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The Old Apple Orchard

October 26, 2010

When looking to buy a new home in Maine, one feature our broker neglected to mention about this property was its grove of heirloom apple trees. We were pleased to discover them struggling amidst the white pine and ash that had sprouted up around them. Though in no way expert in the proper care and maintenance of an orchard - efforts began to do what we could; clearing away the interloping trees and getting rid of deadwood. This orchard had been pretty much been taking care of itself for who knows how many years - all the while faithfully producing apples.

Most subsistence farms had an orchard. It appears the Golding's planted their trees around the turn of the last century. A 1935 photo shows them already well established. Apple blossoms have the habit of only accepting pollen from a foreign variety. This means that the apple seeds (the offspring) will be genetically different than the parent - sometimes producing a brand new, never before seen apple. Though these apples are often inferior, this was how the over 200 new Maine varieties got started. Each variety had its own value on the farm. Some were better for eating, others for canning, others for baking and so on. The resulting trees had to survive Maine's tough winters. To produce those varieties most desirable, the Goldings could not start their trees from seeds. They would have taken a cutting (a scion) of the preferred existing tree and grafted it to a hearty and vigorous 'rootstock.'

The Goldings used their apples for cider, vinegar, pies and sauce, as well as feeding the animals (they made good food for pigs). Some varieties could be stored in barrels in the cool cellar providing fruit throughout the winter. These barrels were carefully stacked with late ripening varieties toward the bottom - early towards the top.

For the first few years we did nothing more that enjoy the ancient gnarly shapes of our apple trees. Like tired old men - bent, twisted and unkempt - they stood proud and sturdy in their long held locations. Each tree had formed its own distinct shape - its own unique personality. Every spring, despite their great age, they would become fresh and youthful with blossoms (swarming with bees). Every fall saw an abundance of fruit.

As more attention was paid, we began to see that each tree represented a different variety. Some were big, round and red while others small, not quite round and green. There were medium ones that were yellow and yellow ones that were big. Some had spots some had stripes and some had blotches. They all ripened at different rates. Though we were not yet eating them they were serving a purpose; providing nourishment to local wildlife, like deer, porcupine and crow.

The first inkling that the orchard should be taken more seriously came a few years ago, when an architectural photographer came up from southern Maine to capture some images of our home for a magazine article. We were not then sure if our trees produced an edible fruit. An avid baker, she inquired if she could take some of our delicious looking apples back with her. As they were not doing much more then falling off the trees, we encouraged her to have at it. She left with several boxes, and later told us they made excellent pies and sauce.

Last summer we received a further pomological education, when we met an organic gardener and permaculture specialist with an undeniable passion for all things 'green'. He noticed that a lot of the old abandoned orchards had a way of working in consort with the natural ecosystem, maintaining themselves (with natural protections) in their neglected somewhat now more wild environments. He was very interested in getting to know our old orchard and identifying its many varieties.

Now new life has come to our 'back yard'. The Village Gardener has been picking apples and selling at the local farmers market just as the Goldings must have, many years ago. Every time he picks a bushel he leaves in trade something organic from his garden. This fall he began pressing apples and making cider which was a big hit at the local Perry Harvest Fair; prompting several people to share childhood memories of cider parties on our farm and apple picking from our orchard. Friends and neighbors have also been making their appearance, sending back reports of tasty baked apples, crisps, pies and jelly. Our own kitchen (and oven) has become a hotbed of pomological activity.

All of these 'doings' reminded of a story Mary Taylor (a Golding descendant) told. When her family had no money during the Great Depression to pay the doctor in Eastport - he accepted apples from their orchard as payment in full. Recently (and similarly) the good natured neighbor who cuts our fields came back to cut the blackberry bush (a good thing to do every couple of years, to keep it healthy). When asked his fee he said another bushel of apples was all that was required to settle things.

Today with the passing of many old orchards, 200 varieties have dwindled to a mere 30. Apples with names like Black Oxford, Dudley Winter, Moses Wood, Summer Sweet, Winekist and Newt Grindle are among the holdouts. These apples are nothing like those you buy in the store, like Red Delicious or McIntosh. Those are produced in huge quantities in commercial orchards, more for their size and appearance, than their flavor and substance. Heirloom apples have a rich and complex taste (from tart to tangy to sweet), that is simply like no other.

A new resurgence in interest has Maine apple enthusiasts on the hunt for that lost variety that may still exist on a single tree, in some forgotten orchard and nowhere else in the universe. The differences can be subtle and it often takes an expert to figure it out. We may yet learn that our old orchard contains just such a survivor.

(click photo to view larger image)

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