by Ute Bohnsack
August is a happy month, a time of abundance at the tail end of summer, the month that gives us the first apples and new potatoes. In Ireland ‘spuds’, somewhat more eloquently termed ‘pomme de terre’ by the French, are a staple food of course, but similarly apples to me are a staple I don’t like to be without. In my native German language they are generally called ‘Kartoffeln’ but in some regions they are termed ‘Erdäpfel’ — i.e. ‘earth apples’ — and there is even an old traditional dish called “Heaven and Earth” which combines the two crops in the form of mashed potatoes and apple sauce with sausage, fried onions and bacon.
Pears and plums are rather tricky in this climate (forget about cherries, peaches or apricots) and apples are the only top fruit that reliably fruit here in our sunshine-starved cool and wet maritime climate — reliably in the sense that if you plant a large enough number of different varieties some of them will come through no matter what the weather might have in store. A late frost might catch some of them in flower or a cold, rainy or windy spring might prevent the pollinators from doing their valuable work. This year was marked by a very late spring and a terribly windy one at that with several weeks of cold easterlies and average temperatures about 3°C below normal, which seems to have prevented pollination in some varieties but also meant that all the trees flowered several weeks later than normal and none got caught by late frosts. Overall this seems to be a good year for apples, and an unusual three week long hot and sunny spell in July has really brought them on.
We have 25 cultivars on our land, a good mix of culinary, desert and dual-use apples, from early to late-ripening cultivars, including some for immediate use as well as some good keepers for the winter months and anything in between. When we started planting in the mid-late 1990s there were no benchmarks for this area; apple trees here are literally few and far between and more often than not they are old and untended, tucked away in an old garden, and no one knows what they are. The Irish Seedsavers Association set out in the 1990s to find and identify such old trees around the country, and rescue them from oblivion by propagation. Their Native Irish Apple Collection was inaugurated in 1997. Once the ‘mother trees’ had grown large enough they grafted scionwood from these onto rootstock and started selling trees. More than 140 old Irish locally adapted cultivars were saved in this way and are once more being planted in gardens and orchards around the country. But these were not yet available to us back then, so after a lot of reading and Googling and trying to find sources for cultivars and rootstocks that would suit our soil, climate and an organic regime, we ended up with the following cultivars (*denotes Irish/local varieties sourced from the Seedsavers that we added later). There are many other (potentially) suitable cultivars and if we had more space the list would have been longer. Moreover, some of those we wanted we could not find for sale.
- Annie Elizabeth
- Cavan Sugarcane*
- Ard Cairn Russet*
- Ballyvaughan Seedling*
- Dabinett (cider apple)
- Early Victoria = Emneth Early
- Egremont Russet
- Frank’s Seedling*
- Irish Peach*
- James Grieve
- Kaiser Wilhelm
- Katy = Katja
- Lord Lambourne
- Mrs. Perry*
- Red Boskoop
- Red Devil
- Red Gravensteiner
- Roter Mond
- Sam Young = Irish Russet*
- Uncle John’s Cooker*
- Winston Winter King
These are all north-western European cultivars. Bear in mind that other regions and continents have a whole different suite of varieties. A nice database that also covers American cultivars and has options for filtering based on traits can be found at orangepippin.com.
Emneth Early bowing under the weight and Mrs. Perry in the background left
Sam Young = Irish Russet
Those that perform for us without fail are Katy/Katja from Sweden, Emneth Early from Britain, Sam Young/Irish Russet and the local Ballyvaughan Seedling. There may yet be other such star performers coming up amongst the younger trees. Mrs. Perry, a chance seedling from the rough northwest of Ireland, is showing potential in that regard.
Spectacular failures include Winston Winter King, a very late apple that hardly ever seems to get a chance to ripen, and Red Boskoop, a hardy variety from the Netherlands and sadly one of my favourite apples with childhood memories attached. The tree is large and healthy and flowers well but it utterly disappoints almost every year; I have no idea why. A friend a few miles away had the same experience so it could be climatic factors. Red Devil, Redsleeves and Jupiter have suffered from a series of very wet summers and may be beyond rescue from canker while James Grieve suffers badly from apple scab and tends to lose all the apples it sets.
Some of our trees also had unfortunate encounters with our goats — if they break out it only takes them minutes to do severe damage to the bark — and don’t do as well as they could have if they didn’t have to expend energy on healing their wounds; so I may literally be adding insult to injury in my assessment of relative merit.
In addition to having several cultivars in each pollination group to ensure good fruit set, we also planted a range of crab apples for improved pollination. These include Malus communis (Golden Hornet, John Downie, Neville Copeman, Wintergold), Malus communis X robusta (Siberian crab), a bunch of Malus sylvestris, the native wild crabapple, and some seedlings I raised from fruits of an alleged Malus sieversii, the ‘mother’ of all modern apple varieties. These yield very aromatic fruit — with quantities varying between trees and from year to year — from cherry-sized golden or bright red ones to medium-sized green shiny ones or yellow ones with red cheeks, that can be used fresh, for superb jellies, or for cider (‘hard cider’ in the US).
Seedling of Malus sieversii
Malus sylvestris (wild crab)
Neville Copeman crabapples
John Downie crabapples ready to be turned into delicious jelly
The apples’ annual below-ground counterpart, the “humble spud” is the best carbohydrate crop in our climate in a ‘garden farming’ situation. At a larger scale, oats and barley could be grown here on the edge of the Atlantic. We grew quite a lot of potatoes in the early years in the traditional manner which involves a lot of back-breaking digging and bare soil, then time and physical constraints got in the way. It was only when I tried mulch beds – much easier on your back – that I got back to growing them in recent years. Having chickens now also helps in that they clear and manure ground and get rid of slugs and slug eggs so that my direct work input is limited to putting down used paper feed sacks, cutting slits for the seed potatoes, sticking in the potatoes, putting some compost on top of them and then covering the lot with mulch, usually waste hay (that the goats would have peed and pooped on) from the goatyard. That’s all until harvest time. So now I grow some old varieties from the Irish Seedsavers as well as some newish blight-resistant varieties (e.g. the “Sarpo” series), from ‘first earlies’ to ‘late maincrop’ varieties.
Bionica, a very tasty, relatively new variety with very good blight-resistance
A few Rooster potatoes tucked into the edge of a bed
under mulch gave a nice little crop
Some old varieties obtained from the Irish Seedsavers: Tutaekuri (Urenika)
from NZ, Irene, Pink Fir Apple, Arran Victory
Right now our dinners often look like this (potatoes, zaziki made from our goats’ soft cheese, grated cucumber and garlic, an egg or two, and some form of salad, providing carbs, protein, fat and greens), all from the smallholding except for some butter, salt and pepper. A slice of apple cake for desert really rounds things off. Happy times.