September 28, 2008

Love Affair With Old Apples

A pples that thrive in the worst of the Westcountry weather are ripening in the orchard at Thornhayes Nursery.

They have wonderful bucolic names, hinting at their heritage.

There's Don's Delight ("an excellent cooker"), Farmer's Glory, from the Haldon Hills near Exeter, the sweet dessert apple Pigs Nose, so-called because its base resembles a snout, and the Nine Square, a substantial slab-sided green cooking apple once thought extinct.

The nursery on the lower slopes of the Blackdown Hills specialises in varieties of apples, pears and plums that you won't find on the supermarket shelves.

Owner Kevin Croucher grows natives of the Westcountry and varieties from elsewhere which also do well in our mild, damp climate.

One such is the Pitmaston Pineapple, which produces small spherical golden-coloured fruit with a pineappley flavour. It was first recorded back in the late 1700s in Worcestershire.

"They redden and they go a nutty gold and they taste divine," says Kevin.

People visiting the nursery won't find Coxes, because they don't do well without fungicidal sprays in the Westcountry climate. Instead, for a tasty, trouble-free eater, Kevin recommends Ashmead's Kernel, first recorded in Gloucester in about 1700, and Oaken Pin, a juicy, sweet and aromatic eating apple developed in the Exe Valley before 1876.

The apple trees are cultivated from the nursery's collection of rare "mother trees", often varieties rescued from overgrown orchards in remote corners of the region. They vary in size, shape, colour and the precise time when they fruit; there are apples to harvest from July into the New Year.

The nursery supplies trees for orchards at National Trust properties, community orchards and individuals who want to set up their own. It supplied the South Devon Chilli Farm with robust cookers, which could be grown organically without succumbing to scab and other diseases of the damp.

You might think that anything with the title "heritage" would be tricky to grow, but in fact, says Kevin, it is always best to plant apples that are indigenous to the area.

"The apples of Devon and Cornwall have developed over the centuries on a diet of hard work and neglect," he says. "If they are weaklings they wouldn't survive in the South West. These old varieties just get on with it. They don't need too much cosseting."

While so-called heritage varieties are now popular - as much for their names as their taste - they were in danger of slipping into history when Kevin started the nursery on two fields in 1991.

He had originally planned to concentrate on ornamental trees, but became interested in saving old varieties of apples, pears, plums and cherries at a time when old orchards were being grubbed up, encouraged by government grants.

"I thought we would start with a few," he says.

Demand has far exceeded his expectations and fruit trees now account for half the business, the other half ornamental trees which include the historic Exeter-bred Lucombe oak, birch, crab apple trees, rowan and whitebeam, hornbeam and maple, beech, ash and walnut, as well as exotic trees like the Chinese paper bark maple, which displays stunning autumn foliage. The nursery offers around 1,000 species, in varying sizes and stages of maturity, of the highest quality.

The nursery staff are gearing up for their busiest time of year; lifting field stocks of their large range of fruit and ornamental trees and dispatching them to customers. Fruit trees are transplanted between December and March.

Kevin can offer advice to anyone thinking of establishing an orchard, advising on the best apples to grow, and how to maintain them. All trees need annual pruning in the dormant winter months and Kevin runs courses showing beginners how to do this, removing snags on the trunk to gradually train the tree into shape.

He also shows how to train branches into more elaborate fans, cordons and espaliers.

Such is the romantic appeal of having your own orchard, he can find himself acting as the voice of caution with visitors carried away by the bucolic appeal.

"Some people have this idyllic idea that they can plant an orchard and wander about in their Laura Ashley dress not doing anything, but it isn't like that," says Kevin.

"Orchards need managing. If you don't prune the trees regularly they become decrepit very quickly and the quality of the fruit can diminish. You need to keep the tree fit and healthy, it is like people really."

That said, all your love and care will be richly rewarded every autumn, when you harvest your crop and enjoy your own cider, juice and pies.

Thornhayes Nursery, St Andrews Wood, Dulford, Cullompton, Devon EX15 2DF. Call 01884 266746 or visit

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