Friday, August 12, 2011

Taking the Long View

By Sheila Connolly

Conventional wisdom in the writing business is that it takes five years to land a contract, and I hit that mark--barely. Now I realize it's been almost exactly five years since I received "The Call." Things move slowly in the print universe, although obviously ebooks are changing the playing field, and both sellers and buyers can achieve instant gratification.

But I guess that makes me the last of the old pre-Internet generation, when things moved at a leisurely pace. I can live with that. But what I wanted to write about was my orchard.

Okay, six trees does not an orchard make. But when I started the Orchard Mystery series, I thought I should get up close and personal with the real thing. Much as I love driving around New England visiting orchards, both old and new, I always seem to miss that magic moment when they start blooming, or arrive a week after they've picked the heirloom varieties. The only way I could really follow the seasons in an orchard would be to plant my own.

Small problem: our property is a quarter-acre, and much of that is taken up with a house and a former barn and a driveway. Half of what's left is heavily shaded, and apple trees like sunlight. That left me with a narrow strip smack in front of the house. Okay, the neighbors were going to think I was a little weird, but I started planting apple trees.

It's not as silly as it sounds: most apple trees these days are grafted onto dwarf stock, so it's not like there will be a forty-foot tree in the front yard any time soon. But I also wanted to add to the challenge. I didn't want to plant the easy stuff like Macintosh; I wanted to plant heirloom varieties, trees either native to New England or with historical value. Those you have to hunt for.

My orchard
My first tree was a Northern Spy. I shouldn't have started with that, because they're notoriously slow to produce fruit. Was I prepared to wait five years or more to see an apple? But I'm stubborn, and that was what I wanted, because they're good all-around apples, useful for both eating and cooking. I even found a nice eight-foot tree--near where my daughter was in college (which happens to be near where I set my series). That presented a problem: how to haul it across the state? In the end my daughter did manage to cram it into one of our older cars and carried it home, and I planted it.

Hudson's--yes, they're golden
The second tree was a Cortland that I did find at a local nursery. Cortlands are nice dependable producers, and I wanted something that I was pretty sure would actually yield apples. That went in next to the Northern Spy. After that I started getting a little crazy: an Esopus Spitzenberg, because it was Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple; a Hudson's Golden Gem, because my daughter liked the catalog description; and this year I added a Newtown Pippin and a Roxbury Russet, both old and well-established varieties (I've read that the Roxbury Russet was the first apple produced in this country, and Roxbury is not far from where I live).

Along the way I learned that apples produce only on second-year growth, so I couldn't expect much from my new plantings (which arrive looking like three-foot sticks with some roots attached--not convincing). Last year the Northern Spy and the Cortland produced blooms (you have to have two trees to cross-fertilize), but there was a March freeze, apples, not a one.

Let me add that the Orchard series is set in a real place built by an ancestor of mine, and like all old New England homes, it once had an orchard--of which all of two trees remained. One of those succumbed to a winter storm a couple of years ago, and I cut a lot of grafts from it and brought them home--and read about how to graft, because I had never done it. I diligently followed instructions, and grafted a dozen or so bits of the old family tree (a joke there) to my established trees, and crossed my fingers. One and only one took, but that was better than nothing.

My grafted branch!
This year the spring went well, with plenty of blossoms. And then I started inspecting the trees daily (like every time I walked by) and saying encouraging things to them (yes, out loud). And...the four elder trees have apples this year. Yes, even the reluctant Northern Spy and the grafted branch. All right, maybe it's only a couple of apples each (save for the Cortland, which is going gangbusters), but it worked!

Maybe it seems silly to get so excited about a natural process that's been going on for millennia, but they're my first apples, and I feel like a proud mother. I still go out and talk to them. It's going to be a challenge to wait until they're truly ripe (and that Northern Spy is one of the late ones).

If there's a message for writers buried in here somewhere, it's that things don't happen fast, and that's the way it is. But with patience and perseverance and luck, you'll get a harvest eventually.  In my case, I've got both books and apples!


Barb Goffman said...

I love this, Sheila. Good for you!

Anonymous said...

This is so cool. Talk about hands-on research. Now your next step is to set up a fruit stand and sell apples. Nothing like going for the total experience.

MaxWriter said...

Wonderful story. In my former house (where I had the farm), it came with a dozen apple trees. But I was never able to really keep on top of the pests organically, so the apples were useless except for sauce.

I LOVE Spartan and they are very hard to find. Late season, just amazing flavor, firm texture. Got room for another tree?


Sheila Connolly said...

I love any of the old varieties, Edith, and I'm saddened each time I talk to an orchard manager who said he pulled out the heirloom trees because they just don't sell. Hey, pal, maybe you don't know how to market them!

Next I want to plant a pair of quinces (more cross-fertilization), because they used to be widespread in New England, and now they're all but gone (I nearly wept when I found some at Old Sturbridge Village). They're not much good to eat, but they can do great things for pies.

Diane said...

Sheila, love this. Particularly since you went for little known varieties. Saving a bit of our history, actually. As for the orchard grower, you're right. Maybe if he gave a bit of the history/uses at the stands or grocery stores, they would do really well. Poor management & the quick fix. Sigh.