blackcurrants and red currants. The allotment rules don’t allow me to plant trees in the ground, so I am unable to plant fruit trees on the plot.

Not a problem, I can grow a few apple trees in my garden. I actually started growing apple trees in my garden long before I got the allotment. My first foray was with three apples and a Victoria plum. The apples were Herefordshire Russet, Suntan and Elstar. They were all planted as two year old bush trees on MM106 stocks. The russet produced half a dozen good apples in its first year and a respectable crop in its second. In the next couple of years the fruits were very small and scabby. When I decided to dig it out and put up a polytunnel it was not a difficult decision.

‘Elstar’ seemed to get a good write-up wherever I looked, as a good grower with good disease resistance and with well flavoured fruit. That was not my experience. All I ever saw were very scabby, very small fruits that didn’t taste of much. A work colleague had brought ‘Holstein Cox’ back from her native Germany and it was doing very well for her so I accepted the offer of some scions and started to turn Elstar into a family tree. The plan was for Elstar itself to leave home.

Apples-2

Family apple tree. The trunk is ‘Elstar’, most of the smaller branches are something else.

At the same time that I grafted three or four scions of Holstein, I also grafted a couple each of Red Windsor and Meridian. I didn’t really expect many, if any, to succeed. I also didn’t label them. Bad mistake. All nine scions took, most of them grew away well, but I don’t know which is which.

Suntan thrived. Away it grew, strong and healthy. In a year or two it was flowering like an ornamental crab but it was doing so once Elstar, Herefordshire Russet , Holstein et al had finished. There was nothing to pollinate it and I ended up with almost no fruit. I have spur pruned it as an open bush shaped tree, which has worked well, restricting its size whilst maintaining prolific flowering.

Apples

‘Suntan’ apple. Spur pruning in summer has worked well to restrict the size while still producing abundant flowering, if not fruit.

Somewhere along the way I had planted a tree of Red Windsor, on M9, a dwarfing rootstock. M9 is the stock that virtually all commercial growers use and until quite recently has been almost unobtainable in retail nurseries. Commercial growers plant at high densities, growing as spindle trees or something similar, supported on wires and at 3-4 feet spacing. Key advantages for them are that the trees start cropping very quickly and the fruit is a little larger than on other rootstocks. Yield per hectare is very high. I saw these merits as being just as relevant to me as a domestic gardener, plus the fact that in a limited space I could get in more varieties, giving me better pollination and less risk of gluts.

Red Windsor hasn’t done terribly well; it crops freely enough but the fruits have been small and scabby. It hasn’t grown very much.

Did I mention I am in Cornwall. A lot of things grow very well in our mild maritime climate, even some apple varieties, but scab and canker can be devastating.

I decided I needed a late flowering variety to pollinate Suntan. It seemed suitably disease resistant and the few fruits I did get were good. I wanted cookers because all I had was eaters. I ended up with Newton Wonder and Lane’s Prince Albert, both on M9. I was thinking that they wouldn’t take up much room and in time I could graft a couple of bits from each onto Suntan and do away with the free standing trees.

Why two? Well, Newton Wonder is a triploid, as is Suntan, so I needed Lane’s Prince Albert to pollinate Suntan, then something else to pollinate Lane’s Prince Albert. Truth is it doesn’t add up now, though it did at the time.

Neither have grown well, certainly not well enough to start hacking off bits for grafting. Trees on dwarfing rootstocks need pretty good growing conditions to succeed; I’m not sure they get what they need in my climate. I am sceptical whether they will do the job of pollinating Suntan. Suntan itself, in the meantime, is beginning to show a bit of a susceptibility to canker.

In the winter of 2016/17 I grafted some more bits onto Elstar. Plympton Pippin, Tregonna King and Meridian. Two west-country varieties that should do well and Meridian, mostly in the hope it will enable me to identify the bits I did before.

Just for good measure, I planted a maiden tree of Holstein Cox on MM106. It is a strong grower and I will need to restrict its growth. It had one apple on it in 2017 and it was superb.

Apples-3

‘Holstein’, a German ‘Cox’ hybrid that has so far shown real promise, but what do I do with it?

It’s crunch time. I have six trees, three on MM106 and capable of making 12-15 feet unless restricted, three on M9 and probably doomed to perform badly. Suntan is getting canker and crops poorly. My strategy to improve its pollination has failed. If it goes then Newton Wonder and Lanes Prince Albert may as well go too.

My Elstar based family tree is passable, though I’m not sure that having a trunk and branches of Elstar between the MM106 rootstock and the varieties I have grafted on top of it is a good idea.

Holstein Cox needs to be trained into something that I can spur prune and keep within bounds. It’s also not in the ideal location as it will shade the glasshouse.

Part of me wishes I’d never started. For probably 10 years of trying I doubt I’ve had 50 edible apples. I’ve learned a bit. Grafting shoots of different varieties onto an existing tree is easy. See varieties growing successfully in a garden nearby before you plant them. Spur pruning to keep a particular size or trained shape is easy enough.

I’m not thinking about what could have been growing in that space these last ten years or how much fruit I could have had if I’d planted the right varieties. I’m thinking about what to do now and the blog I’d like to be writing about it in five years time.

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Six on Saturday – 5/8/2017

Dahlias and Japanese anemones are definitely flowers of the second half of summer. I’m impatient for them to start flowering, then depressed when they do.

One.
Dahlia ‘Orange Cushion’. There is not the remotest possibility of this dahlia ever being mistaken for nearly red or nearly yellow. It’s a bang down the middle orange. I’ve had it for several years and leave it in the ground over winter. I sowed some of its seed last year, am keen to see what I get.
Dahlia-Orange-Cushion

Two.
Someone put a fern in last week. Another of those groups of plants that I love, that do well in my conditions and that I have to resist the temptation to buy every time I see one I haven’t got already. Paesia scaberula, Lace Fern, is a New Zealand fern that a few years ago would have been regarded as borderline hardy even here in Cornwall. I’ve had no such concerns for the last few years, it’s in danger of matching the description in my NZ ferns book of “forming dense masses to the exclusion of other vegetation”. It’s 15-18 inches tall with lacy fronds and thin wiry stems. It spreads on the surface by means of slender rhizomes.
Paesia-scaberula-2

Three.
Eucomis montana. Very handsome it may be, but it stinks. We moved it away from the front door lest visitors think it was us when we opened the door. We have several other Eucomis species and varieties, mostly in pots, and none of them smell of anything much. You can grow them from seed, then propagate good forms from leaf cuttings.
Eucomis-montana

Four.
Anemone x hybrid ‘Lorelei’, or ‘Loreley’ according to some. The last 48 hours of wind and rain have taken their toll on this bloom, but you get the idea. The best pictures I have of it are backlit shots of the back of the blooms. After 3 years it is still a tight clump but I expect it to start spreading at some point. There’s no happy medium with some plants, they sulk or they rampage.
Anemone-Loralei

Five.
Grafting. In this case, a couple of varieties of Camellia reticulata, ‘Songzilin’ and ‘Mouchang’. ‘Songzilin’, aka ‘Robert Fortune’, was probably introduced in 1824 and then again by Robert Fortune in 1844. ‘Mouchang’ is a more recent American raised hybrid. The pure bred reticulate varieties are very hard to root from cuttings so are usually grafted. Varieties of C. sasanqua are usually used but I had seedlings of C. reticulata and used a cleft graft. I did some last year and got about 50% take.
Camellia-graft
I’ll do a more detailed blog about them on my Camellia blog at some point. Here is a link to a picture of ‘Songzilin’.

Six.
Grafting. Yeah, I know I already did that one, but this is different. The first Six on Saturday I did was back on 6th May and one of the things I included was a graft of ‘Plympton Pippin’ onto my poor specimen of ‘Elstar’ apple. I’d grafted it (simple splice) in February and by May it was flowering. Well now it has a quite respectable sized apple on it. I know I should have removed it, but it doesn’t seem to have held it back at all, the extension growth from that scion is as good as any of the others done at the same time. Apple grafting is easy and it’s a great way of getting better pollination, growing more varieties in a small space and giving you something to blog about.
SOS32

So that’s another Saturday and another Six. I see ThePropagator, host of this meme, has posted his, no doubt others will follow.

Allotment update – 3/4/2017

Allotment-12

My purple curly kale has had it. Time to go. I chopped round the stems with the spade, leaving most of the roots in the ground and took them away to be shredded and added to the compost heap.
I’d wanted to plant spuds in the space nearly a month ago but thought there were still a few more pickings, so those potatoes went into 1L pots in the tunnel. Today they got planted out and unsurprisingly are well ahead of the others. This is Kestrel, which I saved from last year. I planted a row on 5 March and some are up, others not. None of the Charlotte’s planted at the same time are up. Perhaps I should have started them in pots too.

Allotment-13

I had a bit of old carpet which I cut into strips and laid on some of my “paths” to save weeding. I fear they will provide slugs with hiding places, equally it may work to roll it back every few days and kill them.
The purple sprouting broccoli at the left was sown 25 May and planted out 12 August. Too late, it didn’t really make the growth before winter.

Allotment-14

The mesh I laid over early peas has worked and they’re now coming up. I took off the mesh before the peas became entangled in it. Broad beans which I planted 17 March are looking pretty good.

Allotment-15

Pea ‘Meteor’, sown 13 March.

 

I had struggled with onion sets until another plot holder suggested starting them in cells. Last year I had my best onions ever. I planted them in cells on 12 March and planted them out today. I gave them a couple of weeks longer in cells last year but the roots seemed quite well developed and the forecast isn’t bad, so I went ahead. I’ve kept one tray back for later, see what the difference is.

Allotment-16

Onion ‘Rumba’ sets in 20 cell half trays.

 

Elsewhere on the plot I still have lots of leaks and parsnips which are not going to get eaten. I shall put them through the shredder and compost them. I don’t see it as waste, more as production of raw material for compost, of which there can never be too much.

Allotment-17

And finally, in the fruit cage blueberries and gooseberries are flowering like mad. I have several different blueberries, the best of which is ‘Darrow’, with huge tasty fruits. I took a few cuttings of it last summer and it looks like some of them have rooted. Be a year or two before they start to crop though.

Allotment-18

Blueberry ‘Bluecrop’

 

The star turn fruit wise last year was the blackcurrants that I left steeping in vodka until after Christmas. Strained it off, added some sugar and I have something very drinkable indeed. More this year I think.

Pruning the apple tree

Well it’s done now, for better or worse. There’s no going back.

I have to admit to a degree of trepidation each year when the third week of August comes around and it is time to prune my Suntan apple. It has to be done; in a garden the size of mine there is no question of allowing it to grow unchecked. So I have a quick look at the RHS website to remind myself what I should be doing and then get stuck in.

Three leaves above the basal cluster for laterals, one leaf above the basal cluster for sub-laterals. Clear enough.

No it isn’t! There is no line marked on a shoot to say “the basal cluster ends here”. There is no clear difference between laterals and sub-laterals. In truth it doesn’t matter that much. I know that now because I have been through this for four years now and the tree flowers beautifully. I don’t get a lot of fruit, but that is not because of my pruning.

Suntan-1

Before.

 

The first pass is from the ground, cutting everything I can reach. It’s not a great deal, perhaps a third. Then out comes the stepladder, from which I can just about reach the rest. I end up with a fair sized pile of prunings on the floor.

Those prunings represent reduced leaf area, which translates to reduced vigour in the tree, favouring production of flowers rather than growth. I live in Cornwall and our climate certainly encourages lots of growth, so there is an element of compensating for that in what I do. The timing is important, doing it now should mean little or no new growth before the tree drops its leaves and goes dormant. Doing it later reduces the effectiveness of the treatment.

Suntan-2

Lower half completed.

Suntan-3

After.

The lack of fruit is down to poor pollination. Suntan is a late flowerer and Until last winter I had nothing flowering at the same time. I have now planted Newton Wonder and Lanes Prince Albert, which should in time rectify the situation, as well as providing me with cooking apples. Those I shall try and grow as spindle trees, curtailing vigour by tying down their laterals. I shall also graft a few bits onto my “family” tree, which is behind Suntan in the picture, and possibly onto Suntan itself. Then if they grow too big I can get rid of them.

Prunings

The prunings, which will be shredded and composted.