Heirloom Apples: An American Classic

By Staff
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A look at the history of a Vermont apple orchard that dates back to the late 1700s, and how the orchard manager began to revive the apples trees on the sorely neglected property when a historic preservation trust acquired it in the mid-1990s.  

By Rebecca Martin
Winter 2018

Americans consumea lot of apples — an average of 45 pounds of the fresh and processed fruit per person per year in the United States — so you’d think we know how the fruit should taste. The flavor of ‘Red Delicious,’ ‘McIntosh,’ ‘Gala,’ and other supermarket apples is often described the same way, as “sweet” and “mild.” Therein lays the problem. Beneath their perfect peels, these fruits are uniform, uninteresting, and even bland.

Photo by Scott Farm Orchard

The flavor profiles of heirloom apples, though, stand in stark epicurean contrast. “A lot of our cultivars have pineapple and citrus notes, and one has a nutmeg flavor,” says Zeke Goodband, orchardist for the Scott Farm Orchard in southern Vermont, where 40 acres of trees are in production — more than 3,000 trees. “If we lined up all the trees,” Goodband says, “we’d have 20 miles of rows in our orchard.” Most rows include at least three cultivars, and, in total, the orchard holds more than 125 different apple cultivars. Most are of American provenance and date from the 19th and 20th centuries, but a number of older French and English trees are also protected.

History of the Scott Farm Orchard

The Scott Farm Orchard is a short drive from Brattleboro in southeastern Vermont. You turn off a busy highway onto Kipling Road — named for Rudyard Kipling, who wrote The Jungle Book and Captains Courageous while living there in the late 1800s. The dirt road meanders for a couple of miles past Kipling’s restored home, granite outcroppings, and thick groves of trees. The landscape opens onto a broad meadow dotted with weathered farm buildings and pristine stone fences. A creek spills down the hillside into several small ponds. The scene is quintessentially Vermont.

Photo by Scott Farm Orchard

This historic farm dates to the late 1700s. The orchard began as a commercial enterprise in the 1910s, and the rootstock of many original trees survives to this day. But the property had been sorely neglected by the time a historic preservation trust acquired it in the mid-1990s. A few years later, the trust hired Goodband as orchard manager, and he began to revive the apple trees.

The 40-acre orchard is a short hike up the side of Black Mountain on a single-track road. On the other side of the orchard gate, one of the first trees you’ll see is ‘Belle de Boskoop,’ an heirloom that originated as a sport in Boskoop, Netherlands, in 1856. Goodband first began growing this cultivar at the request of an Austrian woman who operated a bakery in New England. She told him these were the best baking apples she’d ever encountered, and she wanted some for strudel.

Photo by Scott Farm Orchard

All About Grafting

Perhaps we should specify that the branching part of the tree is ‘Belle de Boskoop.’ From the graft down to the soil, about a yard, it’s one of the orchard’s original ‘McIntosh’ trees. To get an exact genetic replica of an apple tree, you cannot plant a seed from its fruit.

Photo by Lee Reich

“There are up to 10 seeds in an apple, and each will produce a distinctly different tree. Genetically, it’s a roll of the dice,” says Goodband. Orchardists instead remove cuttings from apple trees and graft them onto healthy rootstock. Over the past 15 years, Goodband has preserved heirloom apple cultivars by grafting cuttings onto the orchard’s old ‘McIntosh’ trees, from which he’s removed all growth about a yard aboveground. Although it might sound brutal, remember that ‘McIntosh’ trees — a North American heirloom, discovered in Ontario in 1796 — are common, while the trees he’s preserving are often rare. 

More than one cultivar can be grafted onto the rootstock. “I’ve had about 50 varieties grafted onto a single tree,” Goodband says. “You can also graft a cutting onto a branch.”

Photo by Scott Farm Orchard

New and Old Cultivars

Goodband finds new apples for the orchard’s collection in a variety of ways. “It’s like being an antiquarian book dealer — you might find a treasure at a garage sale.” Sometimes a rumor leads him to a fruitful acquisition. Sometimes he takes cuttings, and other times people bring cuttings to him. “What’s wonderful is when I can help someone find an apple they remember but has become lost to them. They tell me they’re looking for a yellow apple grown by their grandparents. I’ll ask, ‘What time of the year did you pick it?’ They’ll respond, ‘Before school started,’ and I’m able to tell them it’s probably ‘Yellow Transparent’ — and we have two trees in the orchard.”

Photo by Scott Farm Orchard

As he walks through the orchard, Goodband calls out the names and histories of apple trees he passes — ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ (“Dr. Ashmead planted apple seeds he got from Normandy in the early 1700s.”), ‘Esopus Spitzenburg’ (“Thomas Jefferson tried it in Virginia, but it grows better here.”), ‘Orleans Reinette’ (“One of the handsomest apples on the planet.”). He recognizes them by the form of the tree and the shape of the leaves — and, like any collector, he remembers how he came by each acquisition.

There’s no difference between the care and cultivation of heirlooms and modern cultivars. “It takes as much time to grow a ‘Red Delicious’ as it does a ‘D’Arcy Spice,’” he says. The truly challenging thing about growing heirloom apples, according to Goodband, is knowing when to harvest them. He refers to historic sources whenever possible, but an 18th-century book written for Mid-Atlantic growers won’t be much help in 20th-century Vermont. “Plus, every growing season is a little different, so you can’t write an orchard manager’s manual that says you must pick a particular cultivar on October 2,” he says. And there’s this: Orchardists who grew, say, ‘Duchess of Oldenburg’ a century ago knew from experience when to harvest that cultivar, so they didn’t include that information in their texts.

Photo by Scott Farm Orchard

This all adds up to trial and error for modern orchardists like Goodband, who typically harvests between 15,000 and 20,000 heirloom apples every fall during 90-hour weeks from August into November. When he suspects a cultivar may be ready to pick, he’ll cut open the fruit, look at the seeds, and taste the flesh. Starchy flesh is a telltale sign the fruit isn’t ready to pick. “As the sugars develop, the apple will sort of dissolve when you chew it,” he explains.

Despite decades of experience, he’s still learning. “I’ve grown ‘Lady Apple’ for 40 years,” he says. “I got busy during harvest last year and forgot about a few unpicked ‘Lady Apple’ trees. We harvested them two weeks later than normal. Oh, they were so much better! They tasted completely different. Next year, we’ll pick them all two weeks later than we have previously.”

Photo by Scott Farm Orchard

Another example is ‘Winter Banana,’ a late-maturing apple discovered in 19th-century Indiana. The tree took years to mature. “When it finally did, you can imagine my excitement at eating the first fruit,” Goodband says. “I took a bite, and it tasted terrible.” Disappointed, he boxed up and stored the harvested fruit. Several months later, when he bit into one of the apples, it was juicy and delicious. “Goes to show you that every apple is different. It’s an art — when to pick them, when to eat them.”

Love of Learning and Teaching

Photo by Scott Farm Orchard

Goodband is a voracious reader of apple texts. A favorite reference is a two-volume encyclopedia of apples published in New York in 1904. This historic source, as well as others, has helped him tremendously with descriptions of fruit flavors, colors, and textures. It may sound simple to describe an apple’s texture — “crisp” and “juicy” are two common descriptors — but historic references offer more detailed specifics. Apple textures can be described as “tender” or “fine-grained” in these texts. “If I can describe these apples well,” Goodband says, “it’s less risky for the restaurant chefs who are interested in buying them.” Scott Farm Orchard sells about 80 percent of its fruit wholesale. The remainder is offered through small markets, including the Scott Farm Market on the property that sells heirloom apple gift boxes. Sweet cider is pressed from the heirloom cultivars and sold, unpasteurized, direct on the farm. There’s also a 9-week CSA fruit share.

Photo by Scott Farm Orchard

Goodband delights in introducing people to heirloom apples. “People come here and ask for ‘McIntosh’ because that’s all they know. I like to convince them to try our heirlooms. When someone tells me ‘I had no idea apples could taste like this,’ all the problems of harvest — flat tires and broken lifts — fade away.”

Even a tree’s location in the orchard makes a difference in the harvest date. The trees at the top, where it’s windier, seem to have fewer problems with diseases because the leaves dry out faster after rainfall. Insects can prefer specific cultivars, too. To control pests, the orchard deploys traps and organic insecticide bait.

Photo by Scott Farm Orchard

Goodband adds one or two new cultivars each year. “I’m sure I’ll find a couple more that I can’t live without this year. Something will catch my eye. It has to dazzle me.”

Rebecca Martin is an editor for Heirloom Gardener. Zeke Goodband impressed her with his vast knowledge of apple trees on a tour of Scott Farm Orchard a few summers ago.

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