Barely rooted: on planting apple trees

'Discovery' by Cob Lands
‘Discovery’ by Cob Lands

It’s apple season again! No, I haven’t lost the seasonal plot – I’m refering to the brief window of winter for planting bare rooted trees, when the ground is no longer frost-hardened but before the spring growth kicks in.

This year, with a new garden staring needfully at me, I’m doing just that. Fruit trees are the perfect solution for a lazy gardener like me: low maintenance, hospitable to summer snoozers, and productive of food that can be stored through the winter. They’re also traditional to my corner of Wiltshire, a hamlet that used to be patchwork of orchards and now host to a community orchard that is part of the national orchard revival. I’ve been given three by the local community association, carefully grafted from parent trees in the surrounding gardens, so my saplings are truly local.

Traditional orchards have long been on the decline, with the National Trust estimating that at least 60% have been lost since the 1950s. The loss of the fruit trees that used to cover much of Britain’s southern lowlands are at the core – sorry – of our changed relationship to land, in which most people have lost the connection to the places around them that comes from growing and harvesting our own food.

Planting a fruit tree is an easy way to restore a bit of that connection, and can be done anywhere there’s a bit of green space, including cities. And apples are a most versatile food: portable and longlasting, ready-to-eat and a key ingredient for pies, cakes and tarts, juice and cider. (Confession: as an everyday hedonist, I’m not that keen on apples in their raw form, prefering them accompanied by sugar, carbs and creamy substances).

Apples, like so many other things, carry stories about time and place. This rather charming list tells of Gloucestershire varieties such as the ‘Gloucestershire Underleaf’, loved by locals for its versatility as an eater, cooker and cider-maker. Or see the ‘Green Underleaf’ which, ‘according to Pat Turner, in the old days .. would be “wurded” or ripened in heaps under “boltings” (big thrashed sheaves) of wheat straw.’

The great thing about planting your own tree is that you’re creating a story, as well as a fruit crop, for tomorrow. Choose one of the old varieties, and you’ll be planting a link that extends from the past into the future.