Gardening: The apples of my childhood eye: Crisp, fresh early apples are hard to find in a shop. Anna Pavord remembers eating them straight from the tree

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Apples will always be mixed up in my mind with air-raid shelters. No bombs ever fell near our home in the Welsh borders, but my godfather built a shelter, just in case. Much later, it became a landmark for us; the prison for captives in games of chase during the summer and autumn.

If captured, you were locked in the shelter, which, by then, my godfather had turned into an apple store. Polishing up an Egremont Russet or a James Grieve on your sleeve, you munched and waited for a member of your tribe to crawl through the undergrowth to rescue you by touching your hand through the bars of the window.

Damp and cool in this underground cave, the apples kept in mint condition. If you don't have such a store, an apple that you can pick and eat straight from the tree is perhaps a better bet.

At present I am eating a summer apple, George Cave, which recovered from a massacring last winter to fruit as brilliantly as ever. I planted the tree 14 years ago as an espalier, but only last winter was it provided with its post and wire support. It should have been the other way around, of course, support before tree. By the time the wires, neatly strained at 9in intervals between 4in square posts, came on the scene, the fan had grown exuberantly into a cancan petticoat, swirling off in all directions. What I could tie in, I did. The rest I sawed away.

Now that the structure has been re-established, the tree can be pruned properly each year. With espaliers (and fans and the like) you need to take off excess growth in early August. Excess means anything that you cannot train in as part of the basic shape. It includes shoots that poke out at the front or the back of the trunk, and the new growth that zooms up from the horizontally laid branches. You have to cut these back, leaving three pairs of leaves.

If you start cutting too early in the summer, you find that the tree sprouts again and you have to do the job a second time. I generally spread this summer pruning over a couple of weeks, feeling, anthropomorphically, that this will be less of a shock for the tree.

George Cave, which is usually at its best in mid-August, was raised by Mr Cave in Dovercourt, near Harwich, Essex, in 1923. Was this the same George Cave who was at Kew in the 1890s and then went out to India to work in the botanic gardens at Calcutta and Darjeeling? I like to think of him in retirement, raising apples in Essex. One day I will find the answer.

His apple is crisp, juicy, fine- textured and smells faintly of strawberries. Like all early dessert apples, it quickly loses its crunch and its flavour. That is why these early varieties are only rarely found in shops.

The fruit is smallish, the green flushed and streaked with red. The tree grows cleanly and vigorously without any sprays. Its only fault is that it lets go of its fruit as soon as they are ready. If you are not around to catch the apples as they fall, the slugs beat you to the feast.

Beauty of Bath was the early apple of my childhood. It never found its way into the air-raid store because, like George Cave, it must be eaten straight from the tree. I don't have it now, but I remember it as highly scented and coloured, the flesh sometimes flushed pink under the skin. It was my grandmother's favourite apple: we used to bring the first of the crop ceremoniously to her on one of her favourite china plates.

This is an older apple than George Cave, introduced in the 1860s by George Cooling, a nurseryman in Bath who actually specialised in roses. Early gardening books recommend that you put mattresses of straw under it at fruiting time, as the fruit has the George Cave habit of falling.

'It pays for liberal treatment,' said George Bunyard, whose Anatomy of Dessert, published in 1929, is the best book on fruit ever written. He does not tell you how to grow fruit but gives a thousand reasons why you should. He was a howling snob, gastronomically. 'The man who cannot appreciate a Blenheim (apple) has not come to years of gustatory discretion; he probably drinks sparkling Moscatelle . . . ' he wrote - but you forgive him this for his fire and ardour, especially where apples are concerned.

Because they are of limited commercial value, early apples have not been much developed by modern breeders. One of the best of the modern varieties, Discovery, is a cross between a Worcester and a Beauty of Bath. It is hardy but rather slow to start fruiting, and the apples, though pretty to look at, lack the evocative smell of Beauty of Bath. But when the tree does start to fruit, it is generous, for it bears on tips and spurs. Most apples favour one or the other.

Laxton's Epicure is one of a string of excellent apples that bear the name of the Laxton brothers, nurserymen in Bedford at the turn of the century. It smells faintly alcoholic and is a pretty apple, striped and streaked in russet-red. It is at its best from late August to mid-September. The trees are hardy enough to survive in cold areas and are smaller, perhaps no more than 8ft across, than any of the others I have mentioned. The apples need thinning if they are to grow to any size.

Apples (and other fruit) are much better bought as bare-root trees than as container-grown ones. The root system of a tree that has grown in open ground will be far better developed.

This means buying and planting in early winter. The traditional lifting time is Guy Fawkes Day, but much depends on the weather at the time. If you can get a tree in the ground in November, the roots will be well established before they have to set to work dragging up food and drink for the new leaves in spring.

If you order fans, espaliers or cordons, they will automatically be grafted on to rootstock that has a dwarfing effect. The disadvantage of dwarfing rootstock is that the dwarfer it is, the fussier it is. You need to keep trunks clear of competing grass, feed and water them, and mulch them with compost.

For general planting, I like half standards. They are slightly slower to fruit than dwarfer types, but they make superb garden trees: easy to mow under, easy to plant under, undemanding, long-lived. A half standard is a tree that has at least 4ft of trunk clear before the branches start. There will be plenty of room for a deck chair in the shade under its branches, where Beauty of Bath apples can fall straight into your lap.

Beauty of Bath, Discovery, George Cave and other summer dessert apples are available from Scotts Nurseries (Merriott) Ltd, Merriott, Somerset TA16 5PL (0460 72306), catalogue pounds 1.50; J Tweedie Fruit Trees, Maryfield Road Nursery, Maryfield, Nr Terregles, Dumfries, Dumfriesshire DG2 9TH (0387 720880), catalogue in return for sae; R V Roger Ltd, The Nurseries, Pickering, North Yorkshire YO18 7HG (0751 472226), catalogue pounds 1.

(Photograph omitted)

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