29 October 2008

How'd you like THEM apples?

The Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia where I live is world-renowned for its apples, and rightly so. This is the height of apple season, with much of the crop already in, and apple-lovers like myself happily toting home litres and bushels and pecks and bags of various apple varieties

How many apple cultivars can you name? Everyone will mention the McIntosh (in my opinion, the most over hyped apple next to Granny Smith), and probably Red Delicious, Cortland, Northern Spy and Gravenstein. But how about Sunrise, Ginger Gold, Macoun, Ribston, Jona Gold, Jonathan, Royal Gala, Fuji, Cox Orange Pippin, Russet, Spartan, Melba, Paula Red, Spigold, Empire, Braeburn, King, Golden Delicious, Mutsu…there’s a world of taste in these and many more.

I buy most of my apples at Noggins Corner Farm Market, in nearby Greenwich. This seventh-generation farm grows a wide variety of produce, but to me it's their apples (and pears) that are the star attraction. I only buy small amounts of apples at a time; usually 4 quarts or a half-bushel. The farmer has controlled atmosphere storage and I'd rather pay HIM a little extra for fewer apples and have them always fresh, than bring home a large amount and have them go soft after a couple of weeks.

Like everyone, I have my favourite apples, and the Russet is one of them. Although they're starting to harvest them now, I won't eat any for a few weeks yet, as they need some time to mellow and ripen a bit. But they're fantastic when they are ripe, and they're one of the varieties that is in the background/heritage of a number of popular cultivars.

Long ago as a fresh graduate from the Ag College, I spent a couple of months one autumn picking apples for a local farmer. Apple picking can be a lot of fun, on sunny lovely autumn days. Not so much on cold wet rainy windy November days when there are idiot hunters out nearby. This is a King apple, and it was the first variety I picked; they can be huge apples, and while they're usually used for cooking, there's nothing like a fresh apple right off the tree--no matter what variety it is. Even a McIntosh tastes good then.

While 'summer apples' don't do it for me other than to give me an early taste of my favourite fruit, I do love Gravensteins. While there are earlier apples, perhaps one of the best-loved in Nova Scotia is the Gravenstein. We feel a warm attachment to this apple because it was introduced to our province by Charles Ramage Prescott, whose home Acacia Grove in Starrs Point, Kings County is a provincial museum. Prescott (1772-1859) brought more than 100 different cultivars of apples to Nova Scotia, but the Gravenstein took hold because it was truly an all-purpose apple, good for fresh eating, cooking, and of course, making cider. There are actually several different types of Gravensteins grown in the Valley—the old-fashioned type grown by Prescott, which is yellow-green in colour, and the red-skinned Crimson Gravenstein shown here, a sport of the original variety but tasting very much the same. Recently, the Nova Scotian Old-fashioned Gravenstein was named to the Slowfood Foundation for Biodiversity Ark of Taste, a catalogue of rare and unique quality foods from around the world.

What we like for apples depends very much on personal taste, although various growers have told me that in the past, customers looked more for large red apples than they did for tasty varieties. That seems to be changing with the introduction of apples such as Jona Gold and Honeycrisp and Royal Gala and other varieties that have a green, gold or orange-yellow ‘ground colour’ with perhaps a red or reddish blush over that.

This is a heritage variety named Kestrel, about which I know very little, but it's fairly early and tasty. That's pretty well good enough for me. I like my apples firm, with a real snap when you bite them, and a sweet-tangy flavour. Those that are mealy or bland...go to the horse.

Despite their name, Honeygold aren't related to Honeycrisp, at least not directly; an older apple, circa 1935s and developed to be grown in colder regions as a substitute for Golden Delicious. They're quite good, but we grow awesome Golden Delicious here too, so I tend to opt for the latter more often.

Ah, yes, Honeycrisp. This is the designer diva apple these days, with people going completely gah-gah over them. Myself, I don't buy them, other than one or two in mid-winter when they taste great. But I find there are other apples just as good, if not better, and a lot sooner in the year. What I DO love about Honeycrisp is that producers get top dollar for them. They grow very, very well here in the Valley, but they're a challenge to grow, harvest and handle. Pickers actually clip the stem of the fruit because otherwise the thin skin will get pierced. Isn't that interesting?

This is Gingergold, another sport of Golden Delicious; they're earlier than GD, and I don't know how well they keep because I don't see them for sale in winter. It may be that there just aren't large enough crops of them to hold for long periods of time. A late farmer who was a friend of mine put me on to these apples about 8 years ago, and while I like them, there are others I prefer. Including....

My favourite old fashioned apple, the Cox Orange Pippin. My dearly departed dad also loved this apple, and they do have a distinctive flavour that is sort of orange-like. They also smell simply divine. The Cox Orange is a sport of the Ribston Pippin and has been around since the mid-nineteenth century. They're just now getting to the point where I'm prepared to buy and eat them; a staffperson at my favourite farm market and I were giggling a couple of weeks ago because the Cox Orange were for sale, but when they're green they just aren't that great. I was looking longingly at them and then saying, "NO! Resist! Not yet!" I took home some Gravs and Galas instead.

Now I'll put this apple up against Honeycrisp any day of the week. It's Jonagold, and probably the apple next to Cox Orange that I eat the most of. They're awesome; crisp, juicy, sweet-tart, cook well, store excellently even in a fridge, and just delicious. A cross between Jonathan and Golden Delicious, also apples I like a LOT, and it's always fun when I pounce on a basket of Jonagold in the farm market while others are slobbering over Honeycrisp or Macs or Red Delicious. I get puzzled looks, and I tell people to try these apples if they want something excellent. Heeeee!

Notice there's no Red Delicious or McIntosh in this Ode to Apples? With good reason. Red Delicious are pretty, and they're okay straight off the tree, but too often they're sold in gas stations, convenience stores, and elsewhere where they haven't been stored correctly, and you bite into the apple and find a texture and taste like sawdust. Blerk. To my mind, the only good McIntosh is the computer of the same name *and slightly different spelling, of course. The apples are tough-skinned and sour but tasteless except right off the tree. Yet this is still one of the most commonly grown cultivars because people think they love it, probably due to it being ubiquitous in stores and markets. Now, the Mac IS important in the heritage of some apples I like much better, as you'll see.

This is one of my all-around favourite apples for cooking and eating, the Cortland. And IT'S a Mcintosh hybrid, nearly a century old now, but without the tough skin and with a far superior taste.
Speaking of taste: One of my pet peeves is going into grocery stores and seeing displays of apples in a rainbow of colours—and finding them all a product of somewhere else, be it Washington, Ontario, New Zealand or South Africa. These might LOOK great, but their taste leaves much to be desired, both because they’ve been trucked halfway across the world (in some cases) and are stored and displayed improperly in the stores. After all, the Annapolis Valley is the apple growing capital of the province and the region, so these imported apples are an insult to growers and customers alike. And I'm sure that many of you, living in your own apple-producing regions, come up against the same situations in your grocery stores.

This is where customers need to complain vigourously to produce managers (and head offices, if need be) to demand local fruit. Don’t accept the excuse that local fruit isn’t in season, either, because today’s storage practices ensure that local apples are always in season, at least in terms of quality and taste.

And with that...I must go eat an apple. WHAT!? There's only one left? Time to head to the farm market, obviously. I'll see you all later.

21 October 2008

Blaze of Glory, Part the First

The other day I had some errands to do for researching a story, and took a side excursion to walk my camera around some autumn splendouriferous colour. Started off at a local nursery which proved without question that there are some spectacular shrubs for fall colour. 

This is the time of perfection for perennial grasses, whether Miscanthus, Calamagrostis, Panicum or any of a number of other species. They look lovely underplanted with hostas which are also turning gold. 

This double-flowered Oakleaf Hydrangea has me completely smitten, not only for its exquisite flowers but also for the splendid foliage colours it flashes. It's a bit iffy for my garden, but I figure if I plant it on the east side of the house away from the most virulent of our winter winds, it should be okay. 

I'm very partial to viburnums, although in my windy autumn yard they often lose their leaves before their colour gets really going. This Popcorn viburnum, however, is breathtaking, wouldn't you agree?

Maples (Acers) of all kinds make me happy except for Norway maple (A. saccharinum); I have a few in my yard that someone planted years ago but despite not loving them, I can't bear to cut them done. This, however, is the enthusiastic and brilliantly coloured Acer ginnala, the amur maple. Sometimes it has deeper crimson colour, but at present this one is luminous with gold. 

And speaking of luminous colour...how about this? I can't grow Cotinus, or smoke bush, because it just doesn't appreciate the winds of the Bay. But when I see this gorgeous variety, 'Golden Spirit', it makes me so very, very tempted to try it. 

This, on the other hand, I most assuredly can grow! It's  St. John's Wort, Hypericum millupteris Albery Purple. It stopped me dead in my tracks when I saw it, and I wrote a note in my 'covet notebook' to purchase next year. Yes, not til then. I have so much cleanup and preparation to do to be even half ready for next spring. 

One of the shrubs I recommend to everyone I can think of is the Canada Holly or winterberry, Ilex verticillata. It's native here in Nova Scotia, and it's a beautiful shrub or small tree that forms thickets in damp areas. Like other hollies its dioescious, needing both male and female plants in order to produce berries. Once it drops its leaves in late autumn, the berries glow with brilliant colour; at least until birds eat them. 

Speaking of native plants, after I was done at the nursery I took myself up to Acadia University and the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens, which carry a huge selection of our native plants. Right now, the wild Rosa virginiana is among the most marvelously coloured of all fall shrubs.

Another of my favourite natives is the shadbush, serviceberry, chucklypear, Indian pear...Amelanchier. One of the first to flower in the spring, its fall colour is remarkable this year. Every garden should have an amelanchier or two or ten.

The beeches are glowing gold or bronze this year; my purple beech is turning politely bronze, but this wild beech had me smiling because its fabulous gold was really lighting up the woods. 

This is, of course, not a native tree, but because it's a mature tree the designers of the Irving Botanical Garden decided to leave it, and a huge European beech, where they were standing. I love the beech, but the ginkgo is a tree I've often sat under to contemplate the mysteries of life. Its golden coloured foliage in autumn makes a real statement. My own ginkgo is only four feet tall and many years from being large enough for me to sit under. 

In the deciduous woodlands part of the garden, the sugar maples are just at the peak of their incredible rainbow spectrum. 

I've heard that because this summer was not so dry (NO KIDDING!!!!), the foliage colour is much better on all kinds of trees and shrubs. I'd certainly agree--last year was not nearly as brilliant as this year, at least around here. Are you finding that where you live?

They really are luminescent this year, wouldn't you say? 

In this little grove, I sat on a stump of an ancient tree and contemplated these senior sugar maples. Everything about this afternoon was golden and lovely and sensory. The fragrance of leaves and soil, the singing of birds and chirring of squirrels and chipmunks, the colours of leaves still on trees and making patterns on the ground. One could not feel gloomy in such an array of light. 

Back at the Irving Centre, I stopped by the conservatory in the courtyard to oogle and google and sigh over these shrubs. The clipped ones are Myrica, or bayberry; and the incandescently coloured ones are different species of Vaccinium, or blueberries; a professor at Acadia has been researching Vaccinium species worldwide for many years, and has a number of native species planted out. They're doing brilliantly, wouldn't you say?

That's it for this time, but there's more to come next time!

19 October 2008

The White (Spring) Garden

There are no colours in the garden that I don't like, although I'm not much on pastels. I do love white flowers for their purity of colour and the way they shine on cloudy days, in early evenings, but I've never done an 'all white' planting (or an all-one colour planting) in my garden. That's about to change. 

The wonderful people at the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Centre sent me a lovely box of "hot white bulbs" which they call one of the trends for this year. I've thought about the bulbs now for a few days and have decided that it will be fun to do a small dedicated area all in white; bulbs are transitory, and as they fade, other perennials and shrubs will be coming into play. So depending on the weather, I might get these into the ground this weekend. Or not. If I only get that part of the garden prepared for them, that will be a good start.
Included in the mixture are 'Top White' Hyacinths. The smell of hyacinths can be a little overwhelming, which is why I only force one or two indoors during the winter, but I love the scent mingling on the spring air outside.
I have 'Thalia' narcissus already, and love them dearly. Actually I never met a narcissus or daffodil I didn't adore, and my last gardening column for the Halifax Herald was on narcissus. The nice thing about daffs is that they're deer and squirrel resistant because the bulbs are toxic, and they tend to multiply and live for years on end. To me, they're like sunflowers--I challenge anyone to look at a daffodil without smiling widely.

I got very excited when I saw these Tulipa turkestanica species tulips in the box; not only are they multiflowering, they tend to live for a few years. I planted some several years ago, and then promptly forgot what they were, but as soon as I saw the photo in the bulb sampler box, I recognized them from photos I had taken and left unlabeled. Hurray for solved mysteries!

These double white tulips are called 'Mount Tacoma', and I will enjoy them immensely. This past spring I had deep wine double tulips called 'Uncle Tom', and although I said that this WILL be an all white planting, I'm deeply, deeply tempted to toss a half dozen 'Uncle Tom' tulips into the mix just for contrast.

Muscari, or grape hyacinths, make me very happy too, and I'll be glad to add more white ones to the garden. I have numerous blue, bicolour blue, and even double-flowered blue muscari now, which politely multiply each year, but you can never have too many of them.

From the Allium family come A. neapolitanum, which will flower a little later than most of the bulbs. I've become very fond of alliums in the past couple years and plan to add more of the large ones, such as Star of Persia, but love the smaller-flowered species too.

Here's another case where I usually mix colours together; I love my snowy white crocus, but think they work even better with a purple or gold variety near them to set them off; particularly as we so often have snowfalls while the crocus are blooming. The variety included in the sampler is 'Jeanne d'Arc'.

Another narcissus in the sampler, this one is 'Petrel'. Again, they make me smile. I'm planning to plant about 100 new daffodils this fall, and skip the tulips (aside from a few species tulips and maybe those Uncle Toms. That's my story, anyway!)

The sampler didn't include any galanthus, but I'll be adding some anyway. Snowdrops make me utterly and completely happy when I see their little shoots emerging from the frozen, often snow-laden earth. Every year I add a few more, and though I'm still years from having nearly as many as I'd like to have, they're multiplying nicely.

Have you ever done an all-one-colour garden planting? How did you like it?

17 October 2008

Pumpkin peeps and punkin puns

The Annapolis Valley is known for a number of things, including being the Apple Capital of Nova Scotia, if arguably the country. Charles Prescott is the father of apple growing in our lush valley, as he brought scions and saplings of apples from his native Britain when he settled here in the early nineteenth century. One of the apples he introduced to our province is the Gravenstein, an early season apple that is awesome for pies or fresh eating, and is actually one of the foods in the Slow Food Foundation Ark of Taste.

But we're not talking about apples this time; today, I'm focusing partly on pumpkins. Another great Nova Scotia, Howard Dill, (from Nancy Bond's hometown of Windsor, and recently passed away) developed the giant pumpkin known as Dill's Atlantic Giant, which has been a record breaking gourd for years. There's an art and science--and obsession--to growing giant pumpkins, and there are several festivals celebrating pumpkins of all sizes at this time of year. Kentville, also in the Valley, has a pumpkin people festival every October, and there are dozens, if not hundreds of pumpkin people posing in vignettes all around the town and surrounding area.

I get an enormous charge out of these sculptures, which are put up both by community organizers and by ordinary homeowners. This parade of musicians is down at the community sports park in Kentville.

To market, to market?

Guess this guy must be playing the Orange (Squash) Blossom Special? Or maybe some Punk(in) rock?
Okay, I'll stop with the pun-kins now.

A few cool nights has begun the flush of colour in deciduous trees and shrubs. This is the current view from the Lookoff on a clear October afternoon.

Sumac is one of my favourite small trees/large shrubs. This native exasperates some people, because of its suckering tendencies, but I love it for its graceful shape, for its bird-friendliness, and for the incredible display of colours it puts on in autumn. This is the hybrid 'Laciniata', even more lovely with its filigreed leaves. 
I'm quite a fool for oaks at the best of time, but they show off their best charms in autumn, turning flamboyant colours before turning a deep bronze. They hang on to the trees for a long time before the winds finally force them to relinquish their grip on life. 

Ferns are not without their beauty at this time of year. I THINK this is a sensitive fern, but I could be quite wrong about that. I find that if I don't take my field guide into the woods at least once a year, I get rusty on some of the native ferns because I don't have them in my garden. The ground around it is covered with bunchberries, not yet turning colour, and also with the mainland version of partridgeberries (Mitchella repens) which are NOT to be confused with that gastronomic delight known as the Newfoundland partridgeberry. (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) Those of you not hailing from the Rock-of-my-Heart might know that particular fruit as lingonberry, by the way.

The wild raspberries are turning some lovely shades of carmin and soft peach. 

Hmmm, this doesn't appear to be either a plant nor a pumpkin. What's this doing in the post? 
This is the rare Tomatoby, not so much a plant as a supervisor of Bloomingwriter. Toby felt sad for me that my tomato harvest this year was even less than usual, but he was pleased that I'd put the tomatoes on the windowledge for him to rest his chin on. Hey, I was obviously put here on earth to serve the needs of cats, so I'm happy to accommodate him. As long as he doesn't knock them on the floor. Then they won't be tomatoes anymore. 

They'll be squash. 

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