One of my longer-term projects is to try to get some own-root fruit trees established. These are produced by persuading a cutting from your chosen variety to produce some roots, instead of the normal method of grafting it onto the roots of another variety. The usual method is to use a ‘nurse graft’, in which the cutting is grafted as normal but the graft union is planted underground so that the top can produce its own roots. Once it does so, the rootstock roots are cut off, giving an ungrafted tree. I have had no success at all with this method: my grafts take all right, but no roots are ever produced from the top.
Then I discovered this: what looked like little rootlets at the base of a branch of one of my established trees (I have since looked around and discovered that this is not uncommon). I decided to try air-layering, a method that involves putting some moisture-holding material around a shoot to encourage root production. I have previously tried it with both plums and apples without any success, but thought that if the tree was already thinking of producing roots I might be able to encourage it. I tied on some moss using an old bandage, then wrapped the lot in plastic – the plastic open at the top and tight at the bottom to try to funnel water in.
A week ago, I decided to see what the result was, and unwrapped my Christmas present a little early. Success! Nothing spectacular, but there was definitely root growth. The next stage will be to cut the branch off, prune it heavily and plant the rooted section to create a separate tree. Once this is established, it is meant to be much easier to produce further clones simply by taking root cuttings.
I picked the last of the apples from my trees today. I’ve got two varieties: one traditional one called James Grieve and a more recent kind called Red Devil – a variety of Discovery that not only has red skin but also gorgeous red flesh almost through to the core. The result is that the flat is now carpeted with apples as the ones from my own trees have been added to ones that we have been given and ones from the Apple Day at the National Trust’s Pitmedden Gardens, where you could buy bags of apples rejoicing in names like Peasegood Nonesuch.
Neither of my own varieties are particularly good keepers, something that I would definitely change if I was starting again. When I first planted them, it wasn’t easy to get good varieties for the north of Scotland, but fortunately nurseries like Appletreeman, Walcott Nursery and Keepers Nursery now offer a much wider variety. Beware of buying from national garden centres like B&Q or Dobbies as I have seen both offering varieties totally unsuited to the area.
There’s a great cookbook called What Am I Going To Do With All These Courgettes? I wish there was one for apples too. The best ones are safely boxed up and stored, but there are loads of ‘seconds’ that really won’t keep for long. I don’t really have enough to justify getting an apple press to juice them – I don’t think any individual, non-commercial grower is ever likely to – and I’ve been put off juicing in the past by the horrible, slow, noisy and impossible-to-clean-quickly-or-well machine that I had to do it with. That has totally changed with the acquisition of a hand-cranked juicer from UK Juicers. It’s beautifully thought out and engineered, completely silent and only takes seconds to take down and wash at the end – oh, and in contrast to a lot of juicers it only set me back £29. It’s not big or strong enough for bulk processing, but it makes doing a bottle or two of juice at a time from windfalls and cracked apples entirely feasible.
Juicing aside, I’ve also tried preserving apples by making apple jam (a sort of thicker, sweeter apple puree that seems to keep indefinitely in sealed jars) and apple mush (frozen or bottled), but the one I like best is making apple rings. Drying is a perfect zero-energy way to preserve all sorts of foods and apple is an ideal candidate as it dries easily and gets much sweeter as it does so. I’ve dried some almost unbearably sharp apples this autumn and the results are delicious: I even think that I prefer apple rings from sharp apples now as the contrast between the sweetness and the little bit of bite makes them more interesting. Home-made apple rings are just different creatures from the overpriced, bland, sulphur-soaked things you get in health food shops. It’s difficult to say how long they keep as they rarely get to last for long enough to tell in our house, but last year I put some in a paper bag and hid them and they were still in perfect condition when I squirreled them out and tried some just now.
Unfortunately, there’s a reason why sun-dried tomatoes etc come from Spain and California rather than Scotland – we don’t have ideal drying weather. We borrowed a dessicator from a friend last year but were horrified at the amount of energy it took to dry tiny numbers of apples. The solution I have come up with is to make a ‘drying shelf’ across our living room window, together with hooks at either side to take bamboo canes, along which I string the apples rings. A corer and a sharp knife are the only other equipment I need and the rings usually dry within a few days. I don’t bother to use lemon juice on them and although I may give it a try this year, they seem fine without it. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has worked out low-energy drying techniques that would work in a flat without an airing cupboard.