Gardening: Scottish apples on the up

John Hancox, co-founder of Scottish Orchards. Picture: Ian Rutherford
John Hancox, co-founder of Scottish Orchards. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The Lady of the Wemyss, Lord Rosebery, Tam Montgomery and Scarlet Leadington could easily be characters in a Victorian romance set among the landed gentry.

Likewise, the Bloody Ploughman, Lass O’Gowrie, Scrog and the Lemon Queen are perfect titles for the players in a Shakespearean comedy.

What they all have in common, however, is they are the names of native Scottish apples. As people around the UK celebrate Apple Day today – Scots are being encouraged to maintain existing orchards or plant new fruit trees.

John Hancox is the chair of Scottish Orchards, which is a developing network of schools, community groups and experts on fruit growing in Scotland. “The aim is to get people planting more fruit and enjoying picking it,” he says.

The project was set up in 2009 after a discussion between Hancox and co-founder John Butterworth on a train back from planting an orchard near Inverness.

“We were discussing what would happen if we both got hit by a bus and orchard growing in Scotland disappeared, and we came up with the idea of setting up a national network,” says Hancox.

With 300 members already on board, the hope is that existing orchards will be protected and new ones planted and looked after in the future.

“The value of these things is getting people together so they can learn from each other and share experience. There was an awful lot of good work going on but in isolation from each other. Bringing people together to share ideas was really good.”

Part of the project’s remit is to help preserve varieties of Scottish apples, plums and pears, by developing skills in pruning and grafting.

“There are 40 or so Scottish varieties of apple and also various plums and pears. We’re quite keen to encourage people to grow old varieties – not exclusively because there are good reasons to grow mainstream ones – but it’s nice to keep the old varieties going.”

With names like Stirling Castle and White Melrose, these apples have a long history behind them.

Having been grown in their local areas for hundreds of years, they are well adapted to the climate and are more likely to be disease-resistant than varieties imported from other areas.

“I think the local provenance thing is good,” says Hancox. “The local varieties tend to be low maintenance, suit the area and you don’t need to do much with them.”

The initiative also aims to create a market for Scottish produce in order to develop fruit growing in Scotland and provide support to growers.

“What we’re trying to do is get the good quality apples picked and used for eating and culinary use,” says Hancox, who encourages anyone with an excess of fruit to contact him.

“Growing in Scotland over the last 50 years really collapsed to the point where people were not bothering to pick the fruit. It’s quite encouraging they are now looking for fruit and prepared to pay a reasonable price for it. While last year we had a terrible year, this year is a bumper harvest. It’s all looking really good right across Scotland.”

The project has just been awarded a £10,000 grant from the Community Food Fund to support 20 open orchard events across Scotland – including five in schools.

“The idea is to make it really easy for the public to find a suitable place to go to see apples growing, and also places with Scottish apples and apple products to sell.”

Hancox originally started the Children’s Garden – a child-friendly community project in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens – in 2003. This led to the creation of the Children’s Orchard two years later with the aim of introducing children to fruit growing. “Since then we have planted hundreds of trees in about 500 school and nursery orchards across Scotland,” he says.

“I think what’s nice about that is it’s a generation of kids growing up knowing fruit grows on trees. A lot of urban kids haven’t really had the opportunity to see that.

“I think having even a few trees, where the kids can see blossom and trees fruiting, is really interesting. It’s really taken off.”

Hancox’s own love of fruit trees started when he was a child picking plums in his aunt’s garden.

“I just loved picking plums as a kid. It thought it was super. It was just fantastic. I think that’s a really important experience for people.”

Hancox says that while their work was regarded as radical when they first started out, there is now more of a focus on school gardens and getting children outside to do planting.

“One of the nice things about fruit growing in schools is an orchard neatly fits with the school year in the sense that you plant over winter, have the blossom in spring and then come back from the summer holidays to find the fruit on the trees ready for harvest.”

A knock-on from the Children’s Orchard was the Fruitful Schools initiative which, for a small fee, provides orchard starter packs – including four apple trees and two plum and pear trees or four fruit trees and 16 soft fruit plants – for schools.

The trees are sent out between November and the following April or May and come with planting instructions to ensure the orchard is a success.

And with an eye on Glasgow’s role hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2014, Hancox also set up the Commonwealth Orchard with the aim of getting whole communities to plant fruit trees and soft fruit plants ready to be picked and used at events next year. A final string to Hancox’s bow is nursery work and running a mail order business selling Scottish fruit trees.

“We grow varieties with a strong record of growing in Scotland. It’s interesting looking at what does well in the extremities of Scotland. One needs to experiment and be flexible. I don’t think a rigid view is sensible.”

While many people dread the end of summer, having fruit trees makes autumn a time to look forward to.

“When you’re starting to lose the long days, it’s a wee bit sad,” says Hancox. “Autumn is a beautiful time of year. I have just harvested plums, damsons, early apples. It’s a real pleasure you get in autumn that compensates for the end of summer. It’s rather a special time of year.”

For more information about Scottish Orchards visit: www.scottishorchards.com where you can also find links to the other projects and information about local open orchard events.