Antique apple varieties blossom anew Fruit: James Dierberger's garden has grown into an orchard where more than 70 historic apple varieties are grown on contemporary rootstock.

November 02, 1997|By Nancy A. Pappas | Nancy A. Pappas,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It was supposed to be just a hobby.

The city boy from Chicago, trained as an engineer and working in the field of non-linear stress analysis, never envisioned himself as any kind of a farmer. Never thought he'd be selling produce out of half-bushel baskets lined up on his driveway. Never thought he'd be a popular guest speaker for garden clubs. And certainly never imagined he'd be mail-ordering plant material to customers as far away as Alaska.

But these days, James Dierberger's hobby has a name and a personality of its own. His Seek No Further Orchard in Hebron, Conn., is a preservation project where more than 70 antique apple varieties are grown on vigorous, contemporary rootstock.

From the first to ripen in August (the aptly named Early Harvest, first mentioned in agricultural literature in 1805) to the last apple of the season (the Yellow Bellflower, which dates to the 1700s), these fruits are no longer grown commercially. You won't find them in a supermarket or even at an open-air stand.

"There are actually thousands of documented apple varieties," Dierberger explains. "Most of them, like the apples I grow, have been dropped from the standard repertoire for all kinds of reasons."

Some had a short shelf life, didn't travel well, or didn't produce many fruit per tree, Dierberger says. Some varieties tended toward very small or asymmetrical fruit. Most varieties refuse to ripen uniformly -- important because a commercial grower wants to pick entire areas of the orchard at one time -- and many lack the early, intense color that allows commercial apples to be picked when slightly immature.

But for the homeowner with a little extra space in the back yard, antique pomology is a hobby that combines research and genealogy, gardening and cooking, along with a touch of mystery: Because the fruit varieties are so unfamiliar to modern consumers, enthusiasts really don't know what to expect when they graft a branch of Black Gilliflower or Hubbards-ton Nonesuch to their basic stock.

Dierberger's American-as-apple-pie adventures started about 24 years ago, when he and his wife built a Colonial-style home on 5 acres on a rural road in Hebron. They ordered three standard-variety apple trees that came with an odd-seeming instruction: To create fuller plants, trim off all the side branches. "My wife says this was the only time in my life when I actually followed directions," Dierberger says. "Anyway, there I was with all of these live branches, and I wasn't about to just throw them away. So I tried grafting them onto some old crab apple trees we had on the property. And a lot of those grafts 'took,' even though I had absolutely no idea what I was doing!"

Calls to the University of Connecticut's extension specialists put Dierberger in touch with various mail-order resources for other .. plant material that could be grafted. Because his home was done in a Colonial motif, he was particularly intrigued to find that centuries-old varieties were available. "You could make a pie that would taste like your great-grandmother's," he says. Soon he was studying catalogs and planning a 100-tree orchard.

In retrospect, Dierberger says, this was probably an example of the current megatrends phenomenon known as high-tech, high-touch. "The idea is that those of us in highly technical fields are going to look for old-fashioned, hands-on hobbies. I guess I am a textbook case."

Dierberger constructed his orchard by grafting, attaching a branch from one variety of plant to a base from another. The rootstock determines how large the final tree will be -- from 4-foot-tall midgets to 30-foot monsters, he says. The grafting twigs (called scions) come from two primary sources, a historical orchard at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, maintained by the Worcester Historical Society, and the U.S. Germ Plasm Repository for Apples in Geneva, N.Y., where cells from 2,400 apple varieties are stored.

At first, only his writing bore financial fruit: He compiled 15 years of knowledge into a little textbook and sold articles about growing antique apples to Mother Earth News and the Old Farmer's Almanac, among other publications.

Next came a small but steady business in twigs for grafting. Dierberger has customers from as far away as Alaska and Michigan, "although I'm really not sure how they hear about me."

Finally, the apples themselves are beginning to come through as a source of revenue. He sells some from his driveway on the weekends and takes a few baskets of seconds over to a nearby mill to be pressed into cider. Although the beverage, made with a wide variety of his apples, is extremely tasty, Dierberger says he cannot afford to press very much of it. A full bushel of apples only yields three gallons of cider, and his entire orchard of 120 trees only gives him 15 to 20 bushels of fruit per year.

But this farmer remains loyal to the older varieties, which seem to be far more disease- and insect-resistant than their contemporary counterparts. Although he sprays for insects and diseases only half as often as the contemporary recommendation, he sees less than 10 percent of his fruit damaged -- which is considered an excellent statistic. Even the name of his property was taken from an antique-apple variety, Westfield Seek-No-Further, a plain-looking but highly flavorful fruit that can be traced back to 1770 in Westfield, Mass.

Seek No Further Orchard is at 144 Blackman Road, Hebron, Conn. 06248; the e-mail address is abbeOL.com.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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