The Apples Of His Eye

THE REAL DIRT

March 29, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Congratulate me: I'm expecting. In fact, I am several days overdue. I could go into labor any time now, just as soon as my bundle of joy arrives from the nursery.

See, I ordered an apple tree.

It all happened so fast. One minute I was lying in bed reading garden catalogs, and the next thing I knew I had popped the question to my wife.

"Want to have another one?" I asked.

Meg rolled her eyes. "It's so much work," she said. "Besides, you've got three apple trees already. Who's going to pick up after them all?"

She had a point. Last fall I nearly broke my back removing armloads of dropped fruit daily from beneath the trees. Most of those apples had yucky brown spots. No sooner did I finish cleaning up under a tree than the fruit began falling again. Plop, plop, plop. It was kind of like changing diapers.

"I'll do it," I said. "Besides, remember the old saying: 'The fruit doesn't fall very far from the tree.' "

Meg rolled her eyes again.

Well, she said, who will feed and care for it? Who will nurse its wounds with tree tar? Who will train it to grow straight and tall? Who will teach it about the birds and bees?

She was right, of course. Apple trees, like children, demand strict supervision when young, lest they go off in the wrong direction. Then it's difficult to bring them back.

hTC "Look, I know it's a big commitment," I said. "But our other trees are all getting older, and . . . well, I just thought a sibling -- I mean sapling -- would brighten up the yard."

She looked at me and smiled.

"It's a deal," she said. And we shook on it.

That was several weeks ago. We ordered the tree from a reputable supplier. I anticipate an easy delivery; the postman knows our address.

Meanwhile, I've worked hard to prepare the perfect "nursery," a 2-by-3-foot hole filled with compost and topsoil. The site gets full sun and good drainage, both requisites for good apple production.

I explained our decision to our other three trees, all 15 years old. The two Winesaps seemed less concerned about our new arrival than the Golden Delicious, a self-fertile variety, or "rooster tree" which has single-handedly pollinated the others all these years. (Most apples require a pollination partner, in either the same yard or neighborhood.)

They've been good trees, all, bearing a few juicy fruits by age 3 and a windfall thereafter. Apple trees hit their peak at age 10 and often continue for several decades, given proper care and attentive pruning.

My only gripe is their biennial, or alternate, bearing habit. All three trees produce bumper crops one year and zilch the next. Worse, every tree is on the same darn feast-or-famine cycle. Last year's bounteous harvest of 15 bushels followed a disappointing season in which I picked less than 50 apples. I am braced for a bummer this summer.

But, oh, what memories of yesteryear! The trees bore magnificently last fall; the pantry tells the story. One hundred quarts of applesauce, canned and frozen, and seasoned with cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Not to mention the mountains of fresh apples consumed between Labor Day and Christmas.

Alas, my greed affected the harvest, and ultimately played havoc with the trees.

Responsible gardeners thin their apple trees by hand each spring, removing hundreds of tiny fruits with a twist of the wrist until the remaining apples hang 6 inches apart. The losers are sent to the compost heap. Otherwise, the tree ends up having a nervous breakdown trying to produce all those apples.

Which is exactly what happened to mine.

I refused to thin apples last year, and the trees could not cope with such a load. The stress on their limbs was phenomenal. By June, the branches were groaning under the weight of the growing fruit. By Independence Day, I could no longer mow the grass beneath the trees without doing a credible version of the limbo rock.

By August, the apple trees had blocked all passage to the street. Meg complained that the only way she could visit the neighbors was to crawl on her stomach "like the soldiers did on the old TV show 'Combat.' "

In September, two large limbs cracked, taking with them several hundred apples, which were promptly made into sauce. I mourned their passing, sealed the tree wounds and vowed to change my ways.

I promise to treat the old trees properly from now on. And when the new tree arrives, I'll disavow all knowledge of my past indiscretions.

Hey, I know apple trees talk to each other. I saw "The Wizard of Oz.".

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