A year of growing apples
It is a hard confession to make: even though we grow 272 kinds of fruit here, there is only one I eat nearly every day — apples.
It is a poor day that doesn’t have an apple in it, or more usually two or even more than I’d really like to admit to anyone doing a rough count of calories. Yes, I do eat other fruit every day, including less sweet ones like cranberries or goji berries, which can be grown at home, too. But they are the “What other fruit will I eat today?” choices. Apples are the beloved constant.
With careful selection, you can have homegrown apples every day of the year. If you want a year of apples, you need to find early and very late varieties, and they won’t always be the ones in the Garden centre. Our apple year begins with Irish Peach in early December, then Earliblaze at Christmas, Beauty of Bath, Jonathan and Gravenstein.
These early apples don’t store or travel well and can quickly turn floury once they are picked or if they are left too long on the tree, though they are all good stewed and frozen for later use, or juiced.
Late-cropping apples are even more important and even more luscious: the longer a fruit takes to mature, the richer its flavour becomes. And most winter apples store well, either in bags hung up in the larder or individually wrapped in old newspaper.
My favourites are Granny Smith, Australia’s most famous apple: bright-green skin with very white flesh, grown from a seedling in about 1870 and now one of the great apples of the world. Many apples taste a bit mealy if they are grown in hot summers, but Granny Smith stays crisp and stunning, even in the hottest drought. It ripens here about April.
French Crab is probably one of Granny Smith’s parents. Our tree is about 15 years old now and it has fruited well, even in the hottest, driest weather. The green-skinned apples are a bit smaller than Granny Smith and they mature much later — if the birds don’t get them you can still be picking them in late August. They’re OK eaten fresh and are good cookers, but the flesh is a bit coarser and not quite as sweet and lush as Granny Smith.
Sturmer Pippin, a large yellow-green apple, is best eaten after it has been stored for at least a month or two. It ripens here in June but can hang on the tree till August.
Lady Williams is another Aussie-bred apple, crisp and long-keeping. It ripens here late June to early July, but we are sometimes still eating them in December. Pink Lady is the daughter of Lady Williams and Golden Delicious, a crisp, large, pink-skinned, sweet-eating apple, not nearly as hard-textured as Lady Williams. It ripens about May–June and stores remarkably well.
I think my favourite “keeping” apple, though, is one that used to be common but is now difficult to locate. Democrat has hard, rich, red-skinned fruit and extremely white flesh under its deep-red peel. It’s a bit hard on the teeth to eat raw unless you slice it very thinly. Try it with cheese — a beautiful combination in late winter. I love it finely chopped, peel on, mixed with chopped walnuts and celery and a lemon and olive oil dressing with just a touch of garlic and French mustard. Democrat also stews superbly.
Your choice of varieties will also be limited by your climate. Some apples taste best in cold climates and bloom late, so aren’t bothered by late frosts. Others need cold winters but still taste superb in hot summers. A few apples tolerate almost any climate; others have been bred for the subtropics. Your local nursery probably has varieties suited to your area, but a specialist apple grower, easily found on the internet, will also be an enthusiast who can probably recommend apples for your region.
Most apples need another variety to set fruit (a few are “self fertile” and will fruit by themselves). It’s best to ask the nursery where you buy your trees for their suggested cross-pollinators. Cross-pollination can be tricky, as in some climates the usual cross-pollinating trees may not bloom at the same time, so the bees can’t transfer pollen from one to another. If possible, use a local nursery or one that has a similar climate to yours, or that collects feedback from growers in other areas.
Apple trees need at least four hours of sunlight a day, feed at least once a year and do best when well-watered and mulched. But, as the wild apple trees by the side of the road show (have you ever met one that didn’t crop well?), apples also tolerate an enormous amount of neglect once they are established. Use fruit-fly netting for those that ripen in fruit fly or codling moth season, or to keep most of the birds off. (I’m happy to share our crop with the birds: it’s part of the “rent” for sharing their land.)
Try planting a hedge of dwarf apples along the front fence or the side of your house, where their branches will tangle and they can be cross-pollinated easily. You can “eat along the row”, crunching happily, as one tree fruits after another.
Author’s note: This article was written while eating thin slices of Pink Lady on a white porcelain plate with a small hunk of cheese.