The fifth in a series of monthly Ecologist columns
on the joys of allotmenteering
The Ecologist, June 2006
Eggleton Styre. Scarlet John Standish. Laxton’s
Superb. Gravenstein. Cockagee. Kirkston Pippin. Foxwhelp.
Lady Henniker. Cornish Honeypin. A pat on the back if
you’ve even heard of any of these. A gold star
if you’ve ever eaten one. And an unsurprised look
if you don’t know what I’m on about.
These are all apples, of which an estimated 2000 different
varieties have been traditionally grown in England ,
once the apple capital of the world. The climate and
soil in the parts of the country once famed for their
orchards – Kent , Worcestershire, Herefordshire
and Somerset – are perfect for growing mind-boggling
varieties of this remarkable fruit.
It would make sense, then, in this age of farmers markets
and rocketing interest in local food, for the English
apple to be enjoying a resurgence. And yet our ancient
orchards are falling like ninepins. In the late nineteenth
century, 186,000 acres of England grew fruit trees;
today it is just 44,000 acres, and falling. The area
under apple trees has halved since 1994.
The rise of supermarkets, above all else, has killed
them off. It’s easier and cheaper for Asda et
al to sell one or two varieties, selected not on grounds
of taste but on their ability to survive long-distance
transport and look clean on the shelves. Superstores
in the middle of counties famed for their orchards sell
only Golden Delicious, imported from France . It’s
a heartbreaking sight.
Fascinating, I hear you say, but aren’t you supposed
to be writing about allotments? Well, I am – and
here’s why. In my view, it’s imperative
that the remarkable diversity of our national fruit
survives another century; and while neither politicians,
supermarkets or many consumers seem remotely interested
in helping it do so, there are ways that you and I can.
In fact, it may all be in our hands.
Fortunately, helping to save the English apple is not
as hard as it sounds; and this is where your allotment
comes in. Most of us are never going to own a traditional
orchard and probably wouldn’t want to, but if
you have an allotment – or even a small back garden
– you can create your own little Eden . You’ll
need to check that your allotment association allows
you to plant fruit trees, but most seem to. If they
do, you’re up and running.
Eighteen months ago I got together with a few friends
and did just this. We got ourselves two adjacent plots
and decided to turn them into an orchard of rare trees.
One of my co-conspirators, who has developed into something
of an apple obsessive, began scouring nurseries for
rare varieties – again, not as hard as it sounds
(see box for starters). The planting itself is easy
enough – big hole, lots of manure, regular watering
– and once the trees are in they are incredibly
low maintenance compared to a plot full of leeks or
courgettes. Buy yourself a book on how to look after
fruit trees, and there you are; you have become a conservationist.
In future years, your countryfolk may thank you. And
if they don’t – well, stuff them. You still
have the apples.
You have other things too. Apples are intimately tied
to place, history and the distinctive character of local
landscape, and there’s a whole ceremonial tradition
that goes with them. In the right hands, this becomes
a great excuse for a party. Take the ancient tradition
of ‘wassailing’, for example, which is intended
to bless and protect the trees for the coming year.
It’s traditionally carried out in December, but
if you can’t face the cold, do what I did and
shift the date to Mayday – another date associated
with nature rituals, but one which is considerably warmer.
Then go and have fun!
This Mayday my orchard colleagues and our friends decided
to wassail our trees for the first time. We trooped
down after work with several bottles of cider, a barbecue
and a history book. Following the curious ways of our
ancestors we soaked pieces of cake in cider and tied
them to the branches of a tree, stood around it singing
an ancient wassail song, and then watered its roots
ceremoniously with cider. We spent the rest of the evening
sitting around a fire on bales of hay, watering ourselves
with cider too. In the pink-blossoming orchard, with
the pink sun sinking behind the housing estate, it was
hard to think of a better way to spend the evening.
Save Our Apples! - Places To Start
Brogdales National Fruit Collection
Buy online or visit the nurseries of this,
the largest collection of fruit trees in the world.
Traditional and rare apple varieties for sale.
Marcher Apple Network
Inspiring network of enthusiasts from the Welsh
borders, dedicated to saving rare apples.
England In Particular
Inspiring website run by Common Ground, full
of curious and fascinating apple facts.