Experimental Homestead

Fruits of Labor: adventures in pomeography

A cross between Golden Russet and Cox’s Orange Pippin.  It’s pretty, but still under evaluation before I can recommend it, or not.

“Annual vegetables are like getting a goldfish.  Trees are like getting a tortoise that might outlive us.”



When we moved here to Turkeysong six and a half years ago, it was a very rainy December.  We moved into a tiny trailer with just a propane oven for heat.  I was rather unhealthy that winter with long continuing complications from Lyme disease, so my physical resources were limited.  But it was an exciting time and full of promise as we embarked on a long held dream.  Bathing was accomplished at the nearby hot springs most of the winter until I built a wood fired bathtub which worked passably well.  Parking was a mile walk down the 4 wheel drive only road, and the winter was so wet that only two trips were made driving in the 1/2 mile driveway before late spring arrived.  I carried office chairs, a desk and sheets of plywood down the half mile drive.   I remember many times walking in at night after bathing at the springs, exhausted, sick, dizzy and weak.  Most days I spent laying down alone in the damp cold miserable trailer feeling ill and tapped out.  The Accommodations were very uncomfortable, but frugality ruled the day and I still knew where my priorities lay.  Rather than move toward better shelter, showers, making the driveway passable or other creature comforts, I started preparing to plant trees and put in a garden.

The first year’s nursery row of apples, peaches, pears and cherries

I don’t get why everyone doesn’t see fruit and nut trees the way that I do, or make them a priority.  Once established they can give so much for the effort expended in establishment and maintenance.  Trees also have a charisma and substance that is of a nature very different than other plants.  You can’t develop much of a relationship with a broccoli plant in one season.  Annual vegetables are like getting a goldfish.  Trees are like getting a tortoise that might outlive us.

Trees currently on the place are 11 Olive, 40 Apple, 9 Sweet Cherry, 2 Pie Cherry, 3 Chestnut, 8? Almond, 9 Carpathian Walnut, 3 Asian Plum, 7 Prune, 5 Feijoa, 2 Loquat, 5 European Pear, 1 Asian Pear, 2 Persimmon, 1 Jujube, 4 fig, 2 chilean wine palm, 1 jelly palm, 1 mulberry and some other odds and ends not counting 55 apples trained as diagonal cordons and a nursery full of trees for next year.  After 6 years of planning, researching, planting, mulching, weeding, training, pruning, and occasionally watering and feeding, we are beginning to see results!

This was bare dirt from road construction a few weeks before this picture was taken. It now has bearing trees. The Lady williams apple I’m mulching has quite a bit of fruit on it this year.

Tamara planting a Muir peach tree… or actually moving it… for the second time even. It seems happy there now though and made a couple of fruits this year.  Crap, that reminds me I didn’t pick one of them… it’s gone, the chickens probably ate it.  Well, what goes into the chicken eventually goes into us, though it might not taste like peaches.

I’ve been delighted to see my efforts growing into something resembling trees.  Since I do almost all of my own grafting, I’m a year, or even two, behind those buying trees in a nursery.  When the young trees come out of the nursery bed the year after grafting, most of them are a single whip, or maiden which is a sapling with no branches around 2 to 5 feet tall, so it is some time before they really take shape and come to a size that suggests they be taken seriously.  The spring orchard, which contains most of the trees first planted here, is beginning to take the visual form of an orchard now with some of the trees being 8×8 or larger which is big enough to support a significant crop.

And this year, on the wings of a warm spring, came fruit.  Weeks of nice weather had bees out and busy pollinating.  The trees were studded with fruitlets thick enough to break branches if they were all left to grow.  I’ve delighted in watching my trees develop, cherishing each phase in their development.  The graft “taking” and starting to grow is the first victory.  A healthy Maiden in the fall is the second.  Tucked in place the next spring they wait to begin the first season in the ground.  Over the next few years of battling weeds, voles and bark beetle grubs they grow larger, more self sufficient and I can usually take satisfaction in the realization of a strong framework of well placed branches.  They begin to bloom, and maybe even set a fruit or two.  One day I look at them and they look something like a tree complete with fruit, being off on the right root and leaving their childhood years behind.

photo by tonia chi

Fruit is good.  I want to eat fruit and juice it and dry it and make alcohol from it, cook it, can it, ferment it and sell it, but this is not just any fruit!  A great share of the energy put into trees here is put into research and planning.  The first year my only real resource besides a few other fruit enthusiasts was a book called Cornucopia.  It is a really cool book with descriptions of food plants, including varieties.  There are a lot of Apples listed in Cornucopia, but even if interested I could not find many of them on short notice and the listing is on the order of hundreds while there are actually thousands of varieties.  This person has catalogued 11,324 varieties of Apples!  No doubt that number includes some repeats under different names, but no doubt that there are also many varieties missing.  I began researching apples in more earnest in the past 3 years.  During that time the amount of information about Apple varieties available in cyberspace has grown tremendously.  The most useful information is often quite old, especially the mid to late 1800’s, such as Dr Hogg’s The Fruit Manual and  up into the early part of the last century like Bunyard’s A Manual of Hardy Fruits More Commonly Grown In Great Brittain, and many more.  I’ve spent untold hours researching apple varieties.  Much of my down time when I’m too tired to work on other stuff has been spent searching for information and sources on hundreds of Apple varieties.  I have fairly extensive data base entries of apple research to draw on and use them regularly.  On top of that go notes about growth, tree health, ripening times and tasting of apples grown here.  Not every fruit grower needs to be as enthusiastic as the likes of me to grow good fruit, but I can tell you that due care in the selection of varieties pays off.

I research whatever I’m planting generally.  I don’t want to leave my decisions up to a nursery owner who may not be familiar with the many varieties of fruits out there.  Also, most nurseries are only able to order a limited number of varieties, even though that is improving with renewed interest in heirlooms.  Mostly I research Apple varieties because I plant more apples than any other fruit or nut.  I’m fascinated by the apple.  I long ago recognized the utility and greatness of the apple as the king of homestead fruits.  It can be dried, sauced, baked, made into juice, cider, apple butter, dried apples, vinegar, brandy, pies and tarts, eaten off the tree or eaten or cooked after storing for months.  There are apples that ripen in July and Apples that ripen in February and probably later… at least 6 months of apples fresh off the tree and I’m confident that this period can be extended.

Hauer Pippin, then and now.

I’m continually frustrated trying to talk about Apples with people.  Its the same conversation over and over.  “I like (insert grannysmith, golden delicious, pink lady, honeycrisp, fuji or other grocery store apple)”.  “I like a crunchy apple”.   “I don’t like mushy apples”.  The conversation on apples is generally a limited debate.  Its kind of like politics…  “I like the Democrats”… “I like the republicans”… “I like one of the two new guys”… Like I said, a limited debate.  I want to grab people and shake them and try to get them to listen to me when I tell them what they are missing, but by the time I start trying to tell them they are already telling me that they don’t like mushy apples.  Well, almost nobody likes mushy apples, but the range of debate should not be limited to mushy v.s. crunchy and sweet v.s. tart;  the world of apples is so much broader.

I like some of the apples I am already familiar with very much, but what I’m doing now is exploring my options- playing the field so to speak.  I want to expand the season for apples as far as possible in both directions with first rate apples.  That means planting and fruiting a lot of varieties to see what does well here and what suits our tastes.  That means a lot of sampling!  Some of my best memories of last fall and early winter were climbing into bed of an evening with tonia and an apple or two or three or four and doing some tasting.  Sometimes a new one, but always approached as a new one because every one, even off the same tree at the same time, can taste a little or even a lot different.  Over the years here I’ve collected around 220 varieties.  Frankentree alone has about 140 varieties on him.  In total, we have probably 60 or 70 varieties fruiting this year, a new level of apple tasting and eating.  Hell yeah, now that’s my idea of a good time!

A fledgeling frankentree now has over 140 distinct varieties of apples

Apples on Frank, Calville Blanc D’hiver, Allen’s Everlasting and Rose Pippin. Calville is the Queen apple of French cooking. Allen’s everlasting is an old irish apple that is supposed to keep forever and have excellent flavor (first year fruiting here and only two as you can see). I don’t know anything about Rose pippin except what I’ve observed. It’s very good looking, ripens on the tree Christmas or later and is a sweet firm apple that holds it’s shape in cooking. I’m still evaluating it for taste and looking for more information. (Rose Pippin turned out to be Hauer Pippin, notes in the late season apple tasting 2013 post)

I hope to be finding time to write more about apples since I put a lot of energy into them and I just like to talk about them; and no doubt I’ll be posting about some of the apples we’re tasting this year as the fruits of labor drop ripe and plump into our hands.  But I suppose that what I really wanted to communicate here is my excitement at finally seeing my plans come to fruition and how worth it all the inconvenience and labor has been whatever the cost.  We are still cooking and scraping by in the same crappy kitchen trailer and sleeping in half finished structures with no real doors or windows, but even if thats the case for another winter, at least we have trees that will be beginning to bear heavily of awesome and carefully selected fruits.  The best time to plant a tree really is 10 years ago, but it turns out that 6 years ago isn’t so bad either.

The apple labeled as Edward’s Winter, which is probably not actually Edward’s Winter.  It  sure is good whatever it is! Rich sweet, tart, complex with a strong pineapple flavor.  About 6 years from grafting.

Some parting advice:

*Take any advice with a grain of salt.

*Plant trees sooner rather than later.

*Don’t plant more than you can take good care of.

*Check with the local nursery, but check more with local fruit enthusiasts.  Follow up leads with internet research.  Many of the best fruits are little known and grown.

*Don’t make caramel popcorn while standing naked in front of a hot wood stove.

*Rarely plant more than one tree of any variety for home use and consider making some trees multiple varieties to span a greater range of seasons and/or tastes.

*Don’t discount either Heirlooms or Modern apples.  Many of both are excellent and Unique.  Heirlooms are romantic, but not always superior.  Many of both just plain suck.

*Learn to graft so that you can change trees to new varieties or add to your collection if you find something promising.

*Use the internet to research varieties you are interested in using the terms >> “apple name” apple variety <<.  Orange Pippin and Adam’s Apples are a couple of good current sources.  Google books rocks the older sources.

*Stay tuned for more hot Pomeography!  Including sublimely tempting photos, tantalizing descriptions and verbose romantic ramblings on the virtues and charms of apples!

A small but delicious offering. Although I’m excited about tasting and just plain eating apples, I’m probably just as excited to get to sell a few at the Farmer’s Market so other people can taste them.

Back to work…

October 16, 2012 - Posted by | Food and Drink Making, Food Trees Fruits and Nuts, Garden Stuff | , , ,


  1. Great work! I’m envious of your orchards and all the work you’ve put into them. I had fruit trees for several years in the mid-west and I miss them dearly. Your hard work and research seem to pay off. Having enough to sell is just a bonus. Keep it going.

    Comment by Paleotool | October 16, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks paleotool. The cost benefit analysis of something like this has to be driven largely by values and priorities. It has paid off for me and I think that it will continue to do so. Also, at least half the reason I do most of what I do is because I think it will ultimately benefit other people pursuing a sane way of living. I hope my work with fruit and with apples especially can contribute to that end.

      Comment by Stevene | October 16, 2012 | Reply

      • It will do nothing but benefit the world, whether its for humans or animals who will eat the spoils.

        Comment by Paleotool | October 16, 2012

  2. “Also, at least half the reason I do most of what I do is because I think it will ultimately benefit other people pursuing a sane way of living. I hope my work with fruit and with apples especially can contribute to that end.” Steven – It already has!! Thanks for all the genetics over the last few seasons, and more importantly, for the kickass DIY inspiration!! Keep up the good work Amigo ….. Andy

    Comment by autonomyacres | October 16, 2012 | Reply

  3. More apple porn please! Am getting my micro-orchard ready for planting here in Santa Cruz.

    Comment by zoowaerterin | October 16, 2012 | Reply

    • Awesome. Check out the cloud forest cafe if you haven’t already. It’s a great fruit site and the creator/moderator Alex lives in your town. http://cloudforest.com/cafe/

      Comment by Stevene | October 16, 2012 | Reply

  4. Love the frankentree. Awesome idea.

    Comment by rachel | October 16, 2012 | Reply

  5. Why do you paint the stems white? Its not something that I’ve seen before. Is it to stop you walking into them at night or as a pest barrier?

    Comment by Tim | October 17, 2012 | Reply

    • Tim: Two reasons I paint the stems that are related. One is sunburn. When trees get older and the bark is thicker, it’s less of an issue, but young trees are very vulnerable. Even older trees can sun burn in our hot summers. We can get many consecutive days in the neighborhood of 100 degrees. Once the bark is sunburned it dies and that makes them more vulnerable to borers. The borers are beetle grubs that burrow around under the bark. If they make it all the way around the tree, the tree dies.

      I’ve been experimenting the last few years with barrier paints for borers. I think the one I used this year was very effective, but I haven’t examined the trees closely. It is a thick paint of clay, lime and casein (milk protein). It goes on thick and makes a sort of chalky unpalatable crust. Any that falls off will only benefit the tree due to the lime and the nitrogen in the casein. Most people just use latex paint diluted with water for sunburn prevention. The white color is supposed to also make the bark less attractive to the borer beetles, who are apparently attracted to dark areas in the bark like fissures and necrotic areas.

      Comment by Stevene | October 17, 2012 | Reply

  6. Inspiring,

    have you strongly selected for disease resistance cultivars ? Agroforestry Trust has good leaflets for choosing cultivars, and disease resistances. I’m beggining to look at more common fruit trees (apples, pears..) and the choice is overhelming. But when i select for multi-disease resistances, few cultivars show up, but most of the time their not available in nurseries…

    Comment by Le chant des cerises (@chantdescerises) | October 18, 2012 | Reply

    • I am not selecting for disease resistance at all yet. For one thing I’m not entirely sure what diseases are a real problem here (I’m sure I’ll be finding out shortly!). The other is that I want to taste all those apples. As long as they don’t die, that’s pretty good for me for now. I don’t have a favorable climate for a lot of diseases since it is dry in the summer, so that is helpful. The exception is insects. The coddling moth can have 2 or event 3 generations here is California. I would imagine your climate is similar in that way. For now, I just graft anything that sounds interesting and will see where it leads.

      I might blog about this later, but briefly, the earliest apple trial for breeding new varieties selected many new cultivars out of just about 125 seedlings. The criteria has become so stringent now, that it is more like one in ten thousand seedlings that makes it to commercial release. One of the chief limiting criteria is cosmetics. That does in a lot of them. The other one is disease resistance. Of course it’s not just one disease though. To get all disease resistance in one apple is pretty challenging as you can see from the short list of broadly resistant cultivars. People used to breed for flavor first. Cox’s Orange Pippin is one of the most commonly used parents in older breeding efforts, because of it’s superior flavor. It’s very disease prone though, so probably no one uses it now. If it showed up in a modern trial it would probably be culled out pretty fast because it is weak and difficult to grow. Apple breeding is increasingly high tech and the results are going to be pretty useful I think, but benefits to us are incidental as the driving force behind breeding now is profit and it’s just a link in a food system that has never had, and never will have, our best interests in mind. Still, there are great apples that have come out of those and we can use those disease resistant genes in further breeding neat apples that taste amazing AND are disease resistant as a bonus. But that’s the way I see it right now is that it’s a bonus. I’m going to continue to concentrate on flavor and let the trees that won’t do well or are disease ridden fall to the way side as I go. Just part of the experiment! Commercial growers have to be more aware of that issue, but once the profit motive is introduced, other priorities fall to the wayside.

      Btw, I just harvested Liberty a few weeks ago and noticed it has scab. One source said it is probably the most disease resistant variety ever. It’s pretty good though. Its like if someone took a sort of standard american apple and made it actually really good with richer flavor, better texture and lots of juice. I was going to graft it over, but I think it might get a stay of execution.

      Comment by Stevene | October 18, 2012 | Reply

      • Hi,

        i understand your plans,

        mine are differents because i live in valley bottom so i get fog in early mornings, thus disease resistance will be a major selecting factor. Moreover, i’m not found of apples and pears (and i got plenty of deers) so i’ll not plant a lot of these and will not play with breeding nor selection. I keep that for nanking cheeries, persimmons and other uncommon hardy fruits. (But i will try the multigraft thing on one of my old unproductive apple tree!)

        Comment by Le chant des cerises (@chantdescerises) | October 19, 2012

  7. I love the idea of multiple grafts on an Apple stock, one of my previous RHS tutors spoke of this as a way round polination problems if you have a small space for Apple trees, yours looks very healthy too, well done and nice work dude!

    Comment by Wesley Hayden | October 18, 2012 | Reply

    • Wesley: I think the multiple varieties on one tree really does help with pollination better than just adjacent trees. I know other growers who have come to the same conclusion. It is also extremely practical for home use because most people can only use so much fruit of one kind at one time. There are exceptions of course and we can and not being able to use what we have is often more of a failure of creativity and initiative than a reflection of real limitations, but I think that most people would be better served by a multitude of varieties ripening over a long season. It gets to a point where it is too crowded and too much work, and there can be problems with vigorous varieties over running weaker growing ones. Unless the point is to collect or test as many as possible, fewer varieties will mean less maintenance. On the size of frankentree, maybe 15 x 15 feet it should be no big deal to have say 20 to 40 varieties. Even four or five, one for each scaffold, could make for a lot of variety and a long season.

      Comment by Stevene | October 18, 2012 | Reply

  8. wow. looking at this post has really made me crave an apple. snacking on a Mutsu type that I picked from a local farm. I love the flavor of the Mitsu, Granny Smith, and Fuji and like that they have good keeping qualities. Now, what variety could I choose that is similar to these AND is disease resistant? I will need disease resistance. Two neighbors have apple trees that are sick. They get NO fruit. This made me decide not to plant when we first moved here 6 years ago, but reading your post makes me wish I had…..Any suggestions on varieties? Also, would like to plant a not-so-common variety, but afraid that after so much work and harvesting it that it might not be as good as hoped….

    Comment by rachel | October 28, 2012 | Reply

    • I am not that familiar with Mutsu or Fuji. Samples I’ve had have been commercial and very disappointing. I haven’t planted Fuji or Mutsu either, so maybe I’ll happen into a good sample, and maybe not. Granny is a great apple, but most people have never had a ripe one. They should be ripened on the tree very late and I’m not sure you can do that where you are. All commercial Grannies are picked WAY green. Mine taste like Bananas which I don’t like, but they have everything else to recommend them and tasting like bananas is probably a recommendation to most people anyway. I don’t pay a lot of heed to disease resistance. I’m more into throwing it all together and seeing what makes it and doesn’t right now. I’m not sure which disease pressures will be high here yet anyway but none are that bad so far. Very few apples are really resistant to everything, so you should find out exactly what problems are in the the neighborhood that are serious enough to keep you from getting fruit and do research based on that information. Do look into Gold Rush though. Everyone likes it and it has a reputation as a phenomenal keeper (haven’t had enough to confirm that yet!). My notes say it is very resistant to scab, but susceptible to rust. If you think you won’t be around your place for a long time, plant dwarfs on M9 or Bud 9 or similar sized rootstocks. They can fruit very early in life. I’m about to post some notes on apple tasting so far this year and should have more notes after late apples are through. We’re really enjoying King David, Old NonPareil, Karmijn de Sonneville and an unidentified red apple right now. Sorry I can’t make more specific recommendations. I recommend collecting more disease information if you can. You might check with the County Ag Department for resources and experts, or talk to local growers, preferably ones who grow a large variety of apples. They will know what makes it and what doesn’t.

      Comment by Stevene | October 29, 2012 | Reply

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