I was raking up the leaves they've so generously been scattering all over my chicken run, and to relieve the monotony (and the ache in my shoulders) decided to have a closer look at them - something I don't do nearly often enough.
I found them etched with a sorry tale of years of callous neglect from their excuse for a gardener. I'm afraid that since they are in the chicken run, they're something of an afterthought at the end of the garden and I don't pay them anything like as much attention as I should: the constant and tender cares of better orchard-owners than I are sadly lacking here, and though they try to soldier on as best they can, they're clearly showing signs of strain.
It doesn't help that the person who planted them - not me, I hasten to add - put them far too close together: I have four standard apple trees, two Bramleys, two Cox's, about 10ft apart in a square. That's about half the room they should have, so they're at a disadvantage before you even factor in the slacker gardener who's supposed to be looking after them.
Here, like a doom-laden encyclopaedia entry of afflictions for apple trees, is what I discovered:
Like cotton wool balls sticking to the bark. There are little critters under there, sucking away joyously at the sap of my apple tree. I've seen this covering an entire tree in someone else's garden, so it can get to epidemic proportions: luckily I've only got the odd fluffball or two.
Treatment: I'll be getting out the hose with the spray set to 'jet' this spring: you just zap the suckers away and keep doing it till they're gone. Very satisfying.
Actually I did know I had this problem - I just haven't done anything about it. The apples go disgustingly brown and pustulent while still on the tree, and then - key to identification, this - they stay there, mummified. If you leave them, they'll infect healthy apples next year.
Treatment: do the exact opposite of me and pick them off as soon as you see them. Get rid of them in the bin, or burn them: don't put them on the compost heap.
This suspiciously regular area of bark damage is characteristic of a visit from one of those furry-tailed rats we're all supposed to find so sweet. As you can see, it's eaten away the bark right around the branch, cutting off the water and food and killing the branch. Still think they're cute?
Treatment: Letting rip with air rifles is, for some inexplicable reason, frowned upon in our semi-suburban street. The dog is, uncharacteristically, some help here: though the main purpose of wildlife in his opinion is to provide him with merry chasing opportunities, he does share our opinion of squirrels and they're the one and only thing on which he occasionally sates his inner wolf. However, he's also a bit thick so they outwit him all too easily and laugh their squirrelly laugh at him from on high. I think this is one bit of damage I'm just going to have to put up with.
I really hope I'm wrong here, but it's not looking good. Apologies for the lousy picture, but I was in a state of shock when I was taking it.
Canker is the one thing apple growers fear to see. Sunken patches of bark like this, where the branch above the patch has died back (as was the case here) is a sign of a fungal disease that can kill the entire tree if you let it spread.
Now, before panic sets in, I'm not entirely sure this is canker. It's a bit long and thin - cankers on apple trees tend to be rounder, like the horrific picture on the RHS advisory service page on the subject (now there's a sight to strike fear into an apple tree's heart). On the other hand, there's no denying that there has been considerable die-back above the area.
Treatment: I can feel an extensive programme of winter pruning coming on. The organic way of dealing with canker is simply to cut it out: and if this is canker, it's very much at the early stages, with only small branches affected and nothing on the trunks or major branches - so I've still got a chance to get rid of it if I act now. I'll be cutting back at least a foot or so behind the canker into healthy wood, and again - I'll be burning the wood, not leaving it lying around to re-infect healthy areas. And even if it isn't canker, I'll have given my languishing apple trees the first TLC they've had in oooh..... this many years.
And then I shall assuage my guilt by pampering them in an over-compensating sort of way all year. Before lapsing next winter some time into my usual state of distracted forgetfulness, of course.
I think I shall go and become an accountant now. Goodbye.