Apples are my favourite fruit. This probably stems from childhood memories of when my parents would take me to the local apple orchard to choose from a wonderful range of delicious varieties, most of which were never available on supermarket shelves. We also had a large cooking apple tree in our garden which provided many delicious desserts and as a result I still have a soft spot for home made blackberry and apple crumble with custard! No surprise then that the start of the apple harvest is a time of year I look forward to with great anticipation and this year’s English apple harvest is reported to be one of the best on record because of the harsh winter and warm early summer.
In recent years I have planted a number of small cordon apple trees in my garden, choosing eating apple varieties known for their taste: Fiesta, Discovery and James Grieve. These are all early varieties as it is important to include more than one from the same pollination group so that they cross-pollinate to give a good crop. Then as the first apples emerge there will be the important job of thinning the fruit to ensure bigger apples and less stress on the trees so I diligently remove over half the apples during June and early July.
When to Harvest
Aside from the early June apple drop, the first full-sized apples to fall from the tree are a good indication of when the crop is ready. In previous years Discovery has provided my first apples but this year James Grieve was two weeks ahead so it seems seasonal variations can often affect the harvest date by as much as three weeks each way.
Apples need to be handled carefully when picking them to avoid any bumps or bruises which will prevent them keeping well. Cupping your hand under the apple, remove the fruit and the small stalk at the top as well if you are planning to store them. If picking using a ladder then consider one of the excellent apple-harvesting bags that you wear like an apron to collect them as you harvest.
Early apples generally don’t keep well and should be consumed soon after picking if they are to retain their crisp texture. Mid-season apples can be persuaded to keep a for a few weeks if they are picked just before reaching full ripeness and then stored in suitable cool conditions but, again, they are superior if consumed quickly at their peak. Late keeping varieties are the best for storing and are usually picked near to the first frost or slightly earlier if birds are beginning to share the harvest.
Assess Your Success
While harvesting a lot can be learned by assessing the fruit to help prevent problems in the future. The most common problems are:
- Codling Moth: The larvae of codling moth bury into the apple, usually making holes in the core of the apple (what many people refer to as ‘maggoty apples’) and often emerging at the base. Various traps are available to help identify or control codling moth including pheromone traps, corrugated cardboard bands and nematodes.
- Sawfly: Narrow holes coming out anywhere on the apple are likely to be caused by sawfly. These are difficult to control and will often bury into more than one fruit so the best course of action is to remove and destroy any affected fruits when thinning. Chickens can also help if they are allowed to roam under the trees.
- Apple Scab also known as Apple Black Spot: This causes scabby black or brown spots or blotches on the fruit and black blotches on leaves which curl up. Increasingly scab-resistant apple varieties are available but if you find that your trees are affected then good garden hygiene is essential, particularly removing dead wood and old fallen apples and leaves on which the fungal spores can survive to re-infect the tree next year. Apple scab does not affect the eating quality of the fruit although if it causes the skin to crack then they will not store well.
Storing and Preserving
Apples are best stored in trays with shredded newspaper, straw or special padded cardboard liners (sometimes thrown out by greengrocers). It is essential to pick over the fruit first, removing any with bruises or blemishes and especially windfalls – these will not store well and are best cooked into apple sauce or puree for freezing or using in jams and deserts. When storing whole apples the temperature needs to be cool but not frosty. Most homes will be too warm so it’s better to store them in a cellar, shed or garage, as long as they are rodent-proof.
Different varieties will be best at different times so it is essential to label the harvest and eat them as they are at their best. Apples need to be kept separate from crops with strong smells such as onions and garlic. They should also not be stored near potatoes which start to release a gas which prevents them keeping well. Experts also recommend keeping early and late apples separate and also apples separate from pears. A good late keeping variety, stored well in a dark cool place, can keep for six months or longer. When grown with early varieties this means you can be eating home-harvested apples for the majority of the year.
Aside from storing the apples or converting them to sauce for freezing, apples dry well when cut into rings, can be used as the basis of many fruit leathers (often combined with berries) and can be juiced. To extend the life the juice can be frozen or made into cider. All in all I think apples must be one of the most versatile fruits that can be grown in a garden, they store well through winter and make delicious desserts – an all round winner!