Cider And Heirloom Apple Vigor: An Hypothesis

Recently, I was on the phone with a mentor and we were discussing hedgerows (my new pet project, aside from brewing all sorts of alcohol). With some of the species I mentioned, I was told that livestock would eat them down to nothing and render the hedgerow useless. After having a few tree species rejected, I frustratingly asked: “What if I planted my hedgerows with invasives like multi-flora rose, then?!”

Without any hesitation, my mentor said: “Invasives like multi-flora rose are very delicious to many animals, like my goats.  You might be suggesting invasive plants for your hedgerow because they are vigorous and seem to outcompete everything else, but try to think about vigor from another perspective. If plants with high vigor are also the most sought after by animals, don’t you think that vigor might be an evolutionary trait to survive browse?”

This is the first time I’ve heard this perspective on invasives and I’ve really enjoyed thinking about it. After some minimal research, I found out that the subject is still debated today by ecologists as the “plant vigor hypothesis.” Generally speaking, vigorous plants have higher nutrient densities than non-vigorous plants, so herbivores are more prone to eat them. However! If the very vigorous cultivars are able to put on a bunch of girth, many herbivores aren’t able to eat the whole thing because of their jaw size.

This, of course, has got me thinking about apples. Here’s why.

In many essays on this blog, I’ve talked about how I consider many cider and heirloom cultivars to be very vigorous as compared to most of the grocery store cultivars. Vigorous cultivars are harder to prune, occupy more space (so less trees per acre), have issues with vegetative vs fruit bud proportions, etc. In general, they are harder to grow.  After reading more about this “plant vigor hypothesis,” I wonder if there is a connection between vigor and nutrient density in apples cultivars?

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From an evolutionary standpoint, a correlation between vigor and nutrient density makes sense to me. Many wild crab apples in the US have much higher tannins (aka polyphenols, which =nutrition density) than cultivated varieties. This is from the many lifetimes spent co-evolving with insects and herbivores who are trying to eat them. From observing crabapples in the “wild” and planted in landscapes, it seems as if many trees have low vigor and perhaps this is because they have evolved to have an unpalatable deterrence for animals and humans alike?

In hard cider, many of the wild crabs are too much for our palates to handle and though very nutritious, they will cause a harsh and likely negative consumer experience. So what have we done? Over time, cider drinkers/makers/apple growers have selected cultivars to grow which are palatable to the consumer, but also contain enough tannins (or polyphenols, or natural defense) to give the cider some substance.  Could it be that in selecting not-so-astringent apple cultivars for eating/drinking, we’re unknowingly selecting for more tree vigor? If the apple cultivar hasn’t evolved enough to deter herbivores through astringent taste, then do genetics dictate that it must rely on vigor to survive? 

These sorts of questions make me excited and I’ll keep learning about these processes in order to try and uncover different management ideas that don’t involve regulating vigor through the use of dwarfing rootstocks, black magic hormonal potions like Apogee (which converts vegetative buds into fruiting buds), and planting in light soils. All of those management aspects, I suspect, are making the vigorous cultivars less vigorous/more fibrous/less nutrient dense.

Thoughts to be continued, but in the meantime here are a few off the top of my head:

Thought 1: Pruning extremely vigorous varieties like an herbivore in order to get faster fruit set?

Thought 2: Continuing to fruit explore to find mixes of wild x cultivated which hit high nutrient densities, palatability, and lower vigor.  (I’m writing a fruit exploring book about how to do this at the moment)

Thought 3: Making crabapples a significant part of my home breeding program.

 

 

Workshops in NY! Come one, come all (until spots fill up)

The Home Orchard: a series of workshops with Eliza Greenman

May 9th: Fruit Tree Topworking Workshop!

Imagine a single apple tree in the spring blooming with a bouquet of white, pink, red and purple flowers. Imagine that same singular tree with red, green, yellow and russeted apples in the fall. That tree is possible to obtain if you learn how to topwork. Come and learn the art and technique of adding different varieties to a tree. On Saturday, May 9th, heirloom and cider orchardist Eliza Greenman will walk you through the steps necessary to change an apple, pear, or hawthorne tree over to something you find more useful to your lifestyle. Whether you want to convert an abandoned orchard over to different varieties, or you are tight on space and want one of your trees to supply great pie apples for every month of the apple season…the learning starts with topworking.

When: May 9th, 3-5pm
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 15 slots available.
What to bring: Loppers or hand pruners, sharp knife (a single bevel grafting knife is strongly preferred), gloves
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot: egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

June 6th: Growing Low-Input/Low-Spray Apples for Hard Cider

Cider apples are different from your normal grocery store apples. Not just in variety, but also in management technique. Come take a walk through the orchard with heirloom and cider orchardist Eliza Greenman to learn the basics of good and bad when it comes to growing apples for hard cider. We’ll identify and discuss beneficial insects and cosmetic diseases, concerns and triumphs in the orchard, and tips/tricks to deal with these concerns. The goal of this workshop is to have the participant leave with motivation to experiment, make observations, and join a network of people working to supple and make quality products which do not harm local ecology or the consumer.

When: June 6th: 9-12
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 20 slots available.
What to Bring: Notebook
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

June 13th: Summer Pruning Workshop Summer

Pruning is a practice and art of addressing vigor in apple and pear trees. When practiced in combination with dormant winter pruning, a tree is able to produce more fruit and have less disease. Come learn the basics of tree vigor, how soils and winter pruning can interact with the vegetative growth of your apple trees, and how to bring the tree back into balance through summer pruning.
When: June 13th: 9-12
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 15 slots available.
What to Bring: Hand pruners, loppers, gloves
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com  with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

August 8th: Fruit Exploring and Summer Grafting

Learning from the landscape is one of our best tools in combating climate change and forming a more sustainable agricultural future. If you know where to look and what to look for, the landscape transforms itself into a realm of purposeful human legacies and thriving natural adaptations. Fruit Explorer/Orchardist Eliza Greenman will teach you how to track human legacy through trees, select for wild and thriving genetics, and how to propagate it all through summer bud grafting.
When: August 8th: 9-4
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $25 per person. 25 slots available.
What to Bring: Camera, notebook, single beveled knife (grafting knife preferred), footwear and clothing for walking outside, sun protection.
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

September 19th: Hard Cider 101

This workshop will cover all the basics of making hard cider, from pressing to fermentation. Participants will take home a fermenting kit and a 5 gallon carboy of cider to ferment at home.
When: September 19th: 10-2
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $100 per person. 20 slots available.
What to Bring: Notebook.
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

Putting in my notice.

On my one year anniversary here, I put in my notice that I would be leaving by the end of the year.

It’s an exhilarating feeling to put in your notice, there’s a certain thrill when it comes to “what’s next.” At the same time, I’m in mourning. I had so much hope and energy to be here, had told myself that it was going to be a permanent move. I spent all of my savings on erecting a greenhouse and starting a nursery business, taking any security blanket away and throwing me into this crazy world. I have learned many things this year about myself, running a business and working with southern heirloom apple varieties. I had some really awesome days and some days where I felt so miserable that I wanted to just disappear. I have never been more stressed out, sleep deprived or lonely in my life, yet I still thought this was where I needed to be. I attribute this to my often ridiculous love for the trees, which blinds me at times.

When I worked with a very old man in Maine managing his 100 variety orchard, he had me spraying a fungicide on the trees with a wand sprayer as he drove the tractor up and down the rows. Having never sprayed this fungicide before, he assured me that wearing a rain coat was sufficient. I got so much of the fungicide on me that that my skin started to burn intensely and I felt physically ill (vomiting). I was confined to the bed for the remainder of the day and didn’t feel right until about a week later. The smell of this particular fungicide makes me ill to this day, much like certain hard alcohols make others feel after one bad night of overconsumption…you know, our body reminding us to stay the hell away.  I know that I was improperly clothed, but I vowed then and there never to be in a situation where I had to spray anything like that again. I also vowed to never be in a management position where I have someone spray those chemicals.

This is why I decided to head down the cider apple route. As an apple orchardist with an heirloom niche, it was a perfect transition for me to manage trees in a way that I thought would be more responsible for the farmer, the consumer, and the environment. It was a way to grow ugly apples and have them be valued for their flavors and nutritional content rather than their looks. Every tree is different and these old genetics have a thing or two to teach us, so I was excited to learn from the varietal collection here. Over the past year, I have learned a lot from the trees, some subtleties and some big picture items. Enough to have me convinced that I can grow within my own personal/environmental ideologies in order to produce a fantastic and all together healthy product if given the opportunity to keep working with the trees in what is nowadays seen as a careless, ignorant, and improper management approach.

At this time, “This is a business” is not a good enough excuse to get me to spray things I don’t believe are necessary given the goals and objectives. Especially when only 20% of apples in the cider are from the orchard (Aka: Why not use this opportunity to grow apples for cider, since the cider will still be made without them). I can’t concern myself with the now and turn a blind eye to what my impacts might be down the road on this landscape and other people.  That’s not responsible, I can’t let myself spray a tree with pesticides, fungicides, hormones and other chemicals without first knowing what the tree’s genetics and natural associations are capable of producing. Perhaps that is the definition of a radical these days.

Yesterday someone from a University came by the cider house and asked me what I had sprayed earlier that day. I hadn’t sprayed anything. She was smelling the residues left behind from the previous pressing of apples brought in from a conventional orchard. When I had walked past them last week, I could smell fungicide residue from 50 feet away.  Had there been any question, one could just go and look at the dusty film on the apples to confirm suspicions. Apparently this smell can linger 3 days in a parking lot, which is disturbing on a variety of levels.

I’ve been told that I should seek out this conventional dessert fruit orchardist’s advice, the one who delivered the above mentioned apples. I should have him look at my spray schedule in order to help me adjust it and make the right decisions, they said. Perhaps I’m just really naïve or ignorant, but it’s hard for me to believe that this person and I have anything in common other than the fact that we’re growing the same fruit that has more than 7000 known and genetically different varieties.

Eliza is very (might be tragically) wrong, but smart and innocent.”

That’s from an email haphazardly forwarded to me from a person concerned that I didn’t know what I was doing, so they sought out professional advice.

I will be the first person to tell you that I’ve only just begun to trust my gut when it says to go one way rather than another. This has no scientific backing without my ability to explain it in a scientific language, which I’ve only started to do.  I have an understanding of conventional horticulture, but I question many of the processes. I have no idea what is actually the right way to be doing things, given the broad scope of human-caused tragedies. But to be called “tragically wrong” when pushing the envelope… man, that makes me want to defend myself.

And I did. Without hesitation.  I called him up, read him what he wrote, and asked for him to please describe what he meant when he said those things. “You weren’t meant to read that,” he said. I grilled him on what he knew about the soils, the cultivars, the humid temperate rainforest climate in this area… “How could you say those things about me without walking in these shoes, knowing this soil, growing these cultivars? You have never experienced these conditions. In your statements, are you implying that all is universal?” He was upset that I was sent that email. He appeased me, but later called me disrespectful. Which I was, because I stooped to his level. I regret stooping to his level.

After having that confrontational conversation, I made the decision to accept those who will always criticize me and doom me to failure. Hell, in time, I might also find room to love these people because they don’t understand. Maybe they are right. Maybe my work will never amount to anything. But I’m not giving up because these people think this way and have these opinions about me and my work. I’ve only just started and this is my life’s fire.

Deep down inside of me, there is an unexplained energy that propels me forward with all of this and gives me a voice. It’s the same feeling I had 6 years ago when I was up in the tree, learning how to prune for the first time. It’s a purpose, as if every cell in my body thinks I should be doing this. I will keep learning from the landscapes and people around me. I’ll keep following my gut and trying to decipher why it steered me in that particular direction. I’ll do more fruit exploring in order to learn from the trees and the people who planted them 100+ years ago. I’m going to continue to ask hard questions, be insatiably curious, look beyond the orchards for solutions, and convince people to eat cosmetically blemished fruit (#eatuglyapples).

I’m prepared to fail terribly in pursuit of potentially valuable/viable horticulture gains.  With that, I put in my notice.  Lookout, world.

(we set a record this year for harvest, 7 tons per produceable acre. It was a good production year, but that number I just gave you, 7 tons per acre, was the amount we pressed. )