Country & Garden: Load on load of apples coming in

Orchard fruit is maturing early this year, so don't lose your crop to the birds, the wasps and the wind.
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I AM usually very sorry to see my children go back to school in September. Even more than the Bank Holiday Flower Show or the Nat-West Final, their return signals the end of summer and, anyway, I miss having them about the place. But this year, the regret was tinged with relief, for they are old enough now to laugh at my funny ways, and there is one autumn task, picking apples, which I wish to accomplish in the next few weeks without a background chorus of mockery.

They tease me about the trouble I take to pick and store apples, only to throw a great number away when they have shrivelled and shrunk to tasteless pap the following April. So what, I say, if I don't get round to using, or giving away, every last one that I have so carefully stored? I always intend to use masses for jellies and chutneys and, if I fail, it is not from lack of ambition or desire, only opportunity. Of course, I see the children's point (especially as they have good-naturedly lent a hand in the past), but a thrifty upbringing will out, and we are blessed with a garden containing several large, mature apple trees. In most years they yield a bountiful harvest; more than enough for us, as well as the dogs, wasps, blackbirds and, in November, flocks of emigrant fieldfares.

The one time of the year when I can be certain to have neatly cut and filed nails is now, for I dare not risk damaging the apples that I pick. Each apple is wrapped individually in the pages of Sunday supplements, to prevent brown rot - which is always with us - from spreading, and these are then put in wine boxes in the cold spare bedroom, its curtains drawn. Each variety is segregated, as they mature at different times.

I do not pretend that this arrangement is ideal, only workable. It would be better to place them, untouching, in slatted, stackable tomato boxes in an airy cellar, but our house was built on solid rock, so that is out, and I find sheds and garages fluctuate in temperature even more than the spare room does.

A number of apple varieties will not store for long, if at all, and should be eaten within a week or two of picking. Generally, the earlier in the year they ripen, the less likely they can be stored; most August apples, like "Discovery", "Epicure" or "Melba", will not keep long, one exception being that old early cooker, "Reverend W Wilks". It is not true to say, however, that dessert apples keep for a shorter time than culinary varieties, such as "Bramley Seedling", or dual-purpose ones, like "Newton Wonder", which starts as a "cooker" and mellows to an "eater" as Christmas approaches. A late-ripening dessert variety like "Barnack Beauty" will keep for months. Now is the time to pick "mid-season" varieties, such as "Arthur Turner", "Greensleeves", "James Grieve" and "Cox's Orange Pippin", which will store quite well, although not for as long as the late cultivars, such as "Bramley's Seedling" and "Annie Elizabeth", which should keep until early spring.

Knowing when an apple is at its best for picking is not absolutely straightforward. There is no definite correlation between flowering time and ripening. Most people know that the best way to tell if an apple is ripe on the tree is by taking hold of the apple from below, using the palm of your hand underneath it, and gently twisting until it comes away, preferably with its stalk still intact. Early ones can be picked over a period of time, the most highly-coloured ones first, because they have been most exposed to sunshine.

You soon learn, with your own trees, to tell when the fruits are ripening because windfalls litter the ground, and not just after a stiff wind; you begin to hear, even on still days, the rustle and thud of falling fruit. Late ones, on the other hand, usually have to ripen off the tree.

This year, the apples in my garden are maturing two weeks earlier than usual, after a wet August and a sublimely hot early September. All apples, however late they mature as a rule, should be picked by late autumn, and certainly before there is risk of hard frost, harsh winds to bruise or make them drop, and ferocious bird attack.

Incidentally, never store a windfall: that plunge to the ground will have done irreparable damage to the skin and the flesh, bruising it so that it will not "keep". Nor is there any point in keeping one tunnelled by codling moth larvae, or spoiled by a wasp or bird. Those are the candidates for that apple jelly which, of course, I shall be making this autumn. Yes, really I shall.