The apple tree

If I were asked to say what single aspect of our economic condition most strikingly and favorably distinguished the people of our Northern States from these of most if not all other countries which I have traversed, I would point at once to the fruit-trees which so generally diversify every little as well as larger farm throughout these States, and are quite commonly found even on the petty holdings of the poorer mechanics and workmen in every village and in the suburbs and outskirts of every city.

I can recall nothing like it abroad, save in two or three of the least mountainous and most fertile districts of northern Switzerland. Italy has some approach to it in the venerable olive-trees which surround or flank many, perhaps most, of her farm-houses, upholding grape-vines as ancient and nearly as large as themselves; but the average New-England or Middle State homestead, with its ample Apple-orchard and its cluster of Pear, Cherry and Plum-trees surrounding its house and dotting or belting its garden, has an air of comfort and modest thrift, which I have nowhere else seen fairly equaled.

Upland Virginia and the mountainous portion of the States southward of her may in time surpass the most favored regions of the North in the abundance, variety and excellence of their fruits; for the Peach and the Grape find here a congenial climate, while they are grown with difficulty, where they can be grown at all, in the North; but, up to this hour, I judge that our country north of the Potomac is better supplied with wholesome and palatable tree-fruits than any other portion of the earth’s surface of equal or nearly equal area.

On the whole, I deem it a misfortune that our Northern States were so admirably adapted to the Apple and kindred fruit-trees that our pioneer forefathers had little more to do than bury the seeds in the ground and wait a few years for the resulting fruit. The soil, formed of decayed trees and their foliage, thickly covered with the ashes of the primitive forest, was as genial as soil could be; while the remaining woods, which still covered seven-eighths of the country, shut out or softened the cold winds of Winter and Spring, rendering it less difficult, a century ago, to grow fine peaches in southern New-Hampshire than it now is in southern New-York.

Devastating insects were precluded by those great, dense woods from diffusing themselves from orchard to orchard as they now do. Snows fell more heavily and lay longer then than now, protecting the roots from heavy frosts, and keeping back buds and blossoms in Spring, to the signal advantage of the husbandman. I estimate that my apple-trees would bear at least one-third more fruit if I could retard their blossoming a fortnight, so as to avoid the cold rains and cutting winds, often succeeded by frosts, which are apt to pay their unwelcome farewell visits just when my trees are in bloom or when the fruit is forming directly thereafter. Hence, I say to every one who shall hereafter set an orchard, Give it the northward slope of a hill if that be possible. Other things being equal, the orchard which blossoms latest will, in a series of years, yield most fruit, and will be most likely to bear when the Apple-crop of your vicinity proves a failure. I do not recommend storing ice to plant or bury under the trees in April, for that involves too much labor and expense; yet I have no doubt that even that has been and sometimes might be done with profit. In the average, however, I judge that it would not pay.

In locating and setting an orchard, the very first consideration is thorough drainage. Nothing short of a destructive fire can be more injurious to an apple-tree than compelling it to stand throughout Winter and Spring in sour, stagnant water. Barrenness, dead branches, and premature general decay, are the natural and righteous consequences of such crying abuse.

There are many reasons for choosing sloping or broken ground for an apple-orchard, whereof comparative exemption from frost and natural facility of drainage are the most obvious. A level field, thoroughly undrained to-day, may, through neglect and the mischiefs wrought by burrowing animals, have become little better than a morass thirty years hence; but an orchard set on a tolerably steep hillside is reasonably secure against wet feet to the close of its natural life.

A gravelly or sandy loam is generally preferred for orchards; yet I have known them to flourish and bear generously on heavy clay. Whoever has a gravelly field will wisely prefer this for Apples, not merely to clay but to sand as well.

And, while many young orchards have doubtless been injured by immoderate applications of rank, green manures, I doubt that any man has ever yet bestowed too much care and expense on the preparation of his ground for fruit-trees. Where ridges or plateaus of fast stone do not forbid, I would say, Turn over the soil to a depth of at least fifteen inches with a large plow and a strong team; then lift and pulverize the subsoil to a depth of not less than nine inches; apply all the Wood-ashes you can get, with one thousand bushels of Marl if you are in a Marl region; if not, use instead from thirty to fifty bushels of quick Lime (oyster-shell if that is to be had) with one hundred loads per acre of Swamp Muck which has lain a year on dry upland, baking in the sun and wind; and now you may think of setting your trees. If your soil was rich Western prairie or Middle-State garden to begin with, you can dispense with all these fertilizers; yet I doubt that there is an acre of Western prairie that would not be improved by the Lime or (perhaps better still) a smaller quantity of refuse Salt from a packing-house or meat retailing grocery. There are not many farms that would not repay the application of five bushels per acre of refuse Salt at twenty-five cents per bushel.

Your trees once set—(and he who sets twenty trees per day as they should be set, with each root in its natural position, and the earth pressed firmly around its trunk, but no higher than as it originally grew, is a faithful, efficient worker), I would cultivate the land, (for the trees’ sake), growing crops successively of Ruta Bagas, Carrots, Beets, and early Potatoes, but no grain whatever, for six or seven years, disturbing the roots of the trees as little as may be, and guarding their trunks from tug, or trace, or whiffle-tree, by three stakes set firmly in the ground about each tree, not so near it as to preclude constant cultivation with the hoe inside as well as outside of the stakes, so as to let no weed mature in the field. Apply from year to year well-rotted compost to the field in quantity sufficient fully to counterbalance the annual abstraction by your crops.

Make it a law inflexible and relentless that no animal shall be let into this orchard to forage, or for any purpose whatever but to draw on manures, to till the soil, and to draw away the crops. Thus until the first blossoms begin to appear on the trees; then lay down to grass without grain, unless it be a crop of Rye or Oats to be cut and carried off for feed when not more than half grown, leaving the ground to the young grass. Let the grass be mowed for the next two or three years, and thenceforward devote it to the pasturage of Swine, running over it with a scythe once or twice each Summer to clear it of weeds, and taking out the Swine a few days before beginning to gather the Apples, but putting them back again the day after the harvest is completed.

Let the Swine be sufficiently numerous and hungry to eat every apple that falls within a few hours after it is dropped, and to insure their rooting out every grub or worm that burrows in the earth beneath the trees, ready to spring up and apply himself to mischief at the very season when you could best excuse his absence. I do not commend this as all, or nearly all, that should be done in resistance to the pest of insect ravage; but I begin with the Hog as the orchardist’s readiest, cheapest, most effective ally or servitor in the warfare he is doomed unceasingly to wage against the spoilers of his heritage.

This article was taken from,



Published: 1871