Now and Then: October

When Margaret Nettlefold planned the garden at Winterbourne, daughter Valerie revealed that her mother ‘lived with gardening books for a year or so’. Here, the influence of Gertrude Jekyll is inescapable. Winterbourne is filled with Jekyllian detail inspired by her 1899 classic Wood and Garden. Each month, we follow in Margaret’s footsteps to see how the garden compares now and then…

“How seldom does one see Quinces planted for ornament, and yet there is hardly any small tree that better deserves such treatment… The old English rather round-fruited kind with the smooth skin is the best both for flavour and beauty – a mature tree without leaves in winter has a remarkably graceful, arching, almost weeping growth.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden

In the 19th century quinces (Cydonia) were a staple part of the winter diet – quince pie was once a favourite at Christmas. Today, more versatile fruits are favoured in kitchen and garden. Apples cook quicker, pears peel easier and both can be enjoyed raw, straight from the tree. But gardeners who value flavour over convenience will surely seek out the quince; queen of the forgotten fruits.

Cydonia oblonga 'Meech's Prolific', photograph by Chris Howell, Now and then October, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Cydonia oblonga ‘Meech’s Prolific’ in flower on the Arboretum Lawn, photograph by Chris Howell

The quince is highly fragrant. Once inside, a single fruit can overpower a room with its sickly-sweet perfume. In addition, they are almost impossible to cut and core; an extremely sharp knife is essential. Raw they are practically inedible (truly astringent) but baked in a slow oven with something syrupy, the flesh is transformed from white to ruby-pink and now irresistibly sweet.

In 2003 we planted Cydonia oblonga ‘Meech’s Prolific’ on the Arboretum lawn. It is a North American variety with perfectly pear-shaped fruits, not round like the old English varieties described by Jekyll. It thrives in the British climate needing warm summers and cold winters to provoke a really prolific crop. Grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock it will even produce fruit in a pot.

 “The Medlar is another of the small fruiting trees that is more neglected than it should be, as it well deserves a place among ornamental shrubs. Here it is a precious thing in the region where garden melts into copse. The fruit-laden twigs are just now very attractive, and its handsome leaves can never be passed without admiration.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden

Mespilus germanica 'Nottingham', photograph by Jenny Lily, Now and then October, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Mespilus germanica ‘Nottingham’ in the Old Meadow, photograph by Jenny Lily

Neglected it may be, but the medlar (Mespilus) is sometimes difficult to love. Jekyll’s description is extremely kind; consider instead Shakespeare’s fondness for the ‘open-a*** fruit’. It is indeed a much coarser plant than the quince with thick, dark green leaves and stiff branches.

Those who eat with their eyes may want to give the medlar a miss. The fruit looks like a large brown rosehip, only ready to eat once it has been bletted, usually following a frost. Bletting is a process by which acids are broken down and replaced by sugar as the fruit softens and begins to rot.

The flesh is so soft that any attempt to move the rotten fruit en masse will only result in an unappetising mess. Instead, the gooey insides must be sucked from the skin on the spot. The gardeners brave enough to try Mespilus germanica ‘Nottingham’, growing in our Old Meadow, were pleasantly surprised by the taste of a spicy, stewed apple studded with several large pips.

 “Now one sees the full value of the good evergreens, and, rambling through woodland, more especially of the Holly, whether in bush or tree form, with its masses of strong green colour, dark and yet never gloomy… a Holly in early winter, even without berries, is always a cheering sight.” Gertrude Jekyll, Wood and Garden

Ilex aquifolium1, photograph by Jenny Lily, Now and then October, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt

Ilex aquifolium on the woodland edge, photograph by Jenny Lily

The inedible fruits of some woodland plants have been endowed with qualities beyond the reach of ordinary garden crops. Soothsaying hollies (Ilex) can predict the weather producing more or less berries depending upon the severity of the winter ahead. The larger the crop, the colder the winter, or so old wives would have us believe.

A totally bare bush could lead to confusion. Hollies are dioecious meaning that male and female flowers are produced on separate plants. Only females will produce berries when fertilised by a male in spring. A holly without any berries at all is therefore more likely to be a perfectly contented male than an indication of balmy weather to come.

It is this process of fertilisation that determines the quantity of berries produced. Weather forecasting trees don’t really exist but garden birds will be grateful whatever the weather. Holly berries are usually kept as insurance until later in the year. Most birds prefer fruit with high sugar content and will only feed on holly once all the sweet stuff has gone – let’s just hope they don’t find the quince…

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