Apple Abundance as a Part of Our History

Reader Contribution by Anneli Carter-Sundqvist
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With the Hostel having been closed for just over a month, some head space starts to open up; we can see a bit beyond next batch of laundry, next communal meal. We’ve rested, and enjoyed an absolutely fantastic fall. Quickly, we get carried away into new endeavors. One of the new project around our farm this fall is to clear ground for where we next spring will plant 10 apple trees. There’s drainage to work on, brambles to fight, brush to move. The apple trees are growing in our vegetable garden, as thin whips a couple of feet tall. The mere thought that these will be stout, apple drooping trees, growing in an place that right now looks like a bomb went off, takes a great leap of imagination.

The first basic thing to know about apples is that they don’t come true from seed. That means that if you plant the seeds from a Red Delicious, the apple growing from that seed won’t be a Red Delicious. It will be its own, unique apple variety, unlike anything there ever was. To get a Red Delicious, you need to graft. That is a whole subject on its own, but basically grafting means taking a few inches long piece of new growth wood with 3-4 buds (called scion) from the tree you like to propagate and sticking it on an existing tree or rootstock and letting them grow together. Everything growing from that scion will be the same as the tree you cut the piece from. Apple trees grown from seeds, planted by humans either intentionally or by someone throwing a core in the ditch or by a squirrel or cow are usually  referred to as seedlings, and the variety doesn’t have a name. Before breeding programs of apples were invented, all apples trees started as wild seedlings. Someone found an apple tree along the road or in the woods, tried the fruit and liked it, cut a twig, grafted it, named it and from there on it spread.

And that’s exactly what we’ve done with the trees we’ll plant this spring. For a few years now we’ve eaten our way through the neighborhoods abundance of apples and made notes of the early ones, the good keepers, the sauce apples. Some of them are seedlings, others are grafted, well known varieties planted as part of an orchard. The seedlings we’ve named and perhaps one day other apple lovers come along and take scion from our trees and spread those varieties on.

There used to be, from Maine to Georgia and west to the Mississippi river, 20.000 grafted apple varieties. Everyone had apple trees. Every farm and homestead had some trees that they cared for, whether it was enough only for the household or if it was a part of a diversified income. Many villages, neighborhoods or towns had their own unique apple trees that someone found wild and named after a person or location. People were picky with how they used the apples; not all apples meet their peak performance when eaten fresh. Some taste best in a pie, some taste best as sauce, some taste best in February after being kept in the cellar and people knew this and planned their orchard after their intended use for the apples.

Today, when commercialism is king and the most known apple varieties are the 5 kinds offered in the supermarket those old varieties are worth paying attention to. One of the most interesting agriculture project in Maine right now is the Maine Heritage Orchard that is being established in Unity. Starting this spring some 500 old varieties of apples and pears will be planted as a way to preserve Maine’s legacy of a great apple state. As with all things around us, diversity is interesting and sustainable. There are trees in our immediate neighborhood that are around 150-160 years old. There are varieties on this island that once was loved and cared for, that had fantastic pie apples, or made the cider turn into champagne or kept till May in the cellar, trees that someone named after their wife or son or the cove they lived by, varieties where now only one single tree remains and by learning about identification and grafting that tree can be replanted and saved as a part of our history and heritage.

Dennis Carter and Anneli Carter-Sundqvist live year round on a highly self-sufficient, off the grid homestead. In the summer, they run the Deer Isle Hostel, providing budget accommodation, positive-impact living education and a unique experience for 100’s of travelers each year. They grow and keep a whole year’s supply of food without freezer or refrigerator, they provide their own building material, garden amendments, medicine and fuel using island resources and great creativity. They recently got awarded The Homesteader of the Year 2013 by Mother Earth News and the Best Budget accommodation in the Down East Magazine.

Photos by Dennis Carter, Anneli Carter-Sundqvist