Friday, September 23, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

Several years ago, my agent and I were kicking around ideas for a new series. She had already seen a draft of one book I had completed but she wasn't satisfied with it, so we were trying to find a way to tweak it to make it more appealing to a publisher. I wanted to keep the setting, so I needed something appropriate to western Massachusetts. Then I said, "apples," and the rest is history.

Every house in New England in the early years had an orchard; cider, soft or hard, was a staple of life then. The house that is the heart of the Orchard series was no exception, and I have documentary evidence, in the form of a series of diaries, that refers to the whole family picking apples together (the grandparents shook the trees; the granddaughters collected the fallen apples, and the father took them into town to sell them). That orchard is long gone now, but for the book I put it back and expanded it, and now it's flourishing in its second fictional year.

I'll be the first to admit that I knew very little about orchard management, which is why my protagonist didn't either—we could learn together. I began by talking to the managers of the UMass experimental orchard in Belchertown, which is in the town adjacent to where the books are set; I also talked to real orchard managers locally, and familiarized myself with heirloom apple varieties. I even went so far as to take a state-offered course on starting a small farm, which was both informative and enjoyable.

And I planted apple trees on my minuscule property. The first was a Northern Spy, purchased in Hadley, Massachusetts. I wanted to focus on heirloom varieties because you don't see them in markets. If you're lucky you can find a few at roadside stands for a few weeks in the fall—if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, and the season is short. The Northern Spy is not the best choice for a starter apple, because they are notoriously slow to produce fruit, but I figured I was in this for the long haul.

The second tree was a Cortland—not a very old variety, but it dependably produces versatile and flavorful apples. The second year I added an Esopus Spitzenberg (said to be Thomas Jefferson's favorite variety) and a Hudson's Golden Gem (my daughter's choice). This year they were joined by a Newtown Pippin and a Roxbury Russet, both of which have a very long history in Massachusetts.

This year I have apples. As I learned, trees bear fruit only on second-year growth, so the two newbies will have to wait until next year. But the other four have apples! Maybe only two or three per tree (except for the Cortland, which is doing exactly as promised), but they are apples. My first crop! I feel so proud!

I believed I could not and should not write about managing an orchard without some hands-on experience. I'm still scared to prune, although I know I need to, in order to maintain the most productive shape for any tree. I am not spraying the trees (with the exception of an early spray of Safer Soap, which is in fact a soap and acceptable to organic growers, to eliminate winter moth larvae, which can strip a small tree bare of leaves in a couple of days, as happened with the Cortland once). And I am worrying about them like a mother. Are they getting enough food? Water? Is something gnawing on the leaves? Is the timing right so they will cross-pollinate (which is essential, but apparently I've got that right)? Is there anything I can do about rust?

One of the most difficult things has been the waiting. Apples ripen on their own schedule, and some of these trees (like the cranky Northern Spy) ripen as late as November. But when you have only three apples on a tree, you can't pluck them off to test for ripeness. Then came Hurricane Irene. I'll admit I wanted to stand in front of my baby trees to protect them from hurricane-force winds, but that wasn't exactly practical, so I just kept my fingers crossed and hoped.

Hurricane Irene's Harvest
And I found that apples decide when they're going to fall. For three out of the four trees, only a few dropped in the wind; the others just weren't ready. The Cortland lost the most, but it had the most to give, and there are plenty left. I snatched up the windfalls and made a large (and tasty) apple crisp.

One final note: the real house in my story retained a couple of old apple trees when I began writing the series. It's now reduced to only one, as the other fell in a spring storm a couple of years ago. I just happened to be there a few days later, in time to take cuttings, which I then grafted to the Northern Spy and the Cortland in a last-ditch effort to save some part of the old tree. Only one took, but it took well, and this year produced three apples--two of which some evil squirrel pulled off, took a quick bite (I could see the toothmarks) and left on the ground. I rescued them and ate them (all right, I cut away the bitten parts). I have no idea what variety they are, but they're part of my family history, and I hope they'll live on, both in my books and in my yard.

If you get the chance, try an heirloom apple. They haven't flown halfway around the world. In fact, they probably haven't gone more than a couple of miles when you find them at a farm stand. They may be small, or look mottled (that's normal for some varieties), but some of them taste wonderful, and if they aren't good for eating, they may make great pies. It would be a shame to lose this part of our heritage.

Hudson's Golden Gem--yes, they really are golden


Sandra Parshall said...

Supermarket apples may look perfect, but too many are either tasteless or sour (because they're not ripe). It would be wonderful to have tree-ripened apples in the yard.

JJM said...

For one, brief year we had tree-ripened apples. Then the tree began to die. By the time we discovered that the spawn-of-Cthulhu things growing on the cedar had anything to do with this, it was too late ... But at least supermarkets now know there are apples other than Golden and Red Delicious, which is a step in the right direction. [sigh]

Sheila Connolly said...

An Update: I visit the weekly farmers' market in Plymouth whenever I can. I was there yesterday chatting with a couple of the vendors. One from a local farm has had zero apples this year; another lost her crop to squirrels, chipmunks (?), birds, and who knows what other pests. I am ahead of the farmers!

Our supermarket (Canadian-owned) does carry some locally grown apples, and Galas and Macs seem to be in season this week. We just have to convince consumers that bigger does not always mean better.

Julia Buckley said...

Lovely photos!