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Vermont Apples in the Champlain Valley


Colonial Orchards

However they came to Vermont — up the Connecticut, down the Otter, across the Green Mountains on the Crown Point Road, or up the Richelieu to Champlain — our early settlers traveled light. They brought only the essentials to establish their wilderness homesteads. In addition to an axe, rifle, and basic cooking utensils, room was made for seeds of corn and other grains and fruit, most commonly apple seeds.

The apple seeds they carried produced sour, astringent-tasting wild apples that were very rarely edible by today's standards. This was because apples do not grow true to their seed — that is, seeds from a McIntosh apple will not produce a tree with McIntosh apples on it. (While apples retain the most common structural and physiologic similarities, they — like we humans — are all different in appearance and other characteristics.) You may still come across these crab apples on “wild,” or seedling, trees in hedge rows or near old cellar holes.

Although the seedling fruit from the settlers' small orchards was small, crabbed and tart, it was eminently useful for livestock feed and for producing cyder and vinegar — both important to these early “subsistence” farmers. The cyder — pressed, barreled and naturally fermented — warmed the long Vermont winters. Apple cyder vinegar was important in preserving other foods — long before the home freeze locker and pressure cooker.

Occasionally, among hundreds or thousands of seedlings planted, one random tree produced attractive, sweet and tasty apples good for eating out of hand or for cooking. For this occasion, a few of the early settlers brought with them grafting skills known and practiced from Roman times.

With top or cleft grafting, cuttings from the neighborhood's most desirable fruit-bearing seedlings were placed on the branches of a grown tree. This produced individual branches which would continue to produce the preferred fruit year after year.

In bud grafting, a bud from a tree bearing the desired fruit was placed at the base of a one- or two-year-old seedling tree. This bud grew out, eventually replacing the original branch, creating an entire tree of the desired variety.

With these methods, the settlers could upgrade the produce of their own seedling orchards and those of their neighbors. To this day, most nursery trees for commercial orchards or backyard gardens are produced in this latter manner.

Later, itinerant grafters traveled among the settlements bringing cuttings from a wider area and, for a few cents, would upgrade a small orchard. Several of today's most popular varieties first appeared in this way — the Rhode Island Greening, our own McIntosh, the Red and Golden Delicious among them.

In a story told to former Vermont senator George Aiken — and recounted in his book Pioneering With Fruit and Berries — the Greening originated near Newport, Rhode Island. Sprouting from a seed dropped by a bird or other animal, or the core of an apple discarded by a young boy, a seedling tree grew, by chance, beside a tavern kept by a Mr. Green at a place known as Green's End. Patrons and neighbors of the tavern sampled it as they passed and found it to have a very agreeable taste and texture. A man from the southeast corner of Vermont walked all the way to Rhode Island to obtain cuttings from the seedling tree whose reputation had spread throughout New England. In this way, the Rhode Island Greening spread throughout New England and beyond.

A Walk Through Windfall Orchard

Windfall Orchardnamed from the term Robert Frost used to indicate apples that have fallen from the tree — includes fragments of two small farm orchards planted in 1918 and 1948. The bulk of the orchard was gradually built up to a 120-tree population from 1974 to 1998. The three large Greenings in the northeast corner — remnants of the oldest portion of the orchard — are easily recognized.

As you wander down through the orchard's three acres you will find trees of all sizes and ages. Represented are more than fifty different varieties, demonstrating a range of color, size, taste, storage characteristics, and tree growth. They also depict all stages in the production process: some trees bear two or more varieties; several are wild or seedling trees, partially grafted over with named varieties; and some still bear the small “crabbed” apples of the original trees. If you look carefully at the young trees, you may find for yourself where a branch has been grafted or where a bud graft has been placed.

If you ask, we can show you a “wild” tree onto which Empires and Kings have been grafted, and which still retains several limbs of the original apple: sweet, large, attractive, but rather bland. Nearby you will find a small tree which has been bud grafted from one of these limbs. It is too young to have much fruit but we can confidently expect it to produce an abundant crop in future years. We have named it the Gibson Nonesuch.

You will also find three small nurseries with young trees of varying ages planted with seeds from the cyder mill — some grafted, some ready to be put in the orchard, and some very small trees from last fall's seeds. In the orchard and nursery you will find each stage of both grafting methods: bud and top, or cleft. One tree has more than a half dozen varieties on it.

If you have a bit of that pioneering spirit in you, why not try your hand at establishing a seedling orchard on your own homestead? Plant some seeds and learn how to bud and top graft. Bud graft from a neighbor's favorite tree onto one of your own year old seedlings to produce an entire tree of that variety or top graft an older tree to one or more varieties.

Ask us for help, instruction and demonstration — a supply of seeds or even some young seedling trees. We can provide the seeds when the cider mill starts up, provide cuttings ("scions”) of many varieties and can introduce you to the fundamentals of grafting, equipment and techniques. But before you select your varieties, taste test them at our orchard.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Arthur Blaise and I are often asked for our tastiest apple. We each have our own favorites, but like good Yankees, we have learned to be sparing with our advice — not that either of us are that taciturn. Each of us can go on at great length about the virtues of our favorites, but we have learned, occasionally to our dismay, that others do not necessarily share our enthusiasms. We have rediscovered that old maxim that peoples' tastes are as varied as the tastes of our various apples that beauty is, indeed, in the eye — or, in this case, the taste buds — of the beholder.

We can, however, tell you which variety is more crisp or softer, which is juicy or a bit dry. We can point out the sweeter or the tartest or indicate which has the thickest, chewiest skin or which has a thin, tender skin. We can tell you by our growing experience which we like for sauce, pies or for baking. But we can't tell you which one you are going to like best. You are going to have to find out — as we have — by trying them yourself. But whatever you do, don't be fooled by color, size or finish. Like good books, apples can not (or should not) be judged by their covers.

Without trying to tell you which your favorite apple variety is or will be, Arthur and I will try to describe a few characteristics of some of our varieties and share some of our own comments on their appeal to the two of us. Remember our golden principles:

  • Peoples' tastes vary as much as apples' tastes vary. “Different strokes for different folks.”
  • Timing of tasting alters optimum characteristics. Fruit freshly picked at its peak cannot be compared to the supermarket variety.
  • For best taste, seek out the roadside stand. We have learned, and are still learning, a number of other things about the timing of harvest, for instance, that determine the optimum characteristics of a particular variety. This is why a roadside stand, not the supermarket is the place to look for the tastiest apple.
  • Storage may improve fruit taste (and vice versa). Several varieties, we have been told and are discovering, improve in storage at varying lengths of time.
  • Never judge a book by its cover.

We are also told that a given variety grown in different localities and under different climatic and soil conditions will vary in its taste characteristics. It is said, in this light, that nowhere in the world is our Mac grown to such perfection as in our Champlain Valley. On the other hand, we have been unable to grow a Granny Smith that even matches the supermarket variety.

Finally, a word to the wise: keep all apples for desert use refrigerated.