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Become an apple tree steward

The Maine Heritage Orchard is a ten-acre preservation orchard on the MOFGA grounds in Unity. It will be home to over 500 apple and pear varieties traditionally grown in Maine. Many of these varieties are now on the verge of extinction. The orchard is planted on a terraced, reclaimed gravel pit and is managed using innovative, organic orchard practices. There are lots of ways to get involved. Stay tuned for volunteer opportunities or email us at apples@mofga.org.

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What's New in the Orchard


Help Plant 75 Historic Apple and Pear Trees: Sunday, April 19, 2015

Celebrate spring's arrival by planting a tree! On April 19th we will add another 75 apple and pear trees to the Heritage Orchard collection. We will also plant woody native orchard "companion" plants. We'll start at 9 AM with a demonstration on how to plant a tree. All ages are welcome. Bring shovels and gloves, lunch, the kids, and whatever else you think you will need. Some stewardship trees will be on hand and available for sale. We expect to work into the afternoon but recommend folks come early to be sure to enjoy the fun. We will work through gray or rainy weather but in the event of a heavy downpour, will postpone the planting one week to Saturday April 25 at the same time. FMI: apples@mofga.org.

 

 

Documentation at The Maine Heritage Orchard: 2/1/15

The best thing for us fruit enthusiasts to do during the chilly months is to cozy up by the woodstove and dream of apples. In recent weeks, we've finalized our list of varieties to be planted in the orchard this Spring. Now we are creating a record for each apple variety in the orchard. What is the record made up of? Well, there is more of a story behind each apple than you may have guessed. Every variety has its own history; where it came from and who first cultivated it. Us Mainers want to know how it got to Maine and where it grew successfully in the state. Is the tree hardy? Vigorous?  Disease resistant or susceptible? Will the tree grow to be very upright, droopy, or spreading? What does the apple look like? And most importantly: what does it taste like? When is it ripe? How is it best used? Does it taste better fresh, cooked, or in cider? Will it be sweeter in February than when we picked it fresh off the tree?

For many of the heritage apples, we can readily answer these questions from firsthand experience. But over the years, other varieties have fallen to the wayside and are now little grown and so rare that the body of knowledge surrounding them, especially at the firsthand level, has been lost.  One goal of the heritage orchard is to excavate and re-build that forgotten culture. Because back when we had an agricultural economy, there really was a rich culture surrounding apples and apple diversity.

In the 19th century in Maine, the typical home was a homestead; every family grew their own food and everyone had a small home orchard. Folks were discovering their own tasty and useful varieties out of both necessity and fun. It's simply what you did. When your neighbor had a particularly delectable apple, you grafted it into your own orchard and so did other neighbors. Each town had its favorite varieties that would then be swapped with communities in other towns and counties. Out of this tradition grew a regional market for apples and later, an export market.

We can think of the 19th century as the bridge between the homesteads and family run farms of traditional agriculture and the highly commercial and global system of agriculture that we are a part of today.  While the practice of homesteading retained its deep roots, urban populations and the need to transport food into cities, grew. It was a prosperous time for apples, apple growers, and nurserymen; an orchardist could make good money growing fruit. The bigger the business became, the more of a need there was for orchardists to grow a specific kind of apple. A good, marketable apple was pretty, stored well, and was durable enough to make the long journey from Maine down to Boston or overseas to England. There became a need for research on and classification of apple varieties. Up popped the scholars that would take on the task of collecting and recording all the apple varieties of a region.

It is these apple guides or pomological texts that we consult to learn more about a particular variety or to use in identifying a suspected heirloom. Books like S.A. Beach's "The Apples of New York," Downing's "Fruit and Fruit Trees of America," or Bradford's "The Apples of Maine" are a real treat to read. These guys wrote about hundreds of different apples with care and detail. The level of observation is rarely matched today. Their books have been our blueprint to tracking down old varieties in Maine. They have also helped us remember what kinds of questions we want to be asking about apples as a food and a crop, as we seek out better flavor and growing practices. By creating a modern record of Maine's apples we are picking up where their work left off: just before varietal diversity in New England and the greater US really took the plunge. We are currently compiling information for each apple in the Heritage Orchard using old literature and observations from the few people growing these varieties today. There is still so much missing. We look forward with anticipation to when the Unity orchard trees mature. At that time we'll have a centralized location where we can observe each apple in real time. How do these apples really taste? Will climate change affect some varieties' ability to thrive? What are the old texts missing about the apples' performance in the kitchen, in cider, or in the cellar? Only time will tell.

By Abbey Verrier, Heritage Orchard research assistant

Become an Apple Tree Steward: 1/15

Now that winter is here, you've undoubtedly been perusing every seed and nursery catalog you can get your hands on, eager to plan for that time when the ground has thawed. Have you considered planting an heirloom apple tree? One unique way to add to your garden, orchard, farm, or backyard is by purchasing a tree from the Maine Heritage Orchard stewardship program. The stewardship program was devised to make “back-ups” available of all the rare varieties in the Heritage Orchard. You buy one or several trees and then fill out a form letting us know where you planted it (anywhere you'd like). If something happens to our Heritage Orchard specimen, we can call you for the backup grafting wood necessary to propagate new trees.

Become a steward and help put Maine's heirloom apples back into Maine's communities! We don’t want the Heritage Orchard to be a museum. We want it to be a vehicle for repopulating Maine with a wide diversity of classic fruit. We’re offering these apple trees through the Fedco Trees catalog this year. Sixty percent of the purchase price of each tree helps fund the Maine Heritage Orchard. For more information on the stewardship program, see page 19 of the 2015 Fedco Trees catalog or visit http://www.fedcoseeds.com/trees/.

Conservation Farm of the Year: 12/14

We are delighted to announce that the Waldo Soil and Water Conservation District has made MOFGA the Conservation Farm of the Year for its work on the Maine Heritage Orchard. Our first season growing trees and perennial plants on the property is now successfully behind us. For decades, the Heritage Orchard site was subject to gravel mining. A steep and sandy basin of nutrient-depleted land was all that was left when we acquired the property. Gravel mining removes all of the flora, topsoil, and the subsoil gravel from an area. The place was practically barren of vegetation when we got it. A lot of work went into transforming the steep slopes of the gravel pit into a network of terraces before it was even possible to plant trees that could thrive there. MOFGA has since been investigating ways to re-build the soil and create a place that can sustain agriculture and wildlife once again. Next Spring we will plant another 80 heirloom fruit trees as well as many more perennial plants. These perennials are beneficial to the trees, soil-building efforts, and in attracting bees and other insects to the orchard. We hope the Maine Heritage Orchard will be a model for other agricultural and land conservation efforts. And we hope this recognition will motivate others to get involved in preserving heirloom apples and in bringing this place back to life.

 

Black Oxford apples


The Maine Heritage Orchard is a ten-acre preservation orchard on the MOFGA grounds in Unity. Unlike any other orchard in the state, it will be home to over 500 different apple and pear varieties traditionally grown in Maine. We planted the first 100 trees in April of 2014 and will plant about 100 more each spring until we reach our goal. The varieties included in the collection date back to a time when most Mainers lived on farms and every farm had a small orchard of locally adapted selections. Many of these varieties are now on the verge of extinction.
 
The Maine Heritage Orchard is under the direction of MOFGA’s John Bunker, a nationally recognized expert in historic fruit. With the help of other agricultural historians, numerous "old timers" and hundreds of apple enthusiasts from around the state, John has assembled a unique collection of heritage fruit over the past thirty years. In an ongoing, state-wide treasure hunt for Maine’s ancient fruit trees, well over two hundred varieties have been identified and saved.
 
As the trees mature, fruit and grafting scions will be available for generations to come. Historical and cultural information on each variety will be widely accessible for the first time in over a century. The orchard is managed using innovative, organic orchard practices. It is planted on a terraced reclaimed gravel pit. Beds of beneficial perennial plants are interspersed with the trees. It is a learning laboratory that will be a model for backyard growers, orchardists, and agricultural educators.

There are numerous ways to get involved with the Maine Heritage Orchard. Volunteer work days are held throughout the growing season. Stayed tuned to the MOFGA website for dates or contact us at apples@mofga.org.

 


The Maine Heritage Orchard 2014 – Our first Year in the Ground

 

In April, we planted the first 100 apple trees in the Heritage Orchard. Volunteers of all ages put on their work boots and dug some holes. A view of the terraces on planting day.
Our perennial companion plantings (foreground) flourished in late summer. In September, we laid jute netting over a cover crop seeding to renovate the next section of the gravel pit site.
Apprentices Laura and Natalie continued the search for old apples in Maine.

 

Thank you for your help in making the Heritage Orchard a reality!

 


    

 Developing the New Site

 
The most recent photos of the new orchard site appear at the top.
October 6, 2013 - Orchard Fall Soil Preparation Workshop and Volunteer Work Day. More than 30 volunteers helped John Bunker and others prepare planting areas for the orchard. They placed compost and soil amendments at each future planting site, rolled out hay mulch, staked each site and then enjoyed a lunch prepared in the MOFGA kitchen. Thanks, volunteers! And John Bunker, C.J. Walke and Jack Kertesz. Standard size trees will be planted in the prepared areas next spring.

Here's the recipe for soil amendments:
2 wheelbarrows of compost

2 qts. rock phosphate

2 qts. granular azomite

2 qts. greensand

1-1/2 qts. menafee humates
1 qt. blood meal

1 qt. kelp

3/4 qt. bone char



The terraces feature swales (trenches) dug into the back edge. These are filled with wood chips. The swales catch the water. The chips soak up the water and act like a sponge, releasing the water slowly into the terrace growing beds.

Machines created the terraces

On August 13,
volunteers gathered to
mark out the orchard terraces

The work of renovating the gravel pit began in August 2013

The gravel pit
before renovation began

 


    

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