An Apple Grower's Agony

THE REAL DIRT

September 12, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

I just had the first apple from my garden of eatin'.

Ah, paradise.

The apple was yellow, plump and sassy, a real knockout, the kind that turns heads and wins ribbons at county fairs. She was, as I had hoped, the sweetest thing this side of heaven.

I called the apple Eve.

I discovered Eve several weeks ago, picking her out of the chorus line of fruit borne on my largest apple tree. She was huge then, and she kept growing. Nature fattened her beyond my wildest dreams.

I worshiped the apple of my eye, all the while ignoring the sagging limb on which Eve and other apples were growing.

Finally, Eve turned bright yellow, my cue to woo her. This morning I knelt before her and popped the question. Would she be mine? I touched her stem, and Eve fell readily into my arms.

The tree, a semi-dwarf that only grows 15 feet tall, reacted swiftly to the change. Eve's branch sprang higher into the air, as if buoyed by the thought of one less mouth -- er, apple -- to feed.

Yet there are hundreds more apples on the tree to take Eve's place, all growing bigger each day.

This is good news for me, but bad news for the tree, whose limbs are already groaning under the weight of the heavy fruit. Apples hang from the boughs in clusters, like mammoth grapes, some of which actually scrape the ground. Rabbits have discovered the drooping branches and are having a grand time sampling the fruit. Mine may be the only apple tree ever terrorized by Thumper.

Now our new kitten, Patrick, has begun sparring with the low-hanging apples. Patrick sits on his haunches like a prairie dog and jabs at the fruit with his paws, as if it were a punching bag. He has already KO'd three apples, on the strength of a mean right hook.

Meanwhile, the apples get bigger, and the branches bend further. With its limbs spiraling downward, the tree resembles a weeping willow. It looks so sad. That hangdog look worries me. How much stress can one tree take?

The weight of the impending harvest has already taken its toll. One large bough snapped in a storm, scattering hundreds of wannabe Eves, which ended up in a pot of applesauce instead.

With heavy heart, I cut the torn limb into stove-sized pieces. It is small consolation that apple makes great firewood.

The grass beneath the tree is taller than my knee. I quit mowing there two months ago; the weeping branches locked me out. For awhile I tried to push the mower under the tree while slithering along behind it, in a crude version of the limbo rock. Now you couldn't squeeze in there with a pair of scissors.

The boughs continue to sag; some are almost U-shaped. I marvel at the elasticity of apple wood. Or is this really a rubber tree? A fruit tree is most vulnerable just before harvest, when a great wind can rip it asunder. I pore over weather maps daily, but to what end? Man can no more protect a tree from Mother Nature than he can the Mississippi bottom land.

I tried to stop further carnage by gathering piles of Y-shaped sticks and placing them beneath the sagging limbs to prop them up. But the sticks often snap under the weight of the tree.

Briefly, I considered picking half the crop. That would lift the weight off the tree, but what would become of that mountain of green apples? Of the hundreds of recipes in my apple cookbook, none are for greenies.

I should have done a better job of thinning the apples on the tree last spring, when the fruit was small. Apples should be thinned to stand at least 4 inches apart; mine are much too close. Some of the fruit is actually touching.

Truth is, I deliberately thinned the tree too lightly last spring. I dreamed of a bumper crop, and I figured the tree could handle the extra load. Hey, I could afford the risk. It's not my shoulders that are bearing the weight of that fruit.

What to do, what to do? I'd like to sit beneath the tree and wait for an apple to fall on my head and discover something profound, like the law of gravity. Except that I can't sit under the tree at all. And even if I could, it wouldn't be an apple that would fall on my head. It would be the whole branch.

Besides, I really don't believe it was an apple tree beneath which Isaac Newton sat.

I think it was a fig.

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