Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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In praise of Laura

Laura is a bit of a star!  Laura is our crab apple tree and, no, we have not named her!  Laura is simply the variety … but it has caused confusion on a number of occasions!

Crab apple Laura in fruit

We chose and planted Laura about 8 years ago having been inspired to plant a crab apple tree by a friend’s jelly made from the very popular John Downie crab apple.  We weren’t entirely sure if we wanted to make jelly and we were also concerned that at John Downie could get too big in our garden.  So we decided to research alternative varieties.

Crab apple Laura in bloom

Laura in bloom – Copyright John Malone

We wanted to keep our options open with regards to the jelly making but we also wanted attractive blossom in the spring and ideally autumn colour – not much then!  For jelly making, you need to plant a variety that will produce sensible sized fruits.  You cannot, for example, easily make jelly from a tree that produces crab apples the size of a grape!  When we discovered Laura, she sounded perfect with dark red fruits about the size of a ping-pong ball.  The lovely thing about dark red fruits is that you also get dark red jelly!

Crab apple jelly

Laura has really flourished and every spring we enjoy her stunning deep pink and white flushed blossom and summer by summer she is getting more and more prolific so that we are literally picking bucket-loads of fruit!

Our jelly is made very traditionally using a recipe from a 1960s Good House Keeping cookery book but also following their hot tip which is to add about 3 cloves to the fruit when cooking.  Any more than that would be overpowering but this just gives a slightly warm note to the overall flavour.  I also highly recommend purchasing a jelly straining kit such as the one from Lakeland.  The first year we tried this, I attempted to set up some Heath-Robinson style affair and, goodness me was it messy!  My other hot tip is, do not forget to put your bowl underneath the strainer before pouring!!  (Yes, that is the voice of experience …)

Of all the trees in our garden, I think it would be fair to say that it is Laura that gives us most pleasure.  We enjoy looking at her, we enjoy eating the end product, and she has been a very easy plant to care for with just a little pruning required to keep her in tip-top shape and to ensure she continues to fruit well.

Crab apple Laura in Spring

Crab apple Laura in Spring – copyright John Malone

Should you be inspired to acquire Laura for yourself, she’s not easy to track down but a quick Google search shows that she is currently available from Ken Muir and Pomona Fruits amongst others.

 

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Season of mellow fruitfulness

Traditionally October is the month for Harvest Festival services and yet, in our current climate and ways of farming, the harvest is often long gone and put away even by the start of September.  For me September is the beginning of autumn although this year, it was the end of July when I first walked out the front door one morning on the way to work and thought it felt different.  There’s a sense of coolness in the air and a smell that’s hard to describe but it says that the height of summer is already past and soon the morning ground will be thick with dew.  By thinking of 1st September being the start of Autumn, I’ve read that this means I’m following the meteorological calendar as against the astronomical calendar which would mean that Autumn didn’t get underway until later in the month on the 22nd.  Either way, now is certainly a good time to take stock of the harvest that the garden has produced this year.

Back in May I wrote about our increased interest in growing fruit and this summer we have really reaped the benefits of this.  In June our strawberry plants went mad!  In May, wonderful clusters of white flowers burst through thick bushy green leaves and I watched nervously as the fruits began to form.

Unexpectedly cold nights worried me.  On Gardeners’ World, Monty Don warned that if the centre of the fruits turned black, that meant they had been damaged by the cold.  I sighed with relief as ours remained a healthy yellow but I began to worry again as May turned into June and our summer holiday approached.  Were these fruits all going to ripen as we crossed the Channel?  And if so, who was going to be eating them?  Certainly not us!  As it turned out, luck was on our side and about a fortnight before our departure a few fruits began to turn red.  We started out being thrilled by picking one or two fruits to eat each evening but soon this became ten or twenty fruits – complete bowls full!  Gardeners often proudly declare how many pounds of fruit their plot has produced but we were too busy enjoying the fruit to bother counting.  As our portions of fruit became larger and larger, eventually I had to draw the line.  Faced with masses of strawberries the evening before our holiday departure, I declared that it was too much and suggested that we take a punnet with us to eat en route into the Netherlands.  So it was that, on midsummer’s day, we found ourselves sitting in the lay-by of a service station in Belgium eating home-grown strawberries whilst watching a flock of sparrows taking dust baths!

Our raspberries have also been very productive.  In fact John was heard to say recently that we may yet be exploring recipes for raspberry jam in future years.  Yet again the scale of the harvest crept up on us, from tentatively picking the first few ripe fruits to suddenly realising that we had several punnet’s worth sitting in the fridge.

The blackbirds have also been enjoying our raspberries and our blueberries for that matter!  My defence of sparkly Christmas wrapping tape tied to branches and supports has not been overly successful in deterring our determined feathered friends.  Raspberries have been plentiful enough for us to feel generous towards the birds but their plundering of our blueberries has been less endearing.  We strongly suspect that they have eaten more than us!

Back in July the cherry plum tree was also laden with fruit which was ripening considerably faster than I was expecting.  I have jam jars clearly labelled with ‘cherry plum jam’ and dated 19th August.  This year’s crop was ready by 19th July!  The very hot spell of weather in June and early July clearly had an effect.  Not only were our cherry plums ripening rapidly but a colleague had apricots coming out of his ears!

One of the most rewarding sights of the harvest, however, has been our mirabelle tree.  We planted our Mirabelle de Nancy about four years ago but it is a tree that has had its challenges.  We fell in love with the mirabelle fruit during holidays to Alsace.  In September we would pass stalls selling brown paper bags full of mirabelle, a fruit that we had never seen on sale in the UK.  Having investigated trees, we finally established the variety, ordered one and planted it with great attention to detail.  However, it has been subject to leaf-curl which causes die-back in the branches, and also to fruit withering before maturity.  As a result, we have had about two mirabelle in total that have ever tasted remotely like what we had hoped for.  This year may well be different.  At lunchtime today, we had four mirabelle with yellow skins beautifully blushed with rosy pink that indicated these were perfectly ripe fruit and they were absolutely delicious!  We’re a long way from having enough to make mirabelle tarts or mirabelle jam but we are definitely heading in the right direction.

Soon it will be time to get the jam pan on the boil again and this time for crab apple jelly.  Our tree, Laura (that’s the variety and not a nick-name), is laden.  The wonderfully dark beetroot coloured fruits appear to be swelling day by day, presumably due to the rather extreme amounts of rain that have descended during August.  Like everything else, it looks like being an early harvest!


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Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble!

The cherry plums are early!  When John said that they were ready last weekend, I didn’t quite believe him.  With a busy weekend ahead of us and no jam sugar in the cupboard, I took a quick glance and suggested that they could wait at least another week.  However, by this weekend a sizeable number were starting to fall off the tree.  It was time to act!

You may not be familiar with cherry plums.  They are small, bigger than a cherry but not as bit as a plum, and very, very sour!  But they do make good, flavourful jam!  Their red, plummy exterior covers a deep orangey / yellow flesh that gives the jam the colour of a good, dramatic sunset.

This morning we timed our pickings well as not long after the rain began to tip it down, making this the perfect afternoon for jam making.  I confess to be a little taken aback by just how many fruit were on the tree!

This is an old large cake box which was full by the time John returned to the kitchen!  I suspect that the very hot, dry weather that we’ve had up till now combined with the fact that the tree has not fruited for the last couple of years due to pruning (plums tend not to fruit well for a year or so after pruning), has led to a bumper year.

This was an awful lot of fruit to halve and stone!  Very quickly it became clear that we were not yet half way through but we already had the requisite 4lbs of fruit recommended by the recipe.  At this point it can be very easy to get carried away.  Let’s go on to 5lbs I said, or more said John.  Then I pointed out that our large stewpot that we make jam in probably wouldn’t take more than 5lbs of fruit!  At least not by the time you’ve allowed for 5lbs of sugar to join it!  At this point the realisation dawned that we were probably going to be doing the same thing again tomorrow afternoon.

Whilst the fruit simmered down, we washed jam jars and heated them in the oven and I acted on the old trick of cooling plates in the fridge to check the setting point.  Ten minutes of what is technically known as the ‘rolling boil’, when usually both you and the fruit get overheated (you must keep stirring at the same time!), and we were ready to dribble it onto the cold plate to see if it was going to set.  This duly wrinkled and so we were ready for the messy and dangerous job of getting a vat full of boiling fruit and sugar safely into its jars.

Cherry plum jam making

We had underestimated!  Further emergency jar washing commenced!  Although this looks like a right hotch-potch of jars, we find it really useful to have different sizes.  Many of our jars of jam are destined for the church pre-Christmas sale and, with an usual flavour such as cherry plum, it’s good to have some small jars that people can purchase as a taster.

So all that remains now is to repeat the whole exercise again tomorrow …!

And please don’t add ‘eye of newt’ to your jam!!

 


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Thinking forward to fruit

The desire to grow fruit seems to have crept up on me unawares.  When we first moved here, we inherited a relatively young, leaning apple tree of unknown variety and a selection of blackberry and common bramble – both wanted and unwanted!  That was it really and for a couple of years nothing changed.

Our 24105214226_23c618e151_zfirst venture towards fruit growing was to plant another apple tree – an Egremont Russet which I gave John one birthday as it’s always been his favourite variety.  For the past couple of years we’ve had a reasonable crop helped, no doubt, by warm summers which enabled them to ripen properly.

At some point we took up an offer in the newspaper of free strawberry runners and planted these up in pots.  They have fruited quite well but the plants are now quite old and, without filling the patio with even more strawberry pots, there’s really no way this is enough to produce a decent sized bowl of fruit.  The desire to grow more strawberries and also to add raspberries was one of the main drivers for revamping our veg plot two years ago.

Our ‘Autumn Bliss’ raspberry canes came in the winter but, as soon as spring sprung, they shot away with bright green shoots.  We erected poles and wire to support them, although not quite the sophisticated set up with tensioners and the like as seen on Gardeners’ World!  Despite all the expert advice, we succumbed in year one and let them fruit – how can anyone possibly resist?  Clearly it did them no harm whatsoever as in year two they not only reached for the skies but also started heading off across the lawn!  Now this we hadn’t really anticipated.  Everyone knows that bramble and blackberry is invasive but no one warns you about over enthusiastic raspberries!  Just slice down the side to stop runners, is the expert advice.  Well we did that but to no avail!  They are determined to rule the world and we now spend considerable effort in removing them from where they are not wanted!

Last year, on the Friday before the May Bank Holiday my new strawberry runners arrived, perfect timing for planting over the weekend.  Strawberry runners are just a mass of root with small signs of shorn back leaves and when they’ve arrived in a jiffy bag in the post, they look distinctly unpromising.  However, I prepared my row as instructed, sprinkled some general fertiliser, spread out the runners and duly planted and watered in.  With the warm sunshine, the following day they already looked settled and I could have sworn were showing more signs of green.  The variety I chose was ‘Albion’ and produces fruits throughout the season from June until October – I have since learnt that this is what is known as an ‘everbearer’.  There are so many varieties available, however, that it’s very hard to know whether you’ve chosen well.  All the reviews suggest that this has excellent flavour but we’re not really convinced – the jury is still out.  However as year 2 approaches, the strawberry plants have bushed out and are absolutely covered in flowers – I cannot wait to find out what happens next!

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Meanwhile, our blueberry collection is growing.  We grow these in pots as they require acid soil so would fare badly if planted in the relatively neutral soil of our garden.  Two of our existing blueberry bushes were selected at random as offers in gardening magazines.  One is a tall striking plant that produces lots of berries but 33662456630_a7abea7134_zalso has striking red foliage in the autumn.  The other is small and compact and has been less reliable on the fruit front.  I have been on the lookout for another of the same variety as the tall one, ‘Chandler’, but it seems quite hard to track down.  Two summers ago I became distracted in a garden centre by a new variety called ‘Sunshine Blue’.  Another compact variety but bred for patio growing, it was absolutely laden with small pinkish flowers.  I just couldn’t resist.  It’s a self-polinating variety and produced a bumper crop before almost succumbing to being waterlogged.  We have now spent a summer nursing it back to health and this spring it has flowers once more so we have our fingers crossed.  However, unable to resist another of those magazine offers, we have three more juvenile blueberries that arrived only a couple of weeks ago and which have now been potted up into small pots as befits their current size.

Autumn holidays in France were responsible for us falling in love with the Mirabelle, that tiny yellow plum that packs a huge punch in terms of flavour.  However, they are not often grown in the UK and it’s possible that we are beginning to discover why.  Our Mirabelle tree, which has just spent its fourth Spring in our garden, flower in late March and produces a tiny delicate white blossom.  The flowers eventually turn into small green berries and from then on in it’s a question of all fingers crossed for a tiny crop of plums.  This is really exciting as it’s so hard to buy these as fruit in the UK.  Occasionally a few boxes appear in M&S for a short period and also in the occasional select greengrocers but to have our own in the garden will be quite an achievement but so far we have had about six and, to be honest, we’ve probably picked them too early to ensure we ate them and not the birds.  That said, keeping the tree alive and healthy is all we currently wish for.  It seems particularly prone to some sort of leaf curl and eventually this causes die-back.  We prune these branches out carefully and hope that they remain disease free.  This spring it looks a little more confident but we just have to wait and see – there are no guarantees in the fruit world.

And talking of guarantees, our cherry plum keeps us guessing year on year.  Often confused with mirabelle, the cherry plum produces small red fruits with deep gold flesh which is very, very sour!  However, they do make excellent  jam – particularly if you like your jam with a bit of ‘zing’!  Three years ago we were inundated with cherry plums and produced pots and pots of jam but we’ve now had two fallow years.  This spring the tree was covered in its delicate white blossom and we can see fruit forming so we have all fingers crossed.

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