For once, the British weather has blessed growers. Neil Hudson meets the woman who wants more people to enjoy the fruits of their labours.
The mists and mellow fruitfulness of autumn may have given way to frosty starts and cold, cloudless nights best spent indoors, but for Hilary Dodson it is one of the busiest times of year.
The retired micro-biologist is chair of the Northern Fruit Group, an expert on fruit trees and right now she’s busy turning her not inconsiderable harvest into jams, juices and chutneys.
She’s not alone. This year saw a bumper crop of fruit across the country and the season is still not quite over. Hilary still has apples to pick in her garden – she calls it a garden but in fact its part of a hillside next to her house in Otley.
“I’ve got some Golden Delicious which I won’t pick until into December or maybe even after Christmas. You see apples like this in supermarkets all the time and yet most of the time they are picked too early.
“Golden Delicious have a yellowy, golden colour with a hint of orange when ripe. That’s the problem with supermarkets in that most of the time they are picked because they travel better. Whenever I do have them I just think they are tasteless.”
The retired teacher, who has a doctorate to her name, has harboured a passion for growing things since her youth. She recalls being interested in horticulture are school but adds: “Back in those days, anyone who was any good academically wasn’t allowed to do things like gardening, so I had to find my own ways of doing it.”
She was lucky in that both her parents and grandparents were experienced growers and she followed in their footsteps. What began as a hobby has become something much bigger.
These days she could tell you the difference between a Ribston Pippin and a George Cave just by looking at them and as a champion of the “grow your own” brigade, she’s enthusiastic about spreading the word.
Fifteen years ago she was one of the earliest members of the Northern Fruit Group, which was instrumental in establishing the fruit gardens at Harlow Carr, Harrogate, before it was taken over by the Royal Horticultural Society.
These days, the group has several bases, the main one being the walled garden at Harewood House, although they also run several allotments in Huddersfield. Since its humble beginnings – it started with just a few dozen enthusiasts – it now boasts more than 450 members, covering an area from The Wash to The Wirral.
“We are a specialist society and our aim is to promote the growing of fruit trees,” says Hilary. “We run regular teaching groups, give talks and so on. We also help people when they are sorting out their produce and turning them into things like juice and jam.”
It’s something she wants more people to take up and she says anyone with even the smallest garden can do it.
“You don’t have to have a big garden at all and if you bought a fruit tree, you would likely see it fruiting in around three years, maybe less,” she says.
“In general, most people are not aware of the huge variety of apples and other fruit which are available – the supermarkets tend to stock a few popular lines like Golden Delicious and Bramley apples but there are countless other kinds.
“There are at least 200 varieties which are grown in Yorkshire and at least 16 which were bred and named here.
“You can start to pick some apples in August and some of them will keep until March.”
There’s also plenty to be done during the present cold spell.
“Now is the perfect time for pruning your trees, for cutting back the newly grown branches and for shaping your trees. It’s also a good time to give your trees a winter boost by putting a ring of manure around the trunk, not too close to the bark but just beneath the branches, directly above where the main roots are.
“I would also recommend raking up leaves and using any unused or spoilt fruit on the compost heap.
“Fruit trees are wonderful because they not only have blossom, which is one reason for growing trees, but at the end of the season, you get the fruit and there’s such a variety. There’s even differences between the same varieties fruit depending on where in the country they are grown, so fruit from Kent tends to be more rosy and all of that is down to the local weather conditions.”
This year it has been a particularly bumper harvest thanks to almost 12 months of perfect weather conditions.
Last year’s wet autumn followed by an icy spring and a hot summer were ideal for apple growing.
The heavy rainfall ruled out the chance of drought which can lead to small, poor tasting apples, while the icy snap held back flowering.
When trees did finally blossom there were more insects around and therefore an increased chance of pollination.
Add to all that the summer heatwave in June and July which more than made up for any lost growing time and orchard this year have been blessed by a plentiful harvest
It was particularly good news given the previous year there had been a dearth of apples.
Unsurprisingly, Hilary, who has been growing fruit trees since she was big enough to pick up a spade, has her own theory as to why 2013 has been a bumper year.
“Perhaps it was down to the fact that the previous year was very poor,” she says. “One reason for that may have been that we had a hard frost, which killed off a lot of the fruitlets – and when that is the case, instead of investing energy in growing fruit, the tree grows branches.
“That means the following year there are more branches and more buds. I still have some apples on some of my trees, I won’t pick the Golden Delicious until December or even after Christmas. It’s a lovely apple but it needs to be ripe and some of them will take that long.”
Hilary’s dedication to the grow your own movement means she not only grows all her own fruit, but also vegetables – “except carrots, which don’t do well in my soil”.
It gives her a near constant supply of fresh produce all year round and Hilary is keen to pass on her knowledge, just as it was passed on to her.
She adds: “Whenever my grandchildren come around, we are always out wither digging or planting or if it’s not that, it’s baking. I think it’s good for children to know where their food comes from.”
At this time of year Hilary’s estate car is loaded with potted trees, from berries to cherries and apples to plums. She explains to her audiences how to encourage their potential and increase their harvest. Hilary points her audience to the correct way to peg down strawberry leaders, thin raspberry canes and treat problems on the trees such as pear and plum.
If you would like to find out more about the group, they have a website – www.www.northernfruitgroup.com – their next engagement will be Harrogate Spring Show.
Autumn’s bounty boosts revival of village’s dedication to ciders and juices
The bumper harvest has also benefitted another group of grow your own enthusiasts.
Orchards of Husthwaite was formed in 2009 by Lawrie Hill, Philip Hewitson and Cameron Smith with one ambitious plan – to plant hundreds of fruit trees in and around the North Yorkshire village, collect the crop and transform it into juices and ciders.
It wasn’t an idea plucked out of thin air, but one which tapped into Husthwaite’s heritage. For three centuries the villagers had been dedicated to cultivating and exporting fruit to surrounding regions, but in the 1950s production had stopped.
As time ticked on few remembered the days when Husthwaite lived up to its name of the Orchard Village, but those that did grew determined to revive the tradition.
The project has been a massive success and Orchards of Husthwaite now sell to wholesale customers and at farmers’ markets, beer festivals and fair. Any profits made go towards worthwhile causes, including buying a new church door and helping to fund a new village hall.
It’s also been able to tap into the general cider revival which has seen demand rocket by 24 per cent since 2006.
The group also make apple juice, apple and pear cider and their bestseller is Galtres Blush Cider, which is blended with strawberry, raspberry and cherry juice. They also grow up to 300 Yorkshire and heritage fruit trees to sell each year.