Every fall, heirloom apples drop to the ground from a tree that was planted in my backyard 100 years ago. Each spring it blooms magnificently, followed by tart green apples that make a hearty applesauce, simmered with a bit of cinnamon. It’s not a named variety, and I’ve noticed other similar heirloom apple trees in the neighborhood, most likely planted during the same era. All were thoughtfully planned and planted by an orchardist, who we will never know, who had the wisdom to plant for the future.
As I begin to write my new book about heirloom gardens, I am humbled by all that I do not know. I am starting with the introduction to each chapter to determine the character of the design that will follow. Writing this chapter on fruits, I found myself thinking back to our ten-acre farm where we grew apples and plums, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and gooseberries in the kitchen garden. There was always an abundance of summer fruit, free for the picking, and ready for a quick snack or to bake in a pie. It was very little effort to plant the trees, and at the time, we thought we would be living there into our old age and would be able to reap the rewards for years to come.
There are many experts in the world of heirloom fruit, and I have total admiration for those who have dedicated their lives to growing and preserving old-time varieties. Read this New York Times article to learn more.
I can only speak from what I know, which is to share thoughts about this lovely old apple tree, whose fruit does not even have a name. It is proof that planting a fruit tree in the backyard is an investment in the future. It is the best gift you can give to those who follow, and provides not just food for people, but creates and supports a whole ecosystem, from the roots to the branches to the dropped apples in the fall.
At first glance, you’d think this was a healthy tree in my backyard, until you step around to the back and notice the center core is rotted, sapsuckers’ holes are tattooed around the bark, and a few years back a large limb snapped off. I’ve hung a bluebird house within the branches, and planted the base with Irish Moss. A climbing rose volunteered to vine up the side.
Inside the hollowed-out core, a small fairy house is in the works, and until recently, a large paper wasp nest hung from the upper branches. This heirloom tree is more than the sum of all its apples, it represents a century of change in the apple industry and in my backyard. With its grit and grace, I am hopeful that it will endure another decade or two to come.