If you want to get a feel for the life, history and terrain of the Middle Atlantic, head north or west, to the foothills of the Appalachians and to the apple orchards that are enjoying their season.
The boughs are heavy with a fruit whose sweet-tart flavor seems to capture the essence of the landscape. I was indulging in this moment the other day, chewing on crisp apple slices as I took in the rolling pastures and hedgerows of eastern Pennsylvania, and the pale and streaky skies above the red barns and gray silos.
In the Piedmont from Pennsylvania to Virginia and beyond, the apple has provided sustenance and comfort for generations of orchardists and their customers. In the supermarket, apples arrive year-round from other hemispheres; still, the local orchard and its season remain iconic.
It is hard to gauge the regional apple’s better moment: the current harvest or the spring blaze of blossom. I remember driving one April past a large orchard and being overwhelmed by the geometric beauty of hundreds of trees in rank and file, smothered in bloom.
If I had stopped, I would have found the blush pink flowers attended by thousands of honeybees. The fruits of their labor could be found earlier this month in a 1,000-tree orchard on the side of a hill in Berks County, Pa. I had driven to the third annual Organic Apple Festival put on by the Rodale Institute, the nonprofit group dedicated to advancing the cause and science of organic gardening and farming. Its 333 acres include pastures, crops and demonstration gardens, but it was to the hill above the stone and red-timber barn that I was drawn.
The trees, planted in blocks of 25, are now probably 15 feet high and half that across, even with a regimen of winter pruning. “We haven’t fertilized in 20 years. Pruning is a big problem,” said Jeff Moyer, the farm director, who has worked in these fields since 1976. The rural life seems to have served him as well: He has glowing complexion and walks briskly, with a coiled stride.
Moyer, naturally, is a big fan of organic methods of cultivation: Rodale’s publishing arm puts out Organic Gardening magazine, and the whole enterprise is named after J.I. Rodale, the champion of organic gardening in the postwar years of better living through chemistry.
Moyer and other disciples of the creed will tell you this: Organic gardening isn’t so much about replacing synthetic pesticides with natural ones as it is building soil life so plants are inherently healthier. That said, raising apples organically is a challenge. It’s a fruit beloved by both pests and diseases. The major diseases include fire blight, which kills branches, and apple scab, which disfigures the fruit. The pests are legion and a major culprit is the plum curculio, a weevil that pierces the young fruit and causes it to distort as it grows.
In the Rodale orchard, the gardeners chose Liberty and two other unnamed but similar varieties from the venerable breeding program at Cornell’s Geneva Experiment Station in New York.
The three varieties were bred for scab resistance, but still need a lot of intervention. One strategy is to allow wildflowers to grow beneath the trees — this draws wasps and other insects that prey on the pests. The gardeners also rely on pheromone lures, which confuse pests and stop them from mating. It’s an approach that requires knowledge of not only what insect to target, but when. “In an organic system, it doesn’t mean no management,” Moyer said. “It means more intensive management.”
Much of the fruit has a chalky bloom on it from the sprays of kaolin. By covering the fruit in this white clay, you minimize the pest damage. “It would be like you going through six inches of chalk to get to your blueberry pie,” he said.
Much of the fruit remains blemished, but that didn’t stop hordes of people braving a drizzly Saturday to gather the crop. To see many families with young children was heartening. The kids carried the bushel baskets and climbed in trees to pick the fruit. The apple harvest becomes a formative experience to a new generation.
And in this season of tree planting, what about planting apple trees in your yard for future harvest? Choose varieties that you like, are hard to find and resist disease. Plant at least two trees for good fruiting, and think about the rootstock and ultimate size. Semidwarf stock will give you 15-foot trees, dwarf rootstock a more manageable 10 feet.
I have no more room for apple trees, but if I were planting more, I would plant varieties of apples that hold up to baking, given the dearth of superior culinary apples in the marketplace.
Phillip Baugher of Adams County Nursery in Aspers, Pa., near Gettysburg, recommends a number of disease-resistant varieties bred with the home gardener in mind. In addition to Liberty, he suggests Pristine, Crimson Crisp, Crimson Gold, Crimson Topaz and Gold Rush. The nursery (717-677-8105) is taking orders now but won’t ship until the spring.
Apple trees are more fuss than an ornamental such as redbud or dogwood, but why not go to the extra effort to have a pretty tree that not only marks the seasons but feeds the household? As Moyer says: “I tell everybody, ‘Just grow something you’re going to eat. It will help you form a relationship with your food that you never had before.’ ”
And more than any other plant in the garden, the apple tells a compelling story. Liberty counts as one of its parents the apple Macoun, itself the result of breeding at Geneva: Its parents are Jersey Black, now lost to cultivation, and the McIntosh, still very much with us. I grow McIntosh and love its spicy flavor. It is named for John McIntosh, the son of Scottish immigrants who moved to Ontario from New York after the War of Independence. He found it as a seedling as he was clearing land on his farm, and he came to call it the Red McIntosh. His son recognized its value and began propagating it commercially. The original tree died off in 1908, suffering from a nearby house fire, but its scions were spread wide and far by then.
Thus, the apple’s story is woven into ours. In the Bible, the apple got us off to a bad start. Spend some time in an orchard at this time of year, and you have to believe the Creator has forgiven us a little.
Follow @adrian_higgins on Twitter for updates on gardening and other cosmic events.