Monday, August 15


 The second variety to come ripe in the orchard, this early season apple took me by surprise.  Unlike many early varieties, I actually enjoyed eating this one.  It has amazing texture for an apple that is ripe in August and the flavor is still very acidic, but also sweet.  If it weren't still in the 80's I could almost be convinced I was eating a Goldrush.
Like its end-of-the-season counterpart, Pristine is also a product of the Purdue-Rutgers-Illinois (PRI) cooperative apple breeding program.  It was released for commercial planting in the mid '90s and luckily for me has shown resistance or immunity to Apple Scab, Fireblight, Powdery Mildew and Cedar Apple Rust. 
The other added benefit of this variety is that it has amazing storage properties for an early apple.  Even after days without refrigeration the apples still retained a great texture that varied only slightly from the first one I bit into straight off the tree. 

Monday, August 8

Early Harvest

The first harvest of the season happened this past week at the orchard.  The variety aptly, if not creatively called Early Harvest is similar to Yellow Transparent in size and date of maturity.  The apples are small and only suitable for eating if you appreciate tartness.  I imagine these small early apples would be more suited to pies, sauces or chutneys. 
It was very satifiying to harvest the first apples.  After a spring and summer of hard work, anticipation and a healthy dose of skepticism, it felt very rewarding to see the first fruits of my labor.  This is only the beginning of the season and I am looking forward to all the surprises yet to come.  With so many varieties in the orchard, it is sometimes hard to find any information on a certain cultivar in order to ascertain even an approximate harvest date.  The only logical alternative is to walk the orchard on a regular basis, looking for those trees with a few fallen fruits around their trunk and tasting lots of apples.  My time could certainly be spent in less desirable ways.

Wednesday, August 3

Catching Up

 The summer has flown by and although this blog has been idle since bloom, the orchard has been a bustling place.  Spraying, mowing, thinning and summer pruning have taken up much of my time, while the apples have grown and the plums have ripened.  Rather than spending what feels like precious minutes or hours this time of year, writing about the past several months in the orchard I have put together a photo journal of sorts.  As they say, a picture speaks a thousand words, so this will by far me my longest post yet! 
Fruit set, the miracle of pollination
Baby Pears

A freshly mowed orchard

"Silver Tree" Good coverage of Kaolin Clay

Almost time to thin

Adolescent Pear.  "They just grow up so fast"
Thinning Time

Infested apples are thinned and  removed from the orchard

Sometimes you just can't pick one

Prune plums

The first plums

So many plums

Summer Bounty

Apples are getting big!

Freedom.   A very prolific variety with beautiful fruit
Showing some blush

Paula Reds.  These will come off the tree within the month

Clapp Pears.  Starting to color up, but they still need a few more months. 

Wednesday, May 18


 Although the rain has returned, the blossoms are out.  I went out to visit the orchard yesterday after not being out there for several days and was struck by the chorus of trees almost all at some stage of bloom.  All shades of pink, white and red brightened the fog veiled drizzle.  The cool wet weather is a far from ideal for pollination.  The majority of pollinators prefer the warmth of the sun and a calm wind.  I was happy to see a few bumble bees buzzing around the wet violets and dandelions under some of the trees, but I am hoping for some drier warmer weather before the petals fall. 
Some of the early blooming varieties already have a light carpet of petals under their branches, signaling the need for the first spraying of the Kaolin clay, which will hopefully help protect the young fruits from European Apple Sawfly, Codling Moth and Plum Curculio all of which tend to find their way into the orchard during or soon after bloom.  If I had more time and resources I would have traps out to monitor the pests and their arrival, instead I will have to rely on the less accurate, but sill useful degree day tracking method to estimate when the first of these insects may pose a threat to the developing fruit.  In an ideal world, I would already have made the first application of the Kaolin clay, but the rain makes applying it almost impossible and if there is one thing I already knew before I got into all this, it is that the reality tending an orchard is more often than not, far from ideal.  Once in a while though, when you are surrounded by blossoms, flitting birds and the aromatic spring air, you forget all that and just appreciate it for what it is. 

Sunday, May 8

King Blossom

Early Spring in the orchard
 The first blossoms opened yesterday on the Summer Scarlet, the earliest variety in the orchard to bloom.  Every fruiting spur on an apple tree produces a cluster of six buds; five centered around a central blossom known as the King Blossom.  This blossom is the first to open and pollination of it is key in insuring good fruit set.  The fruit of the king blossom is often larger than the others in the cluster and is selected at thinning time if one is thinning by hand.
King blossom on Summer Scarlet
The orchard is finally drying out after a very wet April that has left Cayuga Lake (Ithaca's Finger Lake) above flood stage.  With several sunny days under our belt and forecasts for the same, my mind is able to rest a bit, not having to think about spraying sulfur for scab again until the next predicted rain.  The maples have burst in the past week as have the dandelions, laying out a yellow carpet for the bees in the orchard.  There is a trade off when it comes to managing the understory of an orchard in the spring.  The more flowers that are blooming along side the apples, the more there is to tempt the bees, but the same flowers that attract the busy pollinators to the apple trees, also compete with them for attention. 
I piled up the last of the winter prunings this past week, cutting the branches into manageable sizes and piling them as neatly as possible throughout the orchard.  Once I can find a way to get the trailer load of prunings out of the mud, where it has sat for several weeks, I can slowly continue moving the prunings out of the orchard where they will ideally be burned to keep any diseased wood from spreading canker spores around the orchard.

Clap Pear Blossoms
 Some of the plums already have a blanket of pedals under their branches and the two lonely pears look ready to burst.  The next several weeks will bring new trees blooming every day as the hundreds of apple varieties in the orchard each take the stage.

Saturday, April 30

The Orchard

Another winter has passed and although it may be shy in its arrival, spring is upon us.  The new season has brought with it not only green buds on the trees and blooming forsythia, but also new developments in my life.  This past winter I stumbled upon an opportunity I could not pass up: an orchard in need of a caretaker.  One of a Kind Orchard was owned and cared for by Ray Reynolds and his wife Barbara for many years until Ray passed away nearly a year ago.  For several years now the more than 500 trees comprising almost as many varieties of heirloom and traditional apples have gone untended.  Not wanting to see such a treasure lost, Barbara has graciously allowed me to tend the orchard and take from it what fruit the harvest provides as my compensation.
Winter Pruning
 Taking on such an endeavor feels like going from 0 to 60 in the matter of a few months.  The knowledge I had of organic apple growing has already increased ten fold and I have come to appreciate the value of learning through necessity.  Having taken on this project in mid-February, I spent the slow cold days of winter with my head in books on pruning and organic apple production, taking some of the "warmer" days to venture out to the orchard to make my first pruning cuts and walk in the knee deep snow, up and down the rows slowly getting to know the trees.  March brought more pruning.  As I become more accustomed to the saw and loppers and more confident in my cuts I moved through the trees more quickly, especially on those days when a friend or two would come out and lend a hand.
April brought a cool wet spring that put the trees almost two weeks behind last year (an exceptionally warm spring).  April also brought a scramble to purchase the sprays and equipment I would need to make my first foray into organic apple production.  A twenty-six gallon sprayer, a 19.5 horsepower used lawn tractor and lots of kaolin clay were among the purchases.  Now in these final days of April, I have made my first application of sulfur and piled up most of the branches left strewn around the orchard from winter pruning.  After an exceptional burst of April showers that will no doubt bring a plethora of may flowers, the rivers and streams are swollen and the ground saturated.  Small ponds and mud abound in the orchard, making walking a messy business and getting around with any type of equipment almost impossible.   
The early varieties have reached Tight Cluster, with the laggers still showing only a green tip.  With scab season off to a wet start, the possibility of drier days ahead brings hope.  The first plum in in full bloom, setting the stage for a symphony of pink and white which will grace the orchard in the coming weeks.     
The first plum blossoms

Friday, March 11

Jonny Appleseed

Today is Johnny Appleseed day!  An icon of American folklore, Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman, played an integral role in the establishment of frontier communities, but also in the evolution of the apple in the New World. To understand Johnny Appleseed, it is first important to have a basic understanding of the genetics of an apple and the means by which they reproduce.  Unlike modern-day orchards which are almost always established using grafted trees with known varieties, John Chapman sowed the seeds of diverse orchards and nurseries where no two apples where alike.
John Chapman was born in 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts. Historians know little about his childhood. They do know that he learned about apple growing as a young man, while working for a neighbor who owned an apple orchard.
Around 1797, Chapman moved west. He gathered sacks full of apple seeds from cider mills in settled areas. Then he headed for the frontier, keeping just ahead of westbound pioneers. He begged, borrowed, bought, or rented land near creeks and rivers, then planted seeds there. He tended the seedlings until settlers arrived. Then he sold his seedlings or orchards and moved on. He kept this up for nearly 50 years. He started orchards in western New York and Pennsylvania as well as Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois.
Chapman spread not only apples, but also the teachings of a small Christian sect called the New Church. He opposed violence of all kinds. He got along well with Native Americans. He was a vegetarian. He lived frugally. He was extremely thin, went barefoot most of the time, and wore only discarded clothing.
Historians aren't sure exactly when Chapman died. It happened sometime in March 1845 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His obituary in the March 22, 1845, Fort Wayne Sentinel reads in part: "The deceased was well-known throughout this region by his eccentricity, and strange garb. He is supposed to have considerable property, yet denied himself [...] the common necessities of life [...] He submitted to every privation with cheerfulness [...] believing that in so doing he was securing snug quarters hereafter."
                                     -- From "The Writer's Almanac"
Although Johnny Appleseed takes on a largely mythological role in modern culture, the impacts of his work are very real.  He saw every seed and every tree as valuable and worthy of existence.  Although he may have taken a more spiritual approach to this appreciation, the genetic diversity found in his orchards had a very real biological significance.  As we move towards large orchards with fewer and fewer varieties and the continued loss of many forgotten heirlooms, perhaps we could use another John Chapman. 

Sunday, January 30

Story of an Apple: Arkansas Black

Arkansas Black is an heirloom apple that originated in Benton county, Arkansas.  Quite possibly raised in the orchard of Mr. Brathwaite, the first fruit was harvested around the year 1870.  In some cases Arkansas Black has erroneously been listed as identical to the variety simply known as Arkansas, due to the similarity in name and origin, when in fact the trees and fruit bear little resemblance  to each other.  Unlike the Arkansas, which is commonly accepted to be a seedling of Winesap, the parentage of Arkansas black is less certain although it is suggested that the Arkansas Black also has Winesap among it's ancestors.  The name for the variety comes from the fruits deep red hue, which when ripe can appear almost black.
Arkansas Black, Cornell Orchards, taken beginning of September.  Color becomes significantly darker prior to harvest in late October.
 S.A. Beach in The Apples of New York describes the Arkansas Black as "one of the most beautiful apples."  He goes on to say, "It is a good keeper and commands a good price in market."  The variety was a popular cultivar in parts of Arkansas and Missouri during the last part of the 19th century.  During this period it is believed that Arkansas Black may have comprised up 10 to 15 percent of the apples grown in the state of Arkansas.  In the first decades of the 20th century, Codling Moth infestations, drought and the economic decline of the Depression all took their toll on the Arkansas apple industry, which never recovered.  Since then Arkansas Black has been grown in many regions of the united states, mostly in small quantities as an antique variety, used primarily for cooking and cider. More recently it has begun to make it's way into the commercial market.  The other day I found it at my local food cooperative, the first time I have seen it for sale outside of an orchard or the farmer's market. 
In the orchard the variety has shown some resistance to Apple Scab and Fireblight, as well as a strong resistance to Cedar Apple Rust.  It is a good bearer, although a poor pollinator.  It is harvested here in New York in late October or early November and will keep for many months in storage.  

Wednesday, January 5

Warmer Days Ahead

The winter season is often a time to hunker down, do some good reading and thoughtful contemplation.  Reflect on the year gone by and plan for the coming seasons.  It is also a time to take a trip to warmer climates, for some of us lucky enough to find the time and means to to travel.  For the next few weeks I will be taking a hiatus from the blog and from the blustery weather of central New York, to travel again to Mexico and Guatemala.  To be honest, this hiatus may go largely unnoticed, being as I have not been as active in posting on my blog as I had imagined I would be in the slower winter months.  My apologies.
New York Winter
In other news, I have been giving a lot of thought to the coming spring even if the days are still short and there are still apples in the cellar.  I have been scheming with a few friends and planning a small orchard of sorts to be planted this coming spring on some land just outside of Ithaca.  With the wheels in motion, I have ordered a small number of dwarfing and semi-dwarfing rootstocks on which I hope to graft my first apple trees.  The whole process from the graft point up will be a huge learning experience.  Much of it is still in the planning and researching stages, but I am still excited to think ahead to sloppy March thaws and May blossoms.