Where we have been, and where are we going?

I was just looking back through early entries here on this blog, thinking about what we’ve accomplished and what comes next. The origins of the orchard seem forever ago at this point, but the first batch of trees went in to the nursery bed just a bit over 3 years ago in the spring of 2007, and it was 2008 before we planted them out in the orchard proper. We added a fifth row in 2009, and two more rows of expansion this spring. At this point the orchard has grown to about 32 trees and a bit over half an acre, and we should get our first (five) apples this fall, hail and bugs willing. At its current size the orchard should produce over 10,000 pounds of apples a year when it’s fully mature. And as much as the pursuit of growth is as American as, well, apple pie, it seems a good time to pause and think about what comes next.

In terms of raw manifest destiny, the current orchard is approaching its natural borders. To the north there is at least a bit of room for more apple trees, but the terrain becomes more complex, with thinner soil and outcroppings of bedrock, and towards the cabin seems more suited for berries than apples. Expansion in the northerly direction awaits a firmer plan for what to do with that entire area, so as to most efficiently deploy fencing resources. From the start the east boundary was to be an old stone wall, along which we planted the uppermost row of trees. There’s another stone wall to the south of the existing plot, with a triangular region between that’s been cleared and stumped but not tilled or fenced yet; that’s the most natural area for an expansion of a half-dozen trees or so, but I don’t feel a compulsion to plant it immediately. To the west there’s a very large oak tree that seems perfectly formed for a treehouse overlooking the orchard above and eventually the water below; I am loathe to cut it down while other options exist. To the northwest is the southern margin of the middle field; when I began the project I resolved not to plant trees on the fields that my parents and grandparents had cleared with great effort over the years. It seemed better to leave them for pasture or other agricultural projects, and should more pasture be wanted, the area west of the orchard and south off the middle field is an obvious choice for expansion, up again to its natural border at the stone wall where we’ve planted the Cornell University Sweet Trees (selected variety sugar maples). The sugar maple project is itself in a state of provisional completion, since this spring we extended the planting all the way to the shore road.

So it seems that a pause is due, at least psychologically if not chronologically, in orchard development. Other considerations intervene as well; Alexis is as busy in residency as she will ever be (hopefully); we’ve taken on another Maine land project including apple potential with Kauf and Kelsey, and I’ve started a new work project that promises to keep me busier than ever. There are also a number of loose ends and minor projects to be attended to: improvement of the perimeter fencing around the orchard, establishment of a plot of specimen hardwoods starting with the black walnut and basswood saplings that we’ve nurseried in the orchard, a second attempt at bees, and continued stonework and drainage improvements.

On the other hand, our husbandry skills are just now reaching respectable amateur status, and there are a number of attractive directions we could take the orchard project, starting from the solid foundation of our initial collection of varieties. Having taken the MOFGA pruning class I feel much more comfortable shaping and training the young trees in a productive direction. I am hopeful that our combined electric and netting-based fence system will remain effective, now that we understand the importance of heavily mulching under the fence line. Thanks to my mom’s vigilance (and possible benefit from the paint/rotenone trunk treatment), we seem to have the borers at bay, and I’m hopeful that with the addition of peastone around the bases we will address the vole problem this winter as well. And having learned and demonstrated our skills at inlay and whip-and-tongue grafting this spring, a whole new world of possibility is opened up in terms of economical propagation of fruit trees in ridiculous quantity.

So far we haven’t planted many of the popular modern apple varieties, and some of these are definitely worth checking out. Having seen what fireblight looks like for the first time this season, and especially where cider production is prioritized over perfect-looking dessert fruit, the recently developed disease-resistant varieties have a lot to offer. In the interest of sanity we have so far avoided the entire class of summer apples, which could eventually yield an exciting flow of early season sweet cider. And while we have so far prioritized variety above all else, I can see how within a few years we could be pretty happy to have small blocks of favored varieties, perhaps including Yarlington Mill, Wickson, and Dabinet for cider production.

When we started the orchard, we decided that having a good perimeter fence was critical, given my grandfather’s experience with deer and moose damage, and the levels of extra work and visual clutter involved in fencing trees individually. One of the interesting things I saw on a recent work trip to Switzerland and Germany was what appeared to be a common practice of having a row of very large apple trees out in the open in a field; they appeared reasonably well pruned, but the branches were well above the level that browsing critters could get at them. These plantings were attractive and visually imposing; I’m wondering whether we might give it a try. As an alternative to permanent fencing we might plant some standard trees out in the open with temporary fences, and as they grow prune them into umbrella-shaped forms with branches above moose height. This would allow us to add gradually to the collection and make use of nichey spots not big enough for a mini orchard block.

The new land provides its own set of puzzles and possibilities; it’s a sprawling area with dozens of wild apple trees, some way too far gone for rehabilitation, some of modest size and crying out to be grafted over. The soil there tends towards clay, in contrast to the Five Isands gravel, and access is an issue, effectively limited to foot-travel and wheelbarrows for now, with the most promising trees a quarter mile from J&K’s house. One reasonable possibility is to topwork a cluster of the more promising trees with scionwood from our existing orchard, and supplement with new plantings of disease-resistant varieties on seedling rootstock. In lieu of a permanent fence, we could put up temporary individual fences to defer the decision between a solid perimeter fence and training them high to avoid deer.

In summary – the orchard has reached a satisfying milestone, and there are lots of interesting possibilities and projects to be contemplated for the coming years.

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