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House your pot fruit!

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 08:21 UK time, Thursday, 17 February 2011

My apples in the glasshouse in full flower by mid-April, at least a month early

My apples in the glasshouse in full flower by mid-April, at least a month early

In the days when garden owners could afford 5 gardeners to the square yard, the level of indulgence beggars belief. I read something the other day about that period in more southerly counties when enough citrus trees were grown in containers under glass for about 8 months, to be set outside in the summer to create an orchard, covering an acre or so. In this part of the world something similar occurred on a slightly more modest scale, using temperate fruits, for a very specific reason - rivalry between neighbouring estates.

One of my mentors, when I came to work in the North East (straight from Leicestershire!) was a man called Ronald Smith; he passed on a few years ago in his mid nineties. Ronald started his gardening life as an apprentice to his father, head gardener to Lord Cowdray at his Dunecht Estate not many miles from where I live. William Smith (remember Sidalcea Wm Smith, one and the same) was one of the last great head gardeners of the era, a regular winner at Chelsea, Southport, Shrewsbury.

Ronald told wonderful stories of life in an estate garden in the twenties and in particular, the Fruit Teas that were the fashion of the day. The local lairds would vie with one another, to see who could produce the best display of home grown fruits in late summer when in turn they would host Sunday afternoon gatherings to show off the fruits displayed on the dining room table. The range included all the seasonal or near seasonal soft fruits, the full range of tropical and Mediterranean fruits grown under glass AND a range of temperate tree fruits, long before the last named were ripe, when grown normally. Including varietal selections, there could be 30 - 40 different sorts! Incidentally some of the fruits were presented in bowls of ice from the ice house. Ron's tales of cutting, carting and stowing the ice in the winter months were very entertaining.

The point of all this relates to my opening remarks. At Dunecht, they grew a huge number of apples in pots, in order to have fruit full-sized and ripe for these Fruit Teas. Having spent the winter outside, to collect sufficient 'cold units' they were brought into the glasshouses about now, I dare say 1st February would probably be the target date. By so doing, at this latitude, flowering was bought forward by at least a month, cross-pollination supervised and only when the fruits were set and almost table tennis ball size, were they put outside, creating a mini-orchard. As fruits developed they would be thinned, pots were turned regularly to be sure that they coloured up evenly, the odd leaf shading a fruit was nipped off - these trees were cosseted beyond belief in the expectation of beating the fellow on the next estate. I imagine the rivalry trickled down from laird to gardener!

Apples Red Devil and Lord Lambourne on 4 August

L: Apple Red Devil on 4 August
R: Apple Lord Lambourne on 4 August

Now to put this in perspective, for a start, they would be dealing with apple trees grown on selected seedling rootstocks, no M1X or M26 etc. to control vigour. Clay pots were in vogue and there would be no automatic irrigation but they did have 5 gardeners/sq yd remember! The results were staggering and a testament to the skill and dedication of these gardeners.

We can enjoy a little of that era today - at Beechgrove Garden, we have a selection of apple trees in pots and indeed, I have 5 pots here at home. They are modern apple varieties on M27 rootstocks, growing in 10inch pots and have just been taken in to the glasshouse. I am conscious that many of you will have pot apples, especially suited for furnishing your patio or decking garden. If you have the facility to accommodate them under cover - glasshouse, polytunnel, glass porch, you may care to try out this ploy to produce some early delights!

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