Gardening on the Moor with Anne Swithinbank – Apples and orchards

Anne Swithinbank
Anne Swithinbank

In our family, the apple season is eagerly anticipated, when we can enjoy our own fruit from August to February. In our family, the apple season is eagerly anticipated, when we can enjoy our own fruit from August to February.

As flowering, productive, wildlife friendly trees for small gardens, I can’t rate them too highly and there are literally hundreds of varieties to choose from. Not all suit the moor though and even local Devon varieties can balk at the damp climate, high ground and shorter growing season. Apples rely on insects for pollination and if weather is rough at blossom time, bees and hoverflies lie low. Another pitfall is susceptibility to fungal diseases like scab, encouraged by damp weather. A shorter than average growing season can mean that some late varieties fail to ripen properly and never achieve their full flavour.

To discover good moorland choices, I visited Charles Staniland in his two acre walled garden at Buckland-in-the-Moor above Ashburton. Dating from the 1870’s, this was the old kitchen garden of Buckland Court but has been home to Charles and his wife Mary for the last 40 years. Having studied agriculture at Seale Hayne, Charles ran an organic market garden for 35 years, took up orchard planning and maintenance for the winter months and now does this full time. He is the Chairman of Orchard Link and leads practical courses.

Most of the sheltering walls of the garden are reserved for fussier pears, though Mary’s favourite ‘Sturmer Pippin’, is allowed to bask here, while cherries and apricots enjoy the shelter of an open ended poly tunnel. The rest of the apples grow in a more open spot and Charles even looks after some growing at 1000ft, which crop well after a good summer but not every year.

He says “Give apples the best site you can, in fertile soil with sufficient moisture at the roots and shelter from harsh conditions. At planting time, don’t dig too big a hole or put organic matter in the base, as this holds too much water. Make sure the roots are well firmed in and stake carefully. For the first two years, keep soil weeded and clear around the stems, water during droughts and if new shoots are stunted, or leaves pale, feed the tree with poultry pellets in spring”.

Apparently loose roots are a particular moorland menace, caused by a high vole population. Among the eating apples thriving in Charles garden, ‘Adams’s Pearmain’ will keep until the end of February and into March. ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ is another flavoursome late keeper, while ‘Kidd’s Orange Red’ crops well and makes a marvellous juice. If you want an early to eat straight from the tree, ‘Discovery’ does well on the moor as do late-season, cox-like ‘Pixie’ and ‘Holstein’.

When it comes to cooking apples, Charles recommends ‘Howgate Wonder’, ‘Newton Wonder’, ‘Striped Beefing’ and dual purpose Cornish variety ‘King Byerd’.

  • To store fruit, choose varieties for their  keeping qualities, handle carefully and pick  slightly under ripe. Keep them in a cool, dark,  slightly moist atmosphere and check regularly.
  • Apple varieties are grafted onto rootstocks to  control their size and vigour. For moderate  trees, Charles uses MM106 , a semi-dwarfing  stock. Check with your supplier to make sure  you have the right one for your garden.’
  • For a good set of fruit, apples need a  compatible pollinating partner nearby.
  • Orchard link ( is a  community organisation set up to conserve  local fruit varieties, restore and manage  orchards, exchange knowledge and generally  promote fruit growing in south Devon.