The wild times of apple trees
Hands up: has anyone ever found an apple tree along the side of the road that failed to bear apples? Has anyone ever picked roadside apples and found they were full of fruit fly or codlin moth?
As dedicated feral apple sampler, I can duly swear I have never come across a bad wild apple.
Apples originated in central and western Asia and possibly travelled to the rest of the continent via horse droppings along ancient trade routes. Horse eats apples and apples germinate in horse droppings; pretty much the same way that kid eats apple in car, throws core out the window and apple trees grow on the side of the road these days. Apple problems come as a result of cultivation, in backyards and orchards where pests breed up year after year, or where woolly aphids are attracted to the scent of sap when the trees are pruned. Commercial growers need to produce apples of a certain size (too big can be almost as bad as too small), with no blemishes, shiny and bright red or green.
Vibrant red tulips in spring.
Our apples crop decade after decade with no spraying or pruning, except for the Lady Williams outside the bathroom that has to be hacked back every few years so the apples don't clog up the gutters. My only big intervention was growing flowering umbellifera near them (parsnips mostly) to attract the predators to eat the pests and to introduce geese to eat the fallen fruit to help control codlin moth and fruit fly. The geese are now gone but the wallabies and possums get very fat in apple season. The possums have even learnt that it is easier to eat an apple fallen from the tree than to pick one (or, worse, take a single bite out of several up in the branches).
Every house needs an apple tree, though if your neighbours don't agree you may need two compatible varieties for pollination. Every school needs at least one apple tree for every four students. Grow them as a hedge; tie commercial protective calico bags over the fruit to keep out pests, birds and possums, or make cut up old pantyhose to into sections, slip them over and tie. Even white cockatoos don't like to chew through pantyhose. A small mob of cockies woke me up this morning shrieking when they discovered that ''their'' Prince Alfred apples had been sabotaged. They are not amused. Our resident rosellas and king parrots, on the other hand, prefer to eat small sour crab apples - they are perched in the crab tree outside my window, munching on crabs too small even to be using for jelly, ignoring the big yellow and red striped Wandin Glory two metres away.
Once an apple tree is established - two to three years of feeding, watering and mulching - it will survive droughts, neglect and frost, though not necessarily over-enthusiastic pruners. Grow them as hedges along a fence or instead of a fence; in pots on patios (look for the true dwarf varieties, not the semi-dwarf ones often sold as such); and very definitely in every school, but only late varieties like Lady Williams or Yates or Democrats, which will crop when the kids are at school and can eat them, rather than ripening in the school holidays where they'll rot on the ground.
Delicious homemade apple crumble. Photo: Sophie Bengtsson
A good apple tree will bear for more than a hundred years, a wonderful legacy to leave for the future.
Meanwhile, we are eating apples, both straight from the tree and peeled and sliced with the device that Virginia just gave me: turn the handle and the apple falls off in exquisitely neat sections and, no, I don't know where she bought it except the vague hint that, ''I'm going to Pialligo and I'll get you an apple peeler while I'm there.''
I'm stewing apples, for winter's crumbles on days when I need to feed guests but am also pushing a deadline: it takes 74 seconds to mix up a crumble, bung it on top of a defrosted carton of stewed apple and leave it to bake while we eat the main course. An apple cake is almost as fast.
I'm giving bags of apples away and almost regret that the white cockatoos have flown, though I don't really want them to feel too welcome. I've also been watching kids' faces - and adults' faces too - as they pick their first apple, bite into it and realise that there is no such thing as a decent supermarket apple. Cold storage destroys flavour, leaving only sweetness. If you want to understand humanity's devotion to apples for the last few thousand years, you need to pick your own.
This week I'm:
■ Trying to give away nashi pears - we keep our tree pruned back to two main branches, but even that gives us far more than we want to eat;
■ Convincing myself that we really need 100 bright red tulip bulbs;
■ Remembering that yesterday I said I'd mow this morning, and to actually get out there and mow tomorrow, so the grass thickens and the weeds trying to colonise the heat-struck patches die;
■ Getting around to planting the cabbages, red cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, Brussel sprouts and mini carrots that we want to eat in winter and spring;
■ Disguise the gaudiness of red hot pokers by placing them in tall vases with the dark green leaves of bay tree branches (the scent as you pick bay leaves is divine and they stay green for weeks); and
■ Feed roses for a longer flush of autumn flowers.
The beauty of apple crumble is that the layer of apples can be as deep or shallow as you like. I usually make mine apple rich - about 20 centimetres of apple in a deep oven dish, with a thin layer of crumble on top.
1 cup self-raising flour
½⁄ cup brown sugar
1/8 of a 250-gram block of butter - measure out halves, then quarters, then halve the quarter and slice it off
2 cups stewed apples (about 10 large apples' worth)
Rub butter with your fingers into the flour and brown sugar (and resist the notion that you'll do this step in a food processor - the result is too uniform to get the real crumble effect). The mix should look a bit like breadcrumbs, still too dry to form into a pastry-like blob.
Tip apples into oven dish. Lightly strew the crumble on top. Bake at 200C until the top is rich brown and there's no uncooked gooey bits bubbling up on the edges. Serve hot, with cream, ice-cream or natural yoghurt (or all three) or tepid or cold ditto. It will keep, covered, in the fridge for up to three days but the topping will go soggy. Soggy crumble is beloved by many, including my husband, but it is best served just made, hot from the oven.
This is very, very good, moist and with the simple flavours of butter, vanilla and apples. Don't try to gussy it up with icing, raspberry coulis etc. It goes best with a small strong shot of good coffee, or a porcelain cup of lapsang souchong tea.
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla paste
1¼⁄ cup plain flour
1¼⁄ cup self-raising flour
2-3 cups of stewed apple
Cream butter and sugar till the batter is both smooth and light. Beat in eggs one by one. Don't add the next egg until the one before it is mixed in, or the mix will curdle and cake will be dense. Gently stir in the vanilla and the two flours.
Line a large cake tin with baking paper. Add 2/3 of the cake mixture. Top with the apple, add the rest of the cake mixture. Bake at 200C for about an hour. Cool in the tin before tipping out and removing the paper. Keeps for up to a week in a sealed container in the fridge, otherwise the apple layer may grow mould.
Your questions answered
Today you mentioned about drying the heads of hydrangeas. Could you please share with me the process you use to dry hydrangeas? My son is getting married in April and the theme is ''rustic'' and my soon-to-be daughter-in-law is keen to have some dried hydrangeas in some vases. I have three plants in my garden. Some of the flowers have browned off due to the heat. The wedding is April 13 so I may not have enough time.
Hydrangeas are easy to dry, but the quality depends on when they are picked. They dry best when harvested after a cool spell, when they are just past their best on the bush. Mid-summer hydrangeas tend to go brown when they die, but ones in autumn - or during a cool snap in summer - fade to a mix of mauve and parchment cream.
Pick the flowers just as they begin to fade; strip off all leaves; place no more than two or three flowers, in a tall vase, to keep their stems straight, with no water. Keep away from direct sunlight. A spare room with the curtains pulled is perfect. You can also hang them individually upside down from a curtain rod. Avoid humid bathrooms or kitchens.
Hydrangeas can also be dried more quickly by covering each flower in desiccants such as silica crystals, bought from a craft shop - look online or in the Yellow Pages. This method will keep more of the original colour, and the desiccant can be reused several times.
Smaller flowers can be dried in paper towels in short pulses on low in the microwave, but hydrangeas are so big they cook, rather than dry, though if any reader has perfected a microwave technique with hydrangeas I'd love to hear it. Microwaving may work with semi-dried blooms, speeding up the process, but this would need a lot of experimenting to get right. All the very best, both for the wedding and the hydrangeas.
PS: If you have enough hydrangeas now, you should be able to get them dried well in time for the wedding.
I am wondering if you could please give me some advice. We have a large old apricot tree that has gummosis, I think. Two large boughs have died in the past two years. We were going to replace it but this year it had a crop and I was reading in one of the green mags that it could be cut back, and the cut painted. Is this true, as I thought that there wasn't any cure? I am an admirer of yours, as is my daughter. We have a few acres, are self-sufficient in vegetables and fruit, and have chooks. Lots of work, so the retirement means more work than I did in my working years. But it's nice though, and look at how fit we are! My daughter lives up on the Murray River and, for someone who was never going to do any gardening and was planning on having a gardener, she is now a dedicated organic gardener, too. My husband says he is married to the only person he knows who carted pigeon manure from Adelaide to Queensland to encourage her daughter to garden. Anyway it worked.
Gummosis can be caused either by a fungal or bacterial infection. You can't cure it but can control it. Cut back dead wood and paint with an antifungal sealant; keep pruning to an absolute minimum and try to do any pruning in summer, when the tree has plenty of sap and will heal much faster than in winter. Paint all cuts or wounds from wind or hail. Spray the tree with bordeaux spray in late winter. Keep the tree well mulched, regularly watered, and fed with compost or a good mulch like lucerne hay to prevent any fast growth spurts in spring where the wood may split allowing the pathogen to enter. Clean pruning equipment in bleach after using it on an infected tree. If two branches have died it's possible that rot has spread down the main trunk and to the roots but, if not, your tree may have decades of good production ahead of it. Love the idea of a gift of pigeon manure!