I probably wouldn’t be working at North Star Orchard if it weren’t for the Asian pears. It’s true – they’re what drew my attention to this farm years ago at Philadelphia farmers’ markets. I’m not the only one; they truly have a cult following. I’ll often open my mouth to answer a question about them at a market, only to have another customer standing nearby answer enthusiastically for me. I’ve heard about Asian pears shipped away to kids at college who are yearning for a taste of home, and about some that are shipped each year to relatives in Europe. I know my parents won’t let me in the door at Christmas-time if I don’t bring pears along.
So many people love them, but they’re still a bit of a mystery to most. What are these things? These “apple pears,” “Korean pears,” “sand pears,” “salad pears,” nashi? Well, “apple pear” is misleading; they really have nothing to do with apples, except that they share a plant family (Rosaceae). What they actually are is another species of pear, Pyrus pyrifolia, that has been traditionally grown in Japan, China, and Korea. You’ve been eating them for weeks (if not years) now, so I don’t have to tell you what they taste like, or about their characteristic crunch. Unlike “European” pears, Asian pears are picked ripe and ready to eat – none of that guesswork about when it’s reached its moments-long window of peak ripeness before turning to unpleasant mush in the center. Keep them in your fridge loosely in a plastic bag and they’ll keep for weeks. (Especially good to know this time of year when the CSA’s ending!)
Perhaps the Asian pear fervor is only unusual in this country where fruit generally serves as a sort of placeholder. We’re not accustomed to great flavor, but rather a healthy something to tide us over or fill a lunch bag. Most of us grew up on inoffensive-at-best apples and identical-looking bananas, definitely nothing to get excited about. In Asia, however, where these pears come from, they’re served as a special treat or gift or shared around the table after a meal. Here, as well, I sense that Asian pears are treated as something special. If nothing else, the price inspires a bit more awe than we’re used to affording a piece of fruit, and reflects the hours spent hand-thinning the crop as well as their fragile nature.
All season long I’ve been looking forward to learning more about these pears and their traditional uses, and I have to confess, I haven’t been too successful. There still isn’t that much information out there, readily available on the information superhighway (in English anyway). I was, however, able to find a bit on their usage in traditional Chinese medicine. From Kitchen Medicine Cooking Medicine, a blog about Food, Herbs, and Philosophy from Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine:
“The most common Kitchen Medicine in the East for the lungs are Pears. Pears are cooling and moistening which in moderation is how the lungs like to be. Not only do pear’s cool energy counteract the heat building in your lungs with infection, but their viscous moist quality is a natural lubricant for the mucous membranes of the lungs, with expectorant qualities, too.
Bite into a ripe pear. Compare with a ripe Apple. Pears have a viscous quality. This is a moistening characteristic that targets the lungs and nasal passages, and makes them excellent food this time of year, raw or cooked.”
Appropriately enough, I was fighting off a cough as I did my research, and it took longer than it should have for me to realize that I should get up off the couch and go steam some Asian pears. I highly recommend this recipe (adapted from Nina Simonds’ A Spoonful of Ginger), even if you’re feeling 100% healthy. Once cooked, the texture of Asian pear is remarkably similar to cooked European pears.
For anyone who’d like to dabble in the world of pickle making, Asian pears can also be used in kimchi. I’d recommend using Olympic, a Korean variety with a little more crunch and tart flavor. Another Korean cooking technique I learned: use Asian pear to marinate and tenderize beef in recipes such as bulgogi and galbi.
Also, one of the nicknames for Asian pears, “salad pears” makes a great suggestion – they go fabulously in salads, providing a sweet and crunchy counterpoint especially to bitter or spicy greens. Finally, online success – a search easily turns up a number of Asian pear salad recipes…
All of these suggestions, however, are contingent on any Asian pears lingering beyond the moment you take them out of their bag. The traditional way to eat a North Star Asian pear is, after all, to simply eat it, as soon as possible, caution to the wind with juice flying, a bit of the mystery still intact.
When I gave one good friend the news that I was going to be working at an orchard, he laughed at me. Not to disparage my choice of career in agriculture, but because I’m short. I told him: that’s what ladders are for! And it’s true – there’s nothing I can’t reach with the use of a ladder or the Brownie (the hydraulic lift built for orchard use). Sometimes, I think it’s even helpful to be small – I can squeeze between crowded branches or the the wires in the trellis system, climb under limbs and find all of the lowest fruit. But, yes, usually, it would be to my advantage to have several more inches to work with or the coveted long fingers and wide handspan of the natural-born apple picker.
Today I felt especially diminutive in the orchard. To be honest, I felt like I was in a cartoon – a small character in a world of magical, supersized fruit. I was picking the Royalty apples in the young orchard. The advice I got before I headed out to pick: Use two hands for the big ones! The Royalty apples are freakishly large, some weighing in right around 2 lbs. They’re more than a meal; they’re an entire pie. Royalty is a large apple to begin with, but the trees in the first few years of production give especially large fruit. Last year, we dubbed them “SuperRoys” and separated out the largest to appeal to customers who go for that sort of thing.
Notwithstanding my 5’3″ reach, even the Royalty trees – topping out as some of the tallest apples after three seasons in the ground – can be mostly harvested from the ground. This might defy your image of an apple orchard, but commercial apple trees these days tend to be shrinking. The trend toward dwarfing rootstock means that apple trees might top out at 10 or even 6 feet. Every grafted apple tree has two components: the rootstock and the scion. The rootstock controls the size of the tree (as well as many other qualities), and the scion contributes the variety (eg Royalty, Gold Rush, etc.). A smaller tree means that it’s easier to reach (less ladder work), but also, as with most agricultural research of late, the development of these dwarfing rootstocks is an attempt to increase productivity. To produce apples, you need sunlight. The most sunlight reaches the outside edges of the tree, and there’s less and less light as you travel toward the inside of the tree. This shaded interior is what one of my teachers fondly referred to as the “zone of firewood production” (as opposed to fruit production). Smaller trees have less “inside,” with more outer edge relative to interior than larger trees, thus they can produce more apples per acre. (This is an oversimplification of some pretty complex interactions, but you get the general idea.)
At North Star, the youngest orchard is at the home farm near Cochranville. The apple trees are noticeably more dwarfed than the apple trees at the two other leased properties the farm grows trees on; in fact, their size and resultant weaker root system means that they require a trellis to withstand the strongest winds. Most of these trees are on “Bud 9″ rootstock, which means that they’re 30% the size of a standard tree and will offer a crop only two to three years after being in the ground. (Officially, that’s Budagovsky 9 in the tradition of naming rootstocks after the research station where they originated, and then shortening them to a confusion of M’s, MM’s, Bud’s, and random numbers.) At North Star, the apple trees in this orchard are in their third year and producing a surprisingly large crop for such young trees. At maturity, we’ll keep them at about 12 feet tall and continue to see a lot of apples in the first tier of branches that’s easily reached from the ground.
Maybe the orchard is a cartoon world after all – shrinking trees, gigantic apples… An orchard is not a wild place; it’s very much shaped by the human touch. From breeding to grafting to pruning, the trees themselves are human (co)creations. The orchard at large is also engineered, the tree spacing carefully considered for optimum production, the rows and alleyways designed around the tractor the way Los Angeles was designed around the automobile. It’s a planned endeavor every step of the way, a conversation with Mother Nature, but one where she always gets the last word.
(Rootstock info from The Apple Grower by Michael Phillips)
Poor Luther Burbank. The plant-breeding wizard created 113 new varieties of plums, 16 blackberries, 13 raspberries, 10 apples, and 35 fruiting cacti (just to name a few), and what he’s most widely recognized for is McDonald’s french fry potato, the Russet Burbank. This most ubiquitous potato didn’t even come along until after Burbank had sold the rights to his ‘Burbank’ potato (its parent, so to speak), but it proudly carries his name into more than 32,000 McDonald’s restaurants and a few other fast food joints as well, I’m sure.
It’s hard to talk about plums in this country without mentioning Luther Burbank. Around the turn of the last century, he was working with plums newly introduced from Asia, helping to popularize them and using them in his breeding program. The result was a significant shift in plum cultivation; his most famous variety, the ‘Santa Rosa’ plum, named after his adopted hometown, was a great fit for the evolving California plum industry. That said, the modern California plum industry may not have done a lot to warm our hearts toward the “new” Asian and hybrid varieties, which usually reach us in supermarkets back east as something resembling a mealy purple baseball. But I’ll vouch for a Santa Rosa plum, eaten dead-ripe off a tree in the California sunshine. That’s what Luther Burbank was working with, so I suppose we shouldn’t hold him responsible.
So, Poor Luther Burbank, with his unwitting legacy of french fries and mealy baseballs. And poor plums! Of all the fruits, they seem to be the most underappreciated in this country, and not without good reason. They really have suffered at the hand of industrial agriculture. Supermarket plums are just miserable. To boot, the sum total of our cultural knowledge of plums in this country seems to amount to the fabled Christmas plum pudding, dancing sugar plums fairies, and our grandmother’s prune juice.
I’ll leave the latter two alone, but what exactly is plum pudding, anyway? A peek into Escoffier’s seminal tome on “modern cookery” (published in 1921) reveals that plum pudding is a pretty involved affair, one in which you tie up your pudding, boil it for 5-6 hours and then light it on fire. The ingredients? The list includes beef kidney suet, breadcrumbs, apples, raisins, sultanas, currants, stout and brandy. No plums. Turns out, the word “plum” historically covered all dried fruits.
I’ve heard rumors that the Europeans, enlightened in so many ways culinarily (dare I mention the cheese course, a tradition of afternoon cake and coffee, or olive oil?), have a much greater appreciation for the plum. We should take note, because plums can be absolutely amazing. They come in a a staggering variety of flavors – sweet to tart – and colors – red, purple, yellow, green, blue, and every shade in between. There really is a variety out there for everybody, and if you’ve felt wishy-washy about plums up to this point, it’s time to try again. Because we grow so many different varieties of plums at North Star, there often are only one or a few trees of each kind. Since the harvest window of each is brief, most varieties make an appearance for only a week or two. Some have come and gone already for the season, so time is of the essence!
A bit of a plum primer for those looking to make up for lost time…
There are many, often confusing, categories of plums. Here are some highlights with examples of North Star varieties in parentheses. (Some of which have passed already for this year; some you can still keep an eye out for.) For our purposes, there are two main, overarching groups of plums: Asian or “Japanese” plums and European plums. Japanese plums originated in China, but western botanists first caught wind of them in Japan, hence the name.
Asian (or Japanese) plums (Vanier, Purple Heart, Redheart) – The type of plum you’re used to seeing in the supermarket. Often larger and tarter than European plums with a clingstone.
Burbank plums (Burbank, Elephant Heart) – These were bred by Luther Burbank from Asian plums and are usually large, round, and red or purple.
Damson (sometimes used to refer to Italian plums) – Named for Damascus and originating in Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Especially tart and astringent, and so generally cooked with plenty of sugar.
Gage (Greengage, Golden Transparent Gage, Rosy Gage, Oullins) – Gages are round, very sweet European plums.
Italian plums – Refers to egg-shaped plums with a dark purple skin and yellow flesh. One of the most popular plums for baking.
Mirabelle plums (Geneva Mirabelle) – Tiny and very flavorful plums (think small cherries) originating in France, usually cooked.
Prune plums – Any dried plum can be called a prune in English, but “prune plum” usually refers to oval, black-skinned, freestone plums with an especially high sugar content, which allows them to dry well.
Plums don’t technically ripen off the tree, so it’s important that we pick them at the right time, once their sugars have developed. Once you get them home, however, they will continue to soften and sweeten up a bit. If you keep them in the refrigerator, you can delay this process, bringing them out at will and they’ll be perfect in a day or two or three (depending on how soft you like your plums!). You might enjoy trying your plums at different stages of ripeness to see how the flavor and texture evolves. As my favorite plum, Purple Heart, ripens, it develops a rich, spicy flavor that tastes like cloves. And I ate a gushy-ripe Oullins plum the other day that reminded me of coconut. Then there are the ripe (some might argue over-ripe) Santa Rosa-type plums that taste just like banana!
One more note: You might notice a white film on your plums that appears to go away when you rub your finger across the skin. This “bloom” is just the naturally-occurring wax on the skin.
If you can’t keep up with your supply of fresh plums and you have a dehydrator, plums are also excellent dried. Relinquish those bad prune associations, I dare you! I dried quite a few last year and enjoyed adding them to hot cereal and muffins all winter long for a dose of tartness, which can be hard to come by in winter. And if you’re into that sort of thing, plums can also be preserved in alcohol. I’m guessing, though, that once you discover or are reacquainted with what real plums taste like, the only plum supply problem will be not enough.
In the film of this name (1966), the basic plot revolves around three gunslingers competing to find a treasure of buried Confederate gold. The film is full of gunfights, hangings, Civil War battles, and prison camps; it’s a real Wild West romp.
Here in the Savage East (2010), we’ve also got our share of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. We grow our fruit on three different properties (two leased, one owned), and they compete (in their own way) to develop a treasure of amazing fruit. Each property has its strengths and weaknesses, and we never know, until the suspenseful ending of harvest season, which one will prevail. Fortunately, there are not often gunfights, hangings, Civil War battles, or prison camps involved in the process.
Perhaps the analogy ends here, but The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly came to mind as Trouble (note the capital ‘T’) appeared in town on Sunday, July 25th around 3:30 PM. We’ll perhaps look at the three in reverse order:
The Ugly: Young fruits practically exploded by golf-ball sized hail. (Ok, so there are explosions in our story, if not actual gunfights). But, some fruits just had flesh wounds, and the majority of by-standing fruit got through the battle completely unscathed.
The Bad: Evil no-good hailstorms (dressed in black with face masks, no doubt) triggered by too-hot weather and the tumultuous weather patterns appeared on the scene. Fortunately, they can only be in one place at one time, so our other two orchard locations saw neither hide nor hair of them.
The Good: The (many) remaining citizen fruits of outstanding character who stood up to the onslaught are still strong and upstanding. We are thankful and awed by their bravery and fortitude. Three cheers to the brave heroes!
Ok, so we’ve seen dry dusty conditions out there this year – even a tumbleweed or two. We’ve just seen some amazing explosions. And earlier in the season, there were plenty of hangings (weighing down tree limbs to train them into the right position). What’s next? Only one thing – the amazing fortune of colors, sugars, and flavors!
How to pick a peach depends upon who’s picking it: the commercial farmer, the grocery store shopper, the local small farmer, and the farmers’ market shopper. Let’s look at all of them!
The Commercial Farmer: By this, I mean the big mega orchard grower (growing hundreds or even thousands of acres of peach trees!), who wholesales most, if not all of his production. Typically, this grower will pick on a calendar schedule, regardless how not-ripe the peaches are. His goal is to pick a peach which is hard enough to withstand not only shipping over long distances (across country or into a different country altogether) but also can hold up to bouncing around in trucks, ships, and planes for several weeks to a month before it is selected by a customer (usually at a grocery store). To make things easier for this grower, fruit breeders have bred for more and more red skin color on peaches. (By breeding, I don’t mean genetic tomfoolery but good old-fashioned sexual propagation between two peach trees). In heirloom or old traditional varieties of peaches, the little bit of red blush they developed was a sign of ripeness. So, as people grew to equate ‘red’ with ‘ripe’ on a peach, fruit breeders did their darndest to breed peaches that were as red as possible before ripening. To this end, we now have countless varieties of peaches that are practically all red, with little yellow (or white, in the case of white peaches) showing way before when they are truly ripe and ready to be picked. This suits the big mega peach farmer quite well, so he picks when the red color is there and ships them off.
The Grocery Store Shopper: This may have been you at one point or another (it was certainly me many years ago!). You go into a grocery store where they have, piled in tall pyramids of red color, heaps of lovely-looking peaches. Perhaps they’re labeled tree-ripened or local. Perhaps they’re just labeled with a price. Regardless, they look so lovely you just have to take some home. The question next is how to get those rock-hard beauties to soften up? This is where the “ripen in a paper bag” notion came in. As commercial (ie. the aforementioned red-before-they’re-ready) peaches came to the forefront, it became obvious that it was difficult to get the danged things to soften up at home. Fruit gives off ethylene gas, which is a ripening agent. So, by placing the peaches in a paper bag, the notion is the gases will be trapped in the bag and hasten ripening. Problem is, when peaches are picked way-too-early, they essentially die and cannot give off ethylene in the first place. Additionally, since they’ve been shipped and stored in refrigerators for weeks-on-end, any potential flavor components are essentially shot. So, oftentimes those grocery store peaches end up either never softening up properly or they’re mealy or end up moldy before they are eatable. As I always say, just as with grocery store tomatoes…just say NO to grocery store peaches! There’s no point in wasting your money.
The Local Small Farmer: A small farmer (like us!) who sells all (or most, depending on the farm) of their peaches directly to the customer, has a lot more work to do, actually, than the big mega-farmer, in order to pick peaches. For those like us, we want to make sure the peaches are ripe enough that they’ll develop the proper juicy texture and luscious flavors. But in order to do this, we can’t just pick based on red color. We have to look at the ‘undercolor’ of the peach, which can vary from white to brilliant orange depending on the variety. We also have to do some taste-testing (a nice perk of growing fruit, although there really can be too much of a good thing sometimes!). Each and every variety is different in appearance, ripening time, color and undercolor, and flavor, so picking at the optimal time can take several years of learning, evaluating, and note-taking. We also like to make sure that peaches don’t end up already bruised at the farmers’ market or CSA share, so we have to figure out when the optimal time is to pick them that they only have two or three days to go before they’re perfectly juicy and delicious. We have to ‘spot pick’ each tree about 3 times, picking the peaches as they mature instead of all at once. And then we have to get them into the hands of the people who will eat them in fairly short order. Whew!
The Farmers’ Market Shopper: When you shop at a farmers’ market for a peach (remember, you’ve said NO to grocery store peaches!), usually all you need to do is decide which peach to get. If you are buying from a reputable orchardist, the hard part (as mentioned above) has been done for you. Your job is to decide: white or yellow? (whites tend to be sweeter; yellows tend to be ‘peachier’) Peach or nectarine? (nectarines are essentially peaches without fuzz…so give them a try – but not from the grocery store!), large or small fruits (although size doesn’t necessarily matter. Some varieties are genetically smaller and some are larger). If there are several varieties available for sale…which to choose? Most small growers raise many kinds of peaches. Each variety ripens over 7 to 10 days and then the next variety comes into rotation. While many growers just lump them altogether as ‘peaches’, some (like us) like to keep each variety separate and named. Oftentimes, most peaches taste very similar (which is why many growers just lump them together), but sometimes there are standout varieties. So, which to choose? Just ask which one we like the best. You might often get a “well, they’re all pretty much the same and yummy”, but some weeks there will be a definite favorite. Then, just take them home and set them on the counter for a day or two or three (NOT in a bag!). Give them the ‘squeeze’ test. When soft to your liking, grab a napkin and enjoy!
I really like those in-between times of the year, when spring blossoms into summer, summer fades away into fall, when fall hardens into winter (just kidding on that last one). Seasonality is more tangible; you feel on the cusp of something new, even though you’ve experienced it every year of life so far. Perhaps it’s because my birthday falls during one of those times, but I also like that these passages are rooted in natural phenomena: the shortest day of the year, the longest, and those with equal proportions of day and night. Our cultural ideas of the seasons don’t always match up – we embraced summer weeks ago, pulled out our white linen and headed down the shore, but summer officially begins on Monday, June 21st (at 11:28 am to be precise, if you’re hanging out in Greenwich, England). And I’m always amazed (and thankful) that on the first day of winter (winter solstice, the shortest day of the year), the days actually begin to get longer. Winter’s just begun, but the sun is returning. The flip side, however, is that summer solstice signifies the days getting shorter.
Not to get too scientific or biodynamic-sounding on you (because I’m not qualified in either realm), but this seems fitting in the orchard. Spring is the time of new growth: flowering, fruit set, shoot extension. As the days get longer, the branches also elongate (about 12 to 18 inches, for example, in healthy, productive apple trees each year). Spring is now past; vegetative growth has slowed or stopped, and fruit is enlarging and ripening. As the days shorten once again, the accumulation of all that rampant sunshine, transformed by photosynthesis into carbohydrates, is expressed in the fruit. And in the garden at large, planting is almost over; we’re buckling down to reap the harvest for the next several months. The natural cycle – of growth, fruiting, harvest, storage – is of course in line with the seasons.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the bloom at North Star, and you’ve tasted the results of the harvest, but what’s going on in the orchard in that in-between time, before spring gives way to summer and that glorious six months of the year when there’s fruit to harvest? What have we been up to? Certainly not sitting around twiddling our thumbs and watching the fruit ripen on the trees. Spring is a very busy time of year in an orchard, especially in a young orchard like the three-year old orchard in Cochranville.
Unthinned Esopus Spitzenberg
Thinning and spreading. These are the key words. What exactly are we thinning and spreading? It sounds like we’re preparing to paint a house, or perhaps deal with an oil spill. Thinning is a literal thinning out of the fruit. As soon as bloom is over and pollination has taken place, you can see the tiny fruitlets forming at the base of each flower. Every flower has an ovary, and if it’s pollinated, it will form a fruit. The trees do some of their own thinning. “June drops” are the fruitlets that fall off the tree of their own accord (yes, right around June). They’re easy to spot – the fruits aren’t sizing up, and they’re a different color, often a not-so-healthy shade of yellow. Even still, the “fruit set” of a tree is, in our opinion, usually overambitious. The tree doesn’t generally thin enough to meet human standards. The fewer fruits on a tree, the bigger and juicier those fruits become. The tree has a certain amount of resources to spend, and if there are “too many” fruits left on the tree, those sugar resources will be spread awfully thin.
Thinned Gold Rush
So we come in, armed with red clippers if it’s Asian pears, or just fingers if it’s peaches or plums. We remove a lot of fruit, leaving just one every four or six or eight or twelve inches, depending on the variety of tree. As we thin, we’re also selecting for the biggest, nicest, undamaged fruits with the best position on the branch. Catch the Asian pear thinning action on YouTube. Every spring the crew spends weeks and weeks working their way through the orchard, branch by branch, tree by tree.
Spreading, one of the main strategies in tree training, is crucial for the development of young orchard trees. Training and pruning are the two main tools we have for shaping fruit trees, to guide them into the desired form and structure. Well-trained trees will need less corrective pruning later on and will develop a stronger, more fruitful framework, even producing fruit at a younger age. The goal of branch spreading is to “set” the branches at an ideal angle. Branches that grow very upright are vegetative, produce less fruit, and have weak angles. In other words, they form a sharper angle relative to the trunk of the tree, which is more likely to break under the weight of developing fruit. Branches with wider angles (30 to 60 degrees from the trunk is ideal, depending on which tree you’re talking about) are desirable because they will produce more fruit and are stronger, less likely to break. Without getting too technical, this works because there is an inverse relationship between vegetative growth and fruiting growth in trees. The more vegetative growth (i.e. leaves and branches) the tree puts its energy into, the less fruit it produces. Inside the tree, this is all controlled by hormones with fun names like auxins and gibberellins. By simply manipulating the position of a branch (up or down) you can manipulate the expression of these hormones. Pull a branch down, and it will produce more fruit sooner.
Tied plum tree
So, during that window in spring when the tree is actively growing and the branches are more pliable, we head into the orchard to do what I’ve affectionately referred to as “torturing baby trees.” The angles of very small branches can be affected by tools as small as a toothpick or clothespin. Larger branches are spread with metal spreaders of various lengths with pointy ends. One end sticks into the trunk and the other holds the branch in place at the desired angle. Another more drastic, and effective, approach is to tie branches down. A clip is inserted into the ground that holds a loop of string. Another string is then attached that connects the loop to the branch in question, holding it in place. Some of the trees (plums especially are notoriously vigorous) wind up with so many strings that it looks like some kind of Maypole celebration is happening in the orchard. By the end of the season’s growth, the tree’s new woody tissue will have hardened, and the angle we’ve chosen will become permanent.
I wish I could say that we were done thinning and spreading for the season, just in time to celebrate the solstice. But on a farm, there’s always more to be done, and, inevitably, it should have been done yesterday. I wish we were ready to simply revel in the ripe fruit coming off the trees (the first plums were harvested on Friday!), but there are more apple and peach trees to spread, more peaches and pears to be thinned. I suppose it’s also fitting that on the longest days of the year, there’s the most to be done.
When mid-May hits, a flurry of activity begins in the orchard. It’s fruit thinning season!
Remember all those gorgeous blooms of spring? Well, almost every one of those blooms sets a baby fruit…and there are just too many on each tree. From the tree’s perspective, this is a good thing. Since it’s just aiming to reproduce, the more potential seeds the better. From the perspective of a fruit eater, however, there’s just too many fruits on a tree. The development of excellent flavor is dependent upon the balance of the fruit load and the energy a tree can put into it. For nearly all fruit trees, we have to thin off quite a number of baby fruits, so the tree can put its energies (and sugars!) into the fruits that remain.
Apple, peach, and plum thinning can go relatively quickly (although in the case of plums, it can take an entire day to thin one single tree!). But thinning Asian pears is what takes up most of our time in the orchard during thinning season – both because we have so many trees and they set so many little fruits! One of our helpers a few years ago took it upon herself to count how many pears she cut off a single full-grown Hosui Asian pear tree, and the result was right around 2000! That’s 2000 individual cuts per tree to get the job done. (quite frankly, Mo, I’m not sure I really wanted to know that!)
Time flies by though – most of us listen to ipods or other listening gizmos. Once you know what you’re doing, the task isn’t too hard and it’s nice to listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks while working. Personally, I get a lot of ‘reading’ done during thinning season – cool!
Fruit thinning season finishes up (hopefully!) by mid- to late July.
It seems like just about everything nowadays is tending towards instant.
Online, of course:
-Connect to the internet, in an instant
-Order a book for your Kindle, in an instant
-Download a song (or a whole album) to your iPod, in an instant
But even in real life:
-Drive-through Starbucks; get your coffee, in an instant
-Order a refill for your prescription at the pharmacy, in an instant
-Know where you’re driving to via your GPS system, in an instant
In this day of ‘instant’, it’s nice to be aware of and appreciate things which do not take an instant:
-A long walk on the beach just prior to sunset
-The growth of your child from babe to functioning adult
-Following the cycles of the farm, from planting, to care, to harvest
I was startled one day in late winter when I received a phone call for someone looking for instant. In this case, an instant orchard. What they were looking for were adult Asian pear trees to put on their property. Not just one or two to fill a spot or two in their landscaping, as I was originally thinking, but an orchard’s worth.
The usual cycle of an orchard starts with ordering trees from a nursery. It can take anywhere from one to three years to receive the trees, depending on the nursery’s supply, how rare the variety is, etc. The trees arrive generally looking like long sticks with a few stringy roots attached. Planting, training, and waiting follows, followed by more training and waiting. And more training and waiting. Finally, several years down the road, you are (hopefully) rewarded with a fine crop of fruit to eat, share, and/or sell. Along the way, you, as an orchardist, make mistakes, learn more about how to be a better orchardist, and attempt to fix mistakes you previously made. In the end, if you haven’t made too many mistakes, the trees have grown tall and strong and pay you back in many ways for all earlier troubles.
This sounds oddly similar to parenting, actually, although we don’t get to (usually) pick out the specific variety of baby we want to raise.
So, these folks who want an instant orchard…well, it just makes me kind of cringe. First off, pulling a fully-grown tree from the ground and transplanting it elsewhere is a very delicate (and expensive) operation. The tree will be in shock. It may not survive the process, much less grow and be healthily productive. I suppose if you have enough money to throw at the project, chances of success would be better, but no matter what, it would still be hard on the tree.
And what of the heart of the orchardist? Carefully selecting and nuturing plus years of care and mistakes are all part of what makes a fulfilled orchardist. We feel great pride when our ‘children’ grow and become the best that they can be.
But an ‘instant’ orchardist? I can imagine that the only pride to be had is in the ability to stroke one’s ego. “Look, I spent $X and have an instant orchard”. Indeed; one that has been shocked through transition and struggles to survive with a caregiver who perhaps hasn’t even read a “Dummies Guide to Orcharding”. The heart and soul just wouldn’t be there, much less the knowledge how to help those struggling trees reach their full potential.
Instant is great for lattes, MP3s, and streaming videos, but for growing children, be they human or tree, I’ll take the long road any day.
We all have to make tough decisions from time to time. Today, we’re witnessing the result of our decision to cut down three large Norway maple trees in the yard. It’s a difficult thing to watch, and it’ll take some time getting used to them being gone. And the timing of this event with Earth Day/Week couldn’t be more at odds. How can I justify our actions? How can I say goodbye to the trees?
Justification is fairly easy, if I think with my head rather than my heart. One of the trees has been slowly dying since it was hit by lightning several years ago. And the other two? Well, they just make it extraordinarily difficult to see traffic when pulling out of our driveway – so it’s a safety concern – especially when we have CSA members and farm helpers coming and going. Of course, when those trees were first planted, this road wasn’t nearly so busy. But having a relatively new Walmart and Home Depot up the road brings not only a bunch of trucks but a bunch of shoppers by everyday.
But, it’s still hard to say goodbye to trees.
I can also justify our decision with the fact that since we bought this property, we planted more than 1400 new fruit trees. Trees which are even now blooming and will soon be loaded with wonderful fruit. I can justify our decision with the fact that we’ve taken a 10-acre piece of monocropped, worn-out cornfield soil and in a few short years have transformed it into a healthy and productive small farm. I can justify our decision with the fact that we will plant new trees around the house (likely sugar maples), but this time they’ll be placed in better strategic locations.
But, it’s still hard to say goodbye to trees.
And where will they end up? Well, the larger wood will go to farm helper Josh’s house, where he’ll use it next winter to heat his house. The smaller branches will be chipped and used as mulch around our fruit trees, providing them some protection from weed competition.
But, it’s still hard to say goodbye to trees.
How can I say goodbye to these trees?
I guess I’ve done so right here. Thanks for listening.
My first job ever was at a strawberry farm. At the age of fifteen I had no idea that this endeavor would be the beginning of a career in agriculture. At the time I didn’t really think I was cut out for it. I hated how my hands got so cold planting muddy strawberry plants on a frigid spring day, I was terrible with a hoe, my arms ached at the end of the day. But then again, I got to eat all the strawberries I wanted for free, and I never got sick of them. So maybe I should have seen this coming…
But what I started out to say was that when I closed my eyes at night after strawberry-picking, all I could see was red on green, as my mind’s eye continued the search for ripe berries. Nowadays, when I close my eyes to fall asleep, I see tree branches and potential pruning cuts. While I’m long done in the orchard for the day, my subconscious apparently hasn’t stopped looking for the right branches to remove from its imaginary trees.
On a good day, pruning fruit trees is the best kind of farm chore – repetitive enough that you get into a rhythm, stimulating enough that it keeps your mind active. It’s just you and the trees, the sun is shining, there’s the promise of spring in the air as the buds on the trees start to swell. You can feel your whole winterized self starting to thaw out. A pair of hawks soars and screams overhead, and time flies by as well.
On a bad day, you’re freezing, you can no longer feel your toes in your soaked-through insulated boots (good to -40°, ha!). You’ve had twigs up your nose, in your ears, and almost gouged out your eyes a few times. You’ve been whiplashed by branches in the face, and your brain has turned to mush. You stare at the trees, and while an hour ago you knew just what to do, the branches now have morphed into utter chaos. You’re tromping around, tripping over prunings, weighed down with at least ten extra pounds of warm clothing and hassled by the saw hanging from your belt. And if you were still picturing something too Zen, too romantic, add in the diesel roar of the Brownie (the hydraulic lift used for orchard tasks), the stench of the mushroom farm wafting over from next door, the slog through the rotting pears that have frozen and thawed a hundred times over.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying my first full season of winter pruning. I especially like having a solid answer to that perennial question all farmers face: “So what do you do all winter?” Working on the website, ordering seeds, and generally getting ready for the season doesn’t seem to cut it as an answer. No, I know all you non-farmers still picture us eating bon bons by the fire or lounging on a beach somewhere warm reading trashy novels. The idea of seasonal work is rather novel in our office cubicle culture, and I know it can sound pretty inviting when viewed from that nine-to-five perspective. People are curious what it’s actually like on the ground and hope their romantic suspicions are confirmed.
But I’ve learned that “pruning” is not a sufficient answer for the curious. Pruning is a bit mysterious to most people. Everyone can picture what weeding is like, but what exactly are we doing out in the orchard on a winter’s day armed with saws and loppers? Pruning is a task that needs to be done to some degree in a managed orchard every winter. You prune while the trees are dormant (“winter pruning” is also called “dormant pruning”), and while you can better see the form of tree without its leaves. Though you’re removing wood from the tree, winter pruning is invigorating. In other words, it stimulates growth, so we hope to encourage that growth to go in a desirable direction and fit the chosen form for the tree.
One of our main goals is to manipulate the vegetative and fruiting balance of the trees. The tree only has so much energy stored up, and that energy is going to be divided between vegetative growth (roots and shoots) and fruiting growth (pears, apples, and peaches!). As farmers and eaters, we’re hoping for a steady supply of high-quality fruit. If you’ll think all the way back to junior high life science and remember that lesson on photosynthesis, you can extrapolate that sunlight = fruit. One of the most important things we do when we prune is to “let light into the tree” so that sunlight can reach the fruiting wood. When summer pruning, you can see immediate results – take away a branch with all its leaves and sunlight streams into places that were previously shaded. In the winter, you have to use your imagination a bit. You also have to be able to look into the future of the tree… what will that branch look like after a season’s growth and with the weight of fruit hanging on it?
We’re also looking to correct any problems that have arisen since last year’s pruning (a beginner’s mnemonic I learned is “The 3 D’s”: damaged, diseased and disoriented). Last season was a rough year for fire blight – a bacterial disease that thrives in warm, wet weather and can wreak havoc in apples and pears – so we’re always on the lookout for fire blight “strikes” where individual branches (or worse) have died from fire blight.
Each variety of tree requires different attention, as do young trees and older trees. Just as you master one variety and get lulled into the rhythm of the cuts, it’s time to reset your brain for the next. This is not easy work, taxing on the brain as well as on the arms. Lunch is a welcome break, as is the end of the day, which often comes a little early on pruning days. Throughout the day I balance all the calories burned with steady doses of chocolate. Not quite like eating fresh strawberries all day long, but at some point I usually pull out a Gold Rush apple, stored away for winter, still firm and sweet after four months in the cooler and a fine reminder of the fruits of our labors yet to come.