Urban gardener, Cleve West: The fruits of my labour

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The Independent Online

A hypersensitivity to various types of fruit and nuts came as a bit of a shock 18 months ago. The mild allergic reaction (itching mouth, sore tongue) is nothing spectacular, but I've been told that it can get worse and I should avoid eating the fruit that causes it. Apples, pears, figs, apricots, peaches, cherries, walnuts and cobnuts have therefore been more or less strangers to my tastebuds for the past year, except in the cooked form where whatever is causing the reaction is neutralised. It's a kick in the teeth for a vegetarian, especially as figs, apples and pears have done well at the allotment this year in spite of the drought.

Planted as espaliers five years ago, the fruit trees were symbolic of my intentions after a fellow allotment holder questioned my staying power. I wasn't offended. Allotment holders come and go. Situations change, people move on and, yes, some, as was being suggested at the time, aren't fully aware or equipped for the workload an allotment can bring. The three apples and three pears are a permanent mark of our six seasons there. Their branches, accentuated by blossom, are the outstretched, welcoming arms of summer and now stand as an emblem of our perseverance.

Even when they were too young to fruit, training, tying and pruning our trees was almost as satisfying as that final moment when you bite into a perfectly ripe pear. Their names alone, conjuring a sense of mystique, tradition and times past, are enough in themselves to merit inclusion in any vegetable plot: 'Doyenne du Comice', 'Williams' Bon Chrétien', 'Josephine de Malines'; and apples a touch of English quirkiness: 'Oaken Pin', 'Peasgood's Nonsuch', 'Egremont' and 'Russet'.

From a designer's point of view, the possibilities they can lend to a garden are endless, from the simple decoration of a dull boundary to enchanting thoroughfares with repetition of form and the promise of rich pickings. Our espaliers divide the eight raised beds from a more haphazard approach at the back. They will, in time, develop gnarled trunks and craggy branches for someone else to tinker with when we're gone. An odd thought, but no garden lasts for ever and allotments are particularly ephemeral, so fruit trees can help offset any sense of impermanence.

Espaliers, as opposed to fan-trained trees, are relatively easy to train and involve bending laterals every 45cm to form tiers. Bending them flat too soon will stop growth at the tip of the branch, too late and you risk snapping the branch completely. It's therefore done in stages with branches tied to 45 degrees during summer and then horizontal in winter. Pruning the main stem 45cm above a tier when dormant will encourage three new shoots to emerge the following season, one to be kept as the leader, the others to be trained as horizontals. They are generally grown on M26 dwarfing rootstock that will fruit after three years. In fact they will often try to fruit in the first season but this should be discouraged so the tree can put all its energy into building up a healthy root system. Fruit thinning in later years encourages consistency and not the glut/famine syndrome that is likely to occur, especially after a drought.

Our 'Nettlestone Pippin', fully laden, should probably have been thinned more, but it's easier said than done. Its sun-blushed skin and crisp white flesh is irresistible, even for those of us cursed with allergies. Sure enough, just the other day I succumbed to the temptation and tucked into its firm, slightly tart flesh, the first of the season. The reaction doesn't occur immediately but slowly manifests itself over a period of about five minutes, so if you eat the fruit quick enough there is still time to enjoy it. Needless to say it was more than a pleasant surprise when, 10 minutes later, the expected itchiness and discomfort failed to materialise. Likewise, the first figs have not sparked a reaction, leading me to suspect that organic fruit is less likely to have an effect. I can't quite believe that it's as simple as that and will reserve judgement. If it does turn out that pesticides and other chemicals might be contributing to this allergy, then the extra work involved in creating an organic environment has been more than worthwhile.

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