Garden On, Vashon

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A New Cider Orchard at Dragon’s Head

December 9th, 2012 at Sun, 9th, 2012 at 3:57 pm by Karen Dale

28 friends, actually, from Seattle, Bellevue, even California, showed up to help plant the last third of Dragon’s Head cider orchard on December 1st. Invited by Laura Cherry to join in, I stopped by the day before to check out the trees and the field prep before all heck broke loose. 

I had expected to see more rows trenched and raised as Wes, acting on the advice of Doug Tuma who had a similar high water table problem, had created in part of his orchard. Not this time: this new orchard was going into flat ground. And soggy ground, too, I could tell as our booted feet splished across the grass. Down 4′ wide rows of plowed sod, each tree’s spot was marked with lime, with a string-line stretched hip-high down the row to help tomorrow’s tree-planters keep to a straight line.


The 2-year-old trees, wrapped by a dozens in black garbage bags, leaned in a teepee formation at the edge of their parking lot. French apples from Normandy’s Calvados region: Bedan, Medaille d’Or, Noel des Champs, Muscadet de Dieppe, and Bulmer’s Norman, another bittersweet that traveled across the Channel to become a favorite of English cider-makers. Classic English apples like Yarlington Mill, Stokes Red, Kingston Black, and the lumpy-bumpy conjoined apple oddly named Porter’s Perfection. Once popular American apples like Golden Russet, red-fleshed Red Field, and the 18th-century favorite Harrison—the last known tree rediscovered in 1976, scion-wood taken from it just days before the tree was felled.

Most of the cultivars, Wes told me, were “interstems”, grafted first on 3/4-size, MM111 rootstock to provide big, hardy roots that can withstand wind and wet ground better. Here—,” he pointed to a V-cleft scar about 6” above the roots— “is the dwarfing stock, and here—” pointing a little higher where the trunk grew out of another scarred joint —”is the graft of the cultivar. My hope is that these dwarf trees won’t need stakes or trellising because they’ll have nearly full-size roots to hold them in place.”

Planting Day Arrives, along with 28 Helpful Friends

The next morning I arrived around 10am, to find Laura Cherry explaining to Destiny Bassett of Seattle (with baby Nikko) how to be the tree-mistress by doling out the trees in the right order from a spreadsheet on a clipboard. Others were chomping on Northern Spy apples brought by Doug Tuma (in yellow jacket)  and eyeing the sky: though the day had dawned bright, it had been raining for the last two days. The first batch, Golden Russets, were soaking in a root-dip of hormones and mycorrhizal fungi. Wes picked one up and said “Follow me to the planting demonstration!”


Pointing at the lower graft, Wes explained, “You want to backfill the soil about one hand’s width below here, an inch above the roots. Partner up: one of you digs the hole” (he thrust his shovel through the marker of lime-dust) then, while your partner (Sonia Honeydew knelt down to help) holds the tree at the right level. Turn the tree so its the top graft points north, trunk touching this string-line, you’ll flip the sod back into the hole and— SHOOT…” In the half-minute he’d been talking to us, the last 48 hours of rain backfilled the hole completely; his backflip of sod slopped muddy water all over his carhartts. “Well then, looks like we won’t have to water them in,” he chuckled. 


The men from Redmond, the blonde from Bellevue, the moms with kids, the folk musician all the way up from Oakland fanned out down the first row, trees in hand. Destiny and Gisela doled out the trees per a planting guide on a clipboard, as the dogs Cocoa and Jazz ran up and down the lines nosing into us and each other. Every hole quickly became a swimming hole: someone joked “Got snorkels?” One gal, after planting her Golden Russet, stamped her backfill hard: her foot sunk to within an inch of her boottop. As onlookers laughed, Wes said, “Maybe we should put a cone of sod in the hole FIRST—spread the roots on that to keep them a little higher.”


The first row was done within a half-hour: that seemed quick until I realized we had eleven more rows to go before early December’s sunset. I headed out for errands and lunch in town, returning to a sea of muddy shoes around the entrance to the kitchen that made me feel guilty for wandering off. As the planters, now fed, spilled out of the garage, grabbed their shovels, and poured down the row with Harrisons in hand, the sun broke from a tattered sky and turned the misty air into diamond dust.

An hour later as the rain returned, we were working like a chain-gang down the back slope, dropping trees into empty spots along the trellises. Suddenly there were no more holes to fill—we were DONE!

We headed to the ciderhouse, where Wes dipped out samples from the fermentation tanks (and from a hard cider Dr. Bob had made and bottled in “Old Peculiar”) until Laura came out calling “Come in outta the rain—my cocktail bar’s better than his!” 

And I left with a thank-you bottle of cider in hand and a warm feeling on a rainy day.

Here’s wishing you warm feelings on these cold December days. Looking forward to new beginnings and a fresh start on the blog in 2013!



gardens on the south end of Vashon Island, on a sandy hilltop overlooking Quartermaster Harbor. "Garden On, Vashon" shares what the Island has to teach us about gardening HERE—from making soils to sowing seeds to raising plants to harvest, cooking, preserving, and designing new ways to cultivate your little chunk of Vashon Island. To contact me, email, or leave a comment.

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