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Love Letter for the Apple Trees

By Elora Overbey, AMI Phase II Fellow

Sometimes if the morning is just right and the clouds are still sleeping, tucked into the inversions of the valleys and hollers, and the sky is clear—save for the sleepy shimmer of a sliver moon, pressed like a thumbnail into the sky—you can look out over the ridgeline to see six or more mountain ridges.

This is where my favorite magical apple and maple trees live.

After untold years of leaning into the wind, their bark has twisted and gnarled to look as if the hands of the wind had sculpted it. They lean from years of persuasive encouragement from the westward winds, perpetually bowing to the sunrise that each morning brings.

Further down the mountain, there’s the old homestead orchard – planted by a family well over a hundred years ago. Hiding in plain sight, these beautiful burled apple trees have slowly climbed their way downhill over each year’s passing.

This year was a good apple year. September arrived and the mountain was flush with apples: reds and pinks blushing between green leaves. Years without pruning and oversight made the apples small, but no less plentiful, with some loading down branches to the breaking point. Not all were untouched by rot and disease nor a late spring frost. Some were tart and astringent enough to set your face into a permanent pucker (and set aside for later cider experiments), and so many of them were delicious old varieties that we enjoyed by the bushel.

Last week the cohort attended the Virginia Association for Biological Farming (VABF) at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia. It was my first farming conference and it was awesome. Both nights I went to bed with my mind fully saturated with new information and exciting ideas. The second morning I sat in on a session taught by the brilliant and wonderful Michael Phillips on Reclaiming Abandoned Apple Trees. Some advice he shared with us included:

  • Use Mulch: If apple trees are surrounded by grass, mulching over with cardboard can be a great way to open the space up to future diversity.
    • When mulching use ramial woodchips, which are woodchips from small branches and small deciduous trees; it can be the difference of applying a mineral rich application versus applying sawdust. When pines, spruces, and firs are used as woodchips, they are broken down by brown rot fungi, which can inhibit growth of deciduous trees, whereas ramial woodchips made from deciduous trees are broken down by white rot fungi that strengthen the mycelium network, providing the basis for long term fertility.
    • Use one 5-gallon bucket load  to create 4-6” thick cover, and rotate where you dump the bucket over season in order to have various stages of decomposition. Doing so creates easy digging for planting infertile comfrey or taproot plants that will help promote growth down the line.
  • Add Amendments: If the soil needs amendments, consider adding 10 pounds of gypsum per mature tree to add calcium to the soil.
    • Borax can be added for boron deficiency.
    • Sprinkle Azomite clay along canopy diameter to add trace minerals.
    • Rock dust and dehydrated sea minerals are great, but stay away from fresh manure.
  • Understory fertility loop:  Observe what’s produced “in-house.”
    • Research nitrogen-fixing shrubs to grow and utilize via the chop and drop method. (Siberian pea shrub, red alder, buffaloberry, infertile comfrey are all good options; chicory brings up zinc.)
    • Taproot plants encourage flowering diversity, reduce compaction of soil, and give the tree’s roots access to more nutrients and mycelium network.
  • Pruning: Each branch needs sunshine.
    • Space fruitlets 6-8” apart 30-40 days after petal fall to help deter pest populations and increase fruit size, by increasing air circulation and access to sunlight.
    • Don’t throw insect-stung fruit on the ground.
    • Before beginning work on a tree, examine trunk integrity to decide if it’s a worthy time investment.
    • Examine for the tree shape beneath upward suckers.
    • Allow for light space to be allotted for each limb.
    • Don’t remove more than 30% of the canopy at one time, and don’t seal cuts.
  • Yearly Maintenance: At 40% leaf fall consider choosing three of the following to complete.
    • Add lime (soil test first).
    • Mow around tree.
    • Compost (year 2 and 5 or 6; 4-quart containers).
    • Add a fall holistic spray.
    • Prune.

I’m very much a novice in this area but can’t wait to do more research and begin the process of giving some attention to our apple trees. I’m grateful for the opportunity to attend the conference and for all the information and wisdom shared by the presenters. The beauty of attending this kind of event after the Phase I intensive of the AMI Fellowship is that, when topics arise that you didn’t know you felt passion for (like working with forgotten apple trees), it’s possible to draw upon the knowledge gained from the past six months to give context and deeper understanding to the topic at hand.

The apple trees feel like old friends to me; to see once forgotten and now wild apple trees grinning from the roadside, from the old homesteads, and the forgotten backyards, I now see that they hold treasure in their branches and beckon me to explore the area. I can’t wait to spend this year exploring further, and perhaps, lending a helping hand to some old friends.

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