Saturday was workout for the windshield wipers as I drove through fog and rain to Weston’s Antique Apple Orchards in the Prospect Hill Settlement Historic District of New Berlin, Wisconsin. I went to learn how to graft antique apple trees onto modern, semi-dwarf root stock.
Weston’s Orchards is one of the older orchards in the area. Ken Weston’s grandparents bought an existing farm in the 30s, and his parents expanded the farm’s orchards. Ken helped his parents plant many of the trees growing there, and Ken is a very spry old man with a love of even older apple varieties.
Today the orchard, with its whitewashed barns and farmhouse, perch atop a glacial promontory named Prospect Hill. I’m told there is a panoramic view of the surrounding valleys and lakes, but Saturday everything was muffled in a deep, mysterious fog. I looked into the orchard and imagined it stretching back in time to 80 years ago when much of it was planted and even further back, to times when apples like the Cort Pendu Plat (first named in 1613 but probably dating from the Roman days) were first plucked off a branch and bitten into by happy, hungry peasants who liked it enough to graft it and save it.
What is an antique apple? Any variety that was already growing when the first refrigerated boxcar rolled out onto our nation’s rails in the 1940s. From that moment on, only apples that traveled well had commercial prospects, and hundreds of other delicious, intriguing apples began to fade away.
Today as local food comes into favor again, we are very fortunate that people like Ken Weston have been preserving the antiques for us. His orchard is a haven to over 100 rare varieties. His family has donated the orchard to the town of New Berlin to keep as an orchard as long as possible. Thank you Ken! And thank you, New Berlin!
Each spring, Ken offers a class in apple grafting and lets the participants pick from among his many varieties. Crammed in a narrow basement room under the old farm house with about 20 other eager orchardist wanna-bes I learned a ton at the four-hour class taught by Wally Marks, Ken’s friend and fellow apple enthusiast.
I learned that grafting apples involves both some thought and a lot of muscle memory in your hands. I spent over an hour just practicing how to cut the root stock and scion (a branch from the apple tree of choice) at exactly the same angle so that the graft has a chance to take hold. It doesn’t matter how much of the woody center is touching. What matters is the tenuous connection of a very thin layer just inside the bark – the cambium layer where the working parts of the tree are growing.
Yikes, it’s a very delicate operation, which Wally made look easy. I wore blisters on my thumbs from wielding my grafting knife. In the end I carried home three grafted trees, which we planted on a hillside on our farm yesterday.
The semi dwarf M7 rootstock that we used will determine the size of the tree. The scions will determine the type of apples. If we are lucky, and my grafts take, and the deer, fungus or insects don’t get these unassuming looking twigs, in a few years we will be picking between 40-120 pounds of apples from each tree.
Here is how Ken describes the first three members of our brand new antique orchard.
Black Gilliflower (1700, Connecticut) Pear-like flavor and unusual conical shape. Black Gilliflower, or Sheepnose, is a dark red, elongated apple that was discovered in Connecticut in the late 1700’s. The greenish-white flesh has a peculiarly aromatic flavor pleasing to many. It is good for baking and dessert, and stores well. It ripens in September and October. The fruit is particularly suitable for drying.
Cox’s Orange Pippin (1830, England) Considered by many (and that includes Doug and me) to be one of the best fresh eating varieties. Its flesh is juicy and rich, with an aromatic, intense flavor. The delicately fragrant fall apple is tender and juicy, outstanding eaten raw or used for cooking or cider. Their skin is bright yellow with red stripes. Ripens at the end of September.
Prairie Spy (1940, University of Minnesota) Creamy, white flesh; juicy and flavorful; good for fresh eating and cooking into pies and sauces. Extra-long keeping winter apple. Large fruit with attractive red over yellow color. Keeps for 3 months with flavor developing and improving in storage. Hardy, vigorous, long-lived, annually productive tree. Bears young and heavily. Blooms exceptionally late. Some resistance to scab and cedar apple rust. One of the best home orchard varieties.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE APPLES, AND WHERE DO YOU FIND THEM?