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
Visit us at Stonegate Farm
We’ve begun harvesting late summer sowings at Stonegate Farm of mixed mesclun greens, bok choy, mustard, broccoli raab, and heirloom radish, repeat plantings that bookend a season that began four months ago.
And the blackberries, pole beans and Sun Gold tomatoes have come on in miraculous abundance, their sun-swollen selves dangling like ornaments over trellis and fence.
A Woofer harvest of Sun Gold tomatoes for the weekly CSA, and a Last Tango in Paradise for the seedless Concord grapes in the greenhouse. They’ll live to dance another day.
By “we” I don’t mean the royal we (Pluralis Majestatis, that would be very sad) but my Woofers and me, helpers who’ve come to the farm from far and wide to sow, harvest, weed, and delight in all things organic. Like the plantings that bookend the season, Woofers tend to keep you balanced and centered; delegating daily chores, managing needs, avoiding idleness (although there’s much joy in idleness). Without them, it’s possible that things would fall apart; that (to paraphrase Yeats) the center could not hold, and mere anarchy would be loosed upon (my) world.
The anarchy of weeds has certainly been suppressed by the hands and hoes that have been loosed upon them, and far from falling apart, the farm is being re-born daily with their mindful help.
Though there’s still much to be harvested and weeks to go before the farm sleeps, some mid-season stalwarts like the costata romanesco squash and the sweet and abundant greenhouse grapes have thrown in the trowel. The seedless concord that clambers so beautifully beneath greenhouse glass has been pruned back to thick cordons. Its bright purple sweetness lit up shares for more than a month this season.
If Google Maps went micro, local and organic, this is what might come up with a search for Stonegate Farm. Harvests have been colorful and diverse this season, with deep purple pole beans, variegated eggplant, candy-colored pimento peppers, and bright Sun Gold tomatoes. Grow, Shoot, Eat.
Long season greens like the kale and chard will be with us until frost. Though they may have lost their novelty by now, the lacinato kale, in particular, is one to “cherish until perish”; it’s just so much more nutritious than any other leafy green, full of omega-3s, calcium, iron, proteins and antioxidants. It goes into our smoothies, salads (and psyches) daily.
Just as we anticipate the first new growth in Spring, and delight in the fresh young arugula, spinach and snap peas that emerge, we should anticipate the season’s end, savor what we have and value where we’ve been. Sounds like a good life-mantra to me. –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.