(NOTE: See the Addendum for May 2017 at the end of this entry.)
(NOTE: See further Addendum for May-June 2018 at the end of the entry.)
Jean suggested that I do a “garden alphabet,” just to give readers a bit of the variety of what grows and thrives in the garden. I’m choosing Apricot for A because the apricot tree that flourishes in the front part of the garden, unlike the hearty peach I wrote about earlier (“Lazy Fair Peach Tree”), is one I planted four springs ago as a skinny 6′ sapling and have nurtured fairly closely ever since, until now I know enough of its habits to let it be most of the time.
In its first year I paid close attention to the online guides, which was important, because I learned not to be afraid to prune away parts of the sapling that were not thriving–including two feet of the trunk–so that the roots could nurture what was healthy. Of course, I worried that I might just whittle the sapling down to nothing, as bit by bit the upper trunk’s leaves paled and withered. But after those first two feet the withering of the leaves stopped. The remaining leaves stayed bright green and, soon, still in the tree’s first year, new branches began poking out.
The apricot is a thirsty child, particularly in its infancy, and its base needs to be kept moist. A bed of mulch and regular watering kept the young tree healthy, and by its second spring branches had sprung out in all directions and we had our first small crop of apricots, about twenty in all. Apricots appear early in the spring in the Sacramento Valley, roughly in February, and by mid-May they are ready to harvest, the earliest of our trees.
Now an established tree, about ten feet high and about the same in diameter–though she’s still growing–the apricot no longer needs intense watering . I have it on our drip system now a couple times per week in the dry season, and just rely on the rains between October and April to take care of the rest. In 2014-15, our driest season in the past 5, it survived during the water restrictions in California, although the fruit crop was small, only about ten apricots on the still young tree. This past fall and winter, with rainfall close to normal (almost 17 inches for the rainy season), I didn’t turn on the drip until May, by which time the new fruits were almost ready to pick. This May (2016) we had almost forty of the little beauties, firm and sweet and perfect for Jean’s pies, tarts, and jam.
If you look closely, you can still see where I lopped off the top of the trunk in that first early spring, but now the younger branches have crowded around the gap and have reached four and five feet straight up toward the sun. The stubby end of the original trunk is still there to remind me of that critical first year, even if no one else looking at this thriving young creature could imagine that it was ever in such danger.
Addendum: May 2017–Bumper Crop and New Cooking
The huge rains of the 2016-17 season–over 45 inches!–led to by far our biggest crop of apricots, almost 100 on our tree, most in clusters such as the one above. The branches have spread to about twelve feet wide and high, from about ten feet last year. We’ve harvested about a third of the fruit so far (May 26), and will be harvesting the rest over the next week or so. Jean has ambitious plans to cook and dry the apricots, which are particularly large and sweet. Some will also go into jam. We don’t want to waste a one.
Here’s cooking plan Number One: Stewed pork with fresh apricots, with cinnamon, onions, spices, and herbs (marjoram and thyme) from the garden. (More to come!)
Addendum 2: May-June 2018–Cool Spring and Even Larger Bumper Crop
For the first time in the six years of this tree, the spring has been so cool (4-5 degrees below normal) that the apricot harvest did not occur until the last week in May. As you can see in the top photo below, the fruit were still greenish on the 21st, and so it was an additional week until most of the apricots were yellowy-orangy-red and soft enough to pick (next photo below from the 27th). Similarly, the cherry plum next to the apricot tree is full of hard red-purple fruit that won’t be ready until later in June, a week or more later than usual.
But what is really amazing about the apricot tree this year is the abundance of fruit. The pictures just below gives you some indication of how many fruit there will be over the whole tree, which is now fifteen feet high and similarly wide. The crop is so great (500-600 jewels?) that we will need to give most of the bounty away to neighbors. There will still be plenty for all of Jean’s culinary and freezing plans–and surely enough for the birds to feed on the many that fall to the ground..
The abundance also comes about after a winter of below-normal rainfall (16 inches, 4 inches short of normal), but the abundance may also be a lingering effect of the huge rains in the previous winter.
I’ll remind the reader that this tree is watered during the six-month dry season (May-October) by a drip system that runs twice a week, and there is no fertilizer besides the leaves that drop in winter. Of course, I don’t spray for insects. The fruit are what the tree puts out, and they are beautiful.
Cooking the Harvest
This June we’ve added to our culinary plans for the apricots several dishes and uses:
- a chicken stew (to go along with last year’s pork stew) made in the slow cooker with boneless chicken, lots of apricots, and tomatoes
- a cobbler with oatmeal, lots of apricots, and strawberries
- a puff-pastry tart with apricots, a minced pistachio filling, and chopped pistachios on top (see photos below)
- and a cauldron full of apricot jam (using 100 of the apricots), ladled into jars (refrigerated) and plastic containers (for freezing) (see photo below).
Making this jam is so much easier than making the cherry-plum jam (see “C Is for Cherry-Plums”) that we make yearly. Apricots come apart for pitting with one knife cut to split the fruit, and the pit doesn’t cling to the meat of the fruit, so there is no staining mess of juice. Moreover, each fruit is much larger than a cherry-plum, so 100 apricots is like 400 cherry plums in a batch.
To the 100 apricots, you can add a about a cup of water in the pot, but do this according to how thick the cooking fruit turns out to be as you cook it on medium to low over the burner. You may want more or less water. Remember, the more water you add the longer is takes to boil down the fruit to the right consistency. As an alternative to water, you can add some sweet fruit juice–like apple or grape–for tang and a slightly different flavor.
The three other key ingredients are sugar, fruit pectin, and lemon juice. As the apricots cook, taste to see how much sugar you need to add. Keep sprinkling in baker’s sugar as the fruit cooks, again only according to taste. If you use fruit juice instead of water (see above), you can use somewhat less sugar. But all this varies according to your taste as the fruit cooks.
Fruit pectin is also optional, depending on how thick you want the jam. Remember that jam thickens as it cooks down, and it will also get thicker as it cools. I used about a tablespoon of pectin with the 100 apricots, but I don’t like jams particularly thick.
Lemon juice adds tang to the mixture and also helps in thickening. But, again, it’s not essential. Have a lemon ready for squeezing as you cook the apricots, if you want that lemony tang.
Here are the year by year totals so far:
Year Height Harvest
2012-13 6′ (-2′)=4′ 0 (just planted)
2013-14 7′ 20
2014-15 8′ 10 (worst draught)
2015-16 9′ 40
2016-17 10′ 100 (45″ rain)
2017-18 15′ 600