apple trees


I needed to be home before I lost the light.  A chimney needed repaired after Ophelia ripped off the cowling.  The actual repair did not take that long, the preparation did.  A small scaffold platform had to be dragged out of the corner of the woodshed, behind the bikes, the toy trucks and the empty beehives.  The beehives had been brought in from the garden a few days before.  They had sat out in the weather looking forlorn for two winters.  It was a disgraceful thing to leave them out. Bringing them in was a job I had kept putting off due to the sadness of not having the bees and the time it would take to strip all the frames from the old wax and mess. The thing that finally made me sort them out was the approaching hurricane.  I suspected Ophelia had her eye on the beehives.

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Ophelia

The chimney job was done in time for the little people arriving home.  They were well into homework when I slipped my welly boots back on intending to head outside for more work.  This was spotted by the littlest man who declared that he would help, then they all suddenly wanted to be helpful.  I sighed, very little work would get achieved now and it would be achieved at a much slower pace. The little man, little lady, littlest man and I hammered in a wooden stake and tied up an apple tree that Ophelia had tried to take for a short walk.  We picked up twigs and fallen branches.  We played tip around the house.  I pointed out that it was called tig when I was a boy.  Nobody listened, nobody cared.  We ran, we laughed. The littlest man and little lady tripped over a couple of times. I used this as an opportunity to encourage; “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” There are not many Batman quotes that are useful in parenting, but this is my favourite.  I spotted lots of jobs that needed done when I had the time, yet I didn’t really care at that moment. Playing in the low golden autumn light seemed more mindful.  Maybe this is what the little people meant when they said they wanted to be helpful.

The final job was closing the gates before returning to the homework. We said hello to the donkey who seemed happy about the company and we promised him some apples from the fridge tomorrow.  As we closed the gates the little man looked at them and told me that I needed to paint them, “maybe some waterproof paint.”  Helpfully reminding me of the jobs that need to be done seems to be something he got from his mother. We said goodbye to the donkey who was not as happy at this and bayed as loud as he could.  The little lady and the littlest man lost it at this; screaming and running with fear for their lives.  The donkey needs to work on making friends and saying goodbyes.

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It has changed. The day length has changed; the darkness is winning.  It’s the fastest rate of daylight change. The air has changed, the leaves are changing. Autumn has arrived.  Even the word “Autumn” is believed to come from the Etruscan word “autu”, meaning change of season.  I used to think that I enjoyed all seasons equally; no favourites as a policy. I was wrong, this is it; a winner by a mile.

Now I feed and water the chickens with a head torch on and the air around the cottage has the faint smell of wood smoke.  With the darkness the evening sky is now my seasonal clock as I walk down the lane.  Cygnus, the swan, is beginning its annual migration across the night and, if its dark enough, marks the arc of the milky way. The swan reminds me to keep an eye out for the skeins of birds in the sky. I usually spot the during the commute to school.  Sitting in the static traffic gives me a chance to look up.

It’s strange to have an autumn without bees.  No syrup feed, no honey harvest. The hives were left empty in the hope that maybe a stray swarm might move in; no joy.  To add insult to injury I found a wasp nest in one of the old spare hives.

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Then there is the apples. The trees are older and the pruning, feeding and weeding is beginning to bear some fruit. James Grieves, McIntosh Red, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Katy, Russet and some other unknown varieties. Although the Russet is not really a Russet. We bought it five years ago and planted it as a thin sapling.  Five years latter and we discover that it had been mislabelled. Should I have kept the receipt?  This is the consequence of growing trees, proper slow food.  The taste and textures of the apples are quite different and we eat apple and cheese sandwiches, baked apples, fried apples on toast (which is quite nice; thank you Nigel Slater), apple crumble and simply eat the apples. We have even filled a couple of boxes with apples individually wrapped in newspaper and hidden away in a cool dark place.  Yet, a little while a go I went looking for apples to buy at the market.  I wanted Russet apples as they add to the flavour of autumn for me.  I intended to buy them for my A Level class to try and convince them to branch out (sorry) and try other varieties that the supermarket keep hidden from them.  The market didn’t have any.  Later that day there was a knock on my classroom door in the middle of my A Level lesson.  It was a past pupil with a bag of twenty five russet apples. She works part-time in a fruit shop and when they arrived in, she knew I would like them; a thoughtful and wonderful gift. After they were distributed there was still one or two left to set on my desk.  Although it is nowhere near as neat as the clichéd teacher’s desk.

I woke in the middle of the night, dragged sleepily to semi-consciousness by thousands of bees.  The dream was one of worry; will they survive? A few days later I peeked into the hive and found them dead.  They had no stores left.  They had plenty of fondant, but it simply was not enough for them.  They starved in the local county Antrim definition of the word; they got too cold due to lack of food.

Did I dream their death through some spiritual connection as a beekeeper? To be fair, I dream this dream every spring and this is my first year of winter loss. Of course I am sad and I will miss having bees about the home. That said, looking after them last summer was problematic.  I had less time for them, and I promised myself that if they did not make it through the winter; I would take a year off beekeeping. In a fight between the bees or the little people; the little people win. I told the little man about the bees and he knew I was upset. He gave me a hug and told me it was going to be ok, we could buy honey from ASDA.

I’m shrugging beelessness off and refocusing my efforts into the garden and growing things to eat. The old buckets and bricks are already on top of the early rhubarb shoots, the potatoes are chitting on the window ledge and the seed packets are all purchased. I have plans. In the autumn I bought eighteen more raspberry canes to fill a vegetable plot that we normally grow lettuces in.  For the last two years all we have seem to have done with this is feed the slugs. These raspberries were supposed to be planted in November. The sodden cold earth and the winter darkness put a stop to that.  They are in little pots and have been added to the list of things to do.

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Last night I sat down with netflix intending to start House of Cards.  Then I remembered that Gardener’s World had come back to TV and iPlayer. Monty Don won and Francis Underwood lost my vote.

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This morning I stole away some time as the little people sat eating breakfast and feasting on saturday morning cartoons. I made a dent in some of the items on the gardening list: mulched the redcurrants and blackcurrants, split and spread the snowdrop bulbs, cleaned out the chicken coop, and had a fight with an unruly cottoneaster. Ever since we lost the pear trees to canker I have been keeping a close eye on the apple trees and clipping and burning any little signs of disease.  The little man’s tree seemed to be infected on the main trunk at about shoulder height.  I was a bit hesitant about doing anything harsh as it is called the little man’s tree as it was a gift for his birth from some friends.  All the little people have a tree of their own now. I pondered trying to spray it and then thought WWMD (What Would Monty Do?)  I cut out the disease and this resulted in a dramatic pruning of it’s height.  It had to be done and it does still look alright.  It seems to have opened it up quite a bit. I just hope I won’t have to hug the little man and reassure him by telling him we can buy his apples in ASDA.

This spring feels all new and fresh.  It is strange to think that it is not actually new, but a renewal.  Looking back I can see now what I had forgotten; that for the last few years I have felt this way every spring.  Yet I can still remind myself that this is not every spring.  It is now.

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Over the last few days I threw myself into the jobs of spring; waking up the worms, turning over the earth. Two jobs loomed under a dark cloud in my mind.  Job number one was the planting of the new apple tree (usually a nice job).  Job number two sapped any joy out of job number one; the culling of the flock.  Two of our oldest hens needed to go. They don’t seem to lay many eggs now they are no spring chicks.  In addition to this, they seem to go broody in the early summer and yet, are unable to actually persist with their sitting long enough to produce chicks. It is a strange state of mind to be in when the welfare of the chickens, their quality of life, is so important. Yet pragmatism seeps into the picture. So, the new apple tree, and the two old hens were jobs that were tied to each other.  I dug a big hole then grabbed my fishing net. I haven’t gone fishing since I was a teenager, but it didn’t take long for me to learn that a fishing net is essential when keeping chickens. I detached myself as much as I could from the job.  Soon the earth was filled in and the apple tree was planted.

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As a distraction I unearthed our battery powered radio and turned it up while breaking earth for the last of the potatoes that need to be planted as soon as possible.  The task at hand soon distracted me from the horrible jobs.

The new apple tree was planted in the place of a quince tree I tried to move a year ago.  Two trees, the quince and an apple tree, were suffering badly in their original position.  No light and no water, as a thick fir hedge parched the earth around the trees.  They were out of place and struggling to hold, with no hope of flourishing. The quince tree was quite mature and flowered early in the spring, yet never produced any fruit before dropping its leaves around mid summer. It was a gamble to move them but I didn’t see an option.  The apple tree pulled through (sort of).  The quince tree had a brief flush of foliage before giving up.  The apple tree that seems to have pulled through was already stressed from its original home.  It seems to have been attacked by a canker.  After doing the research and now knowing what to look for, it seems one of the other apples and one of the pear trees are also infected.  So, I made up a dilute bleach solution to sterilize the cutting tools between trees.  Then a bit of disused flue lining was re-purposed as an incinerator to burn the prunings. I had to cut away a lot from the worst tree, but needed to be done.

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After all the destruction I needed to try to counter some of it, even just a little. I planted some seeds.  Basil and rocket are now slowly unfolding in the soil beside the beans and peas.

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I noticed the first of the peas are starting to creep up through the soil, and the first tomato plant is feeling the tide of the sun.

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