In an extract from Grow Fruit and Vegetables in Pots, New Zealander Aaron Bertelsen, of the acclaimed English garden at Great Dixter, talks apricots - eating and planting.
An apricot tree is an investment, particularly if you are treating yourself to a mature plant that will crop sooner than a young one, so it is worth seeking out a good nursery for the best choice and expert advice. Make sure your tree is grafted on to dwarfing rootstock and that it is self-pollinating: you don't want to wait years for your apricot to fruit only to find it is languishing for want of a lover. When your tree arrives, plant it straight into its "forever" pot, which should be 45–50cm in diameter. Don't worry if the tree looks too small to start with; it will soon fill out. The space around the tree's base is ideal for Alpine strawberries, a combination to make anyone swoon with joy. Give the plant a good soak once a week, or every three or four days if the weather is hot, and as needed throughout the winter. This is much more effective than more frequent, shallower watering.
Look for a dwarf type – the key words to look for on the label are "patio" and "pot". I have chosen "Isabelle", which fruits late in the season, after mid-summer. This makes sense in a temperate climate, where the fruit will need all the heat the summer can offer in order to ripen.
My preference would always be to buy a bare-root tree in the early spring. Remember that you will need to deal with it as soon as it arrives, so have your pot and compost (potting soil) ready. A container-grown plant will be more forgiving but it is still a good idea to get it planted in the spring so that you are not struggling to keep it well watered later on in the heat. Use a liquid feed weekly throughout the spring and summer and top-dress with organic matter in the spring. After about five years, you will need to repot the tree to stop the plant becoming root-bound.
Apricots should be pruned in summer to minimise the risk of silver leaf, a potentially fatal fungal disease that is most active in autumn and winter. Use netting to keep birds away from your precious fruit.
BAKED APRICOTS WITH BAY AND HONEY
My friend Louise gave me this recipe. While there is very little better than a fresh apricot eaten straight from the tree, if you are lucky enough to have a good crop you will need to be a little more imaginative. Baking apricots is a great idea as it intensifies the flavour and will bring the best out of any fruit that is not quite perfectly ripe. The combination of spices in this syrup really does seem to bring out different aspects of the apricot's flavour – herbal and even a little spicy. Baking them whole, with the stones (pits) still inside, adds another layer of complexity, with nutty, almond flavours emerging. Try this alongside a scoop of good-quality vanilla icecream or with double (heavy) cream. (Of course, there is nothing to stop you having both.) This recipe would also work well with fresh peaches.
PREPARATION: 15 minutes
COOKING: 45 minutes
100 g runny honey
5 cardamom pods, cracked open
1 generous pinch of saffron threads
1 tsp coarse (kosher) sea salt
3 small bay leaves
Preheat the oven to 180C.
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Put the honey, 100 ml water, the cardamom pods, saffron, salt and bay leaves into a small pan. Place over medium heat and cook until the mixture comes to a boil. Simmer gently for 3 minutes and then remove from the heat.
Place the whole apricots in a small baking dish big enough to hold the apricots quite snugly – you don't want too much space between them. Pour over the honey mixture, using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to scrape out any saffron threads that have stuck to the side of the pan.
Roast the apricots in the oven for 40 minutes, removing them to baste and turn every so often or until they are very soft but still hold their shape.
Remove from the heat and either serve immediately or set aside until cool and then store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
Grow Fruit and Vegetables in Pots
Planting Advice and recipes from Great Dixter (Phaidon, $60)