Apples

Malus domestica

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

I know apples are widely available but there are so many delicious varieties that you’ll not find in the shops and they’re so easy and reliable to grow that it’s hard to refuse them a place in your garden. Find out more about apples at an Apple Day event.

Varieties: There are thousands from which to choose. My advice would be to go for local varieties as they are likely to thrive in your conditions.

Some of my favourites:

Eaters: ‘Orleans Reinette’, ‘Beauty of Bath’, ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’, ‘Luccombe’s Pine’, ‘Old Somerset Russet’

Cookers: ‘Bramley’, ‘Annie Elizabeth’

Ciders: ‘Kingston Black’, ‘Browns’.

Good things: Reliability, breadth of choice, happily take to different rootstocks/training to suit any space, versatility of the fruit.

Bad things: Codling moth larvae is likely to be the fairy tale ‘worm’ found in apples. Scab and canker can be a pain.

Apricots

Prunus armeniaca

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

Not, as the old gag goes, where baby monkeys sleep. Delicious though homegrown peaches are, I would be tempted to recommend apricots ahead of them – as with peaches, they flower early (which can be a nuisance), ripen in mid-late summer and are as unrecognisable from their shop-bought equivalents are sideburns are from a sideboard – but they aren’t susceptible to leaf curl as peaches are.

Varieties: Flavourcot and Tomcot are two of the newer varieties that flower a little later than most, giving them a better chance of the blossom dodging any late frosts, but if you have a sunny, sheltered spot and can perhaps get busy with horticultural fleece at night to protect the blossom, older varieties such as Moorpark have, in my view, a finer flavour.

Good things: Delicious fruit, beautiful blossom, and lovely if not quite spectacular leaves.

Bad things: Bacterial canker and silver leaf can be a nuisance. Blossom can be caught by frosts and/or cold winds in not protected. Short storage life.

 

Blackcurrants

Ribes nigrum

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

The government encouraged the growing of blackcurrants in WW2 to replace the Vitamin C we used to get from (then unavailable) citrus fruits. They were grown, picked and made into the famous cordial to be distributed free to keep children healthy. I have to say I prefer making ice cream with mine, but whatever you fancy making with yours, do grow them – they are easy, reliable and low maintenance.

Varieties: Any with ‘Ben’ in the name, Ebony and Titania too.

Good things: Easy to grow, and a double harvest with currants as well as leaves used for sorbet and teas.

Bad things: May need netting to ensure you get the currants rather than the birds

Cherries

Prunus avium and Prunus cerasus

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

With cherries, you get beautiful fruit, beautiful blossom and beautiful leaves in autumn. Why some people grow varieties that don’t produce fruit I’ll never know. Choose either sweet or sour cherries – and good as sweet cherries are, sours are so good cooked. Clafoutis was made for them. And birds like them less.

Varieties: Morello is the finest sour cherry, Sweetheart and Stella very fine sweet cherries – though it is worth looking for local varieties if you can as they should thrive. Vega is white and less readily taken by birds.

Good things: Their beautiful blossom is reason enough to grow cherries. One of the best fruits when picked perfectly ripe. Sour cherries can take advantage of a north-facing wall.

Bad things: You may well be growing bird feed unless you net your trees. Many cherries are non self fertile – you need a compatible pollinator, so check before you buy.

Figs

Ficus carica

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

The dull pedant in me needs to let you know that strictly speaking figs aren’t fruit – they are each a capsule of tiny flowers which develop seeds in darkness. That perfect succulent flesh shows how good over the top flowers can taste.

Varieties: Brown Turkey is a good all rounder and reliable, but Noir de Carombe, White Versailles and Petite Nigra are perhaps the best flavoured for a sunny, sheltered outdoor spot.

Good things: Because they are so delicate when ripe figs are never in the shops at their best – homegrown tastes so much better.

Bad things: Can get most of the way to ripeness but not make the final hurdle if the summer isn’t a hot one. Wasps can be a pain.

Grapes

Vitus vinifera

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

Everyone has room for grapes – growing them vertically takes up little floor space, opens the foliage and fruit up to the sun and if you feed and water well, they’ll be happy in a pot. Growing them up and over a pergola quickly provides dappled shade beneath, and spreads the fruit and foliage to the sun for maximum harvest.

Varieties: Solaris and Phoenix are excellent white varieties for eating or wine making. Regent a fine black grape with good disease resistance. Muscat of Alexandria has a wonderful, muscat flavour but needs to be in a perfect position or undercover to be at its best.

Good things: With the right preparation, grapes can lightly relieve you of your senses, perhaps a little more than lightly if you’re the rebellious sort. Oh yes, and they taste jolly nice.

Bad things: Mildews can be a problem so ventilation is vital. Spray leaves with comfrey tea and/or seaweed feed to boost quality and quantity of bunches and minimise disease potential. Sulphur sprays are available if you need them.

Japanese wineberries

Rubus phoenicolasius

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

Japanese wineberries are one of my very favourite fruit – their flavour has similarities to a raspberry, yet deeper, with a winey edge. Very pleasing it is too.

Even if they tasted of bin juice, they’d be worth growing just for their looks – they throw out 2m long arching canes, with red-pink bristles, and the fruit is borne in clusters of calyxes that open late, the fruit turning quickly from green/yellow, through red to a deep winey red/purple when they are ripe.

Varieties: Just the one generic variety.

Good things: delicious and unbuyable fruit, fabulous, 2m long, arching pink-furred branches are striking in winter. Disease free.

Bad things: Some may consider wineberries’ ability to root from the tips of their branches a nuisance – I consider it an invitation to propagate free plants.

Medlars

Mespilus germanica

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

Let’s get it out of the way: although superficially like a small, squat apple, the end away from the stem that attaches the fruit to the branch opens out and looks like a dog’s arse. This is not my description, but one of many arse-related names handed to it by the Victorians, the French and just about everyone else who’s ever grown them.

Happily their flavour is much more delightful, like a blend of cooking apple, dates and a deep wineiness to go with – they make fabulous preserves and are delicious baked with cream.

Varieties: I’ve never been able to discern any difference in flavour between varieties – Nottingham is the most widely available.

Good things: You cannot buy the fruit in shops, gorgeous lolloping habit with leaves that turn through classic autumn colours as the weather cools. Lovely, dog rose-like flowers. Largely untroubled by pests and diseases.

Bad things: It is almost impossible not to make repeated reference to their arse-idness.

Mulberries

Morus spp

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

The finest fruit there is. I shall take no argument on that. Most haven’t had the pleasure of finding out as their fruit is too soft at perfect ripeness to go last in the shops. You have to grow them to enjoy them – or scrump your nearest stately residence, where they are often to be found.

The flavour is not far from a blackberry, a blackcurrant and a raspberry crossed with a dash of sherbet.

Varieties: If you can find Illinois Everbearing go for it – it fruits early, heavily, deliciously and reliably. King James is very fine too, but it can be a few years to your first crop.

Good things: The finest fruit there is. And beautiful heart shaped leaves. No pruning needed. Few pest and disease problems.

Bad things: Slugs love the leaves. I mean really love the leaves – even a tree a decade or two old can be decimated in a bad year. The good news is they don’t always go for them, but if they do, get busy with whatever slug killing method you prefer. Can suffer from dieback.

Peaches and nectarines

Prunus persica

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

Fruity fact of the day: only a single gene separates peaches with their gently furriness and nectarines with their smooth skin.

Varieties: Peregrine is the finest white peach, Red Haven a fine yellow fleshed variety. Avoid Avalon Pride – its claims of leaf curl resistance have proven entirely unfounded in the 43 I’ve grown and it is far from the finest flavoured variety. Lord Napier and Pineapple are delicious nectarines.

Good things: Ones in the shops are picked a fortnight ahead of ripeness and there is little further development of flavours once separated from the tree, so the difference between these and homegrown peaches and nectarines is about as marked as it gets. They are more of a fruit cocktail than a food. Available as true dwarf trees, growing to 1.3m or so in height and spread and perfectly happy in a large pot.

Bad things: A poor spring or summer can lead to little, if any, fruit. Leaf curl can be a problem.

Quince

Cydonia oblonga

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

A quince is almost the reverse of a peach – there is no moment in the sun, sat in the shade of the tree that produced it, when you can tuck into the fruit and marvel at its succulence, aroma and the greatness of your skill in coaxing a successful harvest from the tree. You pick quince hard and to all intents and purposes unpromising; the pleasure comes later. Place them in a bowl and when you’ve forgotten about them they will fill the room with their heady perfume as they ripen. I say ‘ripen’, you will still end up with teeth like a witchdoctor’s necklace if you try biting into one – they need cooking, but when you do they make fine preserves, puds and when grated into a jar and topped with a little sugar and much vodka (plus a year long weight) a very fine liqueur.

Varieties: They all seem as good as each other.

Good things: Fabulous fruit that’s rarely available in the shops. A lovely lazy-habited tree, with glorious pale pink flowers. Happy in damp (though not waterlogged) position.

Bad things: Can be prone to quince leaf spot, brown rot and mildews but a potassium rich feed/spray through the growing season really helps.

Pears

Pyrus communis

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

As Sid James might’ve observed, there are few treats as fine as a nice pear although as Eddie Izzard certainly noted, these are ‘gorgeous little beasts, but they’re ripe for half an hour, and you’re never there’. But if you are, they’ll make you very happy. You might even stay in just so you don’t miss it.

Varieties: Conference and Doyenne du Comice are both delicious and crop reliably. There are more flavoursome pears – such as Fondate D’Automne – and you’ll find them at specialist nurseries. Most pears are not self fertile and therefore require a pollinator.

Good things: Commonplace as they are, few fruit match a perfectly ripe pear for flavour and texture. Careful selection of varieties can give you a steady supply to eat from autumn into the following spring.

Bad things: Can be knocked out of fruiting by a stiff spring, and/or a poor summer. Only a few are self fertile, so you may need more than one and from adjacent pollination groups.

Raspberries

Rubus idaeus

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

The Nymph Ida was once, as legend would have it, picking wild raspberries for Jupiter, when she pricked her finger on the thorns. Raspberries, as legend had it again, were until that moment white, but her blood turned them from that moment the deep red/purple they are today. She must have been a hefty lass to have that much blood. And presumably she must’ve had a yellow blooded friend to stain the delicious yellow varieties.

Varieties: There are summer fruiting and autumn fruiting varieties – they can be equally delicious. Of the summer varieties I like Glen Moy, Glen Ample and Glen Cova. ‘Autumn Bliss’ and the yellow ‘Allgold’ are my favourite autumn-fruiters.

Good things: Easy, reliable and so much better than those you can buy.

Bad things: A few viruses that show themselves in mottling and/or blotchiness on the leaves, black bases or purple spots – there is usually no cure so remove and replace them. Birds can be a pain – net your raspberries if you need to.

Strawberries

Fragaria x ananassa

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

Ah, thankfully one of the happy associations with Wimbledon (yes Cliff, I’m looking at you).

If you need any encouragement to grow your own strawberries, pop down to the supermarket when the Men’s Final is on (it is a long final after all) and acquire yourself a punnet of strawberries. They will probably look very good, but almost certainly smell of little and taste of even less. Now, while everyone is watching the final, sneak off to the nearest allotment and scrump one – it will look good, smell of strawberries with a capital S and taste like heaven.

Varieties: In order of ripeness…Honeoye is a fabulous early variety; Cambridge Favourite follows on (through Wimbledon usually); Mara de Bois comes next, taking you into autumn.

Good things: Hard to beat fresh, in ice cream, cocktails, smoothies or in just about any pudding you can think of. Even crumble, honest.

Bad things: Botrytis and other moulds can affect strawberries – give them room for air to circulate as this greatly reduces the likelihood of it. Strawberry virus is visible as yellow and/or blotchy leaves – pull up and incinerate any affected plants immediately.

Blueberries

Vaccinium spp.

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

I quite like slightly unripe blueberries, but when they are allowed to get to that deep deep blue, with the sugars fully developed they are extraordinary. I’m puzzled as to why we grow comparatively few of them when we seem to buy them in the thousands of those expensive mini-punnets from the shops. Perhaps there is the impression that they are hard to grow because of their need for acidic conditions – when if you give them just that, you are very probably in for trouble-free fruit. They are very fine in muffins and the like but chances are you will selfishly sneak out before anyone else in the house is awake and eat them from the bush, blaming the birds.

Varieties: I’ve not had a homegrown blueberry that’s been anything less than delicious, but some are reliable prolific – Sunshine Blue and Bluecrop among them. You may get a small crop from one plant but if you grow three they should get very productive.

Good things: Easy to propagate from softwood cuttings. Easy to grow in the right soil, and very happy in pots where it is often easiest to give them the conditions the need to thrive. Few pests other than birds.

Bad things: May need netting to ensure you get the berries ahead of the birds

Gooseberries

Ribes una-crispa

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

Some fruit are made more for adults than children and gooseberries perhaps more than any other. I planted a good few in the hope of at least one harvest I could enjoy without it being fairly thoroughly plundered by little fingers. I was mistaken in my optimism. I may get a reasonable go at the earliest, sharpest gooseberries, but the reds and the later greens are the subject of a fairly undignified race that she invariably wins.

Varieties: Gooseberries are self-fertile so growing one plant is fine. Leveller is an old reliable favourite, though I prefer Hinnomaki Red for it’s sharp early berries and deliciously sweet late fruit.

Good things: Two potential harvests, one sharp, the latter sweet.

Bad things: Mildew and sawfly can be a nuisance – a high potassium feed and pruning the plant to encourage good air circulation helps reduce the likelihood of mildew, as can selection or resistant varieties. Keep your eyes open for sawfly – they can strip the plant of leaves very quickly – and remove immediately.

Plums, damsons, bullaces and gages

Prunus domestica and Prunus insitia

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

The lines between plums, damsons, bullaces and greengages are, like my late father’s pate, a little fuzzy.

Plums and gages are varieties of Prunus domestica – gages tend to be rounder and sweeter than plums; damsons and bullaces are varieties of Prunus insititia – smaller fruited than plums, and usually tart, better for cooking rather than eating fresh.

Varieties: Almost all are not fertile and even those that are fruit more reliably/heavily with a pollination partner. Victoria is an exception, happy on its own, and fine cooked or eaten raw. Early Prolific is excellent but do look for local varieties that should thrive in your conditions.

Merryweather and Dittisham Damson are my favourite damsons. All the bullace varieties I’ve tried have been equally delicious. Oullin’s Gage is a fine, self-fertile, dual purpose gage. Old English Greengage and Cambridge Gage are fantastic too.

Mirabelles (aka cherry plums) are hugely popular in France. The fruit is small and the tree hardy – this means they ripen reliably and stand up to our winters, and makes them a fine choice.

Good things: Damsons, bullaces and gages along with most varieties of plum are rarely found in the shops, so growing them is usually the only route to eating them.

Bad things: Can tend to biennial bearing – thinning the fruit to reduce potentially large crops helps. Silver leaf, brown rot and bacterial canker can be a pain – prune in the summer to minimise.