Planting Family Fruit
Can fancy mountain apples adapt to a sprinkle of salt in their diet?
by Elisavietta Ritchie
“Six holes, please, for the roots.”
Cousin Charles arrives with rare apple saplings from West Virginian mountains, antique, organic, wants to plant six by our cove off the Patuxent. His red jeep is full: six-foot-long metal stakes sharp as spears; baggies of bone meal and lime; industrial-strength bags of mulch he claims superior to mine composting in the green plastic bin of peelings and weeds. Small-gauge chicken-wire cylinders and six-foot-long white plastic piping to protect against deer, rabbit and woodchuck. And six skinny switches, one end dirt-encrusted.
Our arthritic 100-year-old apple trees Fuji, Scarlet and Gold Delicious bore bumper crops some summers. This year’s harvest was small, critters too quick. Hurricane Ernesto felled the Granny.
New saplings, like brilliant ideas, could root in this fertile soil. Charles, who prefers philosophic and spiritual discussions, is all business today. I must become so.
“Instructions,” he intones, “read two feet deep, two feet wide.”
Where to find terra firma? We live on a marsh, water seeps high in rain, unusual tides. During Hurricane Isabel’s three-foot-high flood, our house on three-foot cinder blocks became Noah’s Ark.
Charles spades two holes, measure two feet down and wide, then straightens. “My back!”
I dig another four holes. A harvest of angleworm crawls forth, hefty and hearty, annoyed at disturbances.
He clutches the directions with muddy fingers. “And no pesticides.”
I don’t use pesticides. Not lazy or penurious, and we inherited gallons of poisonous sprays from previous owners, but five yards from the river, pesticide runoff would kill everything. Some birds spurn seeds, need bugs. We all need our protein.
“Look!” he exclaims. “The holes filled up!”
The water rises inside each excavation: six unexpected wells.
“I don’t want my precious apple sapling roots in your brine.” He sounds peeved.
Searching new sites, we dig in the vegetable garden. Weeds reign amid spaghetti tangles of broken electric fencing.
“Look!” I point to rosettes of watercress. “Salad?”
He is not interested. Every hole fills. Mounds of dug dirt and prime mulch wait to ring saplings not going anywhere.
By dark, to heck with directives. Everything grows perfectly well here in our wetlands. Even fancy mountain apples can adapt to a sprinkle of salt in their diet.
Tomorrow I’ll seek loftier land, mull moral questions and metaphors, dig, in the ruts left by his tires, align stakes, cages and pipes to keep critters out, plant those six skinny sticks.
By the time apples grow and turn ripe, can I still hobble out to the orchard to pick bushels of worm-studded fruit?
Charles leaves with my thanks, apologies and armloads of our holly. “Cranberry flowers,” he labels the berries, avoiding the prickles.
I promise Charles protein-rich applesauce, strudels and pies, and I’ll brew a peculiar Applelachian Angleworm Wine.
World-traveling writer, teacher and author of 14 books of poetry and short stories Elisavietta Ritchie lives most of the time by a cove off the Patuxent. This is her first writing in Bay Weekly.