An apple a day
Planting an apple tree could provide a habitat for wildlife for hundreds of years – and a tasty harvest. By Penny Bunting
If you were to ask a member of the public to name as many varieties of apple as they could, how many do you think they'd come up with? Most people would manage Granny's Smith, Golden Delicious and Pink Lady, but may struggle to think of many more.
And it's hardly surprising: take a stroll along the fruit aisle of any supermarket, and you'll be lucky to spot more than five different types of apple. It's likely that around 70 percent of these will have been imported, too – sometimes from as far away as South Africa or New Zealand.
In fact, there are actually hundreds of different apple varieties available in the UK. But these are becoming harder and harder to come by, not least because around two thirds of Britain's orchards have disappeared since 1950.
As well as having an impact on the nation's food security, this disappearance also has an impact on biodiversity, as orchards are vital habitats that support a wide variety of wildlife. Woodpeckers, redstarts and bats are all common in orchard areas, while insects such as bees and hoverflies feed on the nectar and pollen that fruit trees provide.
Planting an orchard – or even a single fruit tree, if you don't have much space – is one of the best ways to boost biodiversity on your plot, with the added advantage of a tasty harvest within just a few years.
And with careful planning, you could be enjoying apples for up to nine months of the year. The very first apples – Vista Bella or Discovery, for example – can be harvested as early as July, and are delicious eaten straight off the tree. Mid-season apples such as Worcester Pearmain and Sunset then take up the baton, with late fruiting varieties like Winston and Fiesta producing fruits that can be stored right through to March.
Planting a range of early, middle and late-flowering apple trees will help bees and other pollinating insects, too, by providing an ongoing source of nectar throughout the spring months.
Biodiversity isn't just about the birds and the bees, though – the trees themselves also need protecting. As newer species become more popular – a result of their improved disease resistance and the promise of bumper fruit production – some of our older varieties of fruit tree are in danger of disappearing.
This would be a real shame, especially as some of our traditional apples have been around for hundreds of years – and, many would argue, have far more flavour than their blander, more modern counterparts. Ashmead's Kernel, for example, is one of our oldest varieties, originating in the early 1700s. Beauty of Bath, from Somerset, and Yorkshire's Ribston Pippin are two other heritage trees, first cultivated in the 19th century.
Historically, each region had its own trees, and if you choose a local heritage variety, it's more likely to survive the conditions that prevail in your locality.
Here on our Derbyshire smallholding, we've already planted two of our four local varieties, a Lamb's Seedling, with plans to make room for a Beeley Pippin and a Newton Wonder in the future.
The best time to plant fruit trees is from November to March, but you can plant pot-grown trees year round so long as you are prepared to water them thoroughly during dry spells. You don't need a huge amount of space, either – many apple trees are grown on dwarfing rootstock, producing a small, manageable tree that is ideal for most gardens. You can even buy apple trees that you can grow in a container on the patio.
If you do plant an apple tree, you'll be providing an excellent home for wildlife – which may still be standing a hundred years from now.
Eight heritage apple trees to try
Ashmead's Kernel. An often lumpy and misshapen apple, but keeps well and has a remarkable, distinctive flavour – some say it tastes of pear drops.
Pollination group: C Harvest: mid-October
Beauty of Bath. An early cropping variety, dating from Victorian times, which is best eaten straight from the tree.
Pollination group: A Harvest: early August
Egremont Russet. A variety that's over a hundred years old, with rough, russet skin and a sweet nutty flavour.
Pollination group: A Harvest: late September
Pitmaston Pineapple. Originating in the West Midlands in the late 1700s, this small, yellow apple tastes unmistakably of pineapples.
Pollination group: C Harvest: mid October
Cox's Orange Pippin. Possibly England's most famous apple, dating from the 19th century. Best suited to southern England – it won't thrive in cold regions.
Pollination group: B Harvest: October
Blenheim Orange. Dating from 1740, a dual-purpose apple with an orange and red-streaked skin and a nutty flavour.
Pollination group: BT Harvest: early October
Newton Wonder. A large green and red cooker that crops heavily and stores well.
Pollination group: D Harvest: mid October
Ribston Pippin. Originated in North Yorkshire around 1700 – one of England's oldest apple varieties. Has a pear-like flavour.
Pollination group: AT Harvest: late September
Where to buy
Keepers Nursery www.keepers-nursery.co.uk
Ashridge Nurseries www.ashridgetrees.co.uk
Pomona Fruits www.pomonafruits.co.uk
Thornhayes Nursery www.thornhayes-nursery.co.uk
Deacon's Nursery www.deaconsnurseryfruits.co.uk
Above: Pitmaston Pineapple apples; peacock butterfly on Beeley Pippin
Little Green Space January 2016