Branch out with backyard fruits of yore
CECILIA Thornton was always a vegie gardener. Then one day, in a dentist’s waiting room, she read an article about heritage apples growing in Cornwall.
“It was the names that got to me,” she explains. “These fascinating names – Lord Lambourne, Beauty of Bath and Cox’s Orange Pippin. I was really struck by them.”
On further research, Ms Thornton discovered that people in Australia were conserving these varieties too. Now, she’s the president of the Heritage Fruits Society, which manages Petty’s Orchard in Templestowe.
Every autumn at the orchard, the society holds its Antique Apple Tasting Festival. The 2012 festival will be held on Sunday March 25; visitors can take a tour, and taste and rate the 200 varieties grown onsite.
“Heritage varieties have been selected by gardeners and diners over centuries, even going back to Roman times. They’ve been chosen for reasons of flavour, ripening time, or colour, or for their resistance to certain diseases or their cooking consistency,” she says.
Ms Thornton argues they’re important not only for their historical links. “The commercial varieties in supermarkets are chosen mainly because of their handling and keeping qualities, so they don’t bruise as easily and they keep for ten months. They’re not chosen for their unique flavour or their juiciness.
“Some of the heritage varieties only keep for a week once they’re picked, but they taste like heaven. If you don’t have one in your backyard, you’re missing out.”
So how should you choose your trees?
First, survey the space. You can maximise your harvest in a few ways: by choosing columnar varieties that don’t branch out; by pruning normal trees into a shape tall and skinny; or by “espaliering” them flat and wide against the fence.
“You can also do duo or trio plantings,” Ms Thornton suggests. “In one hole, plant two or three apples, plums or pears, about 150 millimetres apart. Just make sure they’re varieties that will cross-pollinate.”
Next, choose your fruit. What do you like to eat? “We’re really lucky in Melbourne, we have a climate that’s kind to everything from stone fruit and citrus, to sub-tropical fruits,” she says.
Ms Thorton is growing several sub-tropicals, including jaboticaba, longan and wampee. “You can grow them here so long as they’re near something that holds the sun’s heat, such as masonry or water,” she says.
When there was no room to walk around her thriving backyard in Bayside, she bought a block on the Mornington Peninsula.
“I’ve got a lot of rare and unusual fruits. I’ve got gooseberries, josterberries and mountain paw paw,” she says. “I’ve got something called a jujube, which is very popular in China because it has stress relieving properties and tastes delicious like sweet dates.”
If you’re looking for something less exotic, Ms Thornton says you can’t go wrong with citrus. The Heritage Fruits Society website has tips for planning, planting and care, as well as historical catalogues, fruit poems and exhaustive lists of varieties.
As a general rule, it’s best to plant fruit trees in winter, when they’re dormant. “Fruit trees are a lot less work than a vegetable garden, but while they’re young you have to water them through summer and mulch them well,” she says. “Feed them during their growing season with plenty of organic chook poo and blood-and-bone with potash.”