Orchard Observations: Autumn Harvest

Megan Humphrey describes apple varieties at Shelburne Orchards.  Photo by Fritz Senftleber
Megan Humphrey describes apple varieties at Shelburne Orchards.
Photo by Fritz Senftleber

By Megan Humphrey,
Shelburne Orchards
I’ve learned quite a lot about apples over the years. Having the Food & Earth Science and International Foods classes from Burlington High School visit the orchard gave me the perfect opportunity to research even more. I needed to learn about grafting, disease and pests, and who Johnny Appleseed was in real life.
Apples are such an interesting fruit. You can plant an apple seed, but won’t necessarily get the same variety it came from. Recessive genes come into play, so grafting is the key. Cuttings called “scion wood” from the desired apple need to be grafted onto the rootstock. The outer living layer of the scion, called cambium, needs to meet the outer layer of the rootstock by cutting a V into each and wrapping them tightly together. Because of the grafting process, one tree could have different branches with a number of grafted scions resulting in different apple varieties on the same tree!
The first apple in the United States, the Roxbury Russet of Kazakhstan, showed up in Boston around 1630. At that time, apples were mostly used for hard cider. Hard cider was preferred over water because water was potentially lethal to settlers. Apples used in hard cider were typically smaller and sour, and many homesteads had apple trees for their own cider supply.
With the increasing use of railroads during the late 1800s, apples were grown less for taste and more for transportability and a longer shelf life.  Although there have been about 10,000 varieties in America since then, only 11 types of apples typically show up in grocery stores now.
Heirloom apples are considered to be anything grown from the mid to late 1800s. We grow about 10 heirloom varieties, including Cox Orange Pippin, Northern Spy, and Roxbury Russet, but just use them in our hard cider and apple brandy. Every McIntosh comes from the original tree on John McIntosh’s Ontario farm in 1811, making Macs an heirloom apple, too. When an extremely cold winter in 1917-18 devastated most other apple varieties, Macs became the leading apple in Vermont.
So, where does Johnny Appleseed come into the apple growing picture? Johnny Appleseed was born as John Chapman in Leominster, Mass. in 1774. As legend may tell, he didn’t run around with a pan on his head spreading apple seeds here and there. Rather, he made a concerted effort to develop apple tree nurseries in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Early settlers were required by law to have apple or pear orchards in order to have rights to their land, so Johnny Appleseed was lending them a hand. When he died in 1845, he left 1,200 acres of nurseries behind as his legacy.
Mother Nature can always step in to wreak havoc with crops. A late frost in the springtime can wipe out an entire apple crop if blossoms have already opened. Later in the season, too little or too much rain, high winds, or hail can spell disaster. Fungus and all sorts of pests can weaken the fruit. And with global warming, we’re having to learn about new pests that are moving into the orchard.
Farming is not for the faint of heart, but it is a vital part of Vermont’s soul. And Vermont’s soul is what I am embracing as I crunch into a Mac or fill the house with the delicious smell of homemade applesauce.