Garden notes: First fruits

Six years ago, we planted a Cox’s Orange Pippin half way down the garden, on the right hand side. We had an apple from it once, bright and crisp and archly sweet. Just one, cut into six wedge smiles with my gardener’s knife and nibbled there and then on the dewy autumn lawn.

This year we might have an apple each. Or even several, if things go on the way they have begun. The drop, it seems, is over: the discarded prototypes picked up before the lawn’s latest cut. Not a barrel of apples, not a stockpile for the colder months. But enough to fill the fruit bowl for a good few weeks.

First fruit: the thrill of the new harvest. It’s infectious. Each night, after school, the children take turns to pick the berries and fill a jug with cream. Last night it was raspberries, mixed into a simple salad with this season’s sweet and juicy nectarines. On Sunday Ilse chopped the tops off strawberries and fed them, stalks and all, to overexcited hens. The blackcurrants are ready, and a day or two of jam-making awaits. I’ll tuck it away in the pantry, ready for October and its call for bread and jam for tea. For now, tea is a glass of milk and a visit to the garden to nibble whatever takes your fancy. Mange tout, spicy rocket leaves, as many raspberries as you can find from under their shady leaves. Even the gooseberries are sweet enough to eat just as they are.

There is hidden treasure in the hedges surrounding Father’s allotment, too. Fat raspberries abound, and the wild roses are dropping their leaves in time for the hips to swell. Blackberries are in evidence, small and hard and greenish white. His apple tree is laden, his rhubarb gathering strength for the following year. We went together, yesterday, to bring in his very first harvest: fistfuls of broad beans inside fuzzy protective pods; firm new potatoes, smelling of the earth; a sprig of mint to scent their water.

It was an ordinary, special day. It marked a shift in the life of that allotment: from a place of labour to a place of harvest. Before that, it was laid bare. Before that: chest high in weeds.

So much work goes into these brief harvests. So much time, so much thought, so much money spent on seeds and tools and strong young plants. Those broad beans might be the most expensive Father ever eats. Those apples, the most eagerly anticipated since the fall of Eve. One bite, though, and all is forgiven. Those first fruits are worth every backache, every penny, every tick of the kitchen clock. Worth all that and much, much more.

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