The view from the garden at Woodbridge, in southern Tasmania, sails down the D'Entrecasteaux Channel to the Derwent River. Photo - Robin Powell
Robin Powell admires the view with pioneering heirloom apple grower Bob Magnus, whose ideas about pruning will change your mind about how to grow apples.
The view from Bob Magnus’ garden is distracting. Many less-dedicated gardeners might find themselves spending more time gazing into the distance than putting their heads down to deal with the everyday demands at ground level. The garden is perched on a hill above the hamlet of Woodbridge, in Tasmania’s Huon Valley, and looks up the d’Entrecasteaux Channel. At the Channel’s end, a left-hand turn takes the Derwent River up to Hobart and a right leads to the wilds of the Southern Ocean. Competitors in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race cross the view for a few days at the end of December, but when I visit clouds are the only sailors, scudding across the sky and water.
Bob's garden in spring. Photo - Robin Powell
The Huon Valley is apple-growing territory. As recently as the mid-‘80s there were more than a thousand apple growers in what was then known as the Apple Isle, many of them around here. Rising costs and falling returns mean that many have turned to cherries or slipped out of horticulture all together; there are now fewer than 20 commercial apple growers in the state. Bob started in apples when he moved here from the mid-north coast of NSW in 1980. But rather than growing commercial fruit, Bob concentrated on growing apple trees, a cornucopia of heirloom and new varieties. He now sells 84 different varieties of eating apple, all grafted on to dwarf rootstock. An additional four varieties are grafted on to extra-dwarfing rootstock, making them suitable for the one-metre-high espaliered hedges that garden tourists admire so much when they visit the old gardens of France.
This is the blossom of the Huonville Crab, a red-skinned apple that is also red-fleshed, right to the core. Photo - Robin Powell
Over his decades of experience, Bob has developed his own theories about pruning and he eschews the textbook approach of vase-pruning fruit trees. Home gardeners and professional growers get better results, faster, by using an espalier system, he says, and pruning just once, in the summer. Examples abound through the garden. There is a long stepover row of the extra-dwarf varieties edging a vegetable patch, a mini-orchard of rib-high espaliers, and further down the slope the bigger orchard of the 300 different varieties that provide the material for the mail-order sales.
Around these concerns, a charming scramble of garden has developed over the last few decades. All of which Bob claims to have given up. His daughter Lisa, her husband Steve and their kids now make this garden home. Bob has moved a bit further up the hill to a house in the bush with no garden, and, he boasts, a better view than this one. Still, as he shows me around his enthusiasm for the place and the plants has me unconvinced about his claims to have given it all away. Indeed he seems to have been invigorated by his children’s passion for plants. His daughter Lisa has a business selling mixed flower bunches at Salamanca Markets in Hobart. She picks whatever takes her fancy in the garden – David Austin roses, especially the fruity-fragranced ‘Abraham Darby’, alstroemeria, claret ash, chrysanthemums. In response to Lisa’s needs the garden is becoming more of a cutting patch, adding pragmatism to its pleasure principle.
Apple blossom. Photo - Robin Powell
Bob’s son Dan is also a plant man, and has a successful online nursery business specialising in perennials. He is soon to buck the trend of ever-diminishing garden centres by opening a retail nursery in downtown Woodbridge. Bob, ever-ready with a strongly held opinion, thinks too many nurseries are unwilling to back their own passions and sell what they love. Instead, he asserts, they take a safe and boring route and all sell the same thing, ensuring mutual demise. Bob clearly thrills to the unusual, and to plants with a story to tell. Like his Cantua buxifolia. This is the native flower of Bolivia, and is commonly called the flower of the Incas. Bob is a frequent visitor to South America – he loves the passionate culture of the place - and the cantua is a stunning reminder. It’s an evergreen shrub that grows to about two metres. It defoliates a bit in the Tasmanian winter chill, so that Bob’s specimen looks slightly bedraggled, and, he admits, not as neat as those at Cusco in Peru. The plant’s charm is in the tubular flowers, which are usually described as magenta. That description completely fails to capture the drama. The shrub has the amazing ability to throw out branches with flowers of different colours. Some branches sport yellow and white blooms, others white with a pink tint at the base of the throat, and some mix all possibilities to be crimson and hot-pink with a yellow throat. “There is no bad taste in nature,” laughs Bob.
It’s a vibrant reminder that a garden is a place to marvel, experiment, remember, and, if you’re lucky, admire the view.
Bob Magnus believes that apples produce best when grown on an espalier rather than in the traditional vase shape. Photo - Robin Powell
Text: Robin Powell