Protect the apple of your eye in the garden

Apple trees can be prone to attacks of honey fungus — it is not common but no apple varieties have resistance to it.Picture: iStock.

Apples are one of the great pleasures of September but beware of fungal attacks, warns Fiann Ó Nualláin.

I recently heard that the original Bramley apple tree is dying — it must be well over 200 years old and scientists are currently mapping its DNA for clues to facilitating longevity in other food crops.

It is famously not true as every Bramley in existence comes for a cloned graft of this single tree.

The fruit will not die out because there are cloned Bramley orchards all over the globe. But many apple growers are lamenting the parent’s slow demise due to an infestation of honey fungus.

There are several fungi of the genus Armillaria known as honey fungus, most are of a saprophytic nature meaning that they feed on dead wood and aid its decomposition, the biggest problem to gardeners being whenever a tree has been felled that the fungi sprout up around its stump and root run and look unsightly for a while or dieback on a living tree become infected.

The root system (comprised of mycelium and rhizomorphs) is present all year round and the fruiting bodies or toadstool/mushroom-like apparatus only appears in late-summer to autumn.

One of the early warning signs is premature autumn colouration but with the year we have had that’s not such a glaring clue and you may have to wait for the honey coloured fungal growth. I myself think the honey toadstools are pretty.

But some honey fungi are parasitic to living tissue; sucking moisture and nutrients from living plants and trees — a whole other calamity. That is the type — Armillaria mellea — on the Bramley and it is particularly virulent to all apple varieties and other fruiting trees and will have a go at many of your herbaceous perennials too.

The issue is that there is no really effective organic solution or chemical control for honey fungus and its root system is so extensive that it may have permeated the entirety of your garden before you even noticed the fruiting bodies pop up on your tree or woody shrub.

It is complicated to eradicate – it needs to exhaust its food supply and be starved out — so that can mean lifting every plant out, removing a spade’s depth of soil all over or more if the infected tree stump excavation is getting close to dinosaur fossils. Thereafter you may possibly require some occult rituals or crossed fingers.

If you are no dig then you may have to recant as a few years of regular deep cultivation is called for to break up its leftover rhizomorphs (black bootlace-like root structures) and disrupt regeneration.

I have heard of gardeners excavating deep, laying pond liners and tarp, adding back fresh soil and beginning anew. The trick is to not create a water catchment layer two spades below and have root rot instead.

You can, of course, opt for shrubs, plants and fruit trees which are resistant to honey fungus. Quince trees and other fruiting grafts onto quince rootstock are tough as old boots — particularly pears and medlar.

Prevention is important — and that’s about soil health ( a good mix of good bacterial from compost and manure, aeration and drainage etc) and plant health ( correct pruning – clean cuts to callus quick and keep die back and potential infection sites to a minimum and also loving care in drought, frost and other environmental stresses).

Don’t panic too much, honey fungus is not rampant — it’s only when you get it. It is just that no apple varieties have resistance and it is not advised to replant apple stock for several years after infection. Meantime new stock in large containers may be the solution.

I hope I haven’t put you off growing apples because this is the ideal time to plant some apple trees, apple cordons, fan, step overs, dwarf container specimens.

Apples are such an easy crop and apart from more food in your larder, each one is well worth the space and the small attention to annual pruning for all of the health benefits of their bounty. It is true — an apple a day may really keep the doctor at bay.

Apples supply a small quantity of soluble fiber which can have big benefits to health via its support of friendly bacteria in the intestine tract and its regulation of blood glucose levels. Apples also contain chlorogenic acid known to lower blood sugar.

The flavour alone of apples improves satiety and apples have tradition in supporting and promoting healthy weight loss. Its quercetin content enables some anti-histamine, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-viral, and even anti-depressant effects while it shares some similar catechins found in green tea that are known to support cognitive health.

I am a fan of apples, and a huge fan of Irish seed savers and their protection and preservation of heritage and Irish variety apples and I grow a few sourced from them.

The Bramley may have started with a pip but most of the supermarket apples are too awkward to grow in an Irish climate — Gala, Golden Delicious, Cox’s Orange Pippin all favour hotter climes and plenty of fungicides to halt scab development.

I was given a gift of ‘Red Love’ and ‘rosette’ a few years ago and both bore brilliantly in containers for years but I planted both in the ground last year and it has done wonders for them. Their inside are flushed pink, more sour than sweet I find but both keep well and are quite disease resistant.

Other varieties suitable for Ireland include Kerry pipin, Tipperary pipin, Kilkenny Pearmain, Irish peach, Elstar, James Greive, Ard Cairn Russet, Egremont Russet, Greensleeves.

If you are interested in some heritage or good Irish condition growers then do search online the catalogues of Irish Seed Savers Association Co. Clare, Future Forest, Co Cork, English’s Fruit Nursery, Co Wexford and Cornucopia, Co Mayo.

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