The Apple-Shaped Earth

My last blog post was about the threat of one million square feet of warehouses being built not far from our orchard. With the concerned opposition of many citizens of Boxborough, we held back the tidal wave of development — at least for the moment. The planning board pulled their zoning articles from the upcoming town meeting warrant. There will be no vote on re-zoning until the fall. That change will give everyone time for regrouping and envisioning. The property at 1414 Massachusetts Avenue is still owned by Lincoln Properties, and warehouses are the most lucrative way for them to develop their land. The website of the Boxborough community group, Save Our Town Character says, “The potential for Zoning changes to allow warehouses as described below is still very high.” The need to protect the land and the character of the neighborhood is ongoing, but spring has officially arrived, and farm work has begun.

On our first day, Blase, Holly, our new farm worker, John, and I enjoyed the yearly ritual of burning the apple prunings. Ignited by a dry Christmas tree, crumbled newspaper, and kindling, the fire of prunings swayed in the wind. Sparks rose, and apple smoke filled a cloudless sky. Mallards, great blue herons, a woodpecker, and red-winged blackbirds chirped melodies.

I staked for the planting of fifty-three new trees from the apple rootstock we grafted one year ago. Blase attached the back hoe and has begun digging the holes. He is as much devoted to this farm and the orchard as I am.

It will be a marathon of planting. In each hole, the tap root will lead to the north. We’ll mix a little compost and our own bio-char from the burn, a great amendment for the soil, made by dousing the fire before it burns to ash. A cedar stake will go in each hole to support the tree as it grows, and we’ll back fill by hand, removing the large rocks, our most reliable crop. Trees will be watered, blessed, and mulched to suppress the competition with tough orchard grasses. We’d gladly welcome volunteers!

Next the airblast orchard sprayer needs to be tested and calibrated for the season. And oh, the hardest part for me, what are we going to spray? There are more options now for organic growers, and one tendency is to want to try everything. Another approach is to allow the trees to fend for themselves, building up their own immune system like a child must do who goes to preschool. I prefer the middle way, doing what we can to help build the immune system of the trees by improving the soil and spraying nutrients.

Last weekend we visited our grandchildren. Both girls had runny noses, and Blase came home with a nasty cold. As a friend remarked, “Young children are like Petri dishes.” Some might say apple leaves are similar. Every leaf is an incubator where good and bad bacteria and fungi duke it out, and the strongest wins and colonizes the leaf. We want to do what we can to encourage the good guys rather than spraying to get rid of the bad. And, once in a while, we will spray an organic pesticide for a particularly destructive pest, rather than lose the crop.

A mid-June apple hidden behind a leaf with spots of cedar apple rust.

A mid-June apple hidden behind a leaf with spots of cedar apple rust.

The next two months will be the most crucial for the orchard. Will we have blossoms? Pollinators? Fruit set? A crop? Today, with the added pressures brought on by climate change, these are real questions.  Orchards, like lands protected for conservation, keep us alive emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Our country was founded on the promises of agriculture, of self-sufficiency, of everyone growing food and fruit. The fruit orchard was a symbol of this belief in hard work, community, and opportunity for all.  We are now far from this ideal as we destroy forests, oceans, and even the air.

Sculpture LH

Sculpture LH

But the apple remains a fruitful inspiration, as it was in the nineteenth century when Walt Whitman wrote in A Song of Occupations, decades before space ship photographs,

The sun and the stars that float in open air,

the apple-shaped earth and we upon it,

surely the drift of them is something grand.