Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

In this space last week I mentioned Trees For Life, an enterprise also known, less lyrically, as Frank P Matthews. I wanted to plant some more trees in our small orchard and our gardener, Alan, said that Frank P Matthews was the place to buy them. The nursery occupies more than 400 fertile acres of Worcestershire, just outside the small market town of Tenbury Wells. It is one of the biggest in the country, with 600 mother trees from which to propagate fruit, not to mention a remarkable array of ornamental trees.

With some crisp bank-notes in my back pocket (my mother had given them to me to buy trees as a family Christmas present), I felt much the same surge of excitement as I did when she used to hand me sixpence to spend in the sweet shop on the way home from school, with Rosemary Russets, Nutmeg Pippins and Lord Lambournes taking the place of Aztec bars, sherbet dips and bulls'-eyes.

In the end, advised by an immensely obliging man called Steve Grosvenor, who fronts the cash-and-carry side of the business, I bought a Bramley's Seedling, two Red Falstaffs, a couple of Doyenne du Comice pear trees, a Conference pear, a Sunburst cherry, a Stella cherry, an Opal plum, a Nottingham medlar, two Kent Cob hazelnuts, an Old Greengage, a Curly-Wurly and a can of strawberry Cresta - or am I drifting back to the sweetshop years again?

Last Friday morning, despite the snowfall, Steve came round to offer some pruning advice. Under the coal-eyed gaze of Sir Arnold, the imperious snowman the children had built, I showed him the trees we planted two years ago against the old kitchen garden wall.

When he saw the two plums he suppressed a tut, because we've been training them into espalier form. You shouldn't do that with stone fruits, he said, because excessive pruning doesn't agree with them and makes them more susceptible to diseases such as silverleaf. There's also something else called false silverleaf, he added, which suggests a nutritional problem. The disadvantage of learning a little bit about growing fruit is that you soon realise how much you don't know.

So the Frank P Matthews Tree Guide has taken its place on my bedside table as my night-time reading of choice. It's full of exquisite nuggets of information. For instance, the word apricot comes from the Spanish albaricoque, which in turn comes from the Arab al buruq, and Alburquerque means "place of the apricot tree". And the 11th Hussars were disdainfully nicknamed "cherry pickers" after they were caught unawares by a French cavalry troop while picking cherries in a Spanish orchard during the Peninsular Wars in 1811. I'm sure that bit of knowledge will come in handy one day, perhaps during an awkward silence at a dinner party, or as a means of silencing an overfriendly stranger on a long-haul plane journey.

Similarly fascinating is the range of names. My choices were rather conservative given that I could have picked a Lady's Finger of Hereford (apple), a Tettenhall Dick (pear), or a Warwickshire Drooper (plum).

I also learnt something about Frank P Matthews himself. In 1901, he borrowed £800 from an uncle to found the nursery on what is now the M4 near Heathrow, which plainly makes it just as well that the business moved to Worcestershire in 1956. With the prevalence of horse-drawn transport in those early years they weren't short of manure, but later the company used hoof-and-horn imported from beef canning plants in Argentina, spent hops and goose quills from Yugoslavia. That the apple tree in your garden might owe some of its vitality to rotted Yugoslav goose quills is worth reflecting on.

Admirably, the business has stayed in the family; it is now run by old Frank's grandson, Nick Dunn. As for Steve Grosvenor, he originally joined for six months and that was 18 years ago. I can quite see why he has stayed so long. There's something hugely life-affirming about fruit trees. And it's nice to be able to tell your wife that you're keen to get your hands on a Scotch Bridget ("ribbed, quite rich, with cream, crisp flesh"), without risking a slap.