Garden On, Vashon
Gardening, cooking, building, designing, dreaming…
Easy to say, All’s Right in Our World, in the merry month of May.
It’s a pleasure to be outdoors. The weather’s mild and nurturing, nature’s green and fulsome, and the biggest blossoms of the season are up, proud, and colorful. Rhodies, azaleas, and tree peonies—oh MY!
May Day at Homestead Farm
R.I.S.K (Rock Island String Kollective) was asked to play music at Homestead Farm on Saturday for their May Day Celebration. When I got there around 1, around 20 kids and their parents were bouncing around the pond, vegetable plots, and goat pen. The male goats reared up to butt heads (sound of coconuts clonked together), while the farm’s fluffy white angora bunny (nothing rabbity left in that critter’s genes) tried to hide in the tall grass away from reaching little hands.
In the center of all this hub-bub was the Maypole, rainbow spokes of ribbons tacked to the ground with nails. This is the sixth year that Dana’s held this spring celebration, and the pole was wrapped tight in last year’s faded ribbons. When Dana called us all to take up a ribbon, we each introduced ourselves and named our favorite colors—which as often as not were reflections of favorite things. “Lilac,” said Mom #1. “Tangerine,” said I. “The white that’s the color of clouds,” said the videographer. “River!” said the little boy named River—and his dad, beaming down, said “Mine’s River, too. “I can’t decide which is my favorite,” said Kolo, “so I choose the Rainbow.”
After David Godsey yelled out some barely-listened-to instructions on how to weave the Maypole ribbons, Shane, Janet, and I struck up our violins and guitar and gave them a few tunes to do-see-do by. “MORE MORE MORE!” cried the kids (bless them!) and so we gave them “Swallowtail” and ‘Ten-Penny Jig”, then ‘Snowdon’s,” “Arkansas Traveler,” and our theme song “Mairi’s Wedding.” And then the Pole was woven, Shane took his position to play for the CakeWalk, and it was time for me to leave this happy gang to their cake, sugar-rush and video interviews on “How to Make a Healthier World.”
On to the Backyard Homestead of Lotus
The Fruit Club was enjoying its annual tour of two member’s berry plantings. I couldn’t make Dr. Bob Norton’s show-n-tell of his strawberry trials, but I did want to see Lotus’s deep backyard garden.
In only three years, Lotus and her partner have planted up about a 1/4 acre (I’m guessing) into a medley of vegetable beds, dwarf orchard trees, flowers, berry patches, and chicken runs. It’s BIG: you’d have to walk among the beds daily to know what’s ready to eat, what’s ready to go.
Some of her sourcing comes from fruit experts like Raintree Nursery, such as the green netting used for her berry cage, which she said is MUCH easier to work with that that finger-clinging black bird netting. Raintree had sent, as a thank-you, a dwarf nectarine tree, here seen under a rainguard; it was loaded with fruit.
And some came from neighbors. One has an old Golden Delicious apple tree that’s falling apart from age and has terrible scab. But the fruit is so delicious that Lotus has grafted scions of it onto her dwarf Liberty apple, in hopes of keeping this delicious fruit alive when its mother tree is gone. She had just learned how to graft from the Fruit Club’s workshop; black-tape evidence of her trials were in nearly all her orchard trees.
Other items & tips came from farmers: the raspberries here came mostly from Island Meadow Farm, while that support idea came from GreenMan Farm. “The raspberries grow right through and don’t lean over the paths,” Lotus explained.
It occurred to me afterward that Island Living offers most of us this opportunity to homestead right in our backyards. Up front, Lotus’s place looks like any humble suburban home—but that deep backyard offers enough sun and space to allow her to grow an amazing amount of food. I’d never seen fava beans, but here they were, already sized up and in amazing flower. No wonder they say it’s a good crop for cool spring.
At Homestead school, a big chunk of Dana’s field was tilled up for food production, already growing a long row of lettuces and brassicas. I’m sure that a significant part of her curriculum is rooted right in this ground. Let’s all hope that, when the kids are asked by that videographer “What Makes a Healthier World?” one of them, loaded up with cake & sugar, will shout, “GROWING GOOD THINGS TO EAT!”
That’s having your cake and eating it, too. Happy growing.
This Saturday, a ceremony on Sunrise Ridge gives a bow to the past and a step toward the future. The Fruit club dedicates its new orchard by honoring the people who brought us Sunrise Ridge in the first place.
Cherries, apples, and pears were first grown here as part of one of the Harmeling family homesteads. In 1956, the Army Corps. of Engineers completed the Nike Missile control base & barracks on the former farm (the Nike Missile silos were in the earth of Paradise Valley, now decommissioned and buried under the Paradise Ridge Equestrian Park).
Those soldiers planted many specimen trees on Sunrise Ridge: pin and red oaks along the entrance drive, yew trees, tulips poplars, liquidamber, maples, and a Harry Lauder’s Walking Sick by the furniture annex. In the 1970s, young people in Job Corps, a federal employment program for youth, also planted trees on the campus.
Recently the old fruit tree orchard, long overrun by blackberries, had to be torn out. But a new orchard is being planted by the V-MI Fruit Club. Envisioning a legacy project for the community, the group plans to conduct research trials and demonstration projects on fruit tree cultivars, berries, and other fruit not often grown in our maritime climate. The orchard will hold a most unusual new tree: Dr. Bob Norton has developed what he’s dubbed the “Fruit Basket”—a multi-graft tree holding branches of several varieties of cherry and plum in a single dwarf tree.
Looking back to all those special trees rooted at Sunrise Ridge, the Fruit Club has decided to honor some of Sunrise Ridge’s human roots, by honoring two of the Founding Mothers of Sunrise Ridge: Dorothy Johnson, mother of Lotus, the fruit club secretary, and club member Opal Montague.
How the Island Gained its Sunrise Ridge
In 1970, the island Community Council, led by Leo Montague and Dorothy Johnson, discovered in an Island-wide canvas a crying need for better health services. Only two doctors worked on the Island, and one was about to retire. In 1972, Leo, Dorothy, and others formed a nonprofit, Vashon-Maury Health Services, and opened its first clinic in Burton with three nurse practitioners hired out of the brand-new UW Nurse Practitioner program.
In 1976 when the Army decided to surplus the Sunrise Ridge campus, they offered it first (as was traditional) to the state, then the county, then the city. No takers. Discovering this, Dorothy spearheaded a proposal to the Army Surplus dept, suggesting they consider handing over THIS surplus property to a nonprofit organization. Though this had never been done, the Army agreed, and a lease for $1 a year for 30 years was signed, with a signing ceremony that June.
This was just the first innovation of this remarkable group of volunteers. Opal & Leo Montague later led the effort to associate the clinic with Group Health. Opal told me that her husband had Group Health insurance, and they were tired of going to the mainland for their health care. “I went to Group Health’s community meetings for 2-3 years, trying to persuade them to associate with a satellite clinic. They took some persuading…” Group Health had no satellite clinics at that time, but finally they signed a trial 1-year contract with the little Vashon nonprofit: Island doctors would use Group Health’s protocols and, when necessary, refer patients to Group Health specialists on the mainland. “And within 3-4 months, nearly 1000 Islanders switched their primary care to Group Health at our Island clinic. Group Health was so impressed with the level of participation —and the tiny capital costs to them—that they wanted US to sign a FIVE-year contract at the end of that year. Then they started developing satellite clinics all around Puget Sound,” said Opal, “so you could say that we were the first.”
Sunrise Ridge is run by a volunteer Board of Directors. Granny’s Attic, the Food Bank, the Health Clinic, King County Parks (admin of the sports fields), and the Fruit Club are all leasing tenants. When the fruit club approached the board about leasing 3/5 of an acre for a Demonstration & Research Orchard, the board recognized their project as another way the public could use and benefit from this community property.
So if you are curious about the cutting edge of growing fruit on Vashon, or if you would like to applaud the immense service that these two Island Women provided all of us, so many years ago, come up to the new Sunrise Ridge Fruit Orchard next to the Food Bank at 2pm this Saturday, May 11.
Whew! I’ve got nearly 700 tomato plants to sell tomorrow. Won’t you come and get some?
To help you decide what you’d like, I’ve compiled the following, listed by categories (bush, vine, cherry) in order of ripening. They come in 4″ pots for $2, gallon pots for $4.00. Plus the Garden Club has tons of perennials, annual color-spot baskets, geraniums, herbs, vegie starts, and other gardeny things. 9am in the IGA lot next to the temporary library.
‘Siberia.’ 48 days. Ed Hume Seed. 24-30” bushes, 2” red globes.
‘Northern Delight.’ 65 days, TSC. 2” bushes bear elongated 2-3” red tomatoes. GOOD IN POTS.
‘Taxi.’ 66 days. TSC. Very early, with yellow, oblong fruit.
‘Legend’ 70 days. Late-blight resistant, red fruit
‘Siletz’ 70 days. My standard, reliably ripening in a half shade situation. TSC. 2”-3” red, mostly seedless fruit.
‘Cosmonaut Volkov’ 72 days. 3” squat red fruit with green shoulders; an heirloom from the Ukraine.
‘Oregon Spring.’ 75-80 days on 3’ bushes. Large 4” red fruit, great taste. TSC
‘Gill’s All-Purpose’ 75 day heirloom from Gill’s Seed Co in Portland. Good for canning, slicing, paste.
VINE TOMATOESThese ripen later than bush tomatoes, need support like a pole, stake, or up guy-wires.
‘Red Siberian’ 55 days. Cool-season tomato, gets 6’ high, pumps out fruit over long season.
‘Stupice’ 60 days, TSC. Pronounced STEW-pee-za, this Czech variety wins taste contests with its 2” fruit. Many Island small farmers swear by it. Small slicer.
‘Moskvich” 60 day, 4’ plants produce squat red fruit
‘Early Girl’ 65+ days (or here, mid-season). A NW classic, 2-3” slicer fruit. Growth habit somewhat sprawly.
Thessalonika’ 75 days, Greek heirloom, extra-leafy in high sun to protect fruit from scald. Yellow shoulders on red fruit. Resistant to fungus.
“Rio Grande” 75 days, orangy plum, said to take temperature swings well (cool nights).
‘Indigo Rose: 75 days. a purple tomato bred at OSU
‘Kobe Beefsteak’ 80+ days. That beeksteak taste. Give a stake or tall tomato cage.
‘Fantastik’ 85 days.ig, vigorous, Territorial Seed Company’s most popular hybrid.
‘Brandywine’ 85-100 days, TSC. Given a perfect “tomato summer,” you MIGHT get ripe ‘Brandywines.’ Vigorous to 5’ or taller on a single stalk, stringed.
‘Gold Nugget.’. 60 days, TSC. Very early, vigorous, 3/4” cherry fruit in goldey-orange color.
‘SunGold’ 65 days. TSC. Tomato candy!! Small, 1.5” orange, plum-shaped fruit great for snacking in the garden. Viney & vigorous: STAKE. Good for containers.
Sweetie’ Bright red Cherry tomato, early viner.
CARE: HARDEN OFF FIRST! Put them outside for a couple hours tomorrow, and each day on, increase the number of hours they’re outside, until by week’s end you can leave them out overnight. THEN plant them.
See you tomorrow! The sale starts at 9am. A line starts by 8:30, but we’ll have baked goods for sale to give you a good sugar rush by the time you’re ready to buy!
My apologies for not blogging for soooo long, but it’s not because I haven’t been writing. (More on THAT below.)
BUT FIRST, the NEWS: The V-MI Garden Club’s annual Plant Sale is this coming Saturday, May 4th!
Here you can buy nearly all the plant starts you need to jump-start your vegie garden, plus super-sized plant divisions of perennials and shrubs, garden paraphernalia at the boutique, driftwood planters succulently sown with sedums, and more goodies for the garden.
Carolyn Brinkley will bring her exotic perennials, Lynn Buscaglia has grown 100 hanging pots stuffed full of summer annuals, and Kay White’s crew will bring some (though fewer than last year) geraniums and fuchsia hanging baskets. The CLUB-HOUSE BAKERS will have treats for sale out front to sustain ALL OF YOU (and last year there were sooo many) who line up a half-hour before the opening bell.
Which will ring at 9am as the doors swing open. Last year’s mad crush of buyers swarmed my tomato table like bees on honey. So be warned.
Here’s what we Nuns of the Greenhouse have been growing for you:
Cool season crops: peas, lettuce mix, chard, kale, cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower color mix (you’ve seen the lavender cauliflower in Thriftway, now buy the seedling).
Herbs: caraway, winter thyme, dill (to go with our pickling cukes), oregano, cilantro, parsley, and BASIL!!!
Flowers: lobelia, sweet pea vines in gallons!, marigolds, and snapdragons.
Warm-season crops: cukes, basil, bell peppers, poblano peppers, tomatoes of course (see next line), and the earliest-possible CORN! (buy minimum for a 4′ block of plants—about 48).
Tomato Varieties: EARLYS: Siberia, Northern Delight, Stupice, Siletz, Early Girl, Oregon Spring, and yellow Taxi. CHERRIES: SunGold, Gold Nugget, and Sweetie. HEIRLOOM: Kobe Beefsteak, Brandywine, and Gill’s All-Purpose from Gill’s Seed Company in Portland, Oregon. Plus FANTASTIK, a jumbo-sized vining slicer. I have no idea what Kay White’s crew will bring, but last year it was even more cherry tomatoes and exotic heirlooms. All in either 4″ pots or gallons.
(The basil and the corn sold out last year in MERE MINUTES, so be warned…)
Sale opens at 9:00 and runs until noon. At Vashon Plaza—the same parking lot as IGA and the temporary library.
You may see me handing out a flyer before the opening bell. Instead of blogging this winter/spring, I’ve been finishing my book, “Garden On, Vashon!” — a Year-Round, Years-Back Look at how We’ve gardened, farmed, protected and cultivated this Island Paradise, featuring the names, stories, and advice of over 200 Islanders. I hope to publish it this fall with the help of this community and a KickStarter crowd-funding campaign to begin early next month. Stay TUNED!
We’ve got three weeks until spring, but all of nature’s signals are springing forth—
Chive greens bristling
And black bumblebees go bump-bump-bumblin’ along.
If the frogs are singing, it’s time to sow seeds. In the high school greenhouse last Friday, the garden club’s subcommittee of Greenhouse Nuns planted many a packet of tomato seeds in anticipation of the club’s annual Mother’s Day Sale. Get ready for a wave of early tomatoes: Stupice, Siletz, Siberia, Northern Delight, and Taxi, mid-season toms Early Girl and Oregon Spring, Fantastic and Rio Grande, heirlooms German Lunchbox and Brandywine, and some colorful cherry tomatoes: Gold Nugget, Yellow Pear, red Sweeties, and (if I order the seeds in time) that classic orange cherry, SunGold.
March is that overlap month where you want to wind up the winter projects while not neglecting to start the summer projects. There’s a lot to to do. Time to turn under the cover crops and renew the soil (and enjoy the little potatoes that’ll pop up from last year’s bed). Time to sow the seeds of summer indoors: tomatoes, onions, peppers, brassicas. Last chance to transplant trees, shrubs, and summer-blooming perennials like Shasta daisies (time to divide them, too) and the first safe opportunity to prune modern roses.
It’s time to give the strawberries their first monthly feed: you’ll want to repeat that in April and again in May. If your strawberry bed is in its third or particularly fourth (and last) year, you may want to start the bed’s renewal by potting up those running daughters, then clipping them free of their mothers. Once the mothers have given their fruit this summer, pull them and plant the daughters in their place. (Well, not EXACTLY the same place, but in-between positions, giving the soil a good infusion of compost and bonemeal to renew it, too.)
Jonathan Morse, formerly of Island Lumber’s Garden Center and now freelancing garden design, says that if you weed now and then mulch with clean, seed-free compost, you’ll have far less weeding to do later. I’m looking forward to getting a truckload of three-way mulch from DIG, a Christmas gift from relatives; it’ll mean that for ONCE I won’t be scalping a carpet shot-weed babies that germinate willy-nilly in my own, not-cooked-enough compost.
I really SHOULD be out there on this second beautiful day of March. So let’s SPRING to our feet and go enjoy this faux spring day!
(Greenhouse nuns left to right: Jet Wakeman, Lucy Harter, Martha Gebhardt, Julia Lakey, Jane Rosen, Deborah Teagarden, Kathi Bosler, and Linda Campbell. Not shown: me of course.)
It can be difficult to stir one’s bones in cold weather, get outside and do what needs to be done. It helps (me, at least) to make it a social occasion — and dangle the bait of getting my own apple tree.
The Fruit Club convened at Pacific Crest Farm on Maury Island in early February for a Winter Pruning Workshop. Host Bob Keller met us at a stand of young apple trees. He’s the farm manager for the Pacific Crest Montessori School in Seattle, which bought this former fruit farm from Pete Svinth in 2000.
Each tree was about 10-15 feet high with a relatively shallow fruiting zone. “I’d like to increase their height by leaving about 5-6 of the 40-or-so water sprouts to grow on into productive limbs,” Keller said into the microphone. “And I’d like enough room to run my riding mower underneath without scraping off my hat.” We all laughed.
Dr. Bob Norton had prepared laminated cards with instructions for winter-pruning apple trees. “There’s quite a few water sprouts on these trees, so you want to chose the ones leaning closest to a 45° angle and keep those. The rest, cut ‘em off. Now, let’s look at what the card says…
Step 1: Read the tree for Vigor. ”This tree’s pretty well-formed, some vertical water-sprouts that Keller mentioned, but we’ll leave a few leaners so that they’ll become productive. You can snip the end to a down-facing bud in hopes it’ll grow out more horizontal.” Step 2: Remove Suckers. There aren’t any suckers growing from the base of the trunk, but let’s take this hat-snagger as part of Step 3: Remove shaded branches that will have their sunlight blocked by upper branches…” (the whole list is below).
Somebody suggested marking the branches to be cut with a squirt from a paint can. One doesn’t want to remove more than 30% of the tree, so by marking all the candidates for cutting before wielding the snips, you can estimate when you’ve marked close to 30% BEFORE cutting anything.
It was easy to spot the water-sprouts—so pale and vertical, with few if any fruit spurs. Ditto the criss-crossing branches or those angled toward the ground. What was harder to visualize was the future weight of fruit on the end of a branch. But arborist Michelle Ramsden, here to help, had a good tip. She draped a forearm over a branch-end bristling with fruit spurs, weighting the limb down. “See how the tree is rocking a bit when I’m putting on the equivalent weight of what could be 10-20 apples out here? See how the crotch of this branch is widening? With a lot of fruit, that could split. So let’s cut back to… let’s see…this upper branch further back on the main limb. We’ll lose some fruit, but that’s better than losing the whole limb.”
High on a ladder, Bob Keller was also heading back overly long whips. He cut each about 25-30%. These shorter limbs wouldn’t sag or snap as easily with a heavy load of fruit.
After working on the apple trees, we moved to a tall pear tree with WAY too many fruit spurs. Keller said, “last year, each of these branches had a cluster of a dozen tiny pears.” Dr. Bob shouldered into the tree’s center and said, “Right! instead of a lots of little pears, we want to have 2-3 nice-sized ones. So every cluster of spurs, pinch off all but 2-4. We need to drop a few hundred excess spurs, so everybody, START PINCHING! (BEFORE spurs are circled in red, AFTER pinched spurs in green). And Michelle, why don’t you get a ladder and shorten this trunk so we get an open center on these outer branches that’ll are so much easier to reach.”
After an hour of working at Pacific Crest Farm, we migrated around the corner to the home of LuAnne Branch. Her property was also once owned by Pete Svinth, and here he’d planted 125 apples, mostly Jonagolds—way too many for the present owner’s needs. “We have cider parties, invite friends over to harvest, freeze cider, make applesauce—and there’d STILL be trees to pick,” LuAnne told me. So, she decided to offer the club an ownership stake: by adopting and pruning a tree each, the members could return in October to harvest “their” apples.
Here I met Gloria, who’d been working with arborist Michelle Ramsden. In this BEFORE and AFTER shot, you can see how she’s thinned out by half the clutter of thin branches in the center.
I chose the tree in the NW corner (can always find THAT one). Dr. Bob chose the one next to me, so I benefited from extra coaching. “Don’t snip those claw-like hangers: they’re fruiting spurs—see how they end in chubby buds? And wipe your snips with your baby-wipes: these trees are full of anthracnose fungus. See that open blister with what look like fiddle-strings? That’s the fungus: it’ll girdle the branch and kill it, eventually. Endemic to the Maritime Northwest—it’s on the ground—nothing to do but cut off as many branches with the disease as you can.”
Winter pruning can be done right through March when the leaves break out. For stone fruits like peaches and apricots, wait until bloom to get a preview of how much fruit you might get. A little bloom, a little bit of pruning. A lot of bloom, do plenty of heading back to draw the fruit’s eventual weight onto thicker wood.
(condensed from a chapter on “Apple Trees and a Fruit Club” in my upcoming garden book.)
10 Steps for Winter Pruning Apple Trees
compiled for the Fruit Club by Dr. Bob Norton. Printed by permission.
1) Read the tree for vigor and fruiting potential
2) Remove suckers from base and ground
3. Remove shaded lower branches
4. Consider creating a ladder bay for pruning, light penetration and harvesting
5. Remove surplus and/or crossing branches
6. cut back “hangers” – branches that dip below the horizontal
7. Cut branches with excess spurs to half their length
8. Top of tree – reduce height if useful
9. Remove water sprouts (follow up in late spring as there will be more)
10. Step back and evaluate the tree for balance.
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!
On a November morning as dry, golden, and sparkling as their semi-dry cider, I visited Wes and Laura Cherry on the last of their many apple-pressing days.
The Cherrys make “Dragon’s Head Cider,” the most popular hard cider now sold at Vashon Thriftway. They planted their first cider apples two years ago and sold their first 120 cases of hard cider last summer. So far, they have released a “Traditional Semi-Dry” that’s delicately flavored, dry, and lightly carbonated—a quaff much nearer to champagne than to your Treetop kiddie cider.
They were inspired by a wine-tasting trip to Europe, where Wes realized he preferred hard cider to any wine. After careers in tech & consulting work (and Wes’s experiments fermenting hard stuff from jug cider) they decided they wanted to raise their young family in a progressive, rural area. After looking around, they thought of Vashon “right under our noses,” and started shopping properties. Once they found one of the old Mukai strawberry fields, what was a five-year plan quickly became a five-month project to create Home, a cider-apple orchard, and Dragon’s Head Cider.
It’s early days at this ciderhouse: the Cherrys are clearly going through the experimental stage. In fact, Wes cobbled together this cider press, Rube Goldberg style, from ebay purchases and modifications done in his metal shop next to the ciderhouse.
I’m here because I wanted to see what folks do with a bumper crop of apples. And here were four bins of apples: a bin of Stayman Winesaps bought from Island orchardist Doug Tuma, plus three bins of local Jonagolds and Melrose— “mostly eating apples,” Wes explained, “that I use for the aromatics.”
His wife Laura, ponytailed, aproned, and gloved, joins us, ready to start the wash that begins the pressing. We fill crates with winesaps and dump them into the steel rinse tank; Laura pushes the apples toward a small water-wheel that will leapfrog the apples into a feed hopper.
From there they’ll be caught on a conveyor belt, ride 12′ into the air, and drop into the maw of the apple mill that will fill a pair of buckets with apple pomace.
While one bucket fills, Wes grabs the other and dumps the grindings into canvas envelopes that hang from the accordion frame of half the press. When that half is full, the hydraulic motor presses them together while opening the other half to have its envelopes filled. Juice runs from the canvas bags, filling the collection cradle below and running through tubes into one of the ciderhouse’s 1000-litre tanks.
Finally, when the last drop of juice has been squeezed out, the frame springs open, tips over, and shakes out the spent pomace like toast from an up-ended toaster. Talk about easy clean-up!
Wes and Laura smile at each other over the juice-run: she’s just as involved as he and clearly they enjoy working this together, on this beautiful day.
Inside the ciderhouse, Wes already had juice fermenting in big tanks from earlier pressings: mixes of traditional cider apples from his own orchard plus table apples from here and Eastern Washington, a tank of just Newton Pippins from Hood River “because I was so impressed by the experimental batch I made last summer,” and a tank of crabapple juice that he’ll use as a “secret sauce” in his cider blendings. Several glass carboys were filled with fermenting juice, including a “perry” from abandoned pear trees around the Island.
He showed me one of the pears: they are tiny green, some no bigger than cherries. I bit: it had a sweet forward taste followed by the dry pucker of a high-tannin fruit. He said, “These are very tall trees, 60-80′ tall and narrow. You shake the fruit off: I wear my hard hat when harvesting those trees.” With 100 gallons fermenting, he hopes to bring out a “Perry”—a pear cider— during the next sales season.
It won’t take long for the yeasts he adds to start the ferment rising. Once that’s done, they bottle the cider, first adding a bit of sugar to round out the apple flavors, then topping with a spritz of carbonation (another Wes-concocted machine) before capping and pasteurizing. Pasteurizing kills the action of the yeast, plus any bacterias that the alcohol of fermentation didn’t kill off. The final product is just under 7% alcohol and lightly fizzy.
Laura asks me if I’d like to return in a month to help them plant more trees. They want to end up with around 1500 cider apple trees, and within a couple of weeks, the last 450 will show up. “We invited 44 adults and their 10 kids to come help, which is what we did with the earlier plantings. And we’ll have a big party at the end to celebrate.”
I went, I photoed, and I planted, on that drizzley first day of December. That entry will be my last for 2012, so come back next week for the “Drowning of the Young Apple Trees at Dragon’s Head Cider.”
Wondering whether “white, red, or rose” goes best with turkey? Skip the quandary—head for the hard cider selection in your local grocery.
When my mind’s mouth considers the heavy autumnal flavors of tomorrow’s feast, the whistle-dry, apple-y flavor of hard cider seems to fit the meal better than the vinegary taste of, say, white wine. I’ve been trialing hard ciders lately, and I’ll pass on what I’ve found and what I’ve heard from Thriftway’s hard cider guy, who I talked to in front of their hard cider selection in the Organic Produce section (not the wine or beer aisles).
In this country, “hard” cider is cider with a kick: an alcohol range just under 7%, between that of beer (4-7%) and wine (7-12%). Up until Prohibition, hard cider was America’s most common quaff, as most farms had apple trees and the brew was easy to make.
Here on the Island, we have two locally-made commercial hard ciders. Ron Irvine of Vashon Winery has been making hard cider for years, and his “Irvine’s Vintage Blend” mixes table and cider apples for a dry, earthy pour from a Grolsch bottle (see my prior blog on the apple-pressing I attended two weeks ago).
On the upper end of the price scale, Dragon’s Head Cider has been selling wine-bottles of its “Traditional Semi-Dry” at Thriftway since last year. (I also visited their top-of-Island cidery this month and will write about it in the next blog).
Jim Hill, the Thriftway’s hard cider guy, told me last week that Dragon’s Head Cider is their best-selling hard cider because “Folks like to buy local. Its taste is light but complex: champagne-like, I think,” he opined. Personally, I found it so dry at first to seem insubstantial: it took allowing the glassful to breathe and some mouth-swizzling before I caught the quaff’s nuances.
Ciders become dry because they ferment out so completely: the yeasts eat all the sugars in the apple juice, consuming with the sugar some of the apple flavors. Some makers add back some sugar after the first fermentation to create carbonation and restore some of the apple taste. Keep your ciders in the frig: there’s a slight chance that an unpasteurized hard cider may, if warmed, start to referment and run the risk of the bottle popping or exploding.
I asked Jim about ciders with more of a fruit-forward taste. I already knew about Spire (Once “Spire Mountain”, it’s been around for decades) with its sweet apple or pear ciders. Jim recommended Sea Ciders from British Columbia: they have several bottlings, including their “Flagship,” an ultra-dry German still cider, “Prohibition” that’s settled in rum barrels, and “Pippin” that uses not only Pippin apples, but the varieties “Winter Banana” and “Sunset” in the blend.
Jim’s personal favorite came from Finn River cidery of the Olympic Peninsula. They have a “Dry Hopped” blend you’ll enjoy if you like IPA-style beers, plus a sparkling Black Current cider.
Thriftway gets some French, Scottish, and English ciders: among them Weston’s “Old Rosie Cloudy Scrumpy,” an unfiltered hard cider that’s lightly fermented, with some of the apple particulate still floating around in the juice (apparently if you want to bring up that apple flavor, you up-end the bottle to redistribute the sludg…aHEM, apple LEES, professional speaking).
Homebrewing Hubbie and I, while touring the SW of England, once amazed and delighted a couple of Cheltenham journalists by enlisting their help to find a pub that offered scrumpy. So we went a’huntin’, found it, and as we hoisted our pints for a toast of this local specialty, one of the boys said, “I never thought I’d be sitting in my local letting an AMERICAN lecture me on beer.”
So let me toast and thank you, readers, with a glass of hard cider. To the holidays and better imbibing!
My freezer’s now well-stocked with applesauce and pie filling, thanks to a bumper year for apples and a generous apple tree (and its owner) on the Burton Peninsula. I’ve always wondered what kind of apple this old tree produces. With the Fruit Club’s annual Fruit Show coming up, I thought someone might be able to identify it. So I bagged three representative fruit and headed to the show on November 10th.
Emily MacRae, de facto event coordinator, called out hello as she buzzed between the Senior Center and the lectures next door at the Land Trust Building. Walking into the Senior Center, I found Dr. Bob Norton, Dr. Al Watts of the AppleYard Farm, and hobby orchardist Doug Tuma behind a room-long table that held over 100 different apple varieties from around the Island.
On the other side of the room, hunched under a lamp like a Dickens bookkeeper, Sean Shepperd from Portland’s Home Orchard Society was kniving open mystery apples, looking for traits searchable in his enormous apple database. When I handed him one of the mystery apples from our community orchard, he noted the green-n-red coloring and called out, “Another Jonagold!”
Now Jonagold’s been said, by Pete Svinth and other Island apple luminaries, to be one of the best to grow here. But something in Sean’s ho-hum tone made me feel like I’d offered him something dead common. Well, take THESE! I thought and unveiled my three yellow Burton apples.
His brow knit just a little. “Hummm… let’s see … oh my! This is a Belmont—quite popular in the 19th century.” Dr. Bob’s ears perked, and he called out, “Who’s brought the Belmont?” I felt rather proud to spin around and say, “I did!”
The Belmont, I learned later from a Google search, was created in 1775 from grafts done by a Barbara Herr Nissley Beam of Pennsylvania. Her yellow “Mama Beam” apples became locally famous, and as her sons moved on to the Ohio River Valley, they took scions with them to plant their own orchards. The men and their apples prospered: they planted their mother’s apples for 5 miles along the river, so many that excursion boats used to bring tourists down the Ohio to gawk at the spring bloom. The apple’s fame, in spreading as far as New York, dragged a confusion of names with it, but in 1875 the Ohio Fruit Growers Convention, asserting local pride, officially named it “Belmont” after the country where the fruit first came to fame.
My Belmonts went on their own plate with their own laminated card created by VP emeritus Mary Ormstead and sister Jean Williams of the Kitsap Peninsula Fruit Club. Each label held the name, characteristics and points of interest (“Esopus Spitzenberg—Thomas Jefferson’s preferred apple!”). Then, as Dr. Bob and Doug took their lunch break, I did my member’s duty behind the table and offered samples to visitors.
From the tip of a paring knife I offered slices of spicy Belle de Boskoop and Karmijn de Sonnaville, juicy Hawaii, tart Liberty, rotund Gloria Mundi, seedless Gravenstein, the pineappley Holstein and Winter Banana, the tiny Lady apple that, according to Tuma, “was in olden days carried by ladies in their little purses against bad breath” (we all immediately bit). When I exclaimed over my new favorite, a tiny yellow apple called “Tolman’s Sweet,” Dr. Bob said, “You KNOW that tree—it’s growing next to the donation shed up at the food bank.”
Down at one end were all the cider apples and pears. When I insisted on tasting “Vilberie,” I knew right away why Wes Cherry, cidermaker, called it “Vile Berry”—it tasted like cotton wads soaked in iodine. Quick—get me another Lady apple!
In a lecture next door, Dr. Bob Norton shared his list of what he considers some “Best Apples for Vashon.” This is published with his permission, and I will publish it with his notations in my eventually-forthcoming book. Thank you, Dr. Bob, Emily Macrae & Gar, Elizabeth Vogt, Mary Ormstead, Jean Williams, and Sean Shepperd, and to all the members of the Fruit Club for this engaging fruit show.
Dr. Bob Norton’s Recommendations on Apples for Vashon-Maury Island
SCAB-FREE OR RESISTANT: Akane, Belle de Boskoop, Bramley’s Seedling, Holstein, Karmijn de Sonnaville, Liberty, and Williams’ Pride.
NOT SCAB-FREE, BUT STILL DESIRABLE: Gravenstein, Elstar, Esopus Spitzenburg, HoneyCrisp (“Grows better here than anywhere else!”), Early Fuji varieties, Macoun, Melrose, Spartan, Red Jonagold, Grimes Golden, and King, that common old variety much planted here.
PROBLEMATIC HERE: Yellow Transparent, Gala, Golden Delicious, Ginger Gold, Empire, Cameo, Pink Lady, and Granny Smith.