Archive for the ‘apples’ Category

Fruit pics 2014

October 11, 2014

Just 2 weeks until the big event!  Meanwhile, Emily sent me some great pictures she took in the orchard:

Peaches (not sure which kind) – we got a great crop this year.  Lars Anderson, then Reliance, and finally Madison.  It was a cool summer, but even so I think I favor the early ones; seems like peaches should ripen in summer, not fall.


Dabinet (I think):


Virginia Crab (I think):virginia crab

Pail of apples from orchard – poor pollination this year (despite two active hives of bees) – not sure what’s up with that.  But we get more apples every year, and hopefully soon we will be awash in fruit.

bucket o apples 2014

2014 pruning

March 30, 2014

Despite crummy weather and the press of work, I ran up to Five Islands on Saturday to prune the trees in the main orchard.  After a summer’s growth, the trees typically look like this:


pruning example before


There is a lot of advice available in books and online about pruning, and I took an afternoon class a few years back, put on by MOFGA and taught by a professional orchardist, located at one of his customers’ orchards in Waterboro ME.  Some basic principles include:

  • Start with the big picture, looking at the structure of the whole tree, so you don’t end up snipping a bunch of twigs only to remove that entire branch.
  • Eliminate watersprouts (vertical branches that leap off the branches and the trunk), crossovers (i.e. conflicts between two branches vying for the same space) and anything that points back toward the center of the tree.
  • Aim for an open structure that lets sunlight into all parts of the tree; the old timers say you want to be able to throw a cat through the tree.  In a healthy tree that’s growing fast, you might remove half of the new wood or more in the spring.
  • For standard apple trees I aim for central-leader form, with scaffolds of 3-5 branches evenly distributed around the points of the compass, at 1.5-2′ vertical intervals.
  • The scaffold branches should be approximately horizontal, since that induces the tree to produce fruit.
  • You want the angle between the trunk and the scaffold branches to be close to 90 degrees, since shallow angles cause inclusion of bark that leads to weakness and breakage as the tree grows.  I use string (usually) and weights (occasionally) to tie branches down.
  • Different varieties have different habits.  Some shoot straight up and need to be tied down extensively to form a good structure; others spray out aimlessly and need all the help you can give them just to throw up an identifiable leader.

That same tree above, after I attacked it with the felcos:


pruning example after

Cider year nine – roundup

October 26, 2013

After nine years, thanks to the accumulated contributions of ideas, time, and equipment-building effort, and especially to the wonderfully useful and flexible barn that my folks built, the cider operation is getting to where it runs in a well-worn groove.  And it’s a good thing, since the great majority of my attention has been devoted to Pika Energy, and building affordable, high-quality home wind turbines.  

truckload of apples

Two weeks ago I visited Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, MA, and picked up two 600lb  bins of mixed cider apples – Kendall, Spencer, and Cox Orange among them.  The owner, Ann Harris, also kindly let me do some sanitation and gather a few hundred pounds of RI Greening drops, so the truck was quite heavily loaded down with apples for the ride home.  The going rate for cider apples this year is apparently $50/bin – illustrating the importance of top-quality fruit and value-added products to the economics of small orchard operations.  That same weekend I also needed to build and test a new wind turbine tower, as well as moving some cidering equipment up to Five Islands, so by the time I was fully loaded with dogs and bikes etc., the rig looked like some kind of Tom Joad/Johnny Appleseed chimera:

2013 big load of turbines and tower parts


The tower test was successful, and my folks and I unloaded the bins using a four-fall block-and-tackle that my dad inherited from a local gentleman, Don Spurr.  Don lives on in our memories every time one of his carefully-maintained tools proves to be just the ticket for solving some mechanical challenge:

emily lowers apples

The following Wednesday afternoon, Dave, Alexis, and I made the annual pilgrimage to Poverty Lane Orchard/Farnum Hill for cider apples.  I called ahead a couple of weeks, but for the first time in several years, we were disappointed that they couldn’t sell us a bin of bittersweets – they were too booked up with demand for cider fruit from as far away as Michigan and Oregon.  Brenda made it up to us by giving us a nice discount on the ~700lb or so of mixed cider fruit we collected.  We hauled the load with Alexis’ little Suzuki wagon, and it really drank the gas on the way home, but still burned far less than it would have taken to drive the big red monster all the way to the other side of NH.  When we got home, Fern got right into the action:

fern munches an apple

I managed to get up to Five Islands by mid-day on Friday, and on the way up I picked up the only big innovation in on the equipment front this year.  I bought a 100 gallon HDPE bulk tank from US Plastics, together with a hand-operated diaphragm pump rated for 15gpm.  Together, these made a huge difference in the management of finished cider during the big event.  Dave whipped up a wooden stand for the metal stand that I bought to go with the tank, so we could gravity feed into bottles and carboys.  Working the pump was a big hit with the kids:

Kate pumps the cider


Compared to commercial operations, we keep a very high standard for fruit quality going into the grinder; since we have plenty of labor and it’s a sociable activity, each apple is washed and inspected by hand, and any brown spots or other flaws are cut out.  But washing has always been an afterthought from a process standpoint, and in past years (especially when it’s cold) the washing itself hasn’t always been super-pleasant.  This year I grabbed some plastic bristle brushes at the Despot, and Holly and Ben whipped up a much more ergonomic washing station using an old washtub my dad found at the Georgetown Mall:

washing station


We started the festivities Friday evening with pot-luck Mexican at the shore cabin, followed by a black-powder demonstration (no bullets) by Jake, and revival of an old tradition, Viking Funeral Ships – in which small barges made of wood planks piled high with birch bark, pinecones, and kindling are set afloat after dark, and rocks are thrown from on shore at a sporting distance to smash them – if anybody has a photo of this, I’d love to post it.  

Breakfast Saturday was amazing as usual, with with Kelsey and Beth’s breakfast burritos and assorted pastry.  Cidering got fired up between 9 and 10AM, and continued on with a brief intermission for lunch, which was headlined by my folks with ‘Nebraska Cream Can Dinner’, a tradition they picked up out west.  As usual, we also fired up the bottling operation, kegging, carbonating, and bottling about 5 kegs worth of cider (minus ‘operational losses’ in the bottling step).  Here Tony and Rita prepare Cornelius kegs for transfer:

sanitizing kegs


Holly, Becky, and Heli took the lead on dinner, producing soups and amazing fresh baguettes. Here’s Holly working the dough:

holly makes bread


Dinner for 30-40 people was served in the barn this year, followed by Holly’s usual transcendent apple pies.  MomJones couldn’t make it to cider this year, but she sent us four large folding tables that made for a very convivial setup.  All told we produced approximately 207 gallons of cider, per the tally sheet, with an estimated yield of 69-70%:

2013 cider tally

Thanks again to everyone who participated this year. Next year is the 10th anniversary – I don’t know what we’re going to do, but it’s going to be big!



Pics of 2013 planting

May 3, 2013






Here are some photos that Emily took a few days after we planted.

ring of goodness around tree




redfield leafing out old tree, newground, fence


new pear tree new fence new peach tree

Orchard Weekend 2013

April 29, 2013

On Saturday several friends joined Alexis, my family, and me for an action-packed day of orcharding.  We put up a permanent woven wire fence at the south end of the orchard enclosing enough newground for about 8-10 trees, and planted new trees in that area and also between the existing apple trees.

We had done the preparation for the new fencing on the last orchard weekend two years ago, but had not had time to put up the fence.  So on Saturday we installed and tensioned the 6.5′ woven wire, stapled it to the posts, and braced it to convenient locations on nearby bedrock outcrops or stone wall boulders.  The woven wire (between 4×4 posts at about 22 foot intervals) makes a much more handsome and stout-feeling fence than the combination plastic netting and tensioned electric fence system we have been using, and counting the maintenance of the plastic netting and wires, I suspect it will actually end up being significantly less work in the long term.  Meanwhile, other folks raked the mulch away from the trees and spread manure and lime, as well as seaweed that was collected from the intertidal zone by an ambitious group of kids under the leadership of Jake and Joanna.  Emily and Joanna also patrolled for borers, finding a few small infestations in most trees and a couple of cases where the tree would clearly have been doomed without their efforts.  I didn’t paint the trees with latex and rotenone last year, and that might have been part of the problem – in any case, greater vigilance is needed.

We then planted new peach trees from Fedco, primarily in places where previous peach trees had died (some from apparent blight of some type, others from porcupine damage.  I’ve gotten reasonably good at bud grafting peaches, but I haven’t started a new batch, and I didn’t want to wait at least 2 more years, so I ordered several varieties from Fedco.  I also ordered another cherry tree just for fun, and we planted it on the southeast corner near the only other cherry tree.  We also transplanted a couple of apples to replace failed trees, and planted a new block of pear threes in the newground.  That area had been outside the fence, and was cleared and stumped a couple years previously, and left neglected to grow weeds and a rough sod.  Pear trees grow slowly, so I made the decision to plant them in the freshly broken newground rather than wait a year or two to cover crop it and smooth it out – we’ll see how that decision turns out.  Most of the large rocks and roots came out previously with the chisel plow and mini-ex, but I think it could use a final treatment with the moldboard plow and disk harrow before seeding down with oats and clover.  I’m going to try that mix because I’m sure the new area could use nitrogen, and the orchard grass I planted in the rest of the orchard is pretty aggressive, so it takes a fair amount of work to keep it tame around the trees.  I also turned over the sod between a couple of the newer rows at the west end of the orchard, to be planted in clover and pumpkins for the summer.  I’m going to try a mix of white and red clover in hopes of getting a long-term clover-dominated sod that can help feed the bees.

Thanks to everyone who helped out, thanks to MomJones for being with us in spirit and contributing to the tree fund, and thanks as always to my family, who enthusiastically go along with my orchard obsession.


Spring is on!

April 22, 2013

Yesterday Dave and I worked the newground on the south edge of the orchard – one goal for orchard weekend this year is to enclose the southerly boundary with permanent woven wire fencing, and while it had been cleared and stumped by Evan Holbrook a couple years ago, it was still pretty rough.   First I hauled off over a cord of firewood from the selective thinning we did in the woods to the south of the stone wall.  Then we used string to establish the fenceline grades, and the excavator to get as close as we could to those lines – the woven wire does not bump up and down over the terrain as well as electric or plastic netting does.  That being done, I hitched up the disk harrow and spring-tooth plow and worked over the new area, turning up a number of very large rocks which Dave shoved to the margins.  There are still a lot of roots in there and surely plenty more rocks, but the soil looked good, and with a bit of luck on the weather, we should be ready to string the fence and plant new trees in there next weekend.

2013 spring pruning

March 17, 2013

With apologies for radio silence, a brief report.  It was a cold, windy day, but it was the day I had, so Jake and I pruned all the apples in the orchard, and also the older trees in Pops’ garden.  We were a bit more aggressive with the older trees than I have been in the past, since they looked brushy despite several years of diligent pruning, and haven’t been fruiting well.  I also collected up some scionwood, in case by some miracle I get some time to do some topworking on the north side at Stroudwater.

The birch of Damocles; thinning south of the orchard

November 25, 2012

After the last storm blew through, someone in Five Islands noticed that a birch tree just to the west of the orchard had partially crumpled about 20′ up, and leaned over into a tall maple tree to the south, where it threatened to crash down on the orchard fence.  So while I was up for the holiday, Dave and I pulled it down and added it to the firewood pile.

The leaning tree was perhaps 14″ at the butt, one of a cluster of three, and all of them were dead or dying – we’d been watching them for some time, but obviously should have acted sooner.  We winched the two west-facing trunks downhill with a rope-a-long into a slot we cut in the underbrush, then skidded them out to the firewood area opposite from Um and Pops’ house.  The leaning tree was trickier – the trunk was flattened and bent maybe 15 degrees, with more than half of the fibers of the trunk broken.  The top was pretty well enmeshed in the maple it fell against, so it wasn’t likely to roll off to the west if we winched the whole tree that way; it could easily slide off to the east and crush the fence if we pulled the base out from under it.  There was enough dead wood in the top of the tree to make a serious headache for anybody standing too close to the base when it started moving. I considered just hooking the cable of the logging winch to the tree above the break and attempting to rip it off the lower trunk and drag it toward the northwest,but there was a chance that the lower trunk would force the top against the fence as it fell.  So we ended up with a hybrid approach, and in the end it worked out slick.  We put up a ladder and rigged chokers both above and below the break, and I put a little bit of tension on the cable.  Then Dave cut the tree at the base, leaving a hinge significantly stouter than normal, and cleared well out of the way.  Then I winched it over, with the chokers holding the two ends together after the wood broke, such that the whole mess just doubled up on itself and fell clear of the fence, landing with a big crash. It turned out the break corresponded to a giant hole that had been made by a pileated woodpecker, who was probably after ants in the soft core of the tree.

Then this morning we had an hour and a half free, so we went back over and started thinning in the woods across the stone wall to the south of the orchard, in preparation for finally putting up the woven wire fence to define the permanent southerly extent of the orchard.  We cut out a bunch of small maple and oak that had been topped over by the dominant trees; my thought is to thin down to the really nice specimens (mostly oak) closest to the fence, so as to let more light in, and then there are a bunch of nice maples a bit further south, so selectively thin that as sugarbush.  The route around the east side of the orchard is mostly high and dry, and gives good access to the woods to the south and further down the hill to the west, so someday we will probably use that access to improve the stand further afield.  But for now, keeping the orchard project moving forward is at least as much as I can handle in sparse free time.

Cider Weekend, year 8: in the big barn

October 22, 2012

Thanks to everyone who pitched in to make the 8th annual Cider Weekend run remarkably smoothly. The weather was downright damp on Friday and Friday night, so my folks dragged the cider equipment into the big new barn they’ve been building, while I made the annual run to Poverty Lane. Work prevented me from making the usual improvements to the pedal-powered equipment; I barely had time to assemble everything and make sure it still ran. Joshua and Kelsey got things kicked off right on Saturday AM with delicious breakfast burritos and chocolate pastries, and then we set to work.  We set up a nice little process flow, with washing, grinding, pressing, and bottling running counter-clockwise in the first two bays of the barn. We pressed sweet cider first, then the bin of Yarlington Mill I brought back from Lebanon. Thanks to Brenda, Steve, and the crew at Poverty Lane for finding us a bin of bittersweet despite the weird spring weather.

MomJones made a big pot of mac and cheese for lunch, which was washed down with copious quantities of cider.  More and more folks kept arriving, and taking turns at each station, and the jugs filled quickly. We bottled four kegs of 2011 cider in parallel with the pressing, using the dual counterpressure rig. We were cleaning up by 4PM, and the total production was approximately 200 gallons, with approximately 73% yield (plus however much went straight into peoples’ mugs right off the press).  Holly led an epic production of wood-fired pizza and delicious apple pie for Saturday dinner at #70, and Jake ran an extended tomahawk training session and contest, which was won promptly by Narath, who carried off the prize, a brand new ‘hawk hot from the forge. The kids got their turn at the tomahawks, and when the crowd thinned out a bit we played some old time music.

Sunday morning saw apple pancakes at #5, then more cleanup and some folks paddled around in Robinhood Cove.  Heli made a nice lentil soup to go with leftover pizza for lunch, and folks departed laden with cider. I sulfited the newly filled carboys, transferred them to the root cellar, and made a starter for Emily to pitch the following evening.

Thanks again to my folks, grandparents, and Joanna and Jake for hosting, to the folks who made all the delicious food, and to everyone who pitched in to make this year’s Cider Weekend the biggest yet.

Hive number two

April 22, 2012

Friday evening I picked up a second nuc of bees at Merrimack Valley Apiaries in Billerica. Saturday morning Emily and I hived them in a new hive inside the orchard fence, so they won’t have any excuse but to work the apple trees. We then pruned Pops’ orchard around the garden – some of the clippings went to the goats for a snack. The peach trees are just starting to flower, and with a week of cold and damp in the forecast I’m not sure how much pollinating is going to happen. But the apples are just barely leafed out, so if there’s nice weather next week the new bees will be able to get busy on them. Afterwards I did some whip and tongue grafts on a birthday tree that I grafted for niece Nola last spring; we put four different types of apples on a small feathered tree, but it did not get a fence around it, and despite it being right in a yard with a fairly active dog, the deer zapped all but one of the grafts. Now it’s got a loop of woven wire around it, and hopefully it will make it this year. I’ve been too busy this spring to do much work among the wild trees on the north side in Gorham, but we have a couple B118 rootstocks in the garden that didn’t take their grafts from last year, so if nothing else I’m going to graft them over to Medaille d’Or (which flowers really late) as a hedge against crazy spring weather.


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