Month: December 2016

Book Notes: The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown

The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown, published by Particular Books
The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown, published by Particular Books (Penguin)
Pete Brown’s new volume of entertaining investigation into the social history of a subject dear to his heart looks at apples and the orchards in which they grow. Anyone who has read any of Pete’s other books – I’ve hugely enjoyed all of his beer- and pub-themed works to-date, including Man Walks Into a Pub, Hops and Glory, and Shakespeare’s Local – will know what sort of reading experience to expect. His style is highly readable; he knows just how to keep the narrative moving along at a decent clip, dropping in historical facts, amusing asides and moments of personal insight with equal measure, but never allowing them to clutter up the prose or divert the flow for too long. The Apple Orchard is true to form: a healthy mix of well-researched social history, pithy observation, personal discovery and plenty of humour.

In The Apple Orchard, Pete turns his attention to that once essential but now, sadly, much-diminished feature of the English landscape. Following the apple tree through the cycle of the year – beginning with the blossom of Spring and ending with a dose of deep-winter wassailing at a cider farm – he examines the humble fruit from perspectives as diverse as modern orchard management, cider production, mythological tropes from the garden of Eden to the Isle of Avalon, apple genetics, historical reasons for the decline in English orchard acreage, current reasons why we see so few varieties on supermarket shelves, tree grafting, proper pruning, the vital importance of European seasonal migrant labour to the UK apple industry, the many and varied benefits of the aforementioned wassailing, the key role in the whole process played by the ancient art of morris dancing, and a whole lot more.

The finished product is a heart-warming love-letter to a way of life that seems to have disappeared from all but the most die-hard apple-producing parts of our green and pleasant land. It’s a very personal exploration, rather than a detailed historical document, or technical analysis of modern apple production methods. It wanders, it meanders, it pokes around in dusty corners, turning up odd facts of interest and uncovering lost gems of once-common knowledge – think QI or Time Team, rather than Timewatch or Panorama – and it’s all the more enjoyable for it. At times Pete seems genuinely astonished by some of the information he uncovers, as he comes to realise that a thing as simple and ubiquitous as the apple lies at the core of a hugely rich history, with a massive impact on the cultural development of humanity, and a state-of-the-art production industry that turns out all the millions upon millions of crisp, red-and-green specimens that are demanded on our behalf by the supermarket buyers.

As a reader, I couldn’t help but be similarly amazed and delighted by those same discoveries and, like the author himself, I came away from the book more than a little in love with the whole concept of the orchard. On finishing the book, I found my head spinning with mad ideas of moving to the West Country and taking up fruit tree management as a new career. Instead I’ll have to content myself with the few potted trees I have on order from the National Collection at Brogdale – a place mentioned often in the book and much-lauded for its work on preserving apple diversity and developing new strains of fruit – and look forward to gently (and quietly) Wassailing them in our small back garden in years to come.

I suspect Pete Brown may end up taking a more involved interest though; there’s a moment or two in the book when I thought I could detect the stirrings of his inner horticulturalist. I enjoyed a similar awakening a few years ago, and it came from the same root that Pete sums up so neatly when he says:

“If you spend most of your day looking at a computer screen in an office, becoming increasingly tied to people who demand responses to emails, tweets and texts within an ever-shorter time-window, you really need to attend the odd Wassail or Beltane festival as a matter of urgency, in a place that has no 4G or Wi-Fi, just to restore the equilibrium. The world of pixels can never replace the feeling of earth beneath your feet and the breeze in your face, the smell of the blossom and the attention-stopping beauty of it.”

Mr. Brown, I couldn’t agree more.

I highly recommend The Apple Orchard to anyone with an interest in apples, orchards or English social history, as well as any and all fans of a light but highly informative read that will leave you craving a Crawley Beauty (they’re a late variety, should be ready for eating around now, if you can find any) and a long walk through an apple orchard next blossom season. Definitely for every gardener’s Christmas list, birthday list and ‘dammit, I deserve a good book’ list.


The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown, published by Particular Books
The Apple Orchard, by Pete Brown, UK hardback
The Apple Orchard: The Story of our most English Fruit is published by Particular Books (Penguin Random House) in the UK and is available from all good high street bookstores, as well as the following fine online retailing establishments:

Amazon* | Book Depository* | Hive | Waterstones | WHSmith | Wordery

* = affiliate link – if you buy the book from here I’ll earn a small referral fee, which will go towards my next gardening book or packet of seeds.

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SoilFixer Trial Part I: Compost Preparation

Soilfixer.co.ukA few weeks ago, I was contacted by the folks at soilfixer.co.uk who wanted to know if I’d be interested in trialling their soil improvers.

“We’d like to send you some of a new product we’ve been working on,” they said, “a compost humification agent.”

Humification, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the process by which organic matter decays into humus, a dark-coloured, sticky substance that’s an extremely important part of the organic fraction of the soil. Humus increases the soil’s water holding capacity and improves nutrient retention, whilst also helping fine, sandy soil particles to clump together into just the sort of lovely, crumb-like granules that provide really good growing conditions for a wide range of allotment crops.

I’m always up for a spot of experimentation, especially if the results are likely to involve improved soil health and/or crop yield – Soilfixer’s notes estimate a 20% – 100% improvement is achievable – so I readily agreed, with thanks.

I was expecting a 500g-ish pack, so was rather surprised when an 18 litre bucket of Soilfixer C.H.A. arrived a week or so later. “Blimey,” I said to meself, “how much compost are they expecting me to humificate..?”

As it turns out, just enough for a 1m x 1m trial plot. I’ll be setting up four such plots on the allotment next year. One will remain untreated, another will have the C.H.A.-enhanced compost incorporated, one likewise with regular (garden) compost, and the fourth with a second product that they’ll be sending me early next year. I’ll then aim to grow the same crops in all four plots – I’m thinking a selection of broad beans, kale, beetroot and turnip, to give a bit of variety – and record the results to see what, if any, noticeable improvements occur.

In the meantime though, I needed to set myself up with a trial batch of C.H.A. compost. Which I sorted out on Saturday, like so:

1) Mix up a blend of fresh green material, dry woody material, half-composted grass waste and nearly-done (one year old) compost in two trugs:

December 2016 C.H.A. trial
Two trugs/buckets of untreated compostables…

2) Open the C.H.A. tub and see what it is I’ve been sent:

Compost Humification Agent from Soilfixer.co.uk
A mix of biochar and other stuff, or so the accompanying paperwork tells me.

3) Add a measure of C.H.A. to one of the trugs at the roughly-prescribed rate and mix well:

December 2016 C.H.A. trial
The trug on the left has a mugful or two of C.H.A. added.

4) Bag up the two mixes in old compost sacks, label the appropriate one, add half a watering can of water, punch drainage holes in the bottom of the bags and then store to let the composting process do its thing:

December 2016 C.H.A. trial
The treated and untreated mixes are bagged and watered before being stored.

That’s pretty much it for now. I’ve not made up a full sack of each as I only need enough for that 1x1m plot to begin with, so I’ll keep an eye on the volume of material in each sack – which will reduce over time – and top them both up if required.

Hopefully by April or May I’ll have two lots of ready-to-use compost and a selection of seeds and/or seedlings to sow/plant out. Then we’ll see what we shall see.

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Plot #59 Update: November 2016

December 2016 Plot #59 Update
Not a lot of greenery left by now, as the clearing away continues.

November was a mixed month, weather-wise. A soggy start gave way to a dry, cold, bright last couple of weeks; perfect for all those cutting back and clearing up jobs that are so necessary at this time of year.

Here’s what we’ve been up to:

Harvesting

We’re well into our late Autumn veg now, with cabbages, kale, turnips, swede, leeks, giant black radishes, the last of the manky carrots and a few other roots about all that’s left in the ground. It’s all extremely welcome and means that, alongside our cured squashes, dried beans and stored garlic, we’re never short of veggies for the sort of stews and casseroles that we’re eating a couple of times a week.

November 2016 - Manky Carrots
Never going to win any beauty contests, are they? But tasty enough once they’re cleaned up a bit.

Next year we’ll be making sure that there are even more winter crops available, with a bit of better planning and succession-sowing. All being well.

Planting Out

It might seem odd to be putting crops in the ground at this time of year, but we took advantage of the warm gap between the rainy week and the freezing week to get a crop of greenhouse-raised (and hardened-off) Vicia faba (broad bean) ‘aquadulce’ planted out under fleece tunnels.

November 2016 broad beans planted
Two rows of nine; should make for a decent harvest in late May / early June.

I’ve not over-wintered broad beans before now, but I saw some on another plot that were around six feet tall and cropping prolifically in late Spring, so I’m hoping for similar results.

Mulching

I’ve been a man on a mulching mission the past couple of weeks. Having missed the mid-November window to get the asparagus section weeded, cleaned and covered, I went at it with a will as soon as the heaviest frosts had passed (hopefully not damaging the precious asparagus crowns too much).

All three rows have now been cut back, cleaned up – a lot of annual weed and moss had moved in, as the section became shaded out by a row of sunflowers – and liberally mulched over.

November 2016 asparagus mulching
Leaves for the crowns, woodchip for the walking-on-areas.

I did the research before I began and various methods were generally recommended. Bob Flowerdew suggests using sand, but I didn’t have anywhere near enough, so went with what was available: a thick covering of leaves for the planting rows themselves, and a good couple of inches of chipped wood on the paths in-between. Asparagus roots are said to reach around 12′ deep, so I don’t think there should be too many concerns with nitrogen depletion as the woodchips decompose. But I’ll keep an eye on the strength of the spears when they re-grow in the Spring and feed if necessary.

Once I had the bit between my teeth I was hard to rein in, and ended up spending the rest of the same afternoon carting trug-loads of leaves and woodchip around to mulch over the cur-back raspberry crowns and beneath our freshly-pruned soft fruit bushes. It all looks rather good, if I do say so myself:

November 2016 soft fruit section
Blackcurrants, gooseberries and redcurrant bushes, spaced out, freshly mulched and ready for winter.

I also took the opportunity to re-space the bushes, which had become rather over-crowded since we first planted them out a couple of years ago. A couple of gooseberries were moved and re-planted, and three blackcurrants likewise. The result will hopefully be a lot more space for the plants to grow, and for us to get in amongst them and pick their berries come harvest-time next year. The mulch will hopefully keep the surface weeds down a bit better as well.

Floral Department

A couple of Erysimum (wallflower) ‘Bowles’s Mauve continue to defiantly bloom, and probably will do all winter, but those aside there’s very little colour on the plot at the moment. Even last month’s Tagetes, Rudbeckia and Verbena bonarienses have given up the ghost and gone over. Never mind, they’ll be back next year, in a joyful riot of colour.

That’s it for this month. We’ll continue to work the plot as much as we can, weather allowing – we were down there at the weekend, and the soil was the perfect consistency for weeding out the Ranunculus repens (creeping buttercup) that had invaded the cut-back kale patch – and when it’s inclement, sit inside with a mug of something warming and make our plans for 2017.

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