To celebrate autumn in all its glory, we go in search of delicious crunchy apples, vibrant orange pumpkins and a variety of colourful vegetables, all grown right here in Essex.

Great British Life: There's lots of fun activities for the kids including a five-acre maze Credit: Foxes Farm There's lots of fun activities for the kids including a five-acre maze Credit: Foxes Farm

Perfect pumpkins

Emily and Guy French from Foxes Farm in Colchester are one of the leading pumpkin wholesale growers delivering throughout the UK. Emily looks back in 2007 when they first began:

‘No one really seemed to be doing them,’ she recalls. ‘We have the capacity not only to grow them but to harvest and store them too. We used to deliver them locally to farm shops and garden centres. Back then it meant getting up at silly-o-clock and delivering before we began our day jobs. In 2015 we decided to open our farm to the public as a pumpkin patch. The idea has come over from America just as the whole Halloween theme has grown in popularity over the years.’

Their Pumpkin Patch is now must-do autumn activity for families every year. ‘We offer visitors plenty of photo props in the fields and we have a lovely variety of pumpkins, all shapes, sizes and colours to decorate your home. People buy the large, orange, traditional pumpkins from us for carving. However, with the likes of celebrities like Stacey Solomon and Ferne McCann decorating their whole houses at the start of the autumn, it’s become really popular to do that too. We find that our squashes, our funky looking pumpkins including our swan-neck ones are good for those customers. We have pear-shaped ones, white, grey and even speckled pumpkins and people just love to create displays either inside their homes or outside including some unbelievable door arches. You see them all on Instagram. So now autumnal decorating has become a family activity rather than just the carving of a pumpkin each year. Guy and I are both from farming families, my parents are in Basildon and Guy’s family are in Colchester, so two locations to visit a pumpkin patch.’

You do need to book in advance via their website, so go online and book your tickets as you would do for any activity. You only need to book your time of entry, and then you and your children can stay as long as you like. ‘We have plenty of wheelbarrows for you to use to collect as many different types and sizes of pumpkin as you wish. When you arrive imagine 1000s of pumpkins of all shapes and sizes in front of you. There are also lots of signs around explaining interesting facts about pumpkins as well as recipes telling you how to cook your pumpkins.’

At Foxes Farm in Colchester there’s also a five-acre maze with a game within it. ‘It’s a really good activity for the children and we have a field of fun area which is full of traditional children’s games. Kids also love our giant sandpit, peddle tractors, hula hoops and throwing games too. It’s a great place for children to run and have the space just to be themselves.’

Guy and Emily planted the pumpkin seeds back in May and the crop is now ready to harvest. ‘It was a little cold when the seeds went in, and the soil does have to be certain temperature for the seeds to germinate but they have grown well and are looking really good. It’s the sunlight which makes them turn orange and so we always pray for plenty of sunlight too.

‘We have over 30 different varieties of pumpkins including ones called Mashed Potato and they are pure white in colour and small, we have giant ones and everything in between. Sometimes Guy and I joke and call ourselves Mr & Mrs Pumpkin – we seem to live and breathe them!’

Great British Life: Pippins Orchard is managed by Malcolm Stone Credit: Malcolm StonePippins Orchard is managed by Malcolm Stone Credit: Malcolm Stone

In search of apples

Pippins Orchard is managed by Malcolm Stone. ‘I rent it off the current owners who have owned it since 1998. Diana Allan set it up in the first place. Over the years I’ve undertaken quite a bit of replanting of new apple trees and other fruits too including pears.’

The Orchard has more than 30 different apple varieties including some traditional heritage ones. ‘We’ve got Ashe Meads Kernal which is a connoisseur apple, Kidd’s Orange Red and Chelmsford Wonder are cooking apples. Cats Head is rather unusual as it’s an angular shape and was first discovered in the 16th Century. We also have the D’Arcy Spice, which we pick close to Bonfire Night a traditional Essex apple. Alan’s Everlasting is another obscure variety along with Reverend Wilks and Charles Ross which makes a nice baking apple as well as an eating apple as its quite a fair size. Another good cooking apple is our Peasegood’s Nonsuch which again has been around for many years.’

I asked Malcolm how he keeps these ancient trees healthy. ‘In a commercial situation, on the big farms growing Gala and Braeburn, none of these trees would be grown as they want the maximum yield. Because my trees are pruned every year, it generates the new wood to produce good buds which produces decent apples. I’m also generous with the foliar nutrition. Each year I have leaf samples taken, and soil analysis done every two or three years, to keep the trees in good order.’

With all of this care, Malcolm assures me his precious apple trees will keep going year after year. Malcolm has been planting and caring for fruit since he left school.

In 2004 he took the farm on as his own business. ‘In 2002 I started to supply farmers markets in London. I was invited to start at West Ealing every Saturday, and I’ve done it ever since. It gives the shoppers something different to the supermarket. In 2016 I took on another Saturday market in West Hampstead. The customers just love buying fruit which is a bit different. I do also sell Gala, Braeburn and Coxes and mine achieve great flavour due to the distance between the trees. The customers tell me many times that the flavour is completely different to ones they’ve tried before. For me I still love the flavour of a Cox apple and also the Red Pippin, they are two of my favourites. I like Egremont Russet too, which I also grow.

If you’d like to go to the orchard and buy direct there is a summer house on site called the Apple Shop with ready-bagged fruit for you to purchase. ‘It’s very personal to me, the trees give me a living and so I look after them.’

Great British Life: J. McCready & Co is a family-run farm, based at Jacobs Farm in Heybridge Credit: Ansi BartholomewJ. McCready & Co is a family-run farm, based at Jacobs Farm in Heybridge Credit: Ansi Bartholomew

Life on the veg

J. McCready & Co is a family-run farm, based at Jacobs Farm in Heybridge. Simon McCready grows a huge variety of vegetables. He is a third-generation farmer, and he works closely with Ralph and Mary Hayter – his brother-in-law and sister – who run the other family business, Daymens Hill Farm and Orchard at Tolleshunt Major. Simon’s 200-acre farm has been running for almost 60 years and their farm shop opened in ’67, now offering purple sprouting and white sprouting broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, curly kale and red curly kale, cavolo nero, brussel sprouts on stalks, kohlrabi, onions and leeks. This month there will be plenty of freshly picked sweetcorn and bags of keeping potatoes, both Désirée and Maris Piper. Simon explains, ‘We will also have the last of the glass house crops, so tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and aubergines too.

With the family connection to Daymens Hill, there’s always a delicious selection of English apple varieties to tempt you including Cox's Orange Pippin, D'Arcy spice, Ida Red, Discovery, Katy, Laxton Fortune, Early Tydemans Worcester, Merton Worcester, Jonagold, Sunset, Ashmead Kernel, Spartan, Queen, Bramley, Howgate Wonder, Beurre Hardy pear, Conference, Comice and Quince. Bramley’s, Red Pippin and Essex Queen are also cooking apples.

Simon explains the weather has been kinder this year but is still a challenge. ‘When you’re a farmer, every year is weird weather! However, this year it has been much more temperate with plenty of rain which is marvellous for nature and good for the crops. Last year’s prolonged drought was a challenge.’ He told me he is quietly confident of a good crop of fruit and vegetables this year.

If you fancy picking your own apples, Daymen’s Hill Farm and Orchard is open for PYO apples and pears, and stays open throughout October. One of the many benefits of buying direct from the farm gate is the freshness of the vegetables. You are buying them as they are lifted from the ground. ‘We don’t have masses of plastic unlike the supermarkets and our crops haven’t been refrigerated for weeks either before you get to take them home.’ They are open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5.30pm and also open on a Sunday from 10am to 2pm.

Get the taste ….

Pumpkin Patch, Colchester. CO6 3PT, 01206 481 983

J. McCready & Son, Jacob’s Farm, Gold Hanger Road, Heybridge, 01621 853 395

Pippins English Apple Orchard, Hornells Corner, Little Leighs, Chelmsford, 07785 320 300