During the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown when normal WWOOFing is in abeyance Mr Fluttergrub, our regular newsletter contributor, will be keeping us updated on what’s happening on the plot.
Final Pickings (Thursday 22nd October)
A process that began back in the last few days of July has now come to an end: the last few apple trees have been picked. This has been completed a tad earlier than in some years. The warm spring seems to have brought the entire fruit crop forward by at least ten days. Some years we’re still picking in the first week of November.
Three varieties were harvested today: Balsam, King’s Acre Pippin and Sturmer Pippin.
The first of these was left late on the tree for two reasons. One is that it’s late to mature; the second is that it’s one of my least-liked varieties. Described as a ‘North Yorkshire favourite’ in the catalogue of one of the few nurseries that still supply it, Balsam was traditionally grown on Yorkshire farms where it was valued both for fresh eating and cooking. Its fruits are small and usually uniformly green, just the occasional one that caught the sun carrying a hint of red. Eaten fresh, even if left in store until late winter, this is an apple with next to no flavour. Cooked, it’s better but still inferior to larger types such as Bramley. Its past popularity was probably due to its hardiness, disease resistance (the fruits never show a hint of scab) and abundant cropping. This year my tree, grown, as a cordon, produced about 20kg of mainly small fruit. Next year there’ll probably be a fraction of this weight as Balsam’s other vice, apart from its flavour failings, is biennial cropping (that is, it over crops one year under crops the next).
Whereas Balsam is in the relegation zone in my apple league (it’d probably be uprooted if this wasn’t too difficult because of its position in a line of closely spaced cordon trees) King’s Acre Pippin is in the top division. This is not because of its looks. The fruit is often squarish or one-sided in shape and the skin dullish green to yellow with a brownish-red tinge only where exposed to full sun. It in the favour stakes that it excels. If left in store until at least January this is an apple in the top tier, one to savour when most other stored apples are past their best.
Sturmer Pippin is always one of the last trees I pick. It has much in common with King’s Acre Pippin (in fact, along with that fine Yorkshire apple Ribston Pippin, Sturmer is reputed to be one of the parents of King’s Acre). Again it’s not a handsome apple. With me the fruit doesn’t have much of a red flush, possibly because it prefers warmer conditions (it originates from Suffolk). Like King’s Acre it can be lop-sided and the skin is usually either an unappealing mix of greenish-yellow or what’s best described as khaki. The flavour though, can be exceptional. Again this is a variety for long keeping. Most years it’s a Sturmer that’s the last home grown apple of the season to be eaten. If March isn’t unseasonably warm there’s every chance that this’ll be in April.
Leaf Fall (Wednesday 28th October)
The leaves are really starting to fall now. Some areas are already carpeted. A few weeks back I prepared the stack to which this bounty will be consigned. A simple zinc sheet and wire construction this will hold all the leaves swept from the plot, ornamental garden and orchard or donated by helpful neighbours. Two metres high when full, the stack will sink to less than half this height by the end of next summer.
Making leaf mould is part of the seasonal routine. Once completed in early December the open topped stack, sited in an out of the way area under a tall Lombardy poplar tree where nothing will grow, is left until the following October. The heap is them moved to the main composting area. Although by now already usable as a mulch it is restacked, again in a mainly wire enclosure, to further break down.
This year’s leaves stacked into the enclosure
After two years, in the Spring following its second autumn, the heap is ready. It’s now true leaf mould, a rich dark brown in colour with a crumbly texture resembling high grade peat. Some of it will be blended with stacked turf and garden compost to provide a mix for growing transplants or greenhouse tomatoes in large pots. That not required for these purposes will be used for mulching, particularly around blueberries which benefit from leaf mould’s tendency to acidity. Although not high in nutrients, leaf mould has an advantage as mulch in that it usually contains far fewer weed seeds than garden compost. Those seedlings that do appear are often of young trees. A few of the saplings in our woodland began life this way.
A Devil of a Pepper (12th November 2020)
One of this year’s success stories has been the red pepper Diablo. Like many successes, this occurred more by accident than design. Looking for a new pepper variety to try I seized on this one in a catalogue. What I wanted was a red, blocky, bell pepper. I failed to notice, that Diablo, which in Spanish means ‘devil’, amongst other things, was actually a long pointed type resembling the well-known Long Red Marconi. Had I realised this it’d probably not have been ordered. Recent experience with long pointed peppers has been disappointing.
Diablo has been simply astounding. Sown under heat in February and planted in the cold greenhouse in late April it has produced ripe red fruit since early July. Unlike some of the bell peppers that struggled, it shrugged off the aphid infestation of early summer producing strong plants reaching about a metre in height. On average I’d guess each plant has produced at least four good sized fruit with some of the best carrying quite a few more.
Diablo peppers in the greenhouse
What’s more, there are still harvestable fruit well into November. I usually try and keep a few pepper plants going until the end of the month. Diablo seems particularly suitable for this purpose as the long fruits seem less likely to rot than the bell shaped types. With luck, and if any frost can be warded off by a few layers of fleece, we’ll still be able to eat fresh peppers into the early days of December.
Screech and Hoot (Sunday 15th November)
As I came back from shutting the hens’ coop at dusk, it was reassuring to again hear the ‘ke-wick’ screeching of a female tawny owl from a neighbour’s nearby conifer tree. We’re lucky to have a population of tawny owls even though we’re on the edge of an urban area. For the last few weeks the female has taken to roosting in the same tree. Unless stumbled on by passing blackbirds or magpies that then nosily mob her, she sleeps undisturbed until nightfall. Then the screeching begins.
After a few minutes, as on most previous nights, her shrill cries were answered by a distant ‘hoohoo’. This hooting call, more commonly associated with owls, came from a male tawny perhaps 200 metres away in the copse at the end of the lane. The duet had begun. After five or so minutes of dialogue a shadowy figure of an owl was just visible through the gathering gloom as it silently flew away overhead.
This raucous carry-on I hear most nights, if I’m out at the right time, is apparently part of the tawny owl courtship ritual. More information can be found at the British Trust for Ornithology website.
Apparently, established breeding pairs are strongly territorial and remain in their local areas all year. Hopefully this’ll be a successful courtship. Perhaps they, or their offspring, will help deal with the mice and voles that last year chewed into the fruit store and sampled many of the late keeping apples. Interestingly, they too preferred the Sturmer and King’s Acre Pippins.