“Anybody that wants a living wage is a radical.” Talk about good timing- visiting an apple farm when you’ve hit page 109 of a John Steinbeck novel about an apple picking strike.
A man in a green apron hands me a slither of apple on a plate; the first of myriad good things to happen at the Heritage Fruits Society open day at Petty’s Orchard in Templestowe.
We go on a tour, stare at rows of apple trees planted in the 80s for demonstration purposes. The rows are marked with names like ‘Central Leader’ and ‘Lincoln Canopy’. These refer to specialised trellis systems. The apple folk have been comparing different ways of manipulating a tree in order to get the best growth and ease of picking. There are ten varieties of heritage apple planted in each row.
This is my first foray into the science of apple trees. I have friends who read fruit tree pruning books for kicks but I am yet to learn this stuff. Trellis trees are far more productive than regular trees. I didn’t know that. One example is the Tatura Trellis system. The apple tree is pruned in such a way that it grows in two directions- the idea being that the sun gets into all parts of the tree.
There are multi-grafts which are different types of apple on the same tree. There are trees named after Sir Isaac Newton which make me wonder if an apple really did lead to the Universal Law of Gravitation. The trees are covered in nets to protect them from gangs of Rainbow Lorikeets; off their faces on colour. A couple trying apple therapy ask about the holes at the ground level. ‘You’d go insane trying to block up every single hole!’ green apron chortles.
‘Bonza. Straight off the tree that one. Nice and juicy.’ The men in the green aprons laugh easily and often. Time spent up an apple tree must be good for the liver. I dig the camaraderie among the apple grafters; joking about how they can’t remember which part of the tree is the graft. One of them talks about using a cherry picker, ‘None of this working off the ground lark.’ There is a wombat hole in row 8. Kangaroo sightings are common as muck. Pests and problems are warded off with lime and bluestone sprays.
As we climb under the nets to get a closer look at ‘the vagaries of nature’ I realise I have never really thought about apples before. I have read a little bit in The Botany of Desire and an exquisite article by Gary Paul Nabhan about wild apples in Orion magazine, but I have never looked at the bark of an apple tree and thought about sunlight and blackspot. I have looked at a photo of dozens of varieties of heritage apples in Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture and complained ‘the supermarket has sweet f*ck all apples!’ but standing at the apple farm really got me thinking about the importance of preserving genetic diversity.
Pitmaston Pineapple must look down on lesser apples. John Pinnager, one of the guides, points at the brown lacework on the skin, ‘Russeting, in my mind, equates with flavour.’ During one of many apple tastings a kid squeals, ‘I wan’t some more buncombe’. It is far more pleasing to the ear than a kid asking for another babycino. We learn that Lady Williams was developed in Western Australia as a warm climate apple. That when you make cider you use a sweet apple for a high alcohol content that can’t be beat. That kids like to say the word buncombe. The green aproned saint is holding up an imperfect looking apple, ‘Coles would never sell these but I reckon I could sell them standing on the edge of the road.’ My friend is biting into fresh picked Splendour and reckons it is the same apple he gleaned from the roadside last week. My favourite apple is the Andre Sauvage. I choose my apples how I choose my friends: they’re sweet, they’re tart, and they make a loud noise when you bite them.
If you live in Victoria and this piques your interest you can go to the grafting day on the first Sunday in August where you can buy heritage fruit trees. There are also working bees on the 1st Sunday and 3rd Saturday of every month.
In the car on the ride home my friend, mouthful of Scarlet Staymared, kills Santa by telling me that Johnny Appleseed was a land-grabber. I had intended to investigate this further but got sidetracked making baked apples.