An apple a day

The great delights of September are the fruiting trees: apples, pears, damsons and figs. In our cold midlands climate apples and damsons do best, so every year gives a good crop. Other fruits are trickier, but any crop is so welcome.

In our small garden we have managed to squeeze in three apple trees, two crab apples, and one each of pear, plum, damson and fig. From the beginning we knew that we would have to keep the trees small, we bought specimens grown on small rootstock and we prune every year, in summer for new growth and in winter for shape. One apple and one crab apple are trained as cordons to a wooden frame, and they crop better than the free-standing trees.

Our apples are Red Windsor, Gala and Cox’s, and the crab apples are Coralburst and Gorgeous. Originally the apples were planted on the other side of the garden, but the straying football from next door caused a lot of damage to branches and fruit so we decided to move them. They are much happier on the west side of the garden, they get more sun during the day and the delicate blossom in spring is spared the damaging early morning sun.

The apples store well when they are carefully picked and placed in single layers in baskets or boxes. The fallen or damaged ones are used first and we only store the perfect ones.

Last year we had a major problem with the crab apple Gorgeous, both leaves and fruits got scabby and fell off so we had no crab apple jelly. Luckily this year they have recovered and the tree is laden with fruit. The intense red berries give a beautiful deep red colour to the jelly. The blossom on Coralburst is delicate and beautiful, but the fruits are tiny and cannot be used.

The fig tree, Brown Turkey, grows quite well outdoors in our cold and wet weather but the fruits are few. It is grown against the palisade on the west side of the garden with its roots confined by concrete bricks. We get lots of immature fruits, but only a few have time to grow and ripen before the weather gets too cold. Our friend, who lives in Cork, has a mature fig taller than his two storey barn and he gets hundreds of figs each year.

Our pear tree is sensitive to the weather conditions and we can never be sure of a crop. Last year it excelled itself and we got 50 or 60 pears. This year we’ve had good blossom and good setting of fruit, but the strong winds during the summer knocked all the fruits down except for one lone pear.

The plum and damson are babies, both had blossom this year, but only the damson has fruits, which are not yet ripe. I hope we will have a long and happy future with both.



A poor year for tomatoes

Growing tomatoes outdoors in the Irish climate is always a challenge: late frosts, wet summers or autumns, winds, low light levels, or worst of all, blight. So why do we take our chances with them every year? I suppose because the flavour is so outstanding, and most years we can get some crop despite all the obstacles.

Of course growing them under cover in a greenhouse or poly tunnel is the ideal, but that is not an option for many of us. Some years I have kept a few plants indoors in our sunny kitchen, but generally the overhead light levels are too low to produce a really good crop, the plants remain soft and tender, and they take up a lot of space as they grow celingwards. I have tried bush varieties and those suitable for hanging baskets, but generally I have found the fruits are not as plentiful nor as full of flavour. One bush variety called Totem gave large red tasty fruits, but I have been unable to get seeds in the last few years.

Germination and early growth all takes place on sunny window sills, and plants have grown to a fairly large size by the time they can be put outside. They also need to be acclimatized, a pampered delicate plant can get quite a shock when introduced to the outside world. Winds in May can be treacherous, shredding leaves and blowing blossom away.

In 2017 we have had a sunny and warm April and May and tomato plants came on well, growing sturdily and setting blossom. By the time they were put out in sheltered parts of the garden many had tiny fruits. The early starters have fared best in the wind and rain of July and August. The seeds of Sungold, one of my favourite tomatoes, a rich yellow colour with great flavour, were slow to germinate this year and the blossom was late coming on. By the time the rainy days of August hit, the growth slowed down and many have not formed fruit yet.

However, if we get a good September the crop may yet be saved as the plants are still strong and healthy. The rain also affects the flavour, and the fruits lack the intensity and sweetness of those ripened in sunshine. The most disappointing year for tomatoes was 2012, when it rained for the whole summer and the fruits never ripened. Only three plants living in the kitchen got ripe fruit. I had to search for recipes of green tomato chutney, green tomato risotto etc. to make the most of the unripened harvest.




Gardeners’ holidays

Can there be a good time for a gardener to enjoy a holiday away from home? How long can we afford to stay away? Before we had our garden we could book a holiday at any time of the year. Now it needs to be carefully worked out. The bleakest months of November to March seem to be the best options!

Our first year in the garden I blithely booked a holiday for early May, only then did it occur to me that all our tomato plants would be still indoors and could not be placed outside yet, and many other little seeds would be just emerging. An elaborate survival plan had to be prepared. Our bath tub became the temporary home for all the tender plants, placed together in the relative shade of the bathroom, with a common store of water. The seeds were placed in trays of water out of direct sunlight. I figured too much water was better than too little. The plan worked reasonably well but the tomatoes became a bit leggy and some of the seeds were lost.

Autumn seemed like a better choice, next time out we chose September, no problem with seeds or tender plants we decided. However, the garden was laden with produce: tomatoes, onions and courgettes, lettuce and radish. Before we could leave, all ripe and ripening fruits and vegetables were picked and I made pots of cooked tomatoes and courgettes for the freezer.

Duration of holidays has become another issue, can we really stay away for two weeks? Or should we shorten our trips? Watering is the biggest problem, in a country where it rains most days this should not be a problem, but it’s surprising how drying winds or a couple of sunny days can cause a localized drought. Enlisting the help of neighbours or friends is usually recommended, but this is quite a chore to impose on elderly neighbours, or the young families nearby.

This year we opted for April and I held off planting seeds of annuals until I returned. The bath tub was pressed into service again for tomatoes, and all vulnerable pots outside were watered well. As it turned out we got the driest April in years and we had some casualties outdoors and many other plants, particularly lettuce and radish, had bolted and gone to seed.


Pruning is my least favourite job in the garden. It makes me nervous, I worry about killing a plant, about inhibiting blossom, and about ruining the shape. I have two books specifically on pruning and I watch YouTube videos before embarking on a pruning task.

I now feel fairly confident with the fruit trees. I prune the apples, pear, plum and damson in summer to keep them small and I do another trim in winter to tidy up the shape. I take out dead, damaged and crossing branches as well as those growing inwards or downwards, or at an acute angle to the trunk. I cut back the annual upright soft growth. Three apples trees, one of them a crab apple, are trained as a cordon on a wooden frame and they need to be pruned to shape and tied in to the frame.

We have two clematis, the early summer flowering Montana Rubens and the summer flowering Viticella Purpurea Plena Elegans. The Viticella is pruned down to the base in spring just as the new growth is starting, but the Montana is pruned in June after flowering. Both are very vigorous and I find it quite hard to prune the Montana as it twines itself around other climbers and it’s easy to cut the wrong plant.

Rambling and climbing roses are beautiful while in bloom, but can be a nightmare to prune afterwards. Our Rambling Rector swamps all around it in spring when it puts on thousands of buds which cannot be cut back until after flowering. The stems are strong and thorns vicious, and many times I’ve ended up scratched and bleeding from it. However, the short-lived blossom is so glorious that I forgive it everything. It has even begun to grow up the nearly Mountain Ash and Sambucus Nigra ‘Black Lace’, sometimes drowning its beautiful pink blossoms, which flower at the same time.

The Philadelphus is another vigorous grower and it plans world domination each spring. Its woody branches grow to more than twelve feet and scrape the paint from the roof of the shed and the palisade. Its blossom is magnificent and the perfume wonderful, but it has quite a short season and it gets destroyed in the wind. Part of it needs to be cut to the ground each year.

We planted a small Laburnum Watereri Vossii ‘Golden Rain’ as one of our first trees, but it needs to be pruned each year to keep it from outgrowing the garden. Originally we pruned it in late November or early December when it is dormant, but the garden centre recommended waiting until February when the worst of the winter is past so that dead and damaged branches can be easier to identify. Its abundant yellow hanging flowers make it a joy in late May and early June.

Some plants take pruning and cutting without any bother, especially those that can be used as hedges. Our fuchsias, hawthorn, pyracantha, and flowering currants are clipped regularly and are forming a mixed hedge in the front garden.


Hawthorn prunings


Unhappy Acer

I love the idea of a specimen large shrub or small tree in the front garden. We decided that the ideal candidate would be an acer, with delicate foliage from spring to autumn, magnificent autumn colour and an intricate bare shape in winter.

We bought a lovely Japanese Maple Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’ with beautifully decorative leaves, their red/orange tips fading to yellow then green, and intense autumn colour. It is small, growing to under five feet, good for a small front space, it is frost hardy in the ground and happy to grow in sun or semi-shade. So far so good.

We planted it confidently in our north-facing front garden. It looked well in the beginning, but it hated the spot, it got cold and shivery from the wind and its lovely red tips got wind burn. We left it for two seasons in the hope that it would acclimatize, but it was so unhappy that we felt bad every time we passed it.

In the winter of the second season we dug it up and transported it carefully to the back garden where we placed it next to the holly. Here in the holly’s strong embrace it is growing happily, sheltered from the cold winds. It is now about eight feet tall as we’ve never pruned it, it brings light to that corner and it is magnificent in the fall.

The front garden location has proved more difficult to find a suitable shrub for. We placed a small crab apple tree there, but in spite of its toughness it was not happy either, so it now resides with the other fruit trees in the back. The Witch Hazel that has been in the space for about eight years seems to be dealing with the uncongenial conditions. It is starkly bare in winter, producing delicate pale yellow flowers in January and February when the rest of the garden looks as if it will never see growth again.


Strawberry fields

I imagine that an independent survey would place the strawberry among the top five summer fruits. Once available only from late May to July, with perpetual varieties kicking in from mid summer to autumn, strawberries now appear on shop shelves all year round. But now they often do not have the fine flavour that made them so loved in the first place. When you grow your own you can rediscover that taste again.

We started out with three plants purchased by mail order from Holland. How glorious that first crop was! We’ve never had to buy another plant as they throw out runners every year and we could have hundreds if we wished, and we are also able to share plants with friends. We’ve tried not to let them take over the two vegetable beds: they would without any bother. They need to be replaced every three to four years, so the runners come in to play as the new plants.

The runners arch out gracefully and plant themselves in any convenient bit of earth in the ground or in a pot. If I intend to keep them I get them to root in small pots next to the parent plants, pinned down with a metal staple. This makes it easier to replant them when they have rooted. I cut off all unwanted runners as they weaken the plant. As complete takeover of the vegetable bed was becoming a real possibility I decided to plant the new runners in pots, this only worked for one season as the dreaded vine weevil colonized the pots after the first year. This year we have got a new raised bed, four feet by four, not very large but as much as we can accommodate. We found a space for it near the currant bushes, in full sun. As the runners root this year they will be housed in the new raised bed.


To keep the fruits protected and clean, I use paper from the shredder instead of straw, which can be difficult to obtain, this is a satisfying way to dispose of those Visa and other pesky bills. At the end of the fruiting season it is recommended to cut off all fading and withered leaves from the older plants. This seems to work well, it tidies up the patch and gives strong healthy plants the next season.

I do not think strawberries freeze well, they defrost in soggy lumps and make for watery jam. This means that the glut needs to be eaten or processed in a short time. After sharing with the blackbirds and any friends who call, we eat the best berries and make jam with the rest. This year I have tried freezing a container full of liquidized berries, I’ll see how this turns out as it’s faster than making jam when the pressure is on. All my friends may expect a pot of home-made jam for the next month or so.


Raspberries in captivity

How can a small garden provide a dedicated space for that most wonderful of summer fruits: the raspberry? For me the raspberry is the quintessential taste of summer. Until recent years their season in shops and markets was very short, and they are so perishable that they need to be eaten as soon as possible after being picked.

Shortly after we moved to our garden we purchased two summer raspberry plants (Rubus idaeas) to be placed tidily near the perimeter fence on the west side of the garden We have never netted them in case we would injure or kill visiting birds if they got caught in the net in the early morning. The first year we got a lovely crop of tasty succulent raspberries, which we shared with the neighbourhood blackbirds. The second year we had many more raspberry bushes and they filled the allocated space, we were able to make jam as well as eat them fresh and share with the birds. At this point we had put in our two vegetable beds in the sunny south west section, so we restrained the raspberries with a plastic barrier just under the soil. Two years of advance and retreat followed as the plants tried to escape their space, they even began to emerge in the new vegetable bed across the gravel path.

We carefully cut out the old canes each year and tried to limit the new canes as suggested by the experts. Scientific research showed us that the plants spread by sending out runners just under the soil which then sought to colonise new territories. Much as we loved the fruit this would result in the whole garden being swamped.

Finally I decided to dig them out, otherwise we would become a monoculture garden. Not able to bear the idea of being without them altogether, we selected the best behaved new canes (relatively speaking) and placed them in six large tubs (50 cm in diameter and 45 cm high) in the windy alley to the east of the house near the compost bins: exile indeed! This is a shadier area and is a fairly hostile environment for any tender plant. The tubs provide good drainage, which they like, and we mulch them every spring with home-made compost and water them well with stored rain water during any dry spells in summer.

Home-grown raspberries mature and ripen and cause a glut in a few short weeks. We eat them fresh in June and early July, but we freeze them for making jam later. Small quantities can be frozen each day as they ripen and they are perfect for making jam later in the summer. The process of freezing seems to make them more tart in flavour, so they are not suitable for eating defrosted, but they are better for jam and preserves.

The raspberries are thriving in their tubs, and while they bear somewhat less fruit, there is still plenty for the needs of humans and blackbirds.