My own apple genius bar was set pretty high when I presumed that cultivating an organic orchard at Stonegate was even remotely doable.
The cooperative extension folks shook their Carhartt-capped heads at my callow ambitions; nurseries tried to sell me the same old dreary disease-resistant cultivars; and local farmers insisted that the Hudson Valley, with its centuries of apple production, had created its own Darwinian microcosm of ever-adaptive pestilence would do me in.
My 1852 copy of AJ Downing’s Fruit and Fruit Trees of America.
It seemed without the regular puffing-out of vast clouds of synthetic pesticides, I was doomed to harvesting bushels of rotting, inedible muck.
The organic apples were truly forbidden fruit; a tired old trope for original sin.
So, of course – always one to succumb to a little biblical temptation – I planted them: Historic apples with seductive, suggestive names like Hidden Rose, Maidenblush, Pink Sparkle; those that sounded decent and honorable like Ashmead’s Kernel and Esopus Spitzenberg; or a few that reeked of high-born patrician plant-naming, like Duchess of Oldenberg, Devonshire Quarrandon, and C’aville Blanc D’hiver.
Devonshire Quarrendon, an antique English variety from the 1600s with a complex, vinous bite.
The choosing of varieties (and there are sixteen dwarf, spindle-trained apples trees in my orchard) was not entirely up to me. I have the ghost AJ Downing and his nineteenth-century tome Fruit and Fruit Trees of America to thank for much of the fussy decision-making.
Downing, who was the foremost pomologist of his time and had his nursery in Newburgh, just a few miles from my farm, is something of a legend in these parts. More than just a plant nerd, he was a prominent horticulturalist, landscape designer, architect, author who cast a long and dazzling spell during his short life (he died at 37, drowned rescuing others during a steamship fire on the Hudson). When it came down to planting an orchard at Stonegate, I wanted Downing help.
An historic apple harvest of Hidden Rose, Devonshire Quarrendon, Kerry Pippin, Keswick Codlin, Holstein, Maidenblush, and Golden Russet ready for pick-up.
I spent weeks on-line, obsessed, looking for rare and historic apple and pear varieties that Downing knew and grew more than 150 years ago, and stumbled across a quirky, cranky rare-fruit nursery on the southwestern tip of Michigan called Southmeadow Fruit Gardens – they even quoted Downing on the cover of their catalog! After cross-referencing varieties they were growing with one’s Downing had written about and praised, I put my order in.
With minimally invasive, organic pest management, the orchard at Stonegate has matured over the past five years, and the apples this season are the pay-out: flecked and pocked and full of a kind of organic indignation for what passes for fruit these days, these are apples to be reckoned with.
Dwarf apple and pear in the orchard, fronted by ripening blackberries.
We’ve just tasted some of the the first remarkable fruit of that planting, with a bushel or more of Golden Russet, with its fine-grained flesh and bronze cheeks; Maidenblush, flaring red over tender, yellow skin; Kerry Pippin, with its spicy, aromatic tang; and Hidden Rose, its flesh faintly streaked with pink – the apple of my i.
They may not be the prettiest pommes out there, but they’ve got plenty of of organic personality. And unlike the dull, synthetic supermodels at the A&P, these apples have so much to say. –Mb
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With a CSA share this past week of neon-purple kohlrabi, snap peas with their tender twining shoots thrown in, and a constellation of edible flowers, we’re reaching into the beyond for taste and texture. Throw in the drumming and flooding rain and the freakish, alien cicadas whirring about, and it feels like science fiction out there.
Harvesting sweet and crisp snap peas and shoots
Kohlrabi is the Sputnik of brassicas. With its gangly, out-rigged antennae and swollen, spherical center, you can almost imagine it floating silently in the cosmos. And Snap peas, with their clambering tendrils and pods of remarkable sweetness are also, metaphorically at least, out of this world.
Satellites of purple kohlrabi
Having descended from their skyward vines on delicate white parachutes of bloom, the Sugar Snap pods have emerged to conquer our taste buds. And they’ve come in peas.
The ongoing space race on the farm is so 1960s. Where the peas are beginning to tower, indeterminate cherry tomatoes below are competing for light and nutrients, waiting for their turn in the sky. The peas have been fixing nitrogen in the soil (something legumes do) and will make it available for hungry tomatoes. Lettuces, too, have been carrying on well into early summer, shaded as they are by the broad leaves of kale and chard; and nasturtium, squash and pole beans are all in a delicious tangle for space. At Stonegate, the universe may be expanding, but it’s not infinite.
With a taste reminiscent of radish and broccoli, and an evocative form, kohlrabi is one of the stars of the farm
At the moment, the war of the worlds is mostly being fought in the orchard, where cicada mating and egg laying has begun in the tree fruit and chokeberries. Although I went about mercifully at first, unable dash the hopes of so many seventeen-year-old virgins, I’ve had a change of heart. All it took was one look at a young quince tree, with its velveteen fruit full of promise but its outer branches collapsed and dying from the bark-piercing spawn of females cicadas to turn me. They had me at hell no.
Snap peas’ sweet and floral tendrils
So the cicada pogrom was on. Mating pairs we’re plucked in-flagrante from branch tips and crushed. Spent and feckless males were fed to excited chickens. Larvae ridden bark has been thrown on the burn pile. It’s a winless battle, I know, but maybe it will put a dent in the next brood, or my own exasperation.
Last week’s eye and mouth candy: snap peas and shoots, edible flowers, purple kohlrabi, and fragrant Russian sage.
The cicadas will fly to the tree tops, mate, and die. The indeterminate tomatoes and pole beans and sunflowers will defy gravity and touch the sky, the surreal climbing squash and cucumbers will curl themselves upward, and we’ll be down below, buzzed about it all. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” —Mb
Periodical cicadas have begun to prowl the air this week, ending seventeen years of purgatorial root-sucking in the soil. They’re molting out of their thin, flightless shells and emerging en masse to deafen and terrify us with their shrill abdominal drumming and apocalyptic numbers.
A periodical cicada, seventeen years in the making.
So many all at once; a plague of winged ghouls, coming out of the darkness like Orpheus, singing.
They’ll make their way to the treetops, where they’ll spend a few weeks conducting a thrumming orchestra of sex and birth and death, mating and laying eggs in the green wood of branch tips before a final rattle of life and skyfall turns them to chicken feed.
Their hatched nymphs will emerge, too, and fall to earth, burrowing down into an incubation of darkness to begin the next brood cycle. All of this just to keep on keepin’ on, and at seventeen years from grub to gone, they’re the longest lived insect on the planet.
Fruit in the orchard, protected from cicadas and other beasties with a dusting of clay.
Cicadas are strange, otherworldly creatures, armored and bloody-eyed, with a blunt head and cellophane wings. At almost two inches, they fly about like cargo planes, in slow, seemingly aimless paths, looking for mates. And though I know the damage they can cause to trees with their egg-laying wounds (I can hear my young orchard screaming), I can’t bring myself to kill them. Any insect that waits so many years to be unbound and on the wing deserves its moment in the sun.
The summer my wife (then girlfriend) and I first bought this place, we were coming up from the city on weekends and bushwhacking overgrown lilac and bittersweet, and they had just emerged. We were on a garden tour, and the cicadas were rasping and whirring in the trees with such desperate enthusiasm that we couldn’t hear anyone speak. As the insects bonked clumsily into people’s heads, we huddled in tight, protective circles and talked plants. It was the most intimate garden tour I’ve ever been on.
Gooseberries netted against that other winged predator: birds
Sometimes cicadas get it wrong, and emerge in years when the rest of the brood is still sub-terra. Like showing up for a party as a hapless fool because you got the date wrong, they send their lonely rattle out into the void and die unrequited. The cicada story does seem like a sad love affair – an existential lark. All that time waiting for a short spasm of life in the sky and then death. What’s the point?
Well, for us humans, burdened by heavy brains we have, life is about more than mere consciousness: we fret over significance and purpose. We fill the space between the bookends with the struggle for meaning. Maybe the joke is on us?
So I let the cicadas have their day in the sun. They have a purpose-driven life and their sole aim is to keep the whole, strange dance going. I do protect my apple, pear and quince from them and other damaging insects with a ghost-like dusting of micro-fine clay, however. It irritates their tiny, interlocking membranes (think of sand in your ear) and, clogged and bothered, they move on. The birds, squirrels and chipmunks are thwarted with netting. In an organic orchard, an ounce of prevention (in a backpack sprayer) is always worth a pound of cure.
We parade the orchard netting out each year after bloom.
I’ve been on this property now for as long as the last brood of cicadas droned in the trees, and have done my own share of incubation and emergence. The farm has come out from a tangle of neglect and taken flight. That’s meaning enough for me. –Mb
…underground the blind nymphs waken and move.
They must begin at last to struggle towards love…
This is the wild light that our dreams foretold
while unaware we prepared these eyes and wings-
while in our sleep we learned the song the world sings.
–Judith Wright, The Cicadas
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It’s qvitten time at Stonegate, not only because an early October frost took out the last of the leafy greens and brought a quick end to the season, but because the Quince (or Quitten in German) have ripened to a phosphorescent yellow in the orchard and begun to blette, turning their bitter starch to sugar and rendering themselves finally, and sweetly, edible.
Quince: Lumpy, astringent, unforgettable.
Bletting is a form a decay, really; the same transformation that turns sour and bone-hard medlars sweet and wine grapes into Sauternes. The French have a poetic word for this metamorphosis, of course: pourriture noble, or noble rot. Maybe something similar happens to the lucky few of us as we age – we sweeten!
Quince fruit begins as a pale, pleated blossom in early spring and evolves into an oblong sphere of hard, unforgiving firmness; its fleecy rind, its strange knobs and bumps, its astringent flesh don’t hold much promise until late in the season when they transform themselves.
Or those that haven’t been plundered do. I have a handful of quince that survived the season, but many were plucked early from their boughs by the orchard’s arch enemy: The squirrel. For a few days in early October, winter-provisioning squirrels sacked and plundered the last of the orchard fruit, but they left me a few quince. Maybe it’s just too firm and heavy and oddly lumpy for their tastes, or their larder was already full of contraband fruit, so why bother?
I watched helpless as they scampered down from tree-top burrows and leapt in furry, frenetic arcs across lawn and fencerow to the orchard, where they grabbed any fruit they could, giddy and snickering to be sure, and buried it somewhere as a cache for a January pear gelato or sub-zero cobbler.
The apples were the first to go. Small and firm and full of Fall promise, most of them were pilfered by mid-August. So my CSA (Compulsively Sacked Apples) fruit never made it into the weekly shares, and the reliable ebb and flow of dearth and plenty at the farm goes on.
After a plunder by squirrels, only the evocative names remained. Here, Sucré de Montlucon, an historic pear variety, is nothing but a plant tag and limbs.
The few quince I have I will covet and try to transform into an aromatic jam, jelly, or paste, something that’s been done for centuries. In fact, quince culture long predates that of apples or pears, other pome fruit in the same family (rosaceae), but somewhere along the way lost favor and are now a rare find.
All the more reason to grow them here at Stonegate Farm, where the obscure will always have a home, where quirky botanical history is relevant, and where the squirrels eat like kings. –Mb
In a muddy drizzle last week, we harvested the last of the oak leaf and lolla rosa lettuce, tilled under the remaining rain-stunted eggplant and peppers, and yanked out the tangled sprawl of tomatoes in the orchard.
The normally solemn end-of-season ritual was buoyed by some cranking iTunes, although “This is the End” by the Doors didn’t do much to lift the mood.
Antonia and Maren, Bavarian Gothic.
So we wallow in it. We top-dress it with compost, we till in manure, we rake and coddle it into cake flour. Winter will be here soon enough, and render it as hard and unyielding as stone.
Besides the Fall ritual of soil farming, we harvested some imperfect organic apples this week–blotched and mottled and beautiful. One antique variety, Hidden Blush, had a tart, rose-streaked interior. Another, Melrose, was the size of a softball, with a complex acid sweetness.
The Downing orchard is planted with historic apples and pears that were cultivated more than 150 years ago by famed landscape architect, pomologist and Newburgh native Andrew Jackson Downing. The orchard’s references to history and place are important to our mission here at Stonegate. Because the farm is on the National Historic Register, we’re intent on cultivating history as well, from antique apples to heirloom greens.
Some fruit this season was too far gone to be more than cider or chicken feed (five weeks of rain and two hurricanes saw to that!), but growing organic tree fruit will always be an unrequited affair. As the Beatles said: “The love you take is equal to the love you make.”
And the love we took from the farm this year was bountiful. Thank you for taking part. –Mb
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The orchard hens have started to lay their pale blue and almond brown eggs as promised. I’ve been finding them tucked here and there under a pear or quince tree, or scattered beneath the brambles, but mostly in the nesting boxes as planned. There’s a large, antique porcelain decoy egg for encouragement, and plenty of praise when they relinquish.
Eggs from the orchard, in shades of earth and sky, have begun to delight us all.
They will get into all and everything, of course: raspberries, blackberries, tomatoes. I’ve watched them leap 3 feet in the air to snatch a raspberry, or balance on a tightrope of orchard wire to snack on currants, or peck incessantly through fencing to reach a tomato. They will also decide, without much discretion, that your planting of Fall arugula is a fine spot to take an afternoon siesta, so you find your coddled greens flattened here and there by the imprint of a settled hen.
Blackberries, swelling over the orchard fence on long, armored canes, haven’t escaped the notice of the insatiable hens. They will find a way.
The hens may not know a weed from a-rugula, but little loss of green is a small price pay for the eggs we’re now getting. Compared to a supermarket dozen, and to the USDA’s nutrient data on commercial eggs, our orchard roaming hens produce a vastly superior product. Their natural, free-range diet–including seeds, berries, insects, and greens, along with grain–results in eggs with far less cholesterol and saturated fat, and much higher levels of vitamin A, vitamin E, beta carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids. Is it any wonder they taste better?
Supermarket birds, even those labeled “free range” and “organic,” are usually fed a compromised diet of soy, corn and cottonseed meal, laced with additives, and have limited or no access to the outdoors. If fresh eggs from the home or farm are not available, pasture-raised are the next best option.
When the child of a CSA member was in the coop last week as an egg as smooth and blue as beach glass was being laid, she marveled at the beauty of it. In that moment, the value of running a small farm was being paid forward a generation or two. –Mb
The day we decided to resettle the chickens to the other side of the farm began clear and lovely: the luster of the previous night’s rain still visible in the grass, the air luminous and warm. I weeded early in the orchard and stole a few productive hours before heat and swelter took my energy hostage. The day before, the farm seemed to exist only to absorb the sky, to take in its rain like a sieve. The sky on resettlement day was unburdened by clouds or rain, punctuated instead by temperatures already in the 90s.
Coop and cupola, separated by a century and a half, now occupy the same aesthetic space. Ambivalent chickens just want a roof over their heads.
It was high time to furlough the young hens. They would be freed from their tight hot quarters in the Hell’s Kitchen garden, and moved three at a time to their new coop. The trip from the kitchen garden to the orchard is a few hundred feet, but to the hens—who had never known the flap of freedom—the journey was pure trauma.
Each hen had to be blindly grabbed through the coop door, and whatever I got my hands on was how they were removed (foot, wing, thigh, tail, giblet), squawking as though about to be slain. They were put into a box and carried to the new hen house.
My first instinct was to excite them about their new space, like any good chicken realtor: “Look at all these windows, and the closets. Plenty of space to park your eggs, and room to scratch. Have you seen those roosts?” But instead they chose to lie low in the box, head tucked under wing as though resigned to the certainty of a swift end. It took turning the box upside down and shaking them out to get them to check out their new home.
The coop was modeled after the cupola on the barn, with its carpenter gothic detail and pyramidal roof. When the farm was built in the late 1850s, the Gothic Revival period was in full fancy in the Hudson Valley. Its advocates claimed, like their gothic predecessors, that steep gables, vertical battens, and skyward finials brought the dwelling closer to the vault of heaven, so as to almost scrape the stars. All this is lost, of course, on a chicken.
Chickens love routine, and are ambivalent about architecture. To them, any change is loss, even the good changes. What they covet is the daily pattern language they’ve learned since cracking out of the egg. Give them repetition, monotony even, and they seem content. One hen was so put out by the change of venue that she took flight, choosing the perils of the wild wood over unfamiliar routine. She returned a fallen woman, ready to join the showgirls at La Cage.
Free at last, Free at last! The hens take to the orchard and frolic over worms and dirt
After a few days of house arrest, the young hens were set loose upon the orchard. At first the vast, open sky bewildered them, but they quickly acclimated and before long were actually frolicking (when was the last time you frolicked?). They soon headed down the long alleé of quince and plum to the thicket of blackberries, where they poked and scratched and left thorny brambles between them and the circling red tails.
We’ve lost a few hens to hawks in the past, and their swift, ominous shadows and piercing cries are embedded into a hen’s survival DNA. My children have witnessed a strike and kill, and after invoking The Lion King, the circle of life, and unfledged hawklings desperately needing a meal, they seemed perfectly at peace about it. For the chickens, now calling the gothic coop home, the further away from the vault of heaven, the better. – Mb
In the orchard of my imagination, well-ordered rows of pear, apple, plum an quince have by now turned delicate spring blossom into sun-burdened fruit; heavy on the branch, swollen by a long, sweet-tempered season. And, despite all the dire chatter about the difficulties of organic orchard management, my fruit is flawless.
The heirloom apple, Swaar, in fruit at Stonegate its first season. A tease or a sweet harbinger?
Then you channel surf into the Real World. Truth is, I lost half my English gooseberries and a third of my hybrid black currants to root rot and anthracnose fungus, and my plums and cherries barely broke bud before succumbing to some scourge or another.
Nineteenth Century Newburgh luminary Andrew Jackson Downing knew something about fruit. As the author of the authoritative Fruit and Fruit Trees of America, he championed the cultivation and preservation of heirloom varieties, and would have played Quixote to the bland, shippable selection at most markets.
In his description of the apple Swaar, one of twenty three Downing-described varieties we’re growing here, he says:
“This is a truly noble American Fruit, produced by the Dutch settlers on the Hudson, and so termed from its unusual weight, from the Low Dutch, meaning heavy. It is one of the finest flavored apples in America, and deserves extensive cultivation, in all favourable positions.”
And cultivate we will, and then some. New posts and wire have gone in this week to add even more varieties to the mix. They were purchased from a time-worn, scrappy lumber yard off of rt. 84 with an unshaven proprietor who bobbles about in a golf cart and seems to slink about your ankles as you load up your truck, purring approval at every purchase.
“Great posts. White cedar, straight as hell. And the wire’s imported from Germany. Last you years.”
Then he sizes you up to see how many years you may, in fact, have left. Orchards presume longevity, after all.
Fall has started to paint the garden.
Our tangled galaxy of heirloom tomatoes has started to glow with color this week, and – barring a love apple apocalypse – we’ll be in fruit until frost. Caught below in flagrante delecto, they seem oblivious to blight, sun-colored and heat-swollen. Yes, there is something remarkable about a warm, unruly ravel of tomatoes, the kind of sensual squalor you don’t get from neatmarshalled rows tied up with string.
Love apple comes from the French (who else?), who thought the pomme d’amour was an aphrodisiac. The Germans had their Liebesapfel, the Italians theirpomi d’amore. It seems this little fruit gets around.
But these are tough times for the pommed’amour, and the plight of tomato farmers across the Northeast has hit prime time: Both the New York Times and NPR ran pieces on the fungusamungus, and Orange County’s black dirt region was singled out at particularly hard hit.
And the big box stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Lowes – where the buyin‘ is cheap – seem to be complicit (surpirsed?).
So we can add a medieval black death of tomatoes to the minus column this year. Here’s a link to the Times article: Outbreak of Fungus Threatens Tomato Crop.
My advice: Savor every sweet, local l
We Go Both Ways
Neat, marshalled rows. Efficient, very German.
The sprawl method: sensual squalor.