After my climb up Black Mountain, I went apple picking. I had noticed the place on my way to the trailhead and was tempted. Then the woman I talked to at the peak told me her family works there. When I was younger and the children more pliable, Al and I used to take them picking quite frequently. It got us out on a Sunday afternoon and was a low-stress social option for adults and families alike. Also, in the end there would be apples. Who can complain about that?
I grew up working for my grandfather on school vacations and during the summer. He had apple trees. That said, the apples--like the extensive garden next to it--were for family use. The big sale items on the farm were Christmas trees, actually. Also, he contracted out to raise heifers for Heifer International. He cut hay for himself and other local farmers. He grew corn and other crops primarily for the heifers. Once he boarded someone else's sheep for a while.
The apple trees were the personal passion of a guy with plenty of passions. They would be pruned and the pests abated in the off-season. Then we would harvest them throughout the fall and put them in barrels on the porch, pulling them out when we felt like it. I remember sitting on that porch the day before Thanksgiving munching apples while waiting for my cousins to arrive. I did this more than once.
At home we had apples, too. There was a big, old apple tree whose variety is best described as "green and wormy" along with a couple crabapple trees. My mom--not to be outdone by her father--built a cider press in our yard. We would spend days grinding apples and squeezing them, producing gallons and gallons of unfiltered, unpasteurized apple-and-bug juice that we would start drinking immediately. Jugs of the stuff would go down in the basement for safekeeping. Then it would slowly ferment through the winter. We usually ran out in early March.
As an adult, of course, the whole process has been a bit more commercialized. It is safe to say that the cost per bushel and peck is substantially over the free-with-labor rate of my youth. It took me a while to get used to that. There is something strange about paying to work instead of the other way around.
I have learned, of course, that this is how the local orchards survive; preserving an endangered economy along with varieties that would be hard to find otherwise. That there are more than Macintosh, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, and Cortland apples in the grocery store is a direct result of these orchards maintaining their many trees in all their variety.
This is part of the fun, of course. One place we used to go to when we were younger parents had a tree that was older than the memory of the family that ran it. Every other year those apples are the best ever. On the off year they taste like rotting grass.
Nothing compares to an apple so I don't know how to describe the flavor. They taste like fall, family, and farm work to me. I am going to pretentiously say they taste like America, or, rather, its best parts. That said, there are sweeter ones and less sweet. Some outliers have their own thing going on that can be pleasant or really not pleasant depending on the environment they are raised in. The taste also depends on the mood of the eater. Even the varieties themselves vary by tree.
Let's talk variety for a minute. When I was growing up it was either the green wormy variety or Macs at home. Mom still insists on Macs to this day. My grandfather's fruit were varieties of Golden Delicious although some of the trees were more delicious than others. Maybe because of how may of these particular apples I ate when I was a kid, I tend not to get them now. Also, I am not fond of off-season varieties. They are mealy and taste a bit manufactured.
It turns out only two members of my immediate family can be counted on to consume apples in any quantity. One is me. The other one is still living in a tent somewhere in the Appalachian Range. This means the demand these days is low. Usually, therefore, I forego the whole event of picking and just buy a half-peck of local apples that are in season. In fact, that was my plan when I arrived at this particular apple place. There was a school bus full of small children. There were family groups with their seniors. It appeared I was the only one flying solo and the smallest bag for picking is the $14 peck. What a frivolous pursuit for a serious middle aged man! At least that was my initial impression and fear. Then someone in front of me--probably a decade or so younger with a couple bags if donuts--bought an empty peck bag for himself, too. That was all the peer pressure I needed.
In the end I had a good time. It wasn't the full-on picking experience of some of those places closer to home. There thankfully wasn't a petting zoo or a pony ride. They sold cider donuts in theory...but that guy in front of me bought the last. There were also a few corny hand painted signs but they kept themselves to defining the boundaries of various varieties and warning people not to bring their dogs. The environment was pretty no-nonsense for an operation like this, which was just what I was looking for.
I took my bag and spent about 20 minutes filling it with Macouns and Paula Reds while munching on a Cortland held in my other hand. One of the painted signs said I could eat on the job; "Sample, Don't Feast!" After the Cortland I had a Paula Red. It is early in the season in New Hampshire--and the bigger apples go in bags for the orchard store anyway--so the apples in the field are small and tart. You can't find them at the supermarket like this, where the ideal of the big, puffy, red or green, unblemished apple reigns supreme. Maybe I will make a pie, but really these should be eaten straight up, on the porch.
It wasn't like when I was a kid. I didn't prune these trees, or mow between them, or fight the battle of the bugs. I did not feel like a farmer. However, I got my hands a bit dirty to get the freshest new apples I could and that is enough for now.
Sometimes it is good to concentrate on one thing. If we focus hard enough we can block out the noise and worry that burdens our movements most of the time. Of course we return the noise. We can't help ourselves because it is in the air wherever we go. However, the rest we find while homing in on a pleasurable task can be just what we need to sustain us in our return. That may actually be the crux of the project I am on. Hiking, music, writing and preaching all require concentration at a level that draws the detritus away. Each word, each note, and each step is a puzzle that requires attention. Gardening can be like that, too. Which is good, because I am not as successful at reaping the more obvious rewards.
It has been a while since I updated you on the small parsonage garden. I have been working on it regularly. Sometimes the work takes a couple hours. More often it is just a few minutes. Up until the heat wave, I have been drinking my morning coffee and answering emails by the raised beds while it is still cool. These days I have to get my miles in while I can, so garden visiting has to wait until the hot midday. The fact is, though, I am learning something new each day. Some of those lessons, though, are harder than others...
Potatoes: Lets start with a mixed bag, shall we? I planted two types of potatoes. This was more than I needed but I was curious about them. Some of my ancestors were Irish and potatoes loom large in their history. I myself grew up in the potato growing state of Maine and lived there as an adult. Potatoes have a special status in a Mainer's heart. After all, we eat way more spuds than lobster.
One variety--Irish Cobbler--was a disaster. They had scab and a little rot. The yield was also low. Strangely their neighbors--all Northland Red--were excellent! I don't know why one type succeeded and the other failed but for the first time in my illustrious gardening career...I took a note of it and will get reds in the future. If I feel the need for whites next year I will try Kennebecs...because Maine.
Cucumbers: I did not take a picture of the cucumber plant. It is a bushing variety that I got in order to save space and labor. A couple of weeks ago they started to look really bad...or at least some of them did. My first move was to water them religiously. However, they didn't get any better. A consult with my sister-in-law Hanne (who is a professional vegetable farmer, among other things) revealed that they had something called "bacterial wilt." I ended up pulling four plants, leaving me two relatively healthy ones.
Peppers: I now have a ton of pepper plants and very few peppers to show for them. I started with a variety including Jedi, shishito, and those round hot ones we used to get at Italian restaurants. Now that the potatoes are gone, I have added cubanelles and one bell pepper. In the heat of summer, maybe peppers will require less work.
Tomatoes: At least these are going OK. I got a hardy bushing variety. I have no idea how they taste but they live! I spent a little time with these early on, removing early flowers so that strength could go to the plant. Now there are many, many unripe tomatoes that hopefully will survive long enough for me to eat. I am told that the critters don't molest nightshades as often. I hope that is true. I love tomatoes.
Herbs: You see that dead basil at the top? There is more where that came from. However, other plants in the herb garden are doing well. Rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, oregano, mint, chives, and fennel are all thriving. I also have a small volunteer dill plant that would have been used for pickling if the cuke yield was substantially higher. The two "characters" in the herb bed are a stevia plant that I don't know what to do with and some strawberries that I apparently use to distract the local rabbits.
Finally, there are flowers. I keep mine in pots so that the veg has enough space to expand. This year I planted a number of different types but--thanks to the British program "Gardeners' World"--I went in big for Dahlias. They are outrageous and I may have found a new thing to take a deep-dive on this winter when everything is bleak. I bought three common varieties and inter-planted with Gazanias, which are similarly hardy. The effect is perfect for morning coffee contemplation and I usually end that time of day by deadheading those three pots. Yes I play favorites.
Next year I will order some more of both and of different types. The Gazania tray I picked up promised a variety but really were just the attractive yellow ones in the picture. I never thought of myself as a flower person. They seem so impractical. This year, though, their impractical beauty has been just what I needed at the beginning of many days.
So that is where I am now. I may add something more if the cucumbers finally fail and if there is an herb I would like to establish where the poor basil used to be. Carrots maybe? It feels late for them. I may just expand the greens section, which is rather cramped but produces plenty of arugula and micro-kale to make salads interesting.
I did also add one yellow squash. A couple of nights ago I had--I think for the first time in my adult life--a zucchini dish that I liked and considered planting one. Sadly I couldn't find anything at the garden store, hence the compromise-squash. Many of the shops are transitioning to other things now and we are stuck with the seedlings that are left. Still, I needn't have worried about the zucchini. The neighbors have way too many and gave us a couple. We probably don't need more than one plant in the neighborhood.
Again, this isn't really just a hiking blog. That is no more true than right now. A family-wide Covid epidemic has left us isolated at home and sick as dogs. Thankfully, we are vaccinated. I actually had my second booster the day my wife started showing symptoms. Though that last shot turned out to be a couple weeks too late, I am glad for the other ones. Who knows how horrid it would have been otherwise.
Anyway, this hiatus from our usual weekend hiking expeditions has made me realize how important they are. The hiking part is important, sure. More important, however, is just being outdoors. Being cooped up indoors most of the time is exhausting more than any hike. It is why I don't like winter. You are either moving around skiing, snowshoeing or whatever or you are trapped at the office or the living room. It is hard to just sit. Drives me crazy.
So the past few days on into the weekend I am getting familiar with my garden. The garden is pretty much my project. My eldest son--who normally grows vegetables for a living--has customarily helped, but now he is on the Appalachian Trail. Middle son--who also grows veg--has no interest in more gardening when he gets home from work. Youngest son hates gardens and vegetables. My wife is content to let it be my project. This means it usually takes a back seat to hiking and any other free-time activities.
But here I am...sick. So the past few days have consisted of me planting, weeding, dividing, and harvesting...runny nose, startling hacking cough and all. Then, exhausted, I stumble into the shade with my coffee to stare at the garden while I plan my next project...once I catch my breath. My garden--two raised beds, an herb bed, and some old plastic planters--is not pretty. Even when everything is in peak season it has the look of an amateur. That said, it is important to me. It is another way to interact with nature. It is a way to touch the ground even in my imperfection.
Mid-plague when we were all falling apart and I couldn't walk more than a few feet my eldest bought me a little kneeler so I could weed the herb bed, which was all we had at the time. Then he lobbied me to buy myself the first raised bed. After the surgery on my back, he helped me put it together. It is a good memory in a dark time. I still couldn't walk much or well. Now, though, I could be outside with a reason other than feeling sad. Yeah, I had "outdoor office hours" during the plague and I am outdoors typing right now. Still, it was [and is] different when you are doing inside activities outside. My neighbors probably think I am total nerd for doing this...which I am.
The garden also gave us something to talk about. It wasn't that we lacked topics! Still, this one is different. It is about resurrection and growth. It is about getting better in spite of everything that holds us down. Now--while he is marching across Virginia--I text him garden questions and send him pictures a couple times a week. It is something to share other than mountain pics, which are a bit coals-to-Newcastle right now.
This week I divided the near-dead lavender. I hardened-off and planted some iffy pepper plants, basil, sage, fennel (for the flowers and the parasitic wasps that will make it home) rosemary and bush cukes. I made a tiny salad out of the greens that are coming up. I searched for and found a few reluctant perennials as they made their appearance, marking them off with parts of a pair of glasses I broke in my delirium. Then I wrestled with the mint. I have some spaces open for kale and eggplant and some empty flower pots still but--given my positive status--it is all over except the watering and weeding for a a couple more days.
Now it is getting hot. So here are some pictures of my ugly garden. The middle ones are from past years. The first and last are from this week, taken from the relative shade of the parsonage during coffee breaks. You can see the kneeler in its "banjo seat" position. May your encounters with Creation be good ones this weekend, whatever they may be.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.