Fruit Census

Martin and I care for kids and fruit trees in much the same fashion:

We get them started, monitor them for a few weeks, and then leave them to fend for themselves.

We subscribe to a hands-off approach.

We planted apple trees in April ’09 and since then, I’ve probably checked them three times. Maybe that’s why they haven’t been fruitful. Wicked weather and wildlife haven’t helped, either.

In their first full year, summer of 2010, they were stunted by droughty weather. (We planted them beyond the reaches of our longest garden hose.)

And in 2011 Martin pulled down their protective chicken wire to mow the high grass. Apparently that signaled every deer in 10 miles; they chewed off any shred of green. What they left were knobby, naked branches.

This year is different. Most days I roar up the driveway, spitting gravel and raising a cloudy plume that mars a view of the orchard. But the other day I was nearly out of gas so I crept along, telling the car to sip fuel. And while I was killing time at this glacial pace, I glanced out the window. Was that a glint of red in those trees? That night I ventured out. Yes, them’s apples growing.

We should prune the trees and spray against insects but let’s be real: those apples are on their own.

The berries and grapevines grow by the barn and a convenient water source, so we treat them better than the trees banished in the sheep field.

In 2011 the black raspberries shriveled in a stretch of hot, dry days but this year, they’re flourishing. Darkening up and soon ready to pick.

The blueberries would be doing well, except the damn kids keep picking them before they’re ripe. “We like them tart!” they say.

The raspberries did wonderfully last year — they earn the drought-tolerant award — but this season they’re struggling. Perhaps it’s too much rain, or else they’re suffering from fallout from the grapevine spray. We’ve been at war against blackrot — it claimed the grapes two years in a row. As a result, Martin’s been dousing the vines and it’s possible that the neighboring raspberries got caught in the crossfire.

There’s only one other plant to acknowledge and that’s our teacher’s pet: the¬†strawberries. They’re the newest addition and so far they’re impervious to wacky weather, neglect and constant trampling of kids and cats. Gold star for you guys.

I see hand-churned ice cream in the future….

Die grapes, die!

There was a time when I worried about the grapevine. When black rot blighted the berries and chewed away at the leaves.

Ah, those were the good old days.

Last year we tended to the vines in our typical fashion: we ignored them. We didn’t clip them, water them or tie them up. We just let them grow au-naturale. And they propagated…

…Which just goes to show that any idiot can grow grapes.

But last summer the grapes became stunted when they should have been plump and ready to pick. Around July, dark smudges pocked the stems and half the fruit shriveled on the vine.

I didn’t know what was going on, so I clipped a few sickly stems and took them to the local vineyard for an autopsy.

When I arrived, the vintner sized me up like a leprosy patient. He stood a few feet away. “First of all, that’s black rot,” he said gesturing at my fist of green. “Second of all it’s spreads like crazy, so get it the hell out of here.”

At home I reported back to Martin, who doused the plants in a bath of pesticide (so much for organic farming). The vines coughed, gasped, and doubled over.

But this year the plants are invigorated. They’re black-rot free and we’ve got a bumper crop of grapes. Which begs the question: what do we do with all this fruit?

Google “grape recipes” and you’ll find chicken-grape salad; pork chops in grape sauce; filet of sole with grapes (really, grapes with fish?)…But these recipes call for 1 cup of grapes. I need a recipe that uses them by the pound.

And that’s when it dawned on me: Grape jelly. It’s a no brainer. I’d make shelves of it and give it away at Christmas. Just like Martha Stewart!

Back to google I went, where I found “how to make grape jelly in 12 easy steps!” In addition to fruit, all I needed was a jar funnel, a jar grabber, a jelly strainer, a canner, a food processor, some pectin, and a dozen jars, rings and lids.

And $75 and six hours later I’d have 12 jars of homemade grape jelly, which would get shoved into the furthest reaches of our friends’ cupboards.

That’s assuming I properly sterilized my canning supplies. Otherwise, it’d be: “Merry Christmas, have a jar of home-grown botulism.”

So I’m going to spare myself the trouble and disease and ditch my canning plans. Instead, we’ll eat what we can and give the rest to unsuspecting friends and neighbors. And next year we’ll cut back the vine. Or bring back the black rot.

Help Me help You!

When Martin and I lived in the suburbs, we barely knew anyone on our block, aside from our Jimmy Buffet-loving neighbors who had a bar in their basement, and Kevin, the ageless man-boy with Tourette’s who rammed passing cars with a shopping cart, mowed lawns (and flower beds and trees), and delivered the Washington Post, all the while screaming “here’s your Sunday inserts, sh*& heads!”

But now that we live in rural-land, we’re part of a tight-woven community. People call you “neighbor” even when you live 8 miles away. And when the closest store is a 15-minute drive, of course you can borrow a couple of eggs. Heck, just come on over for dinner!

People who measure life in acres, bales and diesel prices won’t hesitate to loan you a set of tools or lend a hand to split a pile of wood. But more than anything, they love to dispense advice. As in, “you gotta fix that fence line” or “about time you reseed your pasture” or “you planning to prune back those trees?”

I don’t mind the gentle reminder, the not-so-cloaked nag. Please, tell me what I should do. THEN, tell me how I should do it.

That’s where the lines of communication go dead. And I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that “I walked to school five miles in the snow, up hill, in both directions” mentality. They toughed it out, now it’s your turn.

Most people who live out here grew up out here. They learned how to fix a tractor, pull a horse shoe, mend a fence. It’s inconceivable that you don’t know how to attach a bush hog to your tractor.

Never mind that just a few years ago, I would have guessed that a bush hog was a wild pig that lives in the shrubbery.

My rural education began and ended in 3rd grade when we spent two days studying “agriculture in Eastern Maryland” and I learned why the two-laned road to the eastern shore stinks like chickens.

Unfortunately, Martin’s in the same boat, which is why we alternate asking questions. “Should we spread lime on our fields?” “How much gravel do we need to fix the drive?” “What’s this funky fungus on our grapevine?” The neighbors just smile all the while thinking, “Are these two joking or are they just stupid?

So we’ve abandoned asking questions. We pretend we know what we’re doing and plunge in. Unfortunately, the learning curve is paved with potholes.

When we first moved here, we borrowed the neighbor’s tractor and promptly stranded it in our field. “Don’t you know that you can’t run a tractor totally dry?” the owner asked us, as he hiked through knee-deep fescue to prime the fuel pump.

So far no one’s lost an appendage through our mishaps, though Martin came awfully close to blowing up the house when he showered the cellar in fuel while fixing the furnace. But again, that was a single slip-up. Most of the time we just look like rubes, not suicidal maniacs.

Years ago before the days of the sheep, when the apple trees were still moderately fruitful, people said, “You got to prune those trees!”

“Okay,” we said. “How? How much do we take off?”

“Well, you got to cut them back a lot if you want good fruit.”

Martin took that advice and a set of pruning shears and 3 hours later, it looked like Edward Scissorhands had been over. Months later, we were holed up in the dark, smoky shadows of our local bar, escaping the summer heat and humidity. In the normal neighborly fashion, the old guy sitting next to us introduced himself, and we swapped “what to do you do” and “where do you live.” When we described our farm, his eyes widened with recognition.

“Oh! You aren’t the folks that hacked up those nice apple trees!”

Martin and I both paused to suck down our beers. “No,” I finally said, rolling my eyes. “Those are our neighbors.”