It’s apple season: a time of mellow fruitfulness when the garden is carpeted with windfalls full of deliriously drunken wasps and you always, always wish you had room for one more tree.
I’m down to just one variety this year. My mystery tree which has never fruited was already on borrowed time: it’s again failed to perform, which in a perfect year for apples is a pretty poor show. So I’m finally giving up and sentencing it to death. Then halfway through this year my little ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ just turned up its toes and died. I still don’t know why, but I suspect a combination of old age, cold spring and heatwave. It’s a sad loss.
Luckily the remaining tree is the best one, ‘Devonshire Quarrenden’, a fantastic early variety which bears heavily even in bad years. But there are around 750 varieties out there in the UK alone, and I’ve only grown a handful of them. I’m itching to try more.
How many, though, that’s the question. What do you think? Three seems a bit stingy: you need at least an early, mid-season and late, after all, plus a cooking apple or two. Five, then. Or maybe ten.
How about 50?
This week I got to meet a single remarkable apple tree, growing at Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire and taking up not much more than about 6m square, from which you could taste a small orchard’s-worth of varieties.
One branch was weighed down with massive ‘Howgate Wonder’ heavyweights; another dripping with neat little ‘Lord Lambourne’. There were sweet heritage ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’, a heavy crop of ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ and a branch or two of ‘Bramley’s Seedling’.
Lots of the varieties I’d never even heard of before. ‘St Edmund’s Russet’ looked rather tasty, as did the old Oxfordshire variety ‘Sergeant Peggy’. It was a gourmet’s treasure chest, rather like having your own back garden Apple Day on a single tree.
This isn’t, of course, some kind of magical multi-variety super apple. It’s a product of a lot of patience and hard work by Waterperry’s fruit man, Chris Lanczak, manager of their extensive orchards and fruit grafter extraordinaire.
Take one sturdy apple rootstock – here a 25-year-old ’Discovery’ tree. Then cut off all the branches, and graft on in their place scion buds or sticks taken from as many varieties as you choose. By the alchemy that is nature, the new grafted wood happily adopts its new trunk and roots and grows away; as does the one on the next door branch, even though it’s a different variety again.
Fifty varieties may be a little extreme, but it’s quite common to find three different types grafted onto the same tree, sold as ‘family’ trees.
The scion varieties should be chosen for matching pollinating groups, and also for matching vigour: one of the real drawbacks of family apples is that each branch can grow away at a different rate, throwing the tree out of balance and making it hard to manage.
Chris is already finding this is becoming a problem with his mega-family – not surprising, really, when you’ve got a shy grower like ‘Braeburn’ next to a thug like ‘Bramley’s Seedling’.
But with careful selection a family tree is a fantastic way of squeezing in far more apple varieties than is sensible in a small garden. If you’ve got room for two trees you can cram in a trio of pears as well: enough to satisfy even the most insatiable of fruit fanatics.