Spring is a knockout in northern Westchester.
Like a stripper in reverse, she layers on new costumes every morning. She starts with the naughty cupped magnolias, slides her elegant arms into the girlish cherry, wraps herself in the dangling lavender and white lilacs with their outrageous hit of scent, and drapes the raucous azalea and unpredictable Japanese maple over her shoulders. She strides across the carpets of velvet pansies, trembling daffodils and innocent violets we put down for her, the scrim behind her spangling from gold and red to frank green imperceptibly.
In all this seductive showing, the get-up I look for and like best is the apple blossoms. The exuberant old trees come out of hiding everywhere—their pink and white riot just can’t help itself. As I go toward home on the highway, many trees poke out of the woods, under parkway overpasses and in the small woods surrounding a local college. Crooked, gangly specimens continue to cheerlead for spring when their apples have gone worm-holed and puckered, fit only to fatten deer and occasionally shelter wrinkly morels in this time of year.
I look for the plucky fruit trees, not only because they are courageous but also because they are so nostalgic. They wave at us and say, “There was an orchard here once, a small farmhouse orchard or a more substantial one.”
Photo by Judith Hausman
I had a favorite skinny pear tree like that along a frequent walking route in Bedford. Its trunk was nearly hollow, but it still blossomed white in the spring. Once, I gathered abandoned yellow pears from three trees along the parking lot of my allergist’s office and put them up in ginger and syrup. Someone pruned and cared for the trees once. In fact, to bring back neglected fruit trees is long, slow work that now requires specialized knowledge and usually some chemicals.
Alan Haigh is an orchardist in my area. He needed as much as four years of nurturing to bring a neglected suburban orchard back into production.
“These gorgeous, gigantic apple trees are a part of our heritage that we’re losing,” says Haigh. “There’s no more intimate relationship with any plant than these fruit trees. We can have a lifelong relationship with them.”
Gentle gradual pruning, grafting programs, and organic or less frequent, less toxic spray programs are part of his advocacy for these beautiful trees. (Contact Haigh’s Home Orchard Company in Putnam Valley at 845-228-0219 or at email@example.com.)
Hudson Valley orchard planner Lee Reich, author of Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden (Timber Press, 2004) and eight other gardening books, restores orchards, too, and also tries to introduce homeowners to easier fruit trees. “It’s easy to grow apples for wood but it’s harder to make them bear edible fruit.” (Contact Reich at 845-255-0417 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Still, the abandoned and volunteer apple trees I love persist.
Sometimes you pass a group of buildings around here that suggest a former hamlet. The homes, taverns, graveyards and schoolhouses do their best to send a mild message from another time in this part of the world—a sleepier, sometimes harder time, a time before suburbia. The old fruit trees, visible often only in poignant spring, speak that message, too. Even if second growth has shaded out their fruit or no human can reach to eat what remains, they show off, they catcall, they put in their two cents with a charming flurry of persistence and a soft, brief perfume.
I wrote about apple trees first in New York House magazine in 2006.