Mark Diacono hasn't eaten a fresh apricot from a supermarket in years — here are his tips on how to grow them for yourself.
When I first became interested in gardening, Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book and Fruit Book were my kitchen inspirations. ‘One thing I should like to do is to eat a ripe apricot straight from the tree,’ she wrote in the latter, which had me planting a tree and fulfilling her ambition only a couple of years later.
It was one of the revelatory moments that drew me into how truly special it can be to grow some of what you eat. Apricots, picked sun-warm, fresh from the tree, may be less thirst-quenching and refreshing than nectarines and peaches, but they have a special, deep, honeyed richness that’s far beyond those in the shops.
As with peaches and nectarines, most apricots are picked for sale before they’re fully ripe. They may soften after this, but the flavour and aroma never reach the heights they do on the tree. This is what makes growing your own so special: you get to pick apricots on the day — and not a moment before — that they reach their perfect peak.
Alexander the Great introduced apricots to Europe, but they’re a touch marginal in this country and, although pockets were grown in the 13th and the 16th centuries, it wasn’t until the 19th century that they became established here in the gardens of grander estates.
An apricot tree can be a tricky devil, so every degree of help you can offer will make a difference to the likelihood of fruit. They need a well-drained soil, but enjoy plenty of water in summer, yet can’t have sodden roots in winter. They must have shelter (not least to protect their blossom). They like spring to move smoothly into summer without turning back for a night or two of late frost and a summer foliar feed will help keep the plant lively and shrug off any potential problems through the flowering and fruiting months.
There is, however, an undeniable randomness when it comes to growing apricots: they thrive in pockets of California, where most of the USA’s apricots are produced, yet struggle in areas with similar conditions.
Similarly, I’ve noticed that some varieties do better here, in Devon, than others. Ask knowledegable nurseries and local gardening groups to see if anyone can offer advice on which do well in your area.
Although apricots originate from the warmth of Armenia, they don’t need a long, hot summer to ripen. The crucial step is in getting the blossom past the grip of the last frosts: apricots flower early, at a similar time to blackthorn, and before most fruit blossom is even thinking about out poking its nose. Late frosts — especially those following a warm spell that encourages the blossom to open fully — can kill off the flowers and, with it, any chance of fruit.
Get through this risky time and, with luck, you’ll be sitting in the shade of your tree eating succulent, aromatic fruit by late July or early August, which still leaves weeks in hand for the fruit to ripen in a cool year.
If you can’t offer your tree a sheltered spot, you might consider one of the new varieties bred to flower later than most — Flavourcot and Tomcot are the two I’ve found best.
I can’t remember the last time I ate a supermarket apricot raw or a home-grown one cooked. My advice is to enjoy your own as Grigson wished and roast those you buy, halved (through the poles rather than the equator) and stoned, with a tiny knob of butter, a sprinkle of dark sugar and a few fennel seeds.
Some to try: Early Moorpark is my favourite for flavour. Golden Glow comes from a chance seedling found growing in the Malvern Hills, which hints at its hardiness in our climate. The fruits are a little smaller than some, which means they ripen quickly, and the flavour is superb.
Plant them somewhere sunny and sheltered in a deep soil that is moisture-retentive and with good drainage. Avoid very sandy or chalky spots.
Thin the fruits if crowded to allow the rest to develop well. Give the tree an annual feed of compost, manure and/or comfrey. Prune diseased and dead wood during the growing season.
Shelter is vital to minimising frost and wind damage. If you can, train your tree against a sunny, south-facing wall. Pruning in August reduces the risk of bacterial canker and silver leaf, but any affected areas should be removed and incinerated.
Pick when fruits are tender, aromatic and come away from the tree with the gentlest twist (some time between July and September), and enjoy.
Mark Diacono grows edibles, both usual and unusual, at Otter Farm in Devon — www.otterfarm.co.uk
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