What Are We Doing to the Earth, John Chapman?

John Chapman (1774–1845) is familiar to most grade school students in the United States as Johnny Appleseed, the man who planted apple seeds. The irony is that John Chapman might have been sorely disappointed with this epitaph. John Chapman established nurseries of apple trees in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and as far west as Indiana, but these orchards were not his true raison d’etre. Selling apple trees for his livelihood gave him the possibility of travel where and when he wanted—and the freedom to practice and spread his religion of choice.

 John followed the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), a Swedish mystic, scientist, and theologian who influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe and was praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Swedenborg believed we live in both the world of spirit and the material world, but that our eyes are often closed to the former. He was a Christian who formed a new religious movement, the Swedenborgian denomination, to advance the idea that God revealed himself in the world, in the earth, in all sentient life. Based on his own significant mystical experiences, he wrote that love is the “basic unit of reality.” He seemed determined to show people that there is more than what they see with their eyes and hear with their ears: There is a mystical world that everyone has access to.

Apple Bloom at Old Frog Pond Farm in 2017

Apple Bloom at Old Frog Pond Farm in 2017

John Chapman certainly seemed to want to have, or perhaps did have, his own mystical experiences—we will never know. But he did he carry the words of Swedenborg across the American frontier. Visiting homesteads, he would pull out his Bible and read passages with an ardor that calls to mind the approach of television evangelists today. Sometimes he would tear out a few pages and leave them, only to exchange them for new ones the next time he passed through. He was a vegetarian, wore no leather, and would never even cut down a tree.

Of course, on these journeys, he always had apple trees to sell. Fruit trees, often a requirement for anyone wanting to establish a land claim, provided the fruit to make applejack—hard cider—the drink of choice for the settlers at all three meals. From apple cider, settlers could make apple cider vinegar, a cleaning agent, as well as a preservative and medicinal drink. Even if the apples Chapman’s seedling produced were bitter and hard, ‘spitters’ I’ve heard them called, it didn’t matter, for they all mixed well in the grinder. 

Chapman would travel into a new territory ahead of the homesteaders and establish a small nursery with seeds he picked up annually from a cider mill in Pennsylvania. He chose a protected spot near a river or stream, secured it with brambles, and traveled on. The following year he would return, dig up his one-year-old seedlings. Apple seedlings with the right conditions can grow five feet or more in a year.   

My friend, Eric Schultz, who generously let me read his chapter on John Chapman in his book, Nation of Entrepreneurs, to be published by Greenleaf Publishing this fall wrote, “John Chapman was the oddest of evangelists, bringing gifts of heaven and alcohol in equal parts to the American frontier and running a business model that supported both.” There are not many followers of the Swedenborg religion today, but Chapman’s apples spread far and wide, and are certainly part of the proliferation of varieties of apples we now grow not only in America but all over the world.  It’s interesting how one’s passion does not always create one’s legacy.

I think about John Chapman when I read that we have experienced the five warmest years in history. We will soon be planting Southern apples here in New England, for in not too many years, our older heirloom varieties will not have enough chill hours to produce buds. Much of this heating up of the earth is because of our selfishness and blindness to the interconnection of everything we do, build, use, and desire. Chapman was a minimalist, even during a time when there was not much to spare. His potato sack shirt had armholes cut for sleeves and probably did little to protect him from the elements, but apparently, he never complained. What would we think if we saw this man walking along our streets, barefoot with “horny” toes, wearing a tin can cap, bearded and hairy?  We appreciate true iconoclasts often only after the person has died.

I came upon an interesting post, A Theology of Wild Apples, in the blog, American Orchard, Historical perspectives on food, farming and landscape.

 Yet well-off travelers in the late 17th and throughout the 18th century frequently cast harsh moral judgments on the subsistence-minded farmer and his wild, disorderly orchards. And by the 1820s, many moralists found another reason to condemn the seedling orchard: most of its apples were destined to be converted to demon alcohol. Temperance societies called for the destruction of wild apple trees as an essential step toward sobering up the nation.

Chapman, born in 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts, died in 1854 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Fortunately, a few decades later, his younger compatriot, Henry David Thoreau, born in Concord in 1887, celebrated wilderness, wildness, and, thank goodness, wild apple trees, writing the long essay, Wild Apples, in celebration of them. There is room for both: the domesticated apple and the wild apple.

Which brings me to our orchard of ordered rows. Last Monday, we finished winter pruning, and now the twisting rhythms of branches play the ground between the trees. We pruned on those days of coldest cold stamping our feet to keep warm, and finished last Monday, a 50 degree day with honey bees out flying. Here’s to a bountiful year of apples, those planted by crow and deer, and the straight rows of nursery stock.

Pruned Row February, 2019

Pruned Row February, 2019

And to you, John Chapman, thank you! May we be inspired by your life to care more deeply for every apple, and to appreciate the miracle of every seed.

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Goumi — An Unusual Fructus

A few days ago I had the pleasure of tasting my first farm-grown fructus of the season, goumi berries, a new fruit for the orchard. I knew the berries were ripe from their red-orange translucent color and the ease of release from the stem. Goumi berries have an astringent tartness with the first bite (I briefly wondered whether I should be eating them), but once through the skin, the inner flesh holds a citrusy sweetness. I lingered over the oblong seed, turning it in my mouth, and sanding off the last bit of fruit with my tongue before spitting it to the ground. Goumis remind me of mulberries, and I imagine, like mulberries, goumis would be delicious in pies, sauces, and jellies.

The goumi, Elaeagnus multiflora, comes from China. Its leaves are silvery below and glossy green above, similar to its sister plant, Elaeagnus umbellate, an invasive in America which grows up to twenty inches high and thirty inches wide, outcompeting native plants for sun and nutrients. Goumis have an Old World look that suggests they’ve been around a long time. No tender hybrid, but a strong matriarch who grows wide around the middle and rules her household.

I can attest that the plant grows on its own without much attention. The Asian pear orchard completely got away from me last year. When my daughter, Ariel, and I finally hacked our way through it last fall to liberate the young pear trees, the purple asters, bee balms, and other wildflowers were over six feet tall. (Some of you may recall the blog in which I described experimenting, once again, with creating a natural orchard.) By design, there is no access for the riding mower, and I didn’t get myself back there with a scythe or sickle. The goumis came through this neglect, strong as ever, growing three feet and flowering this spring with sweet scented delicate white blossoms for the first time. Many of the pears, on the other hand, suffered from so much competition — I promised them I would to do better this year.

I first heard about goumis though the permaculture world. Goumis are considered good companion plants for an orchard because they are nitrogen fixers. That is, like clover and vetch, they work with bacteria in the soil to make nitrogen accessible for themselves as well as nearby roots. I planted four goumi bushes in our Asian pear orchard with the hopes that the pears would then not need any additional outsourced nitrogen. Goumis are also touted for being an “insectory,” meaning they attract beneficial insects who might ward off orchard pests. Goumis make a hardy hedge and provide great bird watching early in the season. However, if you are hoping to harvest goumi fructus, you will need to cover them before the birds enjoy them all.  Our English word fruit is derived from fructus, one of the verb forms of the Latin, fruor ("have the benefit of, use, enjoy"). Eating fructus we enjoy the miraculous bounty of nature

Sweet Hay the Clown , Sculpture LH

Sweet Hay the Clown, Sculpture LH

Bonkers, a Revolutionary Apple

The origin of the word “Bonkers” is British, and refers to being mad or crazy, as in “the crowd went bonkers when the Beatles first appeared on stage.” As a word, it’s alive and fun to say, with the opening bon(g), almost like a deep bell, then the hard ‘k,’ leading to the ‘ssss’ finale. But the best part is that it’s a great apple. My Bonkers apples are bright red, hard, large, and unusually clean, meaning in apple lingo, blemish free. It’s a juicy apple, and while I can’t say I’m struck by its particular subtlety — lemony, or cinnamony woodsy or musky — I do really enjoy it. There’s a thwack sound when you bite it — sharp, clear, and crisp.

I first heard mention of the Bonkers apple at a round table discussion on apples, the twenty-four-hour meeting I attend every year with a group of iconoclast holistic apple growers. Michael Phillips, the organizer and author of the book, The Holistic Apple Grower, said how much he liked the Bonkers apple. I loved the name, so that’s all it took; a few words touting its merits, and I was sold.  

Bonkers apple on June 2, 2017, twice the size of the Stayman in the background. (and all other apples).  It's covered with white clay to protect it from the plum curculio beetle.

Bonkers apple on June 2, 2017, twice the size of the Stayman in the background. (and all other apples).  It's covered with white clay to protect it from the plum curculio beetle.

I ordered my Bonkers from Cummins Nursery, a small family nursery in Ithaca, New York. It was one among the many dwarf apples I bought for our wall of espaliered trees. Once it fruited, I started recommending it to other apple growing friends. They came back saying they couldn’t find it; the commercial nurseries had never even heard of it. It turns out there is good reason. Cornell’s apple breeding program named it NY73334-35 about fifteen years ago, and sent it around to a few nurseries for testing. Cummins was one of the nurseries that got it and grew it, and they in turn sent a free tree to Michael Phillips, who grew it and liked it, and decided to sell it to his customers. Michael told me that he would go out with his daughter, Gracie, to pick the first fruit, calling it NY followed by a long string of numbers. I can imagine their pleasure making up numbers, saying whatever came to mind, NY63587 or NY7575755, enjoying a certain silliness as father and daughter went out to pick fruit.  

Cornell never did release the apple; and thus it never became an official variety. However, when Michael decided to sell these apples, he needed a real name:

I polled customers and someone suggested Yonkers for the New York connection. I shifted that to Bonkers, in part because these fruit develop parthenocarpically, and so there can be some irregularly shaped fruit. But mostly because it sounded fun.

Are you wondering about the word, ‘parthenocarpically’? I had to look it up, and learned that it’s like bananas and pineapples, when the fruit grows but doesn’t need a seed. I also asked Michael. He told me:

That whole partheno business is akin to seedless watermelons. Fruit can grow without the ovule-pollen connection. It’s absolutely bonkers that this apple does this! Not every flower becomes an apple. And this also explains the irregularly shaped fruit that sometimes I find.

Bonkers is a cross between Liberty, a tasty modern disease-resistant apple, and Red Delicious, the apple that is so often snubbed today. When our customers tell me that they don’t like Red Delicious, I explain that Red Delicious apples picked right from the tree are nothing like the insipid Red Delicious apples sold at most grocery stores. Ours are crunchy, and not too sweet, with a little lime flavor that I like in an apple. There is a reason that the Red Delicious apple was named, Delicious, and that it was the best-selling apple worldwide for decades. In India, the third largest grower of apples in the world, it’s still the number one apple.

So while production in the United States has dropped considerably, that artful dodger, the Red Delicious apple, is alive and well in its newest guise as Bonkers. It’s an underground revolutionary, making its way slowly throughout New England, from one apple grower to another. If you want to be part of this Bonkers movement, plant a Bonkers apple. And if you can’t find one, let me know. I will graft a few Bonkers apples with scion wood from one of our Bonkers apple trees. However, you’ll have to wait a few years, however, to taste this rebellious fruit.

This spring's apple grafts on M7 rootstocks waiting to go into the orchard.

This spring's apple grafts on M7 rootstocks waiting to go into the orchard.

Natural Farming — Part 2 (continuation from last Sunday's blog)

The comfrey I planted throughout the orchard did not spread as I had been warned. We experienced our area’s driest summer in history. We don’t have clay soil like the Japanese farmer, Fukuoka, but quite the opposite; our orchard soil is classified as Hinckley, an exceedingly rocky, fast-draining soil. It is definitely not choice soil for an orchard. The young trees struggled just like the comfrey. Only the older trees, with deep roots, tapped into water. I realized that if I wanted to plant more herbs and wildflowers, and create a natural environment like Fukuoka, I would need to have some way of delivering water to all the trees.

We applied to the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) for a grant to put in an irrigation system, and our grant was accepted. They knew that with our Hinckley soils, the apple trees would surely benefit from irrigation. We installed the system ourselves, pumping the water from the surrounding wetlands. Now I could plant all kinds of beneficial and medicinal plants in the orchard—plants that would be good for our soil, and that might help with pest management.

The beauty of the orchard delighted me as the summer progressed. Sunflowers, rudbeckia, mountain mint, asters, goldenrod, bee balm, and echinacea flowered and fed the pollinators. When Blase asked if he should mow in the orchard, I replied, “Not yet, no.” The Jerusalem artichoke flowers were six feet tall, and the valerian stalks were covered with delicate white flowers. A few weeks later, he said, “I really should mow the orchard.” Again, I said, “No mowing. Not yet.”

The orchard was beginning to feel like a natural woodland. The trees were loaded with fruit, and it seemed like an abundant crop. I finally asked Blase to mow between the apple tree rows to accommodate the pickers, but we left all the wildflowers and natural growth between and under the trees. We had a great harvest season, the farm quieted, and Blase and I turned to other pursuits.

Heavy snow fell during the month of January. The drifts were over three feet high, burying the lowest apple limbs. In early February, warmer temperatures brought a thaw, and I went for a walk among the trees. Snow melts first around the trunks, and my eye caught sight of gnawed wood close to the ground. It glowed a bright orange color. Shocked, I reached down and brushed more snow away. The gnawed wood went deeper.

Voles! They had scampered across the crust of the deep snow, climbed over the 18-inch high hardware cloth fence that encircles every trunk, and dropped down between the trunk and the protective screen. There they made soft, grassy nests, and ate and lived in the safety of their cozy burrows with a pantry of food close by. In tree after tree, especially in the back of the orchard, these rodents had eaten the bark, chewing their way around the base of the trees and down to the roots. Many trees were completely girdled. Girdling, when it is complete, kills the tree by cutting off the sap flow between the roots and the crown.  

Voles girdled this tree.

Voles girdled this tree.

Voles even ate the lower branches because of the height of the hard packed snow!

Voles even ate the lower branches because of the height of the hard packed snow!

I panicked and called in reinforcements. With a couple of friends, we started shoveling the snow away from every trunk.

Gabi White tirelessly shoveling snow.

Gabi White tirelessly shoveling snow.

It was exhausting work. There was no way we could remove that much snow from around every tree. When we were too tired to shovel, we stomped the snow down with snowshoes. It felt like a war zone. Our hats, coats, shirts, and gloves were scattered everywhere.

Gabi White — resting!

Gabi White — resting!

After a short break, we got back to work, shoveled more snow, heated up and stripped to tank tops, but it was too late. The damage was done.

Paige O’Brien, one of our farm workers, made a detailed map of all the injured trees and numbered them on a scale of one to four. One was one-quarter girdled, two was halfway, three was three-quarters, and four was completely girdled. We cut down the threes and fours, because they would either die or struggle mightily. A weak tree would attract more disease and pests. In all, fifty trees out of three hundred needed to be cut down. A saw blade to each trunk, and the task was done. Such quick work compared to years of cultivating growth.

Later, I learned it had been a bumper year for voles. Nature is like that—a bumper year for acorns, for apples, and now, for voles. Commercial growers knock down the vole population every fall with pellet poison. I had done the opposite. I had created a perfect vole habitat by growing delicious herbaceous perennials and cultivating long grasses and flowering plants. Following the irrigation drip lines, the voles had scampered freely from tree to tree.

So much for a wild orchard. I would have to rethink my approach and mow down all the perennials in the fall. Now, we mow several times throughout the season to dissuade the vole population from even considering making the orchard their home, but we leave patches of herbs and wildflowers growing between the trees. In preparation for winter, even these plants get mowed down to the ground. We also pull the drip lines away from the trees. In the spring, the hardy plants come back. I can already see the healing herbs like comfrey, valerian, and mountain mint unfolding their leaves. The orchard is not wild, but it’s not a monoculture either. We are trying to live peaceably with the other creatures who make their home nearby — definitely not offering them apples trees to chew — but encouraging a diversity and abundance of nature.

The challenge remains, however.  I check on trees that aren't growing as well as I would expect and discover they are partially girdled, and two days ago I cut down a Crimson Crisp, a three-year-old ready to take off, but completely eaten around the graft. I'm discouraged. Then I smile at a dove sitting on  a young tree as a blue heron flies by. I see pink buds on almost every branch of some eighty varieties of apples. I am blessed.