Tuesday, 22 March 2011

A Fruit Growing Paradise


The climate and soils around Tayside have always been ideal for growing apples, plums and pears and for hundreds of years the Carse of Gowrie was an established fruit growing region. This was at a time when travel was not so well organised and growers mainly supplied local markets. Each area would grow its own range of varieties suited to its own conditions of soil and climate. We had the Lass O’ Gowrie, Bloody Ploughman and Tower of Glamis, and the Oslin, the Arbroath Pippin was grown in Arbroath.
Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust commissioned a survey carried out by Andrew Lear to establish the number and condition of the old Carse of Gowrie orchards and to recommend what can be done to preserve, restore or utilise them. Andrew also runs many workshops on apple pruning, growing and grafting, with information on the workshops as well as the orchard survey on his website at  www.plantsandapples.co.uk
The old  heritage varieties are now making a comeback as people begin to realise these older varieties were not lost due to poor flavour, sweetness or juiciness, but because they could not withstand the commercial needs of supermarket produce. Commercially apples get fairly rough treatment before they arrive on the supermarket shelf and any that bruise, do not have a long shelf life, have a few skin blemishes, or do not make an even size grade will get rejected.
Unless you buy Cox, most other varieties will have a tough skin and pretty poor flavour, but they will be a good even size and look great in a display.
You will need to look out for the smaller greengrocer who can buy locally to get a truly flavoursome apple, or grow your own. Every garden should have at least one apple tree.
When buying an apple tree for the garden, do not assume that just because it is available in your local garden centre it is suitable for this area. I have seen many varieties available that just should not be offered to customers for Tayside gardens. We are just too far north for a good Cox or a Golden Delicious.

Suitable varieties for Tayside

Many years ago SCRI established a museum collection of apple varieties from all over the world to evaluate them for commercial production in Scotland. The National collection is now held in Kent at Brogdale where conditions are more favourable for commercial apple production. However many of these varieties still exist in the hands of a few apple enthusiasts such as Willie Duncan who worked at SCRI and frequently appears at apple festivals giving advice on growing and varieties.
Willie grows well over one hundred different varieties in his small orchard in Fife as well as every other fruit possible. This is an important asset for Scotland that must not be lost. Willie’s apples are a major contribution to the autumn apple festival at Glendoick garden centre.

Early varieties start off with Discovery, a bright red sweet and juicy apple. It has good vigour and strong healthy foliage which resists disease. Even earlier is the Oslin, ripening at the end of August but hard to find. Both these apples will not store so must be eaten as you pick them.
Mid season varieties include Scrumptious, (red), Limelight, (yellow), and Red Falstaff, all which may be stored for several weeks in a dark, airy, cool shed.
Later varieties such as Fiesta and Red Devil are better after a few weeks in store and are good keepers.
Bramley is the best cooker and an excellent keeper.
If you have an existing apple tree of a poor variety it is not difficult to change the variety to one or more other types by grafting new shoots onto it in early spring. This sounds very specialised, but is amazingly simple.

Grafting an old apple tree

My first grafting came about as I was teaching my young daughters how to grow apples from seed. To every ones surprise they got about a dozen little plants from two apple cores. Naturally father had to plant these out on his allotment and my daughters were expecting a crop very soon. Realising it could take about fifteen years for the plants to mature before they started to fruit I thought I would short circuit the process by grafting some existing varieties onto the young seedlings. I got hold of a few shoots of Cox, (I lived in England at the time), Golden Delicious, and Worcester Pearmain and did my first whip and tongue grafting. Every one grew as did my cherry varieties grafted onto a seedling that appeared in my leafmold heap.
A few years ago I decided to change a large James Grieve tree, which did not impress me, with a range of more suitable varieties by top working. Every graft took, even the side grafting experiment worked a treat. I would strongly advice the brave to have a go on a limb or two from any old tree.

Grafting method.

In winter saw any branches to be grafted to leave about one to two foot long stubs between one to four inches diameter. These will be shortened further at grafting time in spring so the cut is fresh and clean.  If you are cutting back a whole tree leave a couple of limbs to draw up the sap in spring for grafting. They can be cut out or grafted the following year.
Collect some one year old shoots, (pencil thickness) of new varieties to be used as grafts while still dormant and heal them into a cold moist, but well drained shady border to keep them dormant for as long as possible.
Grafting only works when the sap starts to rise as it lubricates the inside of the bark allowing it to lift without tearing. When the tree starts to flower in April the sap will be rising and grafting can start.
Saw back the limb to leave a fresh cut and trim the edges with a sharp knife to leave it clean. Make sure your knife, (a pen knife is ok), is very sharp and clean. A one inch wide stem will take one graft, but a four inch stem can take three or four grafts. If they all grow, they will need to be pruned after a few years so only one branch is left and the others removed or spurred back.
Make a cut into the bark about two inches long and flick the end at the top to lift the bark edges to allow insertion of the scion shoot.
The shoot (scion) for grafting should be about three to four buds long. Make a long slanting cut at the lower end about two inches long opposite a bud and trim the scion to three or four buds. Insert the scion into the prepared cut on the stem and push it down so that the end of the cut is just showing.
Tie the graft firmly with strips of polythene tape or cut from a plastic shopping bag.
Seal all cut surfaces with grafting wax to prevent disease entry or drying out.
Once the shoots grow the tape can be removed in mid to late summer.
The new shoots will fruit within two years from grafting, and there is no limit on how many different varieties you can grow on one tree.
You can always start off by having a go on one branch and when it grows you will be more confident to tackle others.


Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Spring at Last


The end of February and early March brought a very welcome period of sunshine and dry weather not seen since last October. The urge to get outdoors into the garden was very strong especially as there is a mountainous backlog of tasks seeking attention. The long lasting blanket of snow which fell in November and December but did eventually melt a couple of months later was followed by cold wet real dreich weather that put any thoughts of gardening on the back burner.
That was yesterday and now today the sun is shining, the ground is drying up and gardening can begin at full speed.

Complete the winter pruning

The warmth of the sun has been sufficient to start the sap rising on my fruit trees as buds begin to swell, so pruning had to be completed before dormancy breaks. However if you have any tree which is showing too much vigour at the expense of fruiting delay pruning till just after bud burst as the shock will help it to reverse that trend.
I do not spur prune my fruit trees, but carry out a minimum of replacement pruning to remove some old wood and encourage a balance of young wood and mature fruiting wood which will fruit for several years before it gets replaced.
Apples, pears, my peach tree and my newly planted cherry tree Cherokee all got pruned. I will grow the cherry as a fan trained dwarf tree against a south facing fence, so the strong main shoot got cut back to two feet and side shoots shortened by a third. Two shoots growing at the front and back got spurred as they are unwanted in a fan trained shape.
Although I love my very early Arbroath Pippin apples, they do not keep, and as you can only eat so many, I will cut some branches back to stumps and graft some new varieties onto them in late March to early April.
I will also replace most of my Comice pear with other stronger disease resistant varieties which don’t get wiped out with scab in our wet summers. Grafting is very easy and rewarding as the new grafts grow on the older tree very readily as long as a few basic principles are followed. One main principle is that the new shoot, called the scion, should be dormant when grafting, but the tree has to be growing with the sap flowing to lubricate the inside of the bark so it separates easy from the trunk without tearing. I cut my scions in February to early March then heal them in a north facing cool border to hold them back. It always seems to work just fine.
I will cover grafting next week, so if you wish to make a family tree or try out another variety get your scions ready now.
Good apples in our area are Fiesta, Red Falstaff, Scrumptious, Discovery and Red Devil.
Summer and autumn raspberries, black, red and white currants, brambles and gooseberries should all be pruned before growth starts.
I will be doing my first pruning of my six year old Saskatoon bushes to open up the centres allowing more light in and encourage some younger shoots to grow from the base.
My ornamental exotic Cordyline australis did not survive the winter to it got chopped down to ground level. I will leave it for a year or two to see if it regrows from the base.

The fruit garden

Last week I removed a lot of runners from my early strawberry variety Mae to make two new rows. As there was plenty runners I complete each row as a double row at six inches apart and the runners spaced at six inches. This will increase the cropping significantly.
To get even earlier crops I put a polythene tunnel over an existing row of Mae. This will fruit two weeks ahead of the others. It is easy to make your own tunnels very cheaply and they can last for years. My tunnels are made from 4 foot wide polythene (150 gauge) held over wire hoops (high tensile 8 gauge galvanised wire) and secured with polypropylene binder twine.  The wire hoops are about 5 feet long. Allow a 9 inch leg to insert into the ground then bend the wire round a broom handle to create a loop on the outside for tying the twine to. I dig the polythene into the ground at each end of the row to secure it, the tie it down with the binder twine at each hoop spaced about 3 feet apart along the row.
You can buy the materials online at www.lbsgardenwarehouse.co.uk
This is the last chance to spray your peach tree with a copper fungicide, or Dithane to control peach leaf curl which can devastate the tree if untreated.

Early vegetables

Tomato Alicante and my favourite cherry type Sweet Million germinated successfully so have now been pricked out into cellular trays. They are to grow for a few weeks on the south facing living room window sill until warmer weather arrives and I can transfer them to my cold greenhouse. They will then get potted up again before planting into growbags.
Broad beans have now been sown as one seed per cell in a cellular seed tray. These are kept at home in the warmth under a table to germinate, and then they will be transferred to the cold greenhouse. They are pretty tough hardy plants so the cooler regime will not harm them. They will be one of the first to move out of the greenhouse together with my geraniums to make way for other plants. Geraniums are also quite hardy and can take a degree of frost, as long as they have been hardened off properly and the frost is not severe or prolonged.
Back on the allotment low polythene tunnels are perfect for an early batch of lettuce, radish and spring onions, but put it in place on prepared soil for at least one week to warm up the soil. There is nothing to beat those early first salads, picked fresh and onto the plate within hours.

The first flowers

Those first few days of bright sunshine was perfect to open up the spring flowering crocus to add to the aconites, snowdrops and my dazzling white hellebore.
My winter border of coloured stemmed shrubs, (Cornus Westonbirt, Kerria japonica, Salix britzensis and the Japanese maple Acer Sangokaku) has been flooded with drifts of crocus and snowdrops. It is an amazing site at present at its best for the season. The show of coloured winter stems will remain effective for another couple of weeks before they get pruned down to the base.
Under my carpet of crocus in this border I have planted tulips for flowering in May and scented lilies which flower in mid summer.
I am hoping that we do not suffer any late frosts as my first flowering shrub, Rhododendron praecox is beginning to open up. This lilac early dwarf Rhododendron is spectacular for at least two weeks provided it does not get frosted.


Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Danger in the Garden


Last week I ran over those plants to grow for a healthy lifestyle including superfoods as well as seasonal fruit and vegetables to maintain peak health all year round. The garden and allotment has the capabilities of providing us with delicious and very nutritional foods, but on the other side of the fence lurks an extremely dangerous place for the unwary.
Life on this planet has evolved as one species feeds on another, whether it is at virus level, fungus, bacteria, animal or plant. To hang onto life for as long as possible plants animals and even microbes have all developed some means of resisting becoming someone’s next meal ticket. Microbes play the numbers game with an ability to grow and mutate at an alarming speed. Animals have developed an ability for camouflage, or can run at great speed, or have horns, claws and teeth, poisonous fangs or just great strength.
Plants can’t run, shout, fight, have no claws or teeth, but they have just as much a desire for survival so, as well as thorns, they have developed a massive array of poisons in roots, bark, leaves, stems, seeds and flowers to deter predators from eating them.
We are all mostly familiar with the obvious ones such as laburnum seeds, foxgloves and giant hogweed, and we have all been stung by nettles, but when I started to look into other garden plants that could be added to the poisonous list, it amazed me that there was so many.

Danger lurks in every garden

Poisonous plants are very common in most gardens, e.g. rhododendrons, narcissi and aconites. Council parks, and shopping centres are also landscaped with a wide range of poisonous plants including laurel, snowberry, azaleas and yew trees.
Even in the home we grow hyacinths, poinsettias and oleanders which all contain toxins.
Now just in case anyone is feeling a bit off, and before you chop down the rhododendrons can we keep the dangers in perspective!
Most poisonous plants are so bitter or foul tasting that they would not normally be eaten, and some require very large quantities to be ingested before reaching a critical dose.
Apples are one of the most popular fruits, and many people just swallow the seeds. The seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides, a cyanide compound that could be fatal in high enough concentrations.  However we would need to consume massive amounts of apples and crushing the seeds before we swallow them. Some of this toxin is broken down in our digestive processes quite naturally. Other fruits in the same group also possess similar poisons in the seeds and kernels such as cherries and apricots.
The leaves of rhubarb are very toxic containing oxalic acid, but nobody would ever want to eat them, so there is little problem.
Then there is the humble spud, a member of the solanaceae family, which has some very poisonous relatives such as the deadly nightshade and datura, also known as Angel Trumpets. Tomatoes, peppers and tobacco also belong to this group, and are known to possess a wide range of alkaloids which can be addictively desirable e.g. tobacco, or fatal e.g. belladonna and datura containing tropane.
Although the potato is a staple food, the leaves, stems, seeds and those tubers that have turned green on exposure to light all contain the toxin glycoalkaloid solanine. This toxin is also present in tomato leaves, stems and unripe fruits.

Fatal Flowers

Angel Trumpets, Datura stramonium is used in summer beds and borders. It has large highly scented trumpet flowers that are at their best at night. Every part of the plant is toxic. South American native Indians use it as a drug because of its hypnotic and hallucinogenic affects. In the wrong dose this exotic plant can be fatal. Monkshood, a pretty blue perennial plant is so toxic it has been used in the past to poison enemy water supplies, arrow heads and kill wolves and bears.
Rhododendrons, aconites, narcissi, foxgloves, autumn crocus, daphne, delphinium, and calla lily are all toxic if ingested.
The toxic house plants include hyacinths, poinsettias and dumb cane which can cause immobility of the mouth and tongue, great difficulty in breathing and asphyxiation.
Toxic weeds include hemlock containing alkaloids, deadly nightshade which contains the alkaloid atropine and giant hogweed whose sap is phototoxic and can cause a severe rash and blisters.

Toxic Trees

Apart from laburnum whose seeds are particularly poisonous, most other harmful trees mainly affect farm animals. Beech, chestnut and especially oak can have an accumulative poisonous affect if normal grazing meadows are poor and trees are nearby. Some animals can become addicted to acorns or young fresh leaves in spring which are all high in tannic acid. Small quantities are fine but eating these in quantities should be positively discouraged.
The yew tree
The most toxic tree in UK has to be the yew tree. Its toxins have protected it so well from foraging predators that it can last for hundreds of years. It can also regrow from basal suckers so the original tree could have originated up to 4000 years ago. The yew was revered as a sacred tree by Greeks, Romans, North American Indians and in UK by the Celts and Druids. It was associated with immortality, rebirth, protection from evil and access to the underworld.
The growth is very slow so it produces a very fine grain making it perfect for tools, spears and hunting bows. Its extensive use in the middle ages for the long bow caused its demise as a dominant woodland tree across Europe. As every part of the tree is extremely poisonous, except the fleshy aril around the seed, it was used to add poison to the tips of arrows.
The Druids would plant them in circles to protect sacred ground and monks would use them to mark and protect the routes of their pilgrimages. Many very old yews survive in churchyards as the sacred ground is protected.
The oldest tree in Europe is the Fortingall yew near Loch Tay at over 3000 years old.
The stems, leaves and seeds contain the toxic alkaloid taxine.
Several suicides have been reported by people eating the leaves. On the positive side taxol extracted from the leaves can be used as an anti cancer treatment as it stops cell mutation. Extracts from the fleshy aril around the seeds can be used as a diuretic and laxative.

The above list is only a small sample of a long list of garden plants with toxic properties. Never take any risk with some berry that may look quite attractive and edible. Sometimes even a small amount may not be fatal, but could cause skin rashes, sickness, and heart palpitations.


Thursday, 3 March 2011

Plants for a healthy living


The active gardener can derive immense benefits to a healthy life style from his garden.
The exercise value alone can be significant but add in the fresh air and sunshine, the home grown fruit and vegetables free from pesticides and then the visual pleasures of flowers and scents and you have a great start to a healthy life.
Home grown produce will be free from the harmful pesticides and herbicides used as routine on commercial crops. Crops grown in UK come under very strict control ensuring that only safe and approved pesticides are used, but imported crops from all over the world do not have the same regulations and controls as we have here, so food health is a gamble. If you grow your own food crops you reduce the need to buy imported foods.
Even a small garden or allotment can provide a small family with most of their annual needs in fruit and vegetables and cut flower for the house with good cultivations and careful planning.
The Scottish diet gets a bad press, however, a lot of effort goes into promoting healthier foods and into encouraging people to cut back on the high fat fast foods, junk food, and fry ups in favour of  eating  more fruit, vegetables, nuts and grains.
The availability of cheap instant food has allowed people to take the easy option with the minimum of cooking. However in time, we may well revert to a healthier diet as promotion runs at full tilt with good and entertaining cookery programmes on TV on a daily basis.

I was one of the lucky ones. My father came from rural Poland where there were precious little shops so people grew their own produce. He always had the garden filled with fruit and vegetables and had an allotment all his life. I got to appreciate the taste of fresh fruit and vegetables at an early age. However, there was always a bit of wicked temptations in youth. It was normal on a night out to have six pints followed by a donar kebab, but with my healthy background I only had five pints and a single fish, nae chips. Well, you have to start somewhere.

The Problems

The human lifestyle has evolved a lot faster than our bodies’ ability to keep up with the changes. A lot of our food is refined, processed, treated with chemicals, and supermarkets have taken over as our main suppliers. Their concern is profits, not healthy food.
Our diet is responsible for the massive increase in poor health from heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer and hypertension.
Everyone knows the answer, but it is not easy to change the old habits of excessive drinking, smoking, junk food, too much TV/computer and not nearly enough exercise.
It is very hard to leave the car at home, and not watch those very interesting TV programmes, but with a wee bit of Scottish determination and will power we can make a few changes.
The body does need some fats to function properly, so the occasional chip is good for us, and a wee nip or glass of red wine every so often, purely for our medicinal needs will keep us in good form.
It’s all about moderation.
Then if you can combine more exercise into your routine your on the right track. After an hour at the gym I was ready for my shower, but my daughter wanted an extra fifteen minutes. She had been counting calories and knew that it would take fifteen minutes of lost calories to burn off the large slice of gateaux she had waiting at home as her reward.

The Foods

As I have always had a garden it has been easy to integrate plenty of fruit and vegetables into my daily diet, especially from early summer onwards.
Forced rhubarb started the season stewed and added to my morning muesli or in puddings and crumbles.
My muesli has added sultanas, dates and many nuts, so I am well on my way to achieving my daily five portions of fruit and vegetables. Later on fresh picked berries are added over the summer and autumn months. Frozen berries are used for a mixed fruit compote which complements, breakfast and desserts.
Lunch and dinner may well be a salad with home grown lettuce, tomatoes, and radish or a cooked meal with cabbage, turnip, onions, garlic, sweet corn, beans, beetroot or whatever is in season.
Preparation of foods is important to get the best out of them. Do not wash food excessively otherwise some vitamins existing on the surface may be lost. Go easy on the creams and yoghurts with fresh fruit as the calcium in these can lock up some of the beneficial vitamins and minerals.

The Superfoods

It is beneficial for healthy eating to include as wide a variety of foods as possible as they all have different levels of nutrients, and several are known to be very high in antioxidants and specific vitamins and minerals.
Superfood status is given to those possessing the greatest levels of a particular feature, or having a wide range of health benefits.

My garden will always have the following essential crops.

The chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa comes at the top of my list. It has the highest level of vitamin C and anthocyanins, an antioxidant that gives the berry its black colour, than any other plant. Antioxidants are very beneficial to sufferers of some cancers, heart disease, ulcers and many other conditions.
Blackcurrants come close behind with very high levels of vitamin C, then saskatoons and blueberries.
Rhubarb is a must have plant that can be used all year round with forced, fresh and frozen sticks. This was covered in last weeks feature.
Garlic is used in cooking numerous dishes to impart its attractive pungent flavour, but as a health food, it is said to help sufferers of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and some cancers.
Cabbage and all the other brassicas including Brussels sprouts, broccoli and kale are available all year round. They also have high levels of vitamin C, dietary fibre and multiple nutrients useful against heart diseases, cancer and inflammation.
Kale is especially nutritious with powerful antioxidant properties.
Beetroot is delicious in soups and savouries and is very high in antioxidants, magnesium, sodium, potassium and vitamin C. It is important for cardiovascular health, and has been shown to lower blood pressure.

Demand for allotments shows that the message is getting through for the need for a healthier lifestyle, but in Scotland we still need more people to jump on the bandwagon.