It’s the rare and seasoned “vintage” gardeners that I love to corner, sit down with, and absorb every last morsel of the wisdom, history, experience, and storytelling that they gladly share with anyone who is willing to listen.
I took advantage of just that kind of opportunity recently when I met Tom Burford at the Backyard Fruit Growers winter meeting and intently listened as he spoke on “All Things Fruit.”
And the Expert’s Secret All-Time Favorite Apple Variety is…
Tom is an orchardist, writer, lecturer, and apple grower and historian who also conducts hands-on workshops over at Vintage Virginia Apples. He has personally cultivated over 500 different varieties of apples and is on a mission to rediscover, preserve, and share the best of apples. Tom didn’t hesitate to reveal that without a doubt his all-time favorite apple is… “the last one that I ate!”
Here are my comments and notes from Tom’s lecture a couple weeks ago:
- Commercial orchards have historically dictated what fruit would be made available but recently consumers have become a driving force in demanding better fruit. From a high of 17,000 varieties in the early 1900’s, we are now down to a total of 2000 – 3000 different apples.
- The only way to preserve the diversity and tradition of many heirloom apple varieties will be for home gardeners to take on the role of apple grower and adopt them and begin to raise these cherished fruits right in their own backyards.
- Cider is the big story in the apple world with increasing interest and awareness of high quality, crafted heirloom ciders that can’t even be compared to the cheap commercial products made from imported concentrate that passes for apple cider at the grocery store.
- Apple cider was once a booming industry in the U.S. and is now regaining attention as a business opportunity. It has even raised concerns as a threat within the carbonated soft drink industry in part because of the increasing health consciousness.
- Heirloom apples shine the brightest when used in specified roles; not all of them best serve as desert apples. An heirloom that’s unsuited to fresh eating could turn out be the finest baking, sauce, cider, butter, or drying apple you ever tasted!
- Apple grafting workshops are becoming more popular among backyard gardeners and apple growers looking to raise their own fruit trees… Tom rationalizes that planting as few as two trees qualifies as an orchard. And if the two trees die you still qualify as an orchardist because your intentions were in the right place.
- Apples were prized by early settlers to the U.S. and much effort went into the introduction of the fruits and spreading apple seedlings westward. Even before the days of refrigeration apples stored well and could be transported rather easily.
- Old-school orchardists would dig young trees out of their nurseries and then replant them, taking extreme care to ensure that the seedlings limbs were facing in the same direction as they were when growing in the nursery bed.
- It can be a challenge to locate and confirm specific apple varieties. There is also a need to look out for elaboration and misinformation when it comes to heirlooms. Always keep track of the original sources and lineage of all your fruit trees.
- Variety selection is the critical factor for organic and backyard apple growers. Be diligent about planting trees that are suitable for your climate and growing conditions rather than choosing varieties that may have more sex appeal but will never survive or thrive in your growing region!
Highly Recommended Fruit Varieties, Books, and Workshops
Tom did pass along a couple of variety recommendations for the home gardener to consider. First there was the Pomme Gris apple touted as a care-free variety that you could plant today and simply return in five years to harvest tasty fruit. For a fine pear the nod went to the Burford pear as a good, all-purpose choice.
You can find several great books authored by Tom Burford including “The Best Apples to Buy and Grow” which is published by the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
And don’t hesitate if you have an opportunity schedule one of his workshops or lectures, despite Tom’s joke that; “I’m already booking through 2013, but for all I know I may be dead by then.” I certainly hope to share in more of Tom’s humor and incredible wealth of apple and fruit knowledge well beyond those scheduled appointments!
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