Monday, August 10, 2015

Savage apples

A reader writes,

Last winter, my husband and I bought a house on 15 acres of land in the mountains of western Maine.

It had a little orchard, but since the previous tenants had fed the deer apples right in the middle of the orchard, our trees were eaten to nubs.

Nonetheless, we found about a dozen wild apple trees that had been planted by the deer maybe 30 years ago and had survived the browsing, the -20° winters, and the aggressive blocking of light by the neighboring pines.

When we asked ourselves what does our land want to grow, the wild trees told us on no uncertain terms: apples.

So I decided to start a cidery. In the spring we planted maybe 17 trees (lost count), almost all different varieties, mostly English bittersweets and Maine heritage apples. Next year we'll be planting many more.

That is the voice of Shelah Horvitz, whose cidery will be called Savage Apples Orchard, "after my ferocious wild apple trees."

I haven't tasted any of the apple varieties I've planted. I haven't seen any of them in stores, in farmers' markets, nothing.

The closest I've come is my two Gravensteins, which are some of my healthiest trees; my husband is Norwegian and I wanted the Gravensteins so I could attempt to reproduce the ambrosial Gravenstein juice we had enjoyed in Hardanger. But the rest, I have purchased from verbal descriptions.

We're clearing some land and this coming spring I'll learn to graft and will be getting a lot of scion wood for a new orchard.

I recognize I'm at the really exciting stage where my entire orchard is a mystery. I've read how good my Ashmead's Kernel and Cox's Orange Pippin will be someday, but right now they're just these little trees wheezing through scab scars.

Tiny Dabinette, which should never have been planted on M111, almost gave up the ghost when the scab swept the orchard, but she's coming back, squeezing out the leaves, the intrepid little baby.

There's Bramtôt, a stocky little fireplug full of energy, with her guardian spider that takes care of all the bugs.

My trees all have personalities. They all have this problem, that problem. They all have their little triumphs. I know them from that end. But what their fruit will taste like? I have only heresay.

This year I'll be making my first cider. Since my trees are babies, I'll have to purchase apples. I know of a few places where cider apples can be bought but they're quite a drive away.

Do you know of any orchards near Boston where I might be able to pick up some English bittersweets?

Shelah says she comes to Boston regularly. I'm leaving the last part in in case anyone reading this can help her. Because my readers are the best.

Thank you, Shelah, for permission to publish this story. And good luck with those trees!


  1. Wow, Adam, I didn't know you were going to publish it this soon! Thanks, you put together passages from a few emails in a very coherent way. I took photos this past weekend of some of the trees but they're in my camera in Maine and here I am in Boston, so I haven't gotten them to you. Nonetheless, thanks for posting this. I will keep my ears peeled for interesting orchards in my area, and hope I hear from someone who knows of some. My Maine house is in Franklin County, and I go up every weekend.

    1. Shelah, did not mean to take you by surprise! It just felt ready to go.

      I'd be very pleased to revise the post with photos.

      Thanks for letting me publish it.

    2. Well you know a good way to control what gets published is to start your own blog! ;) Seriously, your project sounds very interesting and if you have the inclination to do so, I would love to read it.

    3. Matt, an excellent idea. Shelah, is it unanimous?

    4. I second that. It was a delight to read, especially as I am in the same situation with many of my trees- mysterious untried varieties :)

  2. I am an amateur cider maker; every year my friend Ben and I and a crew of friends make a few hundred liters of cider using home built bicycle powered machinery at his grandparents' land in Maine. The only two places I know of to get bittersweet cider apples are Poverty Lane in NH and Nashoba Valley Winery in MA.

    The one time my family went to Nashoba to pick though, it was a real disappointment. All the cider apples were off limits (despite being listed as u-pick on their website), and they were driving around golf carts in the orchard cussing people out if they caught them eating an apple, telling them it was exactly like Stealing. So I wouldn't recommend Nashoba.

    I haven't been myself, but Poverty Lane sounds nice. My cider partner Ben and his family usually make the pilgrimage with a truck and trailer. That is where we get our core cider apples from every year. The first few years we did u-pick, now a bit of u-pick plus a bin (270kg) of Kingston Black or Dabinett or whatever they have available. I understand the ship cider apples to as far away as Oregon, now that hard cider seems to be having a moment.

    1. Oh well you know who started Poverty Lane, don't you? Steve Wood, the cider maker for Farnum Hill Ciders. He comes from a California vineyard background and traveled to England to learn cider making from the source, and pretty much reestablished craft cider making in the US, since it had taken an almost mortal hit from Prohibition back in the '20s. He's been doing it a long time, and is the granddaddy of it all, and has been very generous in helping out other cider makers, under the notion that a rising tide raises all boats. I'd love to meet him but I'm shy and want to get a little brewing under my belt before I speak to him. I've always been the kind who has to do her homework before showing up to class...

    2. I've not had the chance to meet Steve Wood but my cider buddy Ben has chatted with him a number of times. I have the utmost respect for his abilities as a grower and a cider brewer, as well as for his efforts to help and educate. I'd love the chance to meet him someday! We have certainly drained more than a few bottles of fine cider from Farnum Hill.

      My local library got a copy of Apples to CIder, a recent book on cider on which Steve Wood is a co-author. It was a good read, and very interesting to see the different approaches used by Poverty Land and other producers. Steve also had a great section on tasting which inspired me to want to improve my own tasting skills.

      Oh, one other thing I wanted to comment on: those wild apples can be a wonderful addition to hard cider. We often have a certain portion of fruit gathered from wild or seedling trees from around Georgetown and Gorham, ME. One year Ben and his housemates pressed some cider from early Gorham apples, and it was powerful stuff at least in the unfermented state. As I'm sure you are aware the hard cider produced by generations of colonists and later americans was mostly made from seedling fruit.

      I've also read that getting heirloom french and english cider apples to grow and product in new england is a pain in the neck. Clearly it is possible, (e.g. Pov. Lane), but probably takes more skill and spraying to get there.

      Why do you say Dabinette shouldn't have been planted on M111?

  3. Thanks, yes, Holly, I have heard about using wild apples in cider, which is exactly my plan; I'm waiting to taste our wild apples to see if any would be suitable; if not, there are wild apple trees all over the area and I'll see about scion wood.

    As to Dabinett, I have read that the variety in general is low vigor. An M111 rootstock is lower vigor than a standard Antonovka seedling stock, not as low vigor as a dwarf stock but reduced nonetheless. St. Laurence Nurseries in upstate NY doesn't even offer its trees on M111 rootstocks because the trees can't withstand their brutal winters, and I'm sure our winters are comparable. So I would say that if you are in a warmer zone, Dabinett on an M111 would be fine, but for where we are, you've grafted a low-vigor scion on a low-vigor rootstock so you've created a low-vigor tree. We have a couple of other trees on M111 and they all are compromised, but they're also all English bittersweets. I plan to try Liberty and maybe something else that's scab-resistant on M111 because we happen to have a half dozen rootstocks waiting to be grafted, but because of our cold winters, I will be leaning towards standard stocks in general.

  4. Thanks for your info on rootstocks! When we get our land, I'm planning on apples, of course. WAS thinking of dwarfs, but are you saying they don't grow or do as well in general? we're at 1/2 mile higher than Denver here in upstate AZ*

    1. Rootstocks are so mysterious to me. It's like the root is giving orders to the rest of the tree: Stop growing! Do this! Do that!


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