A New Year for Apples

Many of you who have been following my weekly blog know that this fall I became quite discouraged about farming and the orchard and so much that I’ve poured myself into over the last ten years. In large part, my frustration was due to a fungal pathogen, Venturia inaequalis, better known as scab. But thanks to a persuasive mentor and the researchers at PRI, I’m finding the door is opening and there is light on the other side.

PRI refers not to Public Radio International, but to Purdie, Rutgers, and Illinois Universities, the name of the cooperative disease resistant apple breeding program that has patented apples such as Scarlett O'Hara, Sundance, Pixie Crunch, and CrimsonCrisp — all apples bred to be crunchy, attractive, tasty and most importantly, resistant to apple scab.

When I started growing apples in 2005, my mentor Denis Wagner’s first concern was what we were going to do about apple scab, one of the worst problems for organic orchardists in New England. Denis advised I spray micronized sulfur, a common material used in agriculture to fight fungal infections. It is a mined material and permitted under organic regulations. The Sumerians used sulfur 4,500 years ago to combat disease in their crops.

The scab fungus overwinters in the orchard floor. In the spring, after a warm, rainy period —  millions of spores float upwards into the tree like dust motes in sunlight. Landing on warm and wet, fresh green leaves, the scab shows up as innocuous-looking dark spots on the leaves. But gradually, these black cloudy patches grow darker and spread over the leaf surface. Unchecked, the fungus becomes rampant and jumps from leaf to fruit.

apple scab.jpg

The apples develop brown crusty scabs and eventually crack. Sulfur applied to the leaves changes the pH and makes them an inhospitable host. The problem is getting spray onto every leaf surface — next to impossible — and renewing the coverage after it rains. An organic orchardist might need to spray sulfur fifteen times or more.

Over next few years, I learned through my holistic apple grower’s network how to calculate the spore release and not spray at every threat of precipitation. I would spray only when there was a large percentage of inoculant. I found I could keep the virus in check, unless we have a bad year – meaning a very wet spring. Then it becomes impossible to control. Ten years ago was a ghastly season. The scab was so ugly on the Macintosh trees that I decided to take down every Mac that wasn’t in the first three rows. My thinking was that I could confine these scab-susceptible trees and control it better. Macintosh trees are notorious scab magnets.

This year was again a banner year for scab. We lost half our fruit. Scab jumped from the Macintosh to the Golden Delicious, and then to the Blushing Golden, varieties that are normally scab resistant. With the Macs in the front three rows of the orchard, it was not a welcoming site for those entering the orchard: for people coming to pick apples for the first time, it was alarming.

I consulted with Denis again. “Remove them,” he said. “The trees are old and very densely planted.”  I hemmed and hawed. I didn’t want to take down any trees. But I knew that even when I sprayed I got only about 50% coverage because of the tree size and density. I told Denis I would consider removing them and began my Macintosh cogitation.

What to do? Take down thirty-five beautiful trees? Take down only one row to start? I spoke with another apple grower and he suggested leaving a few Macs – because they make lovely early season cider.  ‘Ah, what a good idea,’ I thought. I mentioned this to Denis. 

            “Linda,” he said. “You made the decision to get rid of them, just get rid of them.”

First Row of Macintosh Trees

First Row of Macintosh Trees

A phone call came in.

            “Don't hang up!” a gentleman said. “This isn’t a solicitation. I’m interested in organic apple wood.”

I would have hung up, but at that moment I was stewing in apple wood decisions. It would take considerable labor to cut down thirty-five full size trees, pile the branches, burn them, and stack the burnable logs. 

            “We’re looking for some organic apple wood to make charcoal,” the man said. “We think we can sell it to high end organic restaurants.”

He had my attention. He was in Arizona, but coming to New England and wanted to visit the farm, meet me, and see the trees. I explained that this year, I actually had a few large trees that I was planning to take down. We agreed to meet.

Len Kronman visited along with his business partner, Dave Santos. I don’t know how they are related, but Dave is younger and Len is older. Dave seems to be the on the ground man and Len is perhaps a financial backer. While we were walking through the orchard I told Len about my attempt at creating a wild orchard pointing out Valerian and Jerusalem artichokes growing between the trees.

            “My daughter-in-law had just published a book on wildflowers. Would you like a copy?” he asked.
            “Oh yes,” I replied.
            “Please send her a copy,” he directed Dave.

Len is also an art collector; he specializes in Native American art. But as he said a few times, he just loves to collect. We took a tour of sculpture on the farm, and he chose a piece of mine, a small figure sitting on a tall rock. All this from organic apple wood . . .

Dave and I chose a date when he would come with a few men, a chipper, and a truck. Then he called back, apologetically.

            “Would it be all right if we chipped and left the branches less than 2” in diameter? It will be too small for charcoal,” he explained. “If we take it away we will need to bring two trucks – one for the charcoal making wood and the other for the twig stuff.” 

Chipped wood from the smaller branches is called ramial wood chips. They have more nutrients than older wood. They’re hard to come by unless you have your own chipper.  We always burn our prunings in a huge bonfire and then spread the ashes around the trees.

Bonfire of Apple Prunings

Bonfire of Apple Prunings

            ‘Nutrients for the trees,’ I thought. “I would love to have them!”

            Dave and his crew won’t be here until after Christmas, but I am feeling better about removing the Macintosh trees. I’ve already ordered replacements — two early season, scab resistant varieties from the PRI breeding program. In the front row will be Pristine, a hardy yellow apple, with crunch and sweetness, that I already grow. And for the second row, Redfree, another early season apple with skin color 90% red wash over yellow. The tree salesman also convinced me to put in an order for the new Evercrisp apple. He said, “You might have to wait a year or so, but you’ll love it!”  I’m looking forward to the ripening of the new year filled with things not yet known, not yet tasted, not yet seen. I hope you are, too! All best for the Holdiays!




The Changing Landscape

Change is in the air. The studio that I moved into sixteen years ago with a truckload of metal, wood, and cloth is quiet. This studio that supported the work on projects such as the emotional fourteen panels of The Stations of the Heart, the outdoor sculpture exhibit A Circus Comes to Fruitlands, and the ten Zen Ox Herding sculptures, has no discernible pulse of life. It is now empty.

Before my arrival at the farm, the space had been used as an unheated garage for an old Model T.  I did the cheapest and quickest redo to turn the space into my studio. I added heat, posts to support a dropped ceiling, fluorescent lights, and windows. The floor remained; its old boards spattered with oil and grease had character. In recent years, the studio has been a carnival of activity, a crowded side show with circus barkers calling out from every direction, “Finish me! Work on me! Pick me up! Use me! ”

Studio, March, 2011

Studio, March, 2011

I’ve made close to two hundred small sculptures with found objects, wood, stone, and bronze figures. Though many have sold, the studio feels cramped with surplus materials. I had hoped to extend the footprint with a construction project, but that plan was delayed and the permit lapsed. I didn’t have the heart to go back through the entire process of site plan review and other hearings. The studio is within the wetlands buffer and to enlarge it requires these approvals. But even without the enlargement, I still wanted to make a change.

With a couple of our farm workers, we carried out and stored the large items like my workbench and tables. We carried metal to one location and wood to another; the welder and tools went below the studio while paint supplies, tape and epoxy glues went to the house along with wax sculpture-making supplies. The studio emptied quickly and easily. Oddly, I was never bereft or hesitant about what was happening. I felt only a keen anticipation for the unknown ahead. If I try to think of a parallel situation, like emptying my closet and giving away most of my clothes except for the most useful items, it doesn’t feel at all related. This isn’t about clutter clearing; I gave away very few items. It has more to do with wanting to experience the blank canvas, the way a painter often prepares a fresh surface to begin a new painting. I want to experience an empty space before I begin to work again.

Studio, August 30, 2017

Studio, August 30, 2017

I remember reading that Japanese farmers used to write haiku in winter when their farms were at rest. But today agricultural production has expanded with the use of hoop houses and greenhouses to produce food for more months of the year. Farmers no longer write poetry because there is no break in the seasons. They have no time to experience the quiet, the emptiness, that inspires an expression of intimacy. There is no fallow ground. Emptying my studio feels like purposely leaving a field unplanted.

I will be making some structural changes inside the space. The ceiling will be opened to the roof over two-thirds of the room, and a new loft with dormer windows will occupy the other third. The west wall will have no windows — I can't wait to have one large wall with nothing on it. The south side will have more windows for two large camellia plants, a lemon tree, and a bird of paradise plant that live inside the studio all winter.

The improvements will be wonderful, but I know that the real improvement has already happened. I'm getting rid of things – old stories and habits. I am committed to re-entering this space in a quiet way so that I can listen to what my innermost being truly wants to do. The empty studio is an open heart where all is waiting, beautiful, possible, and vulnerable.

Fall is a good time for renewal. It’s that delicious season when the fruit is ripe for picking, yet the trees have already begun to store sugars for winter. Here, at Old Frog Pond Farm, we are only one week away from opening the orchard for pick-your-own apples, a most splendid time, yet like the trees, I too, am preparing for winter.

Ripening Fruit

We have been coming to this little cabin near the beach in Wellfleet for the last ten years. We have the opportunity to rent it in late June and though our minds say, no, you can’t leave the farm, we rent it anyway. Otherwise, we might lose the opportunity.

And farmer Blase clearly needed the rest!

And farmer Blase clearly needed the rest!

Then I received an email from an orchard consultant, Kathleen Leahy. ‘Bad weather’ the subject line said:

Hi all,

Looks like a bunch more hail came along today and knocked out more of the crop – not all precincts have been heard from but quite a few orchards seem to have been affected. . .

This consultant reminded growers to spray strep, streptomycin that is, within twenty-four hours.  “And of course, call your insurer ASAP.” Hail pierces the skin of the apple and leaves an opening for the fire blight bacteria to enter. Fire blight can be a horrendous problem for growers. It enters the fruit and then the tree, and can also spread to other trees, killing them in a season. For the organic grower, there is little to do. Early season, we spray copper to clean any residual fire blight; but we do not spray streptomycin. We can only look for the telltale blackening of the leaves and a shepherd’s crook bend to the end of the twig, signaling that it is time to get out the loppers and remove the branch before the bacteria moves into the rest of the tree.  Damage from hail on the fruit amplifies the danger fifty-fold. I had to go home and check on the fruit.  

It’s already been a difficult season for some apple growers. Too much rain makes spraying difficult and scab (Venturia inaequalis), one of New England’s most challenging apple diseases, has been especially difficult for me to control. The scab fungus overwinters in the orchard floor under the trees. After a warm, rainy period, millions of spores float upwards into the tree like dust motes in sunlight. Landing on the young wet leaves, the scab begins to grow, first showing up as innocuous-looking dark spots on the leaves. Gradually, these black cloudy patches grow darker and spread over the leaf surface. Unchecked, the fungus becomes rampant and jumps from leaf to fruit. The apples will develop brown crusty scabs, be misshapen, and eventually crack.

This year, every time I thought about spraying for scab, it was either raining, going to rain, or too windy.  I didn’t get enough sulfur on the trees, and when I did spray, it was immediately washed off. Sulfur is, at best, only a mediocre material to use compared to modern chemical fungicides. Sulfur works by changing the pH of the leaf surface, making it inhospitable to the scab fungus. I could use lime sulfur; it’s stronger and burns the fungus on the leaves. It’s the harshest material I have in our arsenal, but I haven’t used it in many years. Four years ago, I opened the jug, and its contents had thickened into crystals. I tried to pour off some of the amber-red liquid, but the color reminded me of the chemo drugs I've taken and every pore in my being rebeled at the idea of spraying it.

Macintosh apples are scab magnets.Our Macs are among the oldest trees in the orchard; they are large and densely planted. Even spraying in an ‘easy’ year, I have a difficult time controlling scab on them. Every year I vow to do better. But this year, our Macs look terrible. It’s doubly sad because they are in the first few rows – we have lots of beautiful and healthy fruit farther back in the orchard.

Morning dew on Williams Pride, one of our early apples.

Morning dew on Williams Pride, one of our early apples.

Arriving home from the Cape, I pulled into the driveway, let the dog out of the car, and immediately went on rounds to inspect the fruit. Blase had returned a day earlier to hill potatoes and had already told me that he hadn’t seen any hail. I started in the raspberry patch; all looked fine there. I pulled some weeds, found a little of the troublesome dodder, and noted that it looked like we would have quite a lot of early raspberries. The blueberries, heavy with fruit, were still a week away from the beginning of harvest. The Macs with their scab hadn’t improved; no amount of wishful thinking would do that. But I was relieved — no hail damage!

The next morning, one of the meditators who sits regularly in our meditation hut behind the orchard told me she had hail and that her neighbor’s garden flowers were completely ravaged. Then an inquiry came in from our local paper. Joan Eliyesil writes about farms and farming in Harvard and she had heard from Frank Carlson of Carlson’s Orchards that the crop on their Bolton Road apple trees was decimated, likely only good for juice. Libby Levinson, another apple grower in Harvard, told me that Bolton and Sterling got hit badly. She wanted to know about our orchard.

We were lucky this time. But there are still two months for the apples to ripen before harvest. Fruit growing is a long season of perpetual concern, like that first year your teenager drives at night and you don’t sleep until you hear the car door close. Fruit growers experience this anxiety every year. Maybe that’s why a good fruit harvest is such a cause for celebration.  Fingers crossed!

There are Mushrooms and There are Morels

I’d heard people talk excitedly about hunting ‘morels,’ but never shared that experience. The only mushrooms I gather and eat are the shiitake we grow on logs here at the farm. When Holly, one of our farm workers, approached me in the orchard, and said, “What are those mushrooms under the trees?” I immediately went over to look.

Holly had been straightening out the irrigation drip lines, pulling them close to the trunks in the tree rows, so that when we mow they won’t get snagged. I had been weeding around young trees, putting cardboard down to suppress the weeds, and covering the cardboard with bark mulch. I followed Holly down one of the rows as she looked for a mushroom to show me. “Morels,” I said, instinctively, peering under the canopy of a large tree. I recognized the morels without really knowing I was familiar with them.

When I returned to the house I looked up morels, just to be sure. One photograph was all that was required. Sure enough, morels love growing under old apple trees. Morels have a distinctive shape, eerily similar to brain coral in surface, with elfin-like rounded turrets that poke up out of the ground, leaning this way and that.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Morels particularly like apple trees, poplar, and elm, but can be found just about anywhere. The challenge is to spot them. Sometimes you have to walk by a site several times, but once you notice one, you will usually see many more. Morels like days of sixty degrees and nights of forty degrees, and, of course, moisture — just the conditions we’ve had all spring. So perhaps we have had morels before, but so few that I didn’t notice. This is a bumper year for morels, they are calling out to be harvested. Otherwise, the mushrooms will dry up in a few days, resembling dark rice paper that will melt back into the ground. It did occur to me that I probably shouldn't be writing this blog—morel seekers guard their favorite gathering locations with religious fervor!

When I decided to collect the morels, I read about the best way to harvest them. Some aficionados claim that you should cut them just at ground level; others, that pulling with just a slight tug releases the mushroom with a little knob covered in dirt. The ones who favor cutting say that plucking may damage the mycelia threads and reduce future harvests. I decided to try both techniques. I went back to the orchard with a basket and pocket knife. Pulling them seemed so easy, as if they simply released willingly into your hand. It didn’t feel like I was doing any damage. Cutting them off is neat and clean, but left a hole in the hollow stem open to the air. After trying both approaches, I found myself preferring the pluck method, and harvested enough for lunch.

Blase and the day’s workers, Kevin, Mike, and Holly, were already in the kitchen. I sliced up the morels and added a few shiitake. In a heavy frying pan, I poured a little olive oil and a generous tad of butter. When the pan was hot and the butter melted, in went the mushrooms. While they were cooking, I added a little salt, a little rice bran oil with a very small amount of shoyu, and balsamic vinegar. We shared the exquisite, rich taste. I couldn’t imagine they would ever taste this good again. Two days later, my daughter, Ariel, and I went hunting, and brought home another basket full.  I cooked them again, and they were scrumptious.

Morels with a couple of small shiitake.

Morels with a couple of small shiitake.