On the cusp of summer

zucchini-flower

It’s a beautiful time of year on the farm, the green of spring still lingering in the paddocks, the trees with their flush of new growth, and fruit on the trees.

But we’re expecting hot weather this week-really hot weather, and the landscape will no doubt change dramatically, as only the Australian bush can, going from lush and green, to crisp and brown in a few days.

At least being orchardists, we are surrounded by green all summer. In the old fashioned style, our orchards literally surround our house, so we see green trees in every direction we look, with the dry bush beyond.

young apples gala

 

Where we live is completely embedded in where we work, which is a good thing in so many ways… we don’t have far to go to get to work, we’re very connected to what’s going on in the orchard, and having irrigated orchard around the house gives us a bit of protection from heat and bushfires.

It’s also an important reflection of the way we choose to farm, that we create the type of environment we want to live in, which is beautiful, and healthy, and sustains us as much as possible.

We thought we’d take you for a tour around the farm, to see what’s happening at this change of season. First stop is the vegie garden, where thankfully Merv (Katie’s Dad) reigns supreme, so we get heaps of vegies (neither of us being very good gardeners…)

We’ve just eaten the first of the zucchinis, with the promise of plenty more to come (no-one ever complains about not having enough zucchinis!).

basil and tomatoes

The tomatoes are flowering, and the basil is big enough to start pinching bits for salads. We always interplant them because they seem to be good neighbours in the garden, as they are in the salad bowl. We grow enough tomatoes each year to eat all summer, and to bottle for cooking in winter. We ran out about a month ago, so we didn’t do quite enough last year, but almost. That’s one of our autumn jobs…

last of peasThe peas have just about finished. We picked about 12 buckets from them, and have heaps in the freezer, so we’re not too fussed that the last of them went a bit woody. They went straight to the chooks, so they weren’t wasted. Speaking of the chooks, our spring chickens are about half grown, but still being watched over very carefully by mama chook.

half grown chickens

It’s lucky they’re getting big enough to eat a fair bit, because they’re an integral part of our pest management system, helping to dispose of any fruit that’s unusable by us.

The apricot season has been going magnificently…we’ve picked more apricots already this year than we picked for the whole season last year! We reckon it’s probably a combination of good conditions, with rain at the right times (mostly), and good management (we hope!). We’ve been working a lot on improving the soil in the apricot block, and have been really fussy about cleaning up the fallen fruit. So even though the apricot pruning didn’t quite get finished last year, we went over most of them again in spring and removed any diseased wood, and the crop is both abundant and very clean.

Bebeco apricot

Meanwhile in the other orchards, the next variety of peach is starting to colour up and get close to being ripe…

redtop peach

and the plums are just starting to look like they’re growing. These in the photo are Amber Jewel; one of our favourites because they’re really sweet, and they hang really well on the tree, so they’re easy to manage.

amber jewel plumAnd lastly, a peek at the nursery, where we (well, Merv) grow all the fruit trees we plant in the orchards. This year we have cherries, growing magnificently (destined to fill the gaps in the cherry orchard we planted this winter)…

cherry tree nursery

as well as plums, growing from cuttings, that will be budded in February, and apples, grown from seed.

apple tree nursery

Apple seedlings make a big, strong tree, and are very unfashionable to plant these days, but we’re going to do it anyway, having learned over the past few years that the more resilient our trees are, the more resilient our farm is!

Why we love apricots

Selling fruit at markets, as we do, we hear lots of stories and memories about fruit, and apricots seem to have a special place in people’s hearts. An apricot tree has been common in backyards since way back when, and lots of people have special memories of the smell and taste of eating sweet, ripe apricots on a hot summer’s day, whether they were visiting Grandma, or pinching fruit from the neighbour’s place. Here’s a bit about why we love apricots.

fresh apricots in a box

Though their proper name is Prunus armeniaca, apricots probably come from in China rather than Armenia; the earliest known writings about apricots are from the time of the emperor Yu, around 2200 BC, and some sources say they were known in India in 3000 BC. It gives a whole new twist to the notion of “heritage” fruit, doesn’t it?

There are dozens of different varieties of apricots. We grow 11 at our place (and are adding more all the time), chosen because they ripen consecutively, which gives us ripe apricots from late Spring right through until mid-Summer. Our varieties, in order of ripening are:

Poppicot:
A
lively flavoured sweet apricot with tart skin, which ripens to a lovely strong-flavoured apricot

poppicot
Poppicot

Earlicot:
A large apricot, can be a bit prone to cracking and deformities on some trees in some seasons, but ripens well on the tree and has a good flavour

earlicot apricot
Earlicot

Katy:
A large, egg-shaped apricot, can crack easily in the rain, but wonderful intense flavour when ripe, a really special apricot

katy apricot
Katy

Castlebrite:
A medium to large apricot, brightly coloured, quite sweet. Castlebrite are a good, reliable apricot, not very strong in flavour but nice for eating and jam. They start sweetening up on the tree as they start looking ripe, and hang well and continue to ripen without being too prone to falling off. Trees are very vulnerable to blossom blight, and the fruit can be prone to brown rot.

castlebrite apricot
Castlebrite

Bebeco:
A medium to small, round pale apricot with firm texture, and delicious intense apricot flavour. They ripen well on the tree and are not inclined to fall off easily. Tend to be a very spreading tree.

bebeco apricot
Bebeco

Goldrich:
A dark orange apricot, which is very sour when it first turns orange and starts to look ripe, but develops intense flavour and sweetness if left to ripen on the tree for another week or two. An apricot that really needs taste testing before picking to ensure sugars have properly developed. Great eaten fresh, and good for bottling, but makes a very dark jam.

Goldrich apricot
Goldrich

Rival:
One of our favourite all-purpose apricots, they sweeten early on the tree, hang well and are good for eating, preserving and drying. They are also a reliable cropper, and not particularly vulnerable to disease. Our best recommendation for a backyard tree.

rival apricot
Rival

Patterson:
A popular variety world-wide, but new for us, so we can’t tell you anything about it yet!

patterson apricot
Patterson

Trevatt:
An old-fashioned favourite, a slightly flattened, very sweet, pale orange apricot that ripens from the inside, so they are sweet and delicious to eat even when they look a bit green. Trevatt are very soft textured, and make fantastic jam, but lose their shape immediately when cooked, so not great for bottling.

Beautiful Trevatt apricot
Trevatt

Moorpark:
Another old favourite with a distinctive flavour, darker colour and firmer flesh than Trevatt, Moorpark are a late apricot, and not a good cropper in our climate, but are highly prized for their sweetness. Prone to freckle, which is a skin disease that affects the look of the fruit, but not the taste.

Moorpark apricot in box
Moorpark

Tilton:
Another new variety in our orchard, we haven’t tried them yet, and are looking forward to eating the first ones this season. They’re the latest to ripen, so hopefully will extend the season.

tilton apricot
Tilton

Apricot trees are very vigorous, and are usually grafted onto plum rootstocks (or occasionally peach). They can grow into massive trees, and are absolutely gorgeous in spring when they’re covered with fragrant pink and white blossom.

They’re fabulously good for you, both your health (high in fibre, vitamins A & C, and masses of antioxidants), and apparently also your love life – according to Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

Apricot kernels have been used as a cancer treatment since at least the 17th century and are still available in many health food shops for this purpose, though modern science is conflicted about whether it actually works. The kernels contain small amounts of hydrogen cyanide, which is poisonous in large doses but fine in small doses, and in fact gives a lovely marzipan flavour if the kernels are cooked with the jam.

apricot blossom, bee, pollination

Apricots can be really tricky to grow because they need a very specific climate to produce fruit. They need a cold winter for the fruit to set, but are tragically sensitive to frost in spring, which can damage both the flowers and small fruit. They also need warm conditions in spring and summer because they ripen so early.

One of the main reasons we love apricots is because we can grow them! Our farm has just the right combination of cold winters and hot summers, and the huge advantage of being almost frost free.

Sadly, they’re also prone to fungal diseases, especially blossom blight and brown rot, as well as gummosis. They’re usually pruned in late summer or early autumn, while the weather is still warm, to help prevent spread of disease.

apricot, disease, blossom blight

As well as pruning, the other main maintenance job with apricots is fruit thinning in spring, because they’re a bugger for biennial bearing (heavy crop one year, followed by a light crop the next year), and thinning breaks the cycle, but the trick is, you have to do it every year!

young apricots

They sound like hard work, don’t they? They’re probably the fruit tree we hear the most complaints about, but in fact with the right climate, the right pruning, good hygiene, organic fungicides and good pest control, it’s quite possible to keep your apricot tree healthy and bearing well (really, trust us!).

All that hard work of getting a crop is sooooo worth it, because apricots are  wonderfully versatile. If you’re lucky enough to get a glut, they make delicious jam, and lend themselves to preserving and drying. With a little work in the kitchen, you can capture those delicious memories of eating fragrant ripe apricots straight from the tree to enjoy all year.

dried apricots