27th September – Time to start growing food

I love autumn. I love the turning leaves, the gentle rain, the windswept beaches and the bonus warm days, but most of all I love autumn for the harvest.

Nearly thirty years ago my parents planted two hundred apple trees, and two fields of cobnuts and walnuts. At this time of year I find myself busy harvesting; trying to keep ahead of the squirrels before they demolish the walnut crop, and watching the apples to make sure they are picked at the right time, so we don’t lose too many to slugs. 

Last year the apple harvest was exceptionally good, and this year the orchard is having a rest. I don’t think I ever remember a year when there were so few apples. We’ll have enough to keep us and our holiday business in juice for the year, but it won’t be like last year when Dad took twenty-two tonnes to Cornish Orchards to be pressed for cider.

Along with the trees resting, there are a few other things that may have affected the harvest; the prolonged drought last year, a cold spring when pollinator numbers were down, a frost of hail just as blossom was setting. Looking at rows of forlorn, fruitless trees did make me think though; crops do fail.

This year’s weather has been exceptional; troughs of freezing cold weather, extreme heat and a wet summer. Even allowing for general vagaries and the El Niño effect, there is little doubt that climate change is starting to effect our day to day living, and food production is very susceptible to temperature and humidity. This makes it all the more important that we start thinking locally rather than globally for our nourishment.

I know from my experience of field-scale farming that it is simply impossible to look after each tree individually. When there are one or two young whips, then dragging water buckets to keep them hydrated is doable, but any more than a few, then they have to fend for themselves. The same goes for crops; how do you water a field of beans, potatoes or maize when temperatures hit 30C? However, a tiny plot of land in a back garden is much more straightforward; we can nurture each plant individually. This year I’ve kept tomatoes alive and the fruit trees that line the parameters of our garden have flourished. 

For most of us it simply isn’t practical to produce enough food to live on, but if we could grow just 5% of our calories through gardening and foraging it would make a huge difference. 

Last year I decided I was going to be self-sufficient in fruit and nuts, and surprised myself by being successful, but I did however have some failures. 

The first lesson I learned was that nuts need drying before they are stored. The first crop I picked all went rotten. Luckily I discovered the situation before the end of the harvest, and after that laid them out on trays to dry before bagging them up in mesh bags. Nuts of all types can be scavenged from public places; there are plenty of hazel and sweet chestnut trees in local hedgerows and parks, and a mature walnut in the churchyard in St Germans. 

My next lesson was that pears and quinces do not keep. Opening my box of pears a few weeks after picking them I found the whole lot were bad from the inside; they looked perfect before I cut into them! The only way to store pears is to freeze or pasteurise them. I harvested a box of kiwi fruits from a friend’s garden; kiwis grow well against a wall and can be picked in November and December, for eating in February and March. Early season apples don’t keep, but mid-late season ones do; our Cornish Gillyflower apples were a bit rubbery but still edible in late May, well after our raspberries had started fruiting. 

At this time of year we often end up with a glut. Making chutneys, or boiling and storing in pre-heated air-tight clean jars is a good way of preserving. There are also several places locally to press apple juice; we take ours to Pete’s Apple Press in Millbrook, but Rame Head Apple Juice also offer a pressing service. If you have lots of surplus apples, then putting out a box where people can help themselves is a lovely gesture, as not everyone has access to fresh fruit of their own. You can also offer them to the Cornwall Gleaning Project, who will distribute them to organisations across the county who are feeding people in need. The coordinator is Jenni on 07791015902, or visit gleaningcornwall.org.uk.

If you have a garden, do have a think about what you could produce to eat in the future. Autumn is a great time for clearing and making ready for winter planting, and November is the time to start ordering bare root fruit trees and edible hedges. 

So in a nutshell, let’s think ahead, so we are not relying on field-scale agriculture to provide all our food needs, but are building a little resilience in our own back yards.

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