Saturday, October 8, 2011

Heirloom apples and vegetables are in fashion now; should you grow them?

    Heirloom seeds and heirloom apples are in this year. The popular press is full of articles on them. National Public Radio’s Morning Edition did a story on saving seeds and growing heirloom (non-hybrid) vegetables only yesterday. It means something when public culture constructs memory in usable form. But planting heirloom seeds and apples isn’t as easy as planting contemporary varieties, and there’s something naive about the public press making it seem so.

    I should know; I’ve been growing them for thirty years. What I’ve found out about it may be of interest to anyone embarking on such an adventure today. I wouldn’t say don’t do it, but I’d say know what you are doing and be prepared for more failure than success.

    I started growing heirloom seeds and apples, and saving heirloom seeds, three decades ago for the same reasons that are advanced today; one, to help maintain diversity among the available varieties; two, because I read that most contemporary varieties are bred and grown for commercial use, not home use, with the result that they are bred for shipping qualities and appearance—that is, to appeal in the market—rather than primarily for taste. Growing heirloom varieties would not only maintain diversity, a good thing for sustainability in the face of disturbance, but the resulting fruits and vegetables would taste better, I thought. They would have "that old-fashioned [fill in the vegetable or fruit] flavor,” in other words.

    In that period, what have I learned about growing heirloom apples? Aside from the need to find varieties that will do well in one’s own climate, and micro-climate (ask your neighbors), in general the old varieties are not as resistant to pests and disease as the newer ones bred to be disease resistant. With a few notable exceptions such as Baldwin (originally a commercial apple, by the way) and Duchess of Oldenberg, around here most of the heirloom apple varieties require much more care than the newer, disease resistant ones; and they are less vigorous. So if you want to plant that Porter or Newtown Pippin or Jefferson’s favorite, the Esopus Spitzenberg, be prepared to keep them in intensive care, which means spraying several times each growing year, even if you are an organic orchardist (for you will use organic sprays). Check to make sure the varieties you want to plant are hardy and grow well in your area.

     And there is more, much more: deer, apple tree borers, and mice will destroy your young trees, and you will be "some sorry" (as the old timers say around here). Be prepared to keep the critters away; in this area deer love to browse (eat) the buds and branches of apple trees. The only reliable deterrent is a fence eight feet high. There are sprays sold for this purpose but they do not work. The apple tree borer is a beetle that eats its way into the trunk of the young tree a few inches above the ground; they can be deterred with fine wire mesh but the best course of action is to be vigilant and when you see evidence of their damage--the orange sawdust, called frass, at the base of the trunk--take a heavy paper clip, straighten it out, and dig it into the trunk to find and kill the borers. This poking and carving will do less damage to your young tree than the borers. And then in the wintertime, wrap the trunks with a plastic designed for the purpose, to about a foot above the snow line, to keep the mice from eating the bark and girdling and killing the tree. Otherwise they may not do well at all. Some of the old apple varieties I’ve planted do taste very good—Golden Russet is a fine example—but the fact is that after 30 years the newer varieties have done much better and oh, they taste very good also.

     Around here the modern, disease-resistant Prima and Liberty are excellent, and the Anoka (a modern Japanese apple) is exquisite. Now it’s difficult to find these disease resistant apples in the supermarket—they are chiefly for home use, though occasionally one finds them at a food co-op—but those are the ones I would recommend anyone starting a home orchard to consider, along with other disease resistant/immune varieties perhaps better suited to your area, along with the heirloom varieties you hope to taste after some years of intensive care, when your trees begin to bear. After ten years of attention you may find that the heirlooms succeed in all the ways you’d hoped; but if you are successful with those you will find that the disease-resistant ones are succeeding in those same ways, and with less effort in the spraying. I used to spray organically several times per season but after ten years when the trees that were going to grow well were doing so, I stopped spraying altogether. The disease resistant apples are just as well off, it seems, without spray; and that includes the disease resistant heirlooms as well. The others--they are not doing as well but I have enough and am satisfied with those that are.

     The best tasting variety is the one just picked ripe off the tree, heirloom or not. Fresh-picked, sound, ripe apples are delicious. Yes, the different varieties taste different, but they are all good. Well, except for the Ben Davis. As I blogged earlier, about 100 years ago when the Ben Davis was popular as a market apple, someone did a blindfold taste test in which people were asked to taste a Ben Davis and a ball of sawdust. Most people could not tell the difference. Poor Ben. Imagine having your name associated with this apple.

     And if you've never eaten a potato fresh dug (and cooked), you've not tasted how good potatoes can be, either.

    And what have I learned about growing heirloom vegetables from seed? Here the story is different. There are many very good heirloom vegetable seeds available from Seed Savers Exchange as well as in catalogs such as Fedco and Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Their descriptions are, as a rule, accurate. I’ve experimented with these to find the best for my microclimate, and it turned out that many of the best were the older heirlooms. A prime example is the Levi Robinson snap bean. On the other hand, heirloom tomatoes, the most popular kind of heirloom vegetable today, have been variable here, succeeding in some years but not most. Of course, this is scarcely the tomato-growing capital of the North American continent, but one would think that some of the old varieties of tomatoes would do better here than the modern ones simply because there are so many old ones out there. 

     One year I experimented and grew from seed every old variety that I could find information about that had been planted in Maine in the first quarter of the 20th century, about 25 in all. I grew them out in an experimental garden. Most did not grow well; some did. Of those that did grow well, none of them tasted as good as the varieties (from away) that I settled on over the years, for paste and slicing tomatoes. But I don’t regret the experiment. It might have worked for me, and it might work for you. Different varieties do better in different climates and microclimates, and in different years. It was some time before I realized I needed to find varieties resistant to late blight, for example, if I wanted to harvest tomatoes after the end of August. Once realizing this, I looked for this characteristic. Most tomatoes don’t have it. Some of the newer ones, like Defiant, do. Defiant is an interesting case: it’s very tasty, even has that “old tomato flavor”; it’s sufficiently vigorous here, nicely shaped, productive, and of course resistant to late blight. 

     Is Defiant going to be the perfect tomato for me? No, the skin is thick and tough, suggesting it was bred for commercial use, not home use. Thirty or even twenty years ago, on learning that a variety was bred for the supermarket, I’d have stayed away from it, not only on principle but because I believed that heirlooms would always be superior. The Defiant tomato has been the exception and it might even change my mind. Let’s see how it does next year, though.

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