Colin’s Column

Colin Richards - BAA Chairman

Hi there! My name is Colin and I'm the current Chairman of the Barnstaple Allotment Association, and an enthusiastic grower of all kinds of fruit on my two plots at the Bryant's Field site.

I became fascinated with growing fruit from an early age and spent hours picking blackcurrants and loganberries in my grandfather's garden & unlike some kids, never became bored. Growing veg always looked much harder work to me and still does to be honest! After leaving school I enrolled on a horticultural course at college in Camborne where nearby stood a huge kiwi fruit tree on a South facing wall which bore hundreds of fruit at Rosewarne Experimental Horticulture Station (it's long gone). Still feeling an extra year's studying would be worthwhile, I managed to secure a place at Pershore College of Horticulture in Worcestershire developing an even deeper love of fruit growing. Arriving two weeks late due to recuperating from my appendix removal, I never really caught up with what was an intensive course and really struggled for the whole year. Pershore is a small town, roughly the same size as Braunton, but whereby the latter has a rich heritage in vegetable growing the former is famous for fruit , and has its own plum fair every August. Indeed the Worcestershire Coat of Arms consists of 3 pears. Having somehow scraped a pass despite never being much of a scholar, I found it almost impossible to gain any useful employment due to the 1987 recession. Nowadays there are tremendous opportunities for youngsters to obtain a career in commercial horticulture, but that wasn’t always the case!
After waiting two years for an allotment, I was allocated a plot & soon came to realise just how much work was involved. With a young family & a fulltime job, it was apparent that something had to give, and I decided to reduce labour intensive vegetable growing and concentrate on trying to produce crops that involved less work.
I now have a mini orchard of approx 20 fruit trees at the Bryant's Field side (just below the cemetery) that took 2-3 years to produce anything of substance, but now manages to provide enough apples, pears and plums for us to be self-sufficient from July until February (with careful storage). Being able to grow lesser known varieties not normally seen in supermarkets is rewarding! If I had to pick 3 trees as favourites, they would be:

Kidds Orange Red
A handsome apple originally from New Zealand with truly stunning blossom. It's easy to grow being disease free and a regular cropper (though being self-sterile needs a pollinator). A parent of Royal Gala it beats me why its offspring is the nation's favourite apple & having first tasted one at the inaugural Barnstaple Food Festival, experienced love at first bite! Pick in October, the sunny Autumn days and cooler nights,we normally experience here in the Westcountry helps to produce an apple with just the correct sugary/acidity balance (more so than its famous parent the Cox’s Orange Pippin) and turns the skins various shades of red and orange with a little russeting.

Beurre Hardy
A French pear of truly outstanding quality, every bit as good as Comice , but enjoys a heavy clay soil and crops far more reliably than its better known compatriot in North Devon. This variety is resistant to pear scab, and whilst self-sterile, there are numerous varieties such as Conference that will ensure excellent pollination. Pick in September when still hard and ripen indoors for a few weeks (NB:This avoids the flesh becoming “grainy”). It's leaves also turn a glorious red before dropping in Autumn.

Oullins Golden Gage
A delightful yellow plum (found by chance as a seedling) that thrives in the UK despite its French heritage. By gage standards the fruit are large and some have red freckles when fully ripe. Self-fertile and a regular rather than outstanding cropper, this variety comes out top by a country mile in family taste tests. It’s rather vigorous so needs regular pruning but if you have room, try and source one, the sugary, honeyed juice will have you reaching for another! Crops from end of July for 3 weeks.
Knowing when to pick and harvest each tree at its optimum is to my mind, more difficult than growing the trees themselves. Ensuring your produce tastes better than purchased fruit depends entirely on picking it at the right time, it may take a year or two to get it perfected, but it will be worth it!
Plant a fruit tree if you can, modern rootstocks mean even the smallest of gardens have enough room, and don’t forget that even young, non-fruiting trees are converting CO2 into Oxygen. Offset your carbon footprint by planting a fruit tree today!

Bramley blossom

May 2015

One of the joys of spring is watching the blossom develop on fruit bushes and trees, always in the same order, it's truly magical. I liken a tree in bloom to annually greeting  an old acquaintance. After last years glut it was no surprise to see most plum trees taking a sabbatical, this year producing little blossom, but the abundance of pears setting will more than make up for it. It's too early to say whether it will be a bumper year for apples as they flower later, so fingers crossed...
Many online retailers are flogging potted fruit trees at bargain prices, so take a look, it's still not too late plant them, but hot spells like we had at the end of April will make them very needy! Choice may be limited as most popular varieties may well have sold out, but it's always worth a look.
Peoples taste buds vary enormously, so it's never wise to advise on "best " varieties to grow, but just be aware not all apples appreciate our North Devon climate! Having to spray regularly to avoid apples developing blackspot (apple scab) is a real bind. A little research beforehand will prove invaluable (I wish I'd done a bit more!) though be prepared for a little disappointment. I once waited 3 years for an apple to produce fruit only to find it wasn't the variety ordered. Having obtained a positive ID from Rosemoor, I found my heritage cultivar almost inedible, though on reflection mushy apples must have been "all the rage" 200 years ago when people had few teeth............
Cane fruit produce huge amounts of produce taking up little room, so it's always worth at least considering planting some raspberries, blackberries, tayberries and loganberries. The latter two are rarely available commercially due to fruit spoiling easily so must be worth a spot in a sheltered location. I find the prickly versions produce much bigger, sweeter fruit and crop more heavily than the thornless equivalents, but find a perverse pleasure in removing thorns whilst waiting for the jam to boil!
All climbing fruit canes will need supporting with wires and posts, tayberry canes especially are very fragile, and from experience it's really annoying training canes for eight months only to find they rock in the wind, snapping  at the base when full of fruitlets.
Many tenants choose to cover berries with netting, but please check daily for trapped blackbirds. I tend to only net strawberries as I find them so difficult to grow, which encourages the fledgings especially to find easier pickings.
I'll finish with that most delectable of summer fruit - the strawberry, but find them exasperating tricky to grow as mentioned above. Any advice will be greatly appreciated, though having a heavy soil that appears to be exposed to winds from all compass points cannot aid activity and pollination.
Over the years I have bought countless varieties in the vain hope of extending the season but still find they all fruit within a few weeks.
As I grow older, I have learnt to take failures in my stride, much more so than when a mere whippersnapper. Am I alone in this?
As Don Hoyle used to say "enjoy your gardening".
It's been a pleasure to share my experiences with you, so if you've enjoyed my column why not stop by next month. And, get on down, and get digging!