Sunday, 26 June 2011

Monday, 20 June 2011

Fences of fruit trees

We visited a 200-year-old walled garden yesterday in County Offaly, a vast area of infrastructure exquisitely crafted to feed whole communities. The paths through the gardens were flanked with what appeared to be wooden fences covered in leafy vines. One closer inspection, they were not vines, but apple trees.

The branches were thin but heavy with what my daughter calls “applings.” Near them stood similar trees perhaps a century old, their gnarled trunks supporting immense candelabras several metres across. The pear trees nearby held a different but equally improbable shape, their trunks erupting into many thin shafts radiating like bicycle spokes across the wall.

Almost anyone who has a backyard or garden would do well to plant fruit trees for the years ahead. Most fruit trees, though, take more years to mature than most of us have to prepare, and take up more space than most of us have in cities or suburbs. Luckily, only a few centuries ago master gardeners developed a way to cultivate fruit in narrow spaces – one that yields more fruit, more quickly, and with a longer growing season.

Espalier is a method of growing a dwarf fruit tree along a wall or fence, binding it for support, and bending the branches to follow certain lines, as Japanese artists do with bonsai trees. Most gardeners started espaliers with a “maiden,” a one-year-old sapling that had not yet forked, and tied it to a staff of wood to keep it straight. Then they tied the desired branches to the fence or wall as they emerged, bending and pruning aggressively as the tree grew.

With the tree’s natural growth concentrated into only two dimensions, it creates many spurs looking for a chance to spread, creating more flowers and fruit than their conventional counterparts, and earlier in the trees’ life. The fruit can be picked casually while standing or sitting, with no need for the ladders or devices needed to pick many other fruit trees, and no risk of injury.

Growing a tree against a south-facing wall has another advantage; not only does the tree receive maximum light and heat, but the thermal mass of the wall absorbs the heat and provides shelter from the wind. In this way trees get a longer growing season, and can grow in cooler climates than they would ordinarily tolerate.

Apples seem the most common espalier tree, and pears were also common here when this practice was widely used – many varieties of each can be used, some more easily than others. In other climates I am told peaches, lemons, oranges, tangerines, figs, nectarines and plums can be trained.

We could not have grown those in northern Europe, of course, but we did have many fruits our modern supermarkets have left behind. Fruit like damsons, sorbus, medlar, quince, sloes and rosehips must have fallen from public favour during the energy needle – perhaps because they could not be bred for or kept in supermarkets -- but they might still grow in your area, as might dozens of fruits you’ve never heard of. Some of them might be trained this way, and I would be interested to see whether the same could be done to nut trees for protein.

Espalier trees can be grafted like other fruit, so that a single tree could grow multiple varieties on its branches. I know of no upper limit to how far an espalier can be stretched, nor of how many grafts a single tree can take; the BBC reports that gardener Paul Barnett in West Sussex, UK grows 250 varieties of apple on a single – admittedly non-espalier -- tree.

Homeowners might want to consider reviving this old technique, as it uses vertical space for production and decoratively covers the bare walls of houses, sheds, stables, chicken coops or compost bins. You could border your garden with an espalier fence, as we plan to, or you could turn a chain-link fence into something beautiful and useful. They are still trees, however, and take years to grow, so it’s best to develop a long-term plan for fruit as a resource.

It’s a matter that deserves some thought; before “fruit” became a candy flavour or chemical colouring in breakfast cereal, their vitamins helped families survive the winter months in a variety of ways. Some, like cooking apples, could keep for months in the attic. Many could be crushed and left to ferment, and the resulting liquid came laced with enough alcohol to kill many pathogens. They could be dried into rings or leathers, pickled like chutneys or mixed with some kind of sugar to make jam, preserving much of their vitamin content for decades.

Today, when people here visit a neighbour’s house or commemorate a holiday, they often bring jam or wine from their own trees. To many people today it might seem a twee bit of etiquette; to earlier generations, I suspect, such gestures were deposits in an unspoken community bank.

Top photo: Espalier saplings at Ballindoolin Garden, County Offaly.
Middle and bottom photos: Old espalier trees.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Favourite lines from Girl

As I was removing a hornet's nest from the shed:
"Here, take this tiara for protection, Papa! Hornest hate all things princess!"

After her crisps (potato chips) spilled:
"Papa! Something catastrophic has happened!"

Monday, 13 June 2011

No articles yet

The best-laid plans. Sorry. Enjoy this photo of our in-house pest control division.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Life with Girl

We have had a busy weekend. I ordered a new bicycle to replace the one that was beyond repair, showed The Girl a Marx Brothers film, got more willow for making baskets, climbed the Tower of Kildare, went camping and presided over a pet funeral.

I brought The Girl to the neighbour’s house, where she has friends her age. The day turned unexpectedly solemn, however; the girls’ hamster had died, and I was asked to be the gravedigger.

I and the children gathered round and bowed our heads as the girls knelt down and laid the pet to rest. They wrote its name in crayon on popsicle sticks, taped them into a tiny cross, placed it over the grave, and hugged each other.

The mourning ended abruptly as their new puppy ran over, ate the grave-marker, and ran away trailing popsicle-stick splinters and pursued by four indignant girls.


As I helped The Girl write invitations to her seventh birthday party, it occurred to me that my fellow Americans would not recognise most of the names. The Irish have many of the basic Williams and Annes, Emilys and Roberts, but recently parents here have returned to traditional Irish names: Caomhe (pronounced Queeva), Soirse (pronounced Seer-sha), Ciara (Keera), Diarbhla (Derv-la), Brighde (Breeda), Niamh (Neev), Siobhan (Sha-vawn), Diarmuid (Deer-mwid), Eoin (Ee-oin) and Enda (Enda).

Few of these common Irish names ever made it to my native USA, even though many Americans embrace their Irish heritage; most major cities celebrate St. Patrick's Day, for example, even though the larger German population gets no St. Boniface parade. The last few decades also saw a fashion for unorthodox names. In the 1984 film Splash, a mermaid calls herself Madison after a street sign, and Tom Hanks’ character protests that it’s not a real name -- two decades later it was the most popular name in America.

You'd think these trends would merge, and to be fair Aidan and Liam have become popular boys’ names – perhaps because they have an English-friendly spelling. But the schools of Iowa and Arkansas have not filled with Eoins or Caomhes, and even most of Ireland’s more phonetic names remain alien to Americans; the New York Times mistakenly called Ireland's new leader Enda Kenny a woman, perhaps thinking of the name "Edna."

Irish-Americans I know have named their children Colleen ("girl" in Irish) or Erin ("Ireland" in Irish) but these are not names here. The few superficially similar names often appeared in a different gender; I knew many female Pattys in Missouri but no males, which baffles the Paddys I know here, and the same holds true for the Shawns and Seans.

Nor did the more recent American names reach these shores. I told The Girl about her cousin Heather; she said, surprised, "She’s named after the plant?”


The Girl and I went camping last night -- within sight of our house, but a little farther each time. A short time ago she didn’t spend the whole night in the tent; when dreams woke her, she crept sleepily to her familiar bed inside. By camping on our land with her every month or so, I hope to help her grow comfortable with sleeping far from home.

I awoke before she did this morning, and as I relaxed at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee, I turned and saw her looking at me in the doorway. “Did you really spend the whole night in the tent, Papa?” she asked sceptically.

Top photo: The Girl feeding ducks at the canal terminus in Naas.
Bottom photo: Our neighbour driving by in his carriage.