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The apples of your eye
7:00am Saturday 13th October 2012 in Homes & Gardens
A look at why urban gardeners may have more success with apple crops this year than some commercial growers - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.
By Hannah Stephenson
While many commercial apple producers have had poor crops this year because the incessant early rain deterred bees from pollinating the blossom, ordinary gardeners may have had more success.
An apple flower can't be fertilised by pollen from the same tree, but needs a pollination partner from a different variety of apple tree which flowers at the same time.
While many commercial growers only grow one variety and will have a different pollination partner scattered around the orchard, they usually assess the minimum number of pollination partner trees needed so they don't waste space they want to give over to their main variety.
"This year we had a freakily bad year for pollination because throughout the time for pollination - April and May - it was cold and rainy and the bees just weren't about, which massively reduced the chances of trees being pollinated," says Rebecca Bevan, team leader for fruit and vegetables at RHS Garden Wisley.
When only one type of apple is grown, bees have to travel from the majority crop to pollinating partner trees and back again to cross-pollinate each flower.
However, suburban gardeners often have a few different types within easy reach, which means the bees don't have to travel so far to cross-pollinate the flowers.
It's been a bumper year for apples at RHS Garden Wisley - which will be hosting the RHS Taste of Autumn Festival from October 17 - where nearly 700 types of apple are grown and there are many hives.
"Even though the weather was awful, we had more bees around which were covered in a lot more compatible pollen," says Bevan.
She advises gardeners to grow more than one variety which flowers at the same time.
"We advise home gardeners to choose at least one pollination partner for each tree, but often in suburban areas that's going to happen anyway because different people have different apple trees and the bees will travel from one garden to another to exchange the pollen."
Many suburban gardeners also grow wild flowers which encourage bees and have grown some apple varieties which will withstand a lot of rain.
Those who want their tree blossom to escape the frost should go for mid or late season varieties, such as 'Ashmead's Kernel', a russet apple with a really intense fruit-drop flavour which stores well, ready for picking from mid-October, and 'Ellison's Orange', a late season type which is a reliable cropper providing a rich flavour, she advises.
Wet weather also encourages fungal diseases and some trees are more resistant to that. 'Ellison's Orange', for instance, has shown some resistance to scab, while 'Laxton's Fortune' is also disease-resistant. 'Falstaff' is also thought to have some resistance to frost in its blossom.
Unlike most varieties, Bramley cooking apples need two pollination partners, while there are several self-fertile varieties including a type of Cox's Orange Pippin, although the RHS recommends that trees are cross-pollinated to achieve a better crop.
For better crops, Bevan advises people to create good places for bumble bees and solitary bees to over-winter in the garden. Leave some undisturbed ground on your plot or make insect houses by tying up bamboo canes which have holes in them in which the bees can shelter.
:: The RHS Taste of Autumn Festival, which features apple-tasting sessions, runs from October 17-21 at RHS Garden Wisley, Woking, Surrey. For details, visit www.rhs.org.uk
Best of the bunch - Kaffir lily (Schizostylis coccinea)
This useful perennial will add colour to the border through to late autumn, and is immensely useful for its late flowers, which come in shades of deep red and pink.
Growing to around 60cm (2ft), its flowering spikes, which look a bit like miniature gladioli flowers, rise above grassy foliage.
Schizostylis prefer moist soil and full sun in a sheltered spot and will grow in mixed borders or at the foot of a sunny wall if kept moist.
They are effective with other late flowers such as nerines and asters and combine well with autumn-hued plants including ornamental grasses.
Other good plant partners include late-flowering sedums and white autumn crocuses. Good varieties include S. coccinea 'Major', with its deep red flowers, and 'Sunrise', which bears spikes of glossy, salmon-pink flowers. The Kaffir lily benefits from an organic mulch in winner, especially in colder areas.
Good enough to eat - Pumpkins for Halloween
The bad weather has resulted in a poor pumpkin crop this year, with some fruits not turning the rich orange colour which is so valued for carving for Halloween. Indeed, they need a long hot summer to ripen fully, but once established are pretty easy to grow.
When harvesting, allow fruits to develop their full colour by lifting them and putting them in a sunny spot to complete their ripening. Bring the ripe fruits indoors before the first frosts of autumn and aim to use them before Christmas, as they don't store well.
If you're looking to use them to carve into lanterns, 'Atlantic Giant' is the biggest of all, but is not one for eating, while 'Baby Bear' and 'Becky' are small-fruited and more palatable.
To grow them, sow seed indoors at a temperature of between 18-22C, planting outside into soil with added organic matter in May or June when all danger of frost has passed, allowing at least a square metre per plant. If your plants are trained to scramble up supports, you may need to support the heavier fruits to prevent damage to the stems.
Three ways to... save time in autumn
1. Leave fallen leaves to act as a mulch in borders unless plants have suffered from a fungal disease.
2. Use a garden vacuum to collect fallen fruit and pick up diseased leaves of fruit trees to prevent fungal spores overwintering on them.
3. Leave crops such as beetroot and parsnips in the ground in a well-drained soil to keep over winter, digging them up only when you want to use them, to save you storage space and time.
What to do this week
:: Attach sticky grease bands to trees to prevent pests climbing up.
:: Continue to plant new trees, bushes and cane fruits in prepared ground.
:: Bring in any tender plants before the first frosts.
:: Cut back long shoots of shrubs and climbers in the greenhouse after flowering.
:: Cut wild flower meadows once plants have shed their seeds.
:: Refill bird feeders and baths regularly to ensure they have plenty to eat and drink during the cooler months.
:: Stop feeding and reduce watering for plants in the greenhouse.
:: Make sure bowls of bulbs being forced for indoor flowering do not dry out.
:: Top-dress established borders with well-rotted compost or manure
:: As land becomes vacant in the vegetable plot, start digging while the ground is still soft enough, leaving it rough to allow maximum penetration by frost.
:: Plant biennials such as foxgloves, Canterbury bells and honesty where they are to flower next year.
:: Cut back asparagus foliage and clean the bed of weed before applying a layer of compost or well-rotted manure.
:: Check over brassicas for cabbage white caterpillars and remove any you see.