Last Sunday I wandered down to the allotment and came back home with the very last of this year’s fruit harvest: a single ‘Howgate Wonder’ apple. It was a pretty good one, weighing in at 646g. Not a record-breaker – last year’s Champion Apple, also a ‘Howgate Wonder’ came in at 771g – but still a very handsome specimen. This finished the fruit year on a nicely up-beat note, after what has been a decidedly mixed set of harvest results.
Looking back, on the factors that have affected fruit performance in 2023, the main variable of note has to be the unfortunate weather patterns we had to put with, here in the UK. In our neck of the woods it was generally fine but chilly in April, conditions fluctuated a bit in May, before June came in with a burst of blazing heat and stayed warm and dry, then July brought unusual amounts of rain.
This was the wrong way around for the ‘J’ months, at least as far as top fruit is concerned. The heat and drought of early June triggered all sorts of sun-related reddening and leaf-drop, especially from our apple trees, and then the July dip in temperatures seemed to trigger an almost autumnal senescence response, with growth slowing right down just as it was needed the most. Only for the warmth of August and September to then kick everything back into spring-like growth. The trees put out lots of new shoots, and even some blossom on the apple trees in October, alongside all those prematurely reddened apples. All a bit odd.
The net result seemed to be a lot of prematurely dropped, immature apples, and then wave after wave of pigeon- and squirrel-attacks on the fruit that was left on the trees; a common problem when the fruit isn’t quite as abundant as human and critter alike might hope for.
Plus, a lot of the apples seemed to suffer from excessive “bitter pit”, a disorder caused by irregular irrigation that leads to the dark blotches just under the skin of the fruit, often concentrated at the blossom end of the apple, but as you can see, sometimes it can occur throughout the whole fruit:
It’s not as drastic as it looks – the affected parts can be trimmed away, leaving the rest of the fruit undamaged – but it is unsightly, and not a pleasant taste experience if you inadvertently chew a chunk of bitter-pitty apple. I blame the hot weather in June, which most likely disrupted the flow of water into the trees just at the time when the cell structures within the fruits are forming and a regular supply of moisture is needed the most.
Despite the weather-related issues, there were still a fair few fruity highlights to talk about through the year, and although I wasn’t always able to find time to write, or even Tweet1Not ‘X’. Never ‘X’. about them2The usual: work stuff, life stuff, health stuff; I won’t bore you with it here…, there’s nothing like a good ol’ round-up post to facilitate a bit of a catch-up, is there? So, here I go:
Soft Fruit Department
We did have a very good year for berries and currants, which seemed to benefit immensely from all that heat in June. It all started, as usual, with gooseberries in June and July. The variety we have is a bit of a mystery, as we inherited it when we took on the plot ten years ago, although soft fruit expert and all-round top bloke Stewart Waine thought ‘Leveller’ might be a good candidate:
Whatever they are, they’re sweet enough to eat fresh off the bush, and tasty with it, making the inevitable scratched arms and occasional puncture wound to the thumb a sacrifice well worth making. We scoffed loads, then cooked and froze plenty more for winter consumption.
The gooseberries were followed in swift succession by whitecurrants, blackcurrants and redcurrants. We have pinkcurrants and yellowcurrants as well, but the former aren’t quite mature enough to fruit yet, and I can’t remember if our one small plant of the latter fruited well or not. At one point we enjoyed an almost production-line-esque succession of picking, cooking and preserving, with batches of fruit flowing from the allotment to the stove, and jars of bottled fruit and jam flowing from the kitchen to the pantry3It’s actually just the under-stairs cupboard. I clearly have delusions of middle-class grandeur… on a delightfully regular basis.
One major highlight of the year came via our back garden blueberry pots. With seven bushes of varying cultivars, ages and sizes – another one or two to be added next year – we were able to enjoy a steady stream of tart, tasty blueberries throughout the summer. If there’s one soft fruit I can heartily recommend that’s easy to grow – a large tubful of ericaceous compost is all you need – and will save you a packet on supermarket fruit purchases, it has to be blueberries.
Our strawberries were good this year as well. Not massively plentiful, but the variety we grow – ‘Malwina’, a very good recommendation indeed from James Wong’s Grow For Flavour (2015) – was intensely flavourful, so we were very happy with the regular pickings we had from our two dozen plants for most if June and into July.
Our raspberries have been pretty good too, although our three ‘Glen Coe’ plants didn’t perform as well as they have in the past. I’ll cut all their stems right back this year and mulch them well, hopefully that will encourage them to rejuvenate and re-grow strongly in late spring. Our two rows of ‘Joan J’ more than made up for their plot-partners’ deficiencies though, giving us plenty of fruit through September. And then every weekend in October we’d nip along to check on them, assuming they’d surely finished fruiting by now, only to come back with a few dozen fresh raspberries to add to our stewed fruit pan.
I have to admit that I didn’t get around to harvesting a single Aronia berry this year. Our bush, which has become a bit too straggly and needs a good pruning this winter, was covered in fruit at one point, but the birds must have spotted them, because the next time I looked most of the berries were gone, or on the ground. So I left our feathered neighbours to it.
Likewise I didn’t get much from the Japanese wineberries. They were as plentiful as ever, but sadly the lack of heat in July meant that they tasted insipid and dull; not really worth the effort of picking, best left for the wildlife to enjoy.
Rhubarb! I forgot to mention the rhubarb. As usual we harvested far more from our four crowns than we could comfortably consume, or cook and freeze. Luckily my allotment buddy and co-weeder Steve was on hand to take the surplus. Honestly, I have no idea what he did with so much of the stuff. I almost daren’t ask.4I tell a lie. He made rhubarb jam, and it was delicious..
Top Fruit Department
I’ve had to make a major change this year, giving up custodianship of the allotment orchard on plot #79 that I helped to plant back in 2018 and have maintained since then. I started working full-time back in April last year and quickly realised that I couldn’t look after the orchard plot properly – not alongside my regular allotment plot and two garden spaces at home – with the limited free time available after work and at weekends. So: I reluctantly stepped back, after I’d carried out the winter pruning earlier this year, and have watched from across the way – my other plot is directly opposite – as a new group of plot-holders have taken on the care of the plot #79.
My own apple-growing focus has now switched to a steadily expanding collection of cordon trees – most of which have been planted in the last 2-3 years and so are still too young to produce much fruit – as well as a few dwarfing trees that I’ve planted at the back of the plot, and the nicely mature, five year old stepover apples on the main plot. I have some major re-vamp plans for next year, involving more cordons, and a few more potted trees, which I’ll be talking about in more detail via another post before too long.
Once again, the apple tree performed best for us this year was our stepover ‘Howgate Wonder’. That’s where the 646g apple mentioned at the top of the post came from, along with another seven or eight good-sized fruits. Three of them actually grew in a cluster at the very end of one of the main branches and perhaps if I’d thinned them down to a single fruit earlier in the year – rather than giving in to the impulse to keep all three on the tree, just in case – then that one fruit might even have grown to be larger than last year’s 771g monster. I’ll have to try to be a bit more disciplined and ruthless next year, and see what can be achieved.
From the pic above you can clearly see one of the problems with allowing large fruits to grow in very close proximity. Two of them were wedged hard against each other at the stem end, and that encouraged woodlice to burrow in and make a nest for themselves. Only minimal damage done, easily cleaned up and chopped out, but whilst the fruit was on the tree it was a potential entry point for brown rot spores, so it’s not something you want to see. Again: more ruthless thinning next year is probably needed.
We also had our first few ‘Bramley’s Seedling’ apples, from the M27 rootstock tree that I’ve planted towards the back of the plot. The ‘Bramley’ apples that are ubiquitous on the supermarket shelves are nearly always picked when they’re desperately under-ripe, which is why they’re bright green, with perhaps a hint of red blush on the sunny side of the fruit. A properly tree-ripened Bramley is a thing of much loveliness, with a delicate red striping across its skin, and a lovely shine from its slightly waxy surface:
I was able to pick several ‘Herefordshire Russet’ apples from a tree that I used to grow in my backyard air-pot mini-orchard, until I relocated gave up on that project and planted it in the ground at the plot earlier this year instead. The apples were a little on the small size this year, and their skins were rather bumpy. It would be easy to mis-identify this one as a ‘Knobby Russet’ if you didn’t know the actual cultivar name:
Whatever caused the bumping of the skin – once again I’m pointing an accusatory finger vaguely in the direction of this year’s weather patterns, although I’d welcome any suggestions as to an actual cause – I’m happy to say it didn’t affect the flavour, or the crispness of the flesh. This one is a classic russet, well worth seeking out and growing.
The rest of our currently productive cordons – ‘Winter Gem’, ‘Rajka’ (very small this year), ‘Tydeman’s Early Worcester’, ‘Duke of Devonshire’ – produced only a few apples each. I suspect that was partly weather-related and partly a touch of biennial subduing after a good year in 2022. Even our usually prolific ‘Keswick Codlin’ – both the stepover tree at the front of the plot, and the nearby cordon – produced far fewer apples than last year. All perfectly normal and nothing to worry about; I’m sure they’ll be back up to full strength next year, weather allowing.
As I did do quite a bit of work on the plot #79 trees back in pruning season, I’ve felt justified in helping myself to some of the fruit from that plot – although I’ve restricted myself to windfalls and bird- or insect-damaged specimens, leaving the best fruit for the folks who are looking after the plot now – which means the selection of apples I’ve brought home for cooking has still been quite varied, with ‘Grandpa Buxton’, ‘Wareham’s Russet’, ‘Saturn’, ‘Kidd’s Orange Red’, ‘Worcester Pearmain’ and ‘Monty’s Surprise’ added to the mix.
Once again, the mystery yellow plum tree at the back of our plot – it wasn’t planted by me, and various correspondents on Twitter have tried to help me identify it; the best match so far is either ‘Mirabelle‘ or ‘Yellow Egg‘ – produced a lot of fruit, although not as much as last year; all of which began to plummet groundward at an alarming rate just as soon as they were even vaguely ripe.
I did manage to pick or intercept a few kilos’ worth, but this year they seemed a bit insipid and flavourless. Again, I’m sure that had a lot to do with the hot June / cold and wet July that robbed them of a photosynthetic boost at an essential stage of their development.
I also enjoyed a few ‘Burbank’s Tangerine’ plums from the tree on plot #79, which had produced its first half-decent crop after five years’ growth. A very tasty plum, with both a faintly tangerine-coloured flesh and a faintly tangerine-y flavour. Worth seeking out.
Something new I tried this year was fermenting plums, using the simple, salt-fermentation method detailed in the Noma Guide to Fermentation. The first batch was a semi-success. I used fresh, British ‘Victoria’ plums from the supermarket, in a fermenting jar, although sadly the suggested bag of water that I used as a weight filled the jar too tightly, and salty plum juice capillary-actioned its way up out of the jar’s valve and into the bowl that I’d luckily remembered to stand the jar in. The end result was therefore a bit on the too-salty side, as the ratio of salt to juice was slightly out, but the fermented plums were still very tasty indeed:
My second attempt was a disaster. I tried again later in the season, with supermarket bought, imported, southern hemisphere plums: under-ripe and crunchy, they failed to break down into their own juices, despite the weight on top of them. This lead to half of them remaining exposed to the air in the jar: I don’t know what the white fungal fuzz growing on top of them was, but in case it turned out to be something really nasty, I consigned the whole lot to the compost bin5Possibly not the brightest idea, due to the salt content, but I’m sure the assorted fungal / bacterial populations in the bin will sort that out for me…. Lesson learned, and I know what to aim for next year: more fermenting jars for a start, and more fresh, British plums, just as soon as they’re in season.
My pear harvesting was limited to two varieties this year, both very fine cooking varieties. I had a few ‘Double de Guerre’ from plot #79, and then nipped down to my old place of employment, Ordsall Hall, to help pick the fruit from the ‘Black Worcester’ (a.k.a. ‘Worcester Black’, a.k.a. ‘Black Pear of Worcester’) tree in the heritage orchard, and was rewarded with a couple of dozen for baking or stewing.
Here they are in unison, ‘Double de Guerre’ and the top and ‘Black Worcester’ beneath:
Beautiful, no? Delicious, too, when stewed or baked. ‘Conference’, ‘Congress’ and ‘Williams’ are fine as far as they go, but if those are the only pears you’ve ever tried then you really are missing out on some absolute gems.
On that same visit to Ordsall Hall I was encouraged to help myself to as many medlars as I could carry, both of the trees in their heritage orchard being absolutely laden with fruit after a very good year indeed. The same could be said for the trees in the kitchen garden at work: kilos and kilos of fruit, and some of the largest individual fruits I’ve seen in the past few years.
Here’s my Ordsall Hall medlar haul:
That batch is currently bletting in my greenhouse, and all being well I’ll be making up a batch of medlar cheese and medlar jelly with them before too long.
If you’ve never tasted a medlar before, or are medlar-curious, or have access to a medlar tree and aren’t entirely sure what to do with them, I can heartily recommend Jane Seward‘s superb book Medlars, Growing and Cooking for all the recipe ideas you could ever need.
Our smallish back garden fig tree had a pretty good year, all things considered. It provided a steady harvest of delicious fruit through July and into August, which we thoroughly enjoyed. The mild weather in September and into October then encouraged a second flush of fruitlets to develop, but there’s no chance of them ripening now. I’ll be snipping them off shortly, to save the now-dormant tree the effort of maintaining them through the colder months.
Department of Fruity Esoterica
In common, I rather suspect, with most hobbyist fruit growers, I do like to experiment with the cultivation of a few plants whose fruit is technically edible, but not traditionally so. I suppose the Aronia melanocarpa mentioned above could have been included here, as its raw berries are so drastically acerbic and astringent as to be extremely unpalatable without cooking them in plenty of sugar, hence its common name “chokeberry”.
Another unusual fruiting shrub, or small tree, that we have in our back garden is a Cornus mas, or ‘Cornelian Cherry’. This member of the extended dogwood family produces smallish, bright red fruits with a pleasantly sweet-sour flavour. They’re well worth a try if you ever come across a definitely edible example of the species, although watch out for the relatively large stone in the middle. One to chew slowly and carefully, rather than chomping down on without due care and attention.
We also have an Amelanchier alnifolia – a.k.a. serviceberry, juneberry or saskatoon – in our back garden. It’s only a couple of years old, so it hasn’t produced much in the way of fruit so far. Reputedly perfectly safe to eat, I look forward to trying a saskatoon or two in years to come. The same applies to our white-flowered flowering quince, Chaenomeles x superba. I was hoping this would be the first year I’d have a batch of fruit from our bush, to make jelly with, but it didn’t produce many fruits and none of them ripened particularly well. Never mind, there’s always next year, and I’ve planted a Chaenomeles speciosa nearby, which will hopefully help to cross-pollinate the blossom in spring.
Finally, you know how there always seems to be at least one mystery plant that unexpectedly pops up in any garden and turns out to be something of a pleasant surprise? Well, this year our mystery bonus was a squash of some sort. It grew out of the rose bed under our bay window – presumably from a seed that survived the home composting process – and headed off across the front garden, weaving its way amongst the Heucheras and even clambering up one of our Sambucus nigra. We cut back its more ambitious stems, buit decided to leave most of it intact, to see what it might do.
What it ended up doing was producing this:
That’s a shark’s fin melon, Cucurbita ficifolia, unless I’m very much mistaken, and it’s technically a fruit, even if you usually cook and eat it as a vegetable.
I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do with 4.6Kg of shark’s fin melon, although the Portuguese preserve doce de gila does sound rather intriguing. I would welcome further recipe suggestions though, on a postcard to the usual address. (Or, y’know, via the comments, below.)
On reflection, having written up this year’s harvest notes, I think it has been a pretty good year for fruit after all, despite the adverse weather. Even though I haven’t been able to harvest enough pristine apples or pears to justify setting up any sort of winter storage – I had plans for a unit in the shed, but it can wait for next year – our freezer has steadily filled up with packets of stewed fruit of various kinds. Some of it was bought in, when gluts in British orchards led to supermarket bargains – a few kilos of cherries for a fiver, that sort of thing – but most of it was harvested, or picked up windfalls.
At the end of the day, and all things considered, I really can’t complain. And there’s always next year to look forward to. As I mentioned, I have a few plans for expanding the range of varieties I’m growing, which I’ll be talking about in another blog post, probably my last long-read post for the year, coming soon.
How about you? What have been your harvest highlights for 2023? I’d love to hear them, so do please let me know, via the comments.
- 1Not ‘X’. Never ‘X’.
- 2The usual: work stuff, life stuff, health stuff; I won’t bore you with it here…
- 3It’s actually just the under-stairs cupboard. I clearly have delusions of middle-class grandeur…
- 4I tell a lie. He made rhubarb jam, and it was delicious.
- 5Possibly not the brightest idea, due to the salt content, but I’m sure the assorted fungal / bacterial populations in the bin will sort that out for me…