Beginnings-- Nearly three decades ago when Becky and I were first
beginning our farming adventure we rented two different farms. At that time nearly every old family farm
had a small orchard of a dozen or so trees.
It was also quite common to see big standard apple trees in someone's
front or backyard. It's been sad to
see these friends--productive old trees--disappear over the years and to see
people prefer planting lawns and decorative ornamentals with newer homes. In the fall as our season wound down, we
would harvest this fruit and make cider of it at nearby custom cider
presses. We had many small orchards
and trees we could count on harvesting for free or in trade for a few gallons
of cider. We called it our "cider
Our Own Orchard: When we moved to Beaver County
and bought our own farm in 1979 we continued to harvest many of the old repertoire of trees and added many more here. In 1985 we planted the first of our own
trees with the idea that we would be happy to have apples good enough for
cider. At that time, there wasn't much
hope for growing organic table apples in the East because of various insects
and the disease pressure of the humid environment. It was about that time that breeding research
programs at a number of major universities had yielded the first
fruits--several scab immune and resistant apple varieties. These were the varieties we selected and
continue to select because scab accounts for more chemical sprays in the East
than any other reason. Our first
planting was of Prima, Priscilla, Liberty,
and Jonafree apples on the dwarfing rootstock Malling/Merton VIIa. The young high school boys who helped dig
the holes now have children of their own and can see mature trees which have
yielded thousands of bushels of apples over the years. We were very surprised to see that some of
these apples were good enough for table use.
More Trees in 1996: Having
seen which varieties were successful and with even more scab immune varieties
available, in 1996 we planted another block of trees. About half of these were Liberties, which
we had seen were the most reliable of the original scions. New additions were Williams Pride,
Pristine, Redfree, and Goldrush.
Third Block on Trellises in 2006: By now, we were
beginning to see that the dwarfing rootstocks had a definite productive
life--about 25 years--and that to keep trees in that state,
you had to keep planting periodically.
In the fall of 1999, we had also experienced a severe hailstorm and
saw firsthand that next pruning season what we had never hoped to see--fireblight. This
disease slowly debilitates the tree over many years, and is one of the banes
of apple growers, organic or not, because you can only slow it down but never
eradicate it once you have it. We had
been reading about the work of Jim Cummins, an apple breeder at Cornell University in developing fireblight resistant rootstocks. Jim had retired and with his son started a
nursery. For our new planting in 2006
we got some of the first resistant rootstocks with our preferred scab immune
varieties grafted on. We really liked
the two yellow varieties from the '96 block--Pristine and Goldrush--which
extended our season both early and late.
Also in the 2006 planting were a few Enterprise
and Dayton so
we could see what those were like.
The Oldest Permaculture:
Humans realized very early on the
potential for tree fruit. It is not
only far and away the oldest form of agriculture, but we moderns are also
realizing it's one of the best of all "permacultures"
which inherently conserves soil because you aren't always disturbing it and
laying it vulnerable to degradation. Orcharding also allows the other forms of soil life free
range to colonize, attain balance, and maximum site specific genetic
evolution. Apples have an extremely
high genetic variability which means there's virtually no chance you'll get
anywhere near the same apple by planting one of it's seeds. Thus apples have always been propagated
from cuttings of an existing tree--they're all clones.
Apple ID's are on our website.
We'll share a few of the major tasks and
seasons in apple our production...
We have selected our orchard
sites in perhaps not the most common way.
Because we're primarily vegetable farmers, we hate to lose level
fields which are easy to work, to orchards, which do equally well, perhaps
better, on slopes. These are prone
to erosion if tilled anyway. We test
the soil and apply any seriously lacking nutrients the year prior to
planting. With earlier planting we
experienced shallow rooting and some trees literally fell over with a heavy
crop. With our latest planting, we subsoiled the summer before in the rows where the trees
were to go. Then in early spring as
soon as the soil can be worked, we till a strip incorporating a goodly
amount of peat moss and vermiculite into the soil where the holes are to be
dug. Thus the soil immediately around
the new roots resembles a heavy greenhouse mix. We soak the bare rooted trees in a
solution containing seaweed extract and endo-mycorrhizae
to stimulate root growth and advance the symbiotic relationships. Hand digging the holes ensures that new
roots aren't constricted and the mixed soil is watered well around the
roots for a fast start. Trees are
"headed back" so the top growth matches the root capability.
Pruning is essential to the
production of fruit. Without
pruning, the tree very quickly ceases production and becomes a wild growth
of closely spaced branches. You can
see it easily in untended trees, and also in improperly over-pruned
trees. With young trees, we select
for a few good scaffold branches, with older ones we're constantly
thinning, renewing, and controlling.
We're also cajoling the tree--much like a young child who needs
bounds to grow into something. It's
at a time of the year when we're not so busy, and can be a great time to
meditate and is often a spiritual
This is one of the most magical
times on the farm. The grass has
just become a vivid green backdrop to everything going on. The buds of the trees swell and as they just
begin to show the green of tiny leaves.
Then you see them--little swelling orbs of tightly closed
flowers--seven in a cluster. The king (center) blossom opens first,
followed by all the others over several weeks. Bees and pollinating wasps are everywhere. Flower pedals carpet the orchard like a
most magnificent bridal walkway.
I've heard it said that apples are
one of the most challenging foods to grow because they are also a favorite
food or hatchery for nearly every moth on the planet. We use quite a number of different
natural products and strategies--all organic. One of these is to put out little plastic
twist ties impregnated with pheromones put out by the female of several
pest moth species. The males are
highly attracted and come looking all over, but because the entire orchard
smells like females, they can't find any single one to mate. Thus no fertile eggs are laid and no
worms hatch out for coddling moths, oriental fruit moths, or oblique banded
leaf rollers! Frustrating life for
those poor guy bugs!
We used to do literally no
spraying because we didn't think it was possible to grow nice looking
organic apples. It's still extremely
difficult, as judged by the hundreds and even thousands of organic
vegetable growers in the area, but virtually no organic fruit growers. I know of only a handful in the entire
Eastern part of the country! We've
never been fans of nor big practitioners in the
use of the sprayer, thinking that one doesn't see this in nature. Plants are fed through the root systems,
and damaging insects and diseases are kept at bay by naturally occurring
substances and predators. While it's
too soon to know for sure if it's making a difference, the last few years
we have been developing a regular spray program incorporating the use of neem oil, seaweed extracts, fish emulsion, and chelated calcium.
The neem (long used in India and Africa) is both
beneficial to soil microorganisms
and acts as an inhibitor to insects by preventing them from molting and
reaching adulthood. Seaweed gives a
wide variety of micronutrients while calcium and fish emulsion feed the
tree. In drought situations we also
will spray a kaolin clay spray to act as kind of a sunscreen and prevent
The first apples picked are the Pristines, which mature in late July. They go from nubbins to full sized apples
seemingly in the blink of an eye. These
juicy tart yellow apples make the best pies. In short order come the Williams Pride, Redfree, and then Primas. Next are Priscillas
about the end of August.
Mid-September really begins the main apple harvest with
Liberties. About this time we're beginning
to tire of that bent over position when picking so many of the other
vegetables. It's a revelation to
straighten out, stand up, and to pick apples on a tree and appreciate the
deeper blue and lower hanging clouds of the fall sky.
About this time, too, it becomes a bit of a race to get all the
apples picked. Bushels no longer
seem matched to the task. "Big
bins" are handier for the large quantities of Liberties and Jonafrees we're picking. They can be moved 20 bushels at a time
with the tractor or a pallet jack and stacked two high in the cooler. Our
latest variety of the season--Goldrush--is left
to gather every bit of sweetness and flavor until the last possible moment
in late October or even November.
Even then, they are often too hard to bite into and must wait in
storage to cure a little. These
actually attain the peak of flavor only about Christmas time and will last
well into the spring.
About this time, too, it becomes a bit of
a race to get all the apples picked.
Bushels no longer seem matched to the task. "Big bins" are handier for the
large quantities of Liberties and Jonafrees we're
picking. They can be moved 20
bushels at a time with the tractor or a pallet jack and stacked two high in
Our latest variety of the season--Goldrush--is left to gather every bit of sweetness and
flavor until the last possible moment in late October or even
November. Even then, they are often too
hard to bite into and must wait in storage to cure a little. These actually attain the peak of flavor
only about Christmas time and will last well into the spring.
Nothing is quite as wonderful a lead up to
the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas as the changing leaves, crisp
evenings, and picking the last fruits of the fall--Apples.