EVERY day for the last few weeks I've had the most enjoyable experience. I have been able to go out into the garden and pick a huge range of fresh fruit to have with my muesli and fresh juice every morning.
We all read about the healthy eating campaign and how we should eat five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables every day. But there is simply nothing to beat picking your own fruit literally in your slippers, walking back into the house washing the fruit in a colander and topping off your muesli with the most delicious and healthy start to the day you could possibly have.
Much has changed since I first grew fruit in our garden in Lincolnshire and much of it is to our benefit. Just look at the changes that's happened in the strawberry market. When I was a kid, you were lucky if the family could afford to buy strawberries while Wimbledon was on as they were very expensive.
A couple of weeks later and you can be picking your own, albeit for a very short season. The best variety for flavour were Royal sovereign, but it was prone to disease and often short lived. Today, so much has changed, with dozens of new varieties that extend that previously short season.
Growing techniques have changed. We now know that if you freeze store the young runners that are made in August and September after the main crop is being picked, and you choose the right varieties, you can use a clever American technique to literally grow strawberries that fruit continuously for 18 months, after which time you throw them away and start again.
Naturally there are faults, some of the new varieties to me are tasteless. And of course in the campaign to extend the season much of our countryside, particularly around Staffordshire and Herefordshire, have been covered in huge polythene tunnels to allow them to pick strawberries virtually all the year round.
Raspberries have also changed dramatically. When I first started in horticulture, the Scottish fruit breeding stations were just beginning programmes to try and introduce later flowering varieties of raspberry as the English varieties when grown in Scotland were often caught by the late frosts.
They introduced many new varieties prefixed with the word Glen. Everybody has their own ideal taste and for me the Glen series are little better than cotton wool balls with no flavour whatsoever and no offence to the Scots!
However, around the same time breeding began on introducing an autumn fruited raspberry using reliable varieties bred in Kent at the East Malling research station and in this instance, bearing the prefix Malling, such as 'Malling Promise' and 'Malling Jewel' which are still good flavoured raspberries for the home gardener today. The real breakthrough came with the breeding of a second generation of autumn raspberries, out of which came 'Autumn Bliss', a variety that was late flowering and would continue producing raspberries, right up until the first frosts. It was a huge breakthrough as the berries were large and deliciously sweet, unlike the first generation of autumn raspberries which were a yellowish colour and lacked flavour.
Of course, the other thing that's changed is the advent of the freezer and while my wife makes literally tons of strawberry and raspberry jam, along with much of the other fruit from our garden. In my parents' day this was the only way to preserve the fruits. Today we can pop them in the freezer and bring out a few at a time just to top off a sweet, such as trifle, or to make a flan.
My wife also makes blackcurrant jam often mixed with fruit such as gooseberries or oranges and while I grow a few lemons, I have to say I can't grow oranges in the middle of Birmingham! At college in Lincolnshire the standard varieties of blackcurrant were 'Baldwin' or 'Boskoop Giant'. Today, the Scottish breeding stations have come up with some superb late flowering blackcurrants that produce very heavy crops and these again have been prefixed with the word Ben, such as 'Ben Lomond'. We used to have six redcurrant bushes in our old garden at Rose cottage, and they never really produced a heavy crop. I'm pleased to be able to say that British breeding has bought as a variety called 'Stanza' and this is a remarkable heavy crop of very sweet berries which, like blackcurrants, find their way to my muesli bowl most mornings.
Given another few weeks we shall be picking the first of the plums and the damsons are already changing colour. Damsons, like greengages, haven't altered much over many years, but the plum breeding programme looks really exciting.
We used to have a huge Victoria Plum tree in our vegetable garden until on one perfectly still day in the middle of August when almost a third of it fell off from the sheer weight of the crop.
However, 30 odd years of hindsight tells me it was probably suffering from the same disease affecting our ornamental cherries. I'm sure you like me have seen plums with honey coloured hard lumps developing on the fruit surface and can often be seen on the branches and even the trunk of Victoria Plum trees.
This is a bacterial disease and as such we cannot treat it with fungicides. Our ornamental cherries often begin to die from the top downwards, just as the leaves have tried to emerge in late spring. We can do little about this horrendous disease except to get rid of trees as soon as the infection is seen, preferably by burning.
Do not leave an infected stump around as it can lead to the disease being spread even more. This year we had the most marvellous crop of cherries ever in spite of a terrible disease I'd never seen before. Literally at the beginning of June 60% or even 70% of the fruits that were just beginning to swell nicely on my cherries began to fall off.
I suspected shortage of lime, a known issue here in the Midlands, where our soil is normally quite acid. My second thought was shortage of water as we've undergone many weeks of dry weather. However, a bit of research shows it to be a new physiological disorder, according to the Royal Horticultural Society and its common name is cherry run-off! There is no control for it except to pray for better weather conditions another season.
Even so, by covering my cherries with cheap netting we managed to have the best crop in almost 30 years. However, my cherry is still on a stella rootstock and there are much more compact varieties. I think the best way to grow cherry is against a sunny, warm wall.
Something we haven't mentioned so far is blueberries. Thirty years ago I'd never even heard of them, let alone Gogi berries or honey berries. There's a huge range of new buried fruit you could grow in your garden and many of these fruits have major health enhancing properties. I literally have blueberries on my muesli, 365 days a year.
It hardly seems possible, but in just a few short weeks' time the new season's soft fruit will be arriving in our garden centres. Top fruit such as apples and pears often arrive in late October or early November and I prefer to plant deciduous fruit trees between November and late February, as I believe they make masses of new roots during this period and would establish far better.
However, soft fruit nowadays is often sold in pots and I think September and October is the ideal time for planting. This allows the plants to become well established and will give sufficient time for the plant to produce some fruit next year.
Most of us have got a corner of garden where we can grow some fruit, so why not plan to grow your own, eat healthily and maybe even live longer, you'll certainly never forget the flavour and satisfaction of growing your own fruit.