Four years ago, Tree Guy came out to give us an estimate for gypsy moth spraying. As long as you’re here, I said, take a look at these apple trees and tell me what you think.
The two small trees were decades old. The summer cottage’s previous owners who planted them had passed on years ago, and a series of residents and renters neglected the property. Outlines of an old garden next to a derelict split-rail fence showed evidence that iris, spirea and forsythia had once been planted lovingly. But as soon as I began digging out the stumps of dead shrubs, I came upon shards of white porcelain, chopped up bits of green garden hose, plastic food wrappers — the garden had been used as a garbage pile. By the time we bought the place six years ago, the landscape looked like an outtake from “No Country for Old Men” — sand, moss, and a few scraggly bushes, invasive oriental bittersweet, fruitless wild strawberry runners, out-of-control black locust seedlings.
And those two mangy old apple trees.
Tree Guy said the trees were near the end of their lifespan, but if we fertilized them spring and fall, they might have some life in them yet. He advised us to pull out all the weeds around the trunk, dig in some compost and cover the ground to the drip line with large wood chips.
The bark was peeling away, and the tree’s branches wore coats of pale green lichens. We began fertilizing, hoping for the best.
The first year, one tree produced two shriveled apples, and the other one bore — nothing. We kept on fertilizing.
The second summer, we got three or four apples on the smaller tree. On the second one, nothing.
Last year, we picked five or six, but they were twisted, or wizened, inedible — and tiny.
This year, everything changed. The blossoms in spring were profuse. Starting in mid-July we began to see little green apples, then we watched as they grew larger, week by week.
By late July, apples began to drop. We gathered these windfalls and worried that something was awry. Some internet research revealed that early drop is the tree's way of preserving its branches, avoiding overload from too much heavy fruit.
Day by day, the apples were redder, and we found more nearly perfect ones. Were they Macoun? Macintosh? Some more exotic, artisanal variety? More and more dropped, and we gathered them each morning and sorted them into piles — some for the compost bin (those with critter bites in them, or woodlice burrowing into the blossom end), some destined for local animals and some meant for human consumption.
I tested one of the pristine ones, first polishing it on my t-shirt and tentatively biting into it. It was crisp and not too sweet — a perfect cooking apple. But some in the family liked to eat them just as they were. My husband said he could probably sneak a few into the organic apple bin at Whole Foods and no one would know the difference.
I was insulted. Our apples were better than Whole Foods’!
Now, our baskets, bags and bins are overflowing. Neighbors and Craigslist readers have come to take free apples for their horses, their goats, their rabbits, their pigs or to make pies or baked apples.
Our tomato plants are under-producers. Our basil has been attacked by a pest of unknown origin that left the lush green leaves dotted with holes. The lettuce is gone by, and the squash is weeks behind schedule. Five-inch-long slugs patrol the compost bin and have crawled through the fenced-in vegetable garden and chewed up the Swiss chard.
But the apples are spectacular.
If this were 1970 and I had a horse and a cart in Baltimore, I could be an araber.
If I knew more about apple-growing, I could get a table at the local farmer’s market.
But there’s always next year.
Lynne Spigelmire Viti (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer and lecturer emerita in the Writing Program at Wellesley College. Her two published poetry collections are “Baltimore Girls” (2017) and “The Glamorganshire Bible” (2018), both from Finishing Line Press.