When to pick?
Knowing when to pick your fruit isn’t always straightforward. There are many factors at play which can alter the picking date by many weeks. The first and most important is the specific variety – with apples, for example the earliest such as Summer Golden Pippin may be ready in late July, whereas a late season variety such as Winston may need until late October before it can be picked. If you know which variety you have planted, a quick search on the internet will give you a rough idea of what stage of the season it is likely to be ripe.
The weather will also have an impact on the timing – the same tree will not crop at the exact same time every year. The weather in late winter/early spring has the most effect on timing, as this determines when the tree comes into blossom.
So, if Spring arrives late, even weeks of hot summer sun will not speed up the ripening process. Geographical position will also make a difference – gardeners on the south coast of the UK will be picking fruit several weeks ahead of their more northerly counterparts.
Even on the same tree, not all the fruit will ripen at exactly the same time. Normally the fruit at the top of a tree and on the south facing side will ripen several days or even a week or two before the rest. Trained trees such as espalier or fans will ripen much more evenly, but otherwise expect to have to pick at least twice to get perfectly ripened fruit on a free standing tree.
To test if an apple is ready, cup the fruit in the palm of your hand and twist through 90 degrees. If it comes off easily, taking the stalk but no part of the branch (and definitely no leaves!) it’s ripe and ready to pick. If not, leave it on the tree and try again in a few days. Always use the palm of your hand rather than fingertips, to avoid bruising the fruit.
For pears, you employ a similar technique to apples, but instead of twisting you lift the fruit up until it is upside down. Again, if it comes away easily with no tugging or wrestling, the fruit is ready to be picked.
Pears are notoriously tricky to get right – although some of the early varieties such as Louis Bonne are soft to the touch and ready to eat straight away, many of the mid and late season varieties will still be hard and practically inedible even if ready to come off the tree.
Store in the fridge, or in a very cool shed or garage and bring them in to the house a few at a time to ripen in the fruit bowl. Pay attention though, as they can go from underripe to a soft inedible mush fairly rapidly! As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat”.
Plums and gages
Pick these when they start to become soft to the touch. Leave them on the tree for as long as you dare (wasps and birds can be a pest as the fruit starts to become ready, so net or fleece if you can). Plums ripen even more unevenly than apples, so you may have to pick over the course of a couple of weeks.
Some varieties of fruit just will not store well. In general, this tends to be the early cropping apples and pears, and most of the stone fruit. They have thinner skins and higher juice and sugar content, so if kept as whole fruit at room temperature they will ‘go off’ within a week or two. If you want to keep the fruit without processing it in some way, the best option is to store in the salad drawer of your fridge.
Late season apples and some winter pears such as Glou Morceau can be successfully stored as whole fruit, using the traditional method of wrapping in newspaper and storing in trays. There are several tips to help ensure the fruits store for as long as possible.
Firstly, only store perfect fruit. Anything with skin blemishes or windfalls must be used straightaway and not put with the clean fruit, otherwise the mould and brown rot spores will spread. Choose a storage place which is cool, dry and dark and out of reach of vermin. Inspect the fruit at regular intervals and discard any that are deteriorating.
For cooking apples, simply stew them with a little water and sugar as normal and leave to cool in the pan. Then transfer into freezer bags, label and pop them in the bottom of your freezer. Another great method is to cut them into thin slices and freeze them (this works really well for dessert apples).
Make it your mission this year to try at least one new way of storing your fruit harvest – that way when the shops are full of fruit which has been flown halfway around the world, you can still enjoy the produce of your own garden.