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18 Sep 2020

An autumn apple feast at Brodie Castle

Written by Jonathan Barton, First Gardener, Brodie Castle Estate
A single apple tree stands in a woodchip plot, in the middle of a neat lawn. It has very wide horizontal branches, with smaller ones almost standing vertically towards the sky. It is covered in green leaves.
A Bramley apple tree at Brodie
First Gardener Jonathan Barton explains the history of this popular fruit, which has been growing for centuries on the Brodie estate.

Brodie Castle estate maps from as far back as 1769 show the walled garden (now the Playful Garden) and the shrubbery. By the early 1830s the walled garden was fully ‘walled’, and from this point on was used for the production of fruit, vegetables and cut flowers for the castle. The castle garden was a bustling place at this time, with a melon house, peach house, plant house and three vineries, one of which was against the wall of the Bothy.

William Brodie, 22nd Brodie of Brodie (1824–73) was responsible for introducing the glasshouses and frames to the walled garden between 1830 and 1870, and also building the Bothy and Gardener’s House.

A sepia photograph of an older Victorian-looking man, standing in a photography studio. He wears a long dark overcoat and carries a top hat in one hand, with a walking cane tucked under the other arm. He stands beside a small round table covered in a black cloth.
William Brodie, 22nd Brodie of Brodie (1824–73)

The archive map shows the walled garden was divided into quarters with the paths around each quarter lined with trained fruit trees, and vegetable beds and formal herbaceous borders in between. Later, daffodil beds were added. This was a very labour-intensive garden, taking more than ten full-time gardeners to maintain it. But as labour declined in 20th century the walled garden lost most of its fruit trees, with only the daffodil beds retained.

An old pen-drawn map of a walled garden, with various areas labelled or illustrated.
The original Brodie Castle Estate map

There are now 30 fruit trees remaining in the walled garden, mostly apples trees but a couple of pear trees too. Almost all are late Victorian and early Edwardian varieties. Several were grown for their keeping qualities to ensure availability of fruit throughout the winter, namely Sturmer, Pippin and Wagener.

The best tasting apples straight from the tree are Worcester Pearmain and Norfolk Royal but these do not keep well. Most of the trees are labelled with the variety name and show if it is a cooking apple (C) or dessert apple (D). Fruit for the castle was so important that a storeroom was specifically built next to the Bothy.

With such history still growing in the grounds, it’s an honour to care for these majestic trees. Their age is starting to take its toll, with some of them in a delicate state and most suffering from canker, a fungal disease that attacks the bark and weakens the branches.

An old apple tree branch is supported by a wooden prop in the ground. Apples can be seen at the end of the branch. Purple flower beds can be seen in the background, possibly with lavender.
Heavy branches are propped to help support the weight.

The gardening team here at Brodie manage this in a number of ways, from propping limbs that are liable to fail, pruning and mulching to regularly harvesting fruit from the heavy croppers to reduce the end branch weight.

We start the year with winter pruning in late January, reducing the previous year’s growth down to 3 or 4 buds and clearing out any dead, damaged or diseased wood. This is followed up with a mulch beneath the trees every two years.

If time allows, it’s good to do a summer prune at the beginning of August on some of the trees, to reduce the vigorous growth and help give better shape. This also helps ripen the fruit by letting more air and sun into the canopy.

Red and green apples grow in abundance on a leafy branch, with a blue sky and white clouds in the background.
Norfolk Royals growing in abundance at Brodie

Usually around the middle of September we start to notice the branches bending with the weight of apples, so it’s around now that we have a first pick, to reduce end weight on the limbs.

The picked fruit is stored and used by the castle seasonally, just as it would have been hundreds of years ago. Visitors can sample the delights of the harvest in the Castle Café (open Wed–Sun, 10am–4pm), where there are often recipes containing the local crops.

October is our true apple season when most of the crop falls or is picked. Not all the apples are harvested; those that remain on the tree (and a good number of windfalls) provide a great source of food for bees, butterflies and birds.

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