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World of Apples; Fire blight reduces harvest.

Byline: Bradford L. Miner

BOYLSTON -- Macs, Cortlands and Honeycrisps are ripe and readily available at farm stands, and families are already planning pick-your-own excursions to a favorite orchard.

Crisp mornings of late leave little doubt that Johnny Appleseed season is once again at hand.

In the heirloom orchard of 119 vintage varieties at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, however, there was a teaching moment recently to improve a much smaller "orchard'' in Worcester's Piedmont neighborhood.

The Worcester Tree Initiative, best known for providing trees to replace those cut down in the wake of the Asian longhorned beetle devastation, is working with Bhutanese refugee farmers to grow apples and other fruit.

With the help of a translator, Joann Vieira, Tower Hill's director of horticulture, gave a tour of the orchard, explaining to the refugees how best to manage the fruit trees in their care at 9 Jaques Ave.

Ms. Vieira said many of the 119 heirloom apple varieties in the Tower Hill orchard date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. They provided a source of cuttings for grafting until the practice had to be curtailed to prevent the spread of fire blight, a bacterium that left unchecked could destroy an entire orchard.

Jon Clements, spokesman for the Massachusetts Fruit Growers Association and UMass Extension fruit advisor, said that while this year's Central Massachusetts apple crop is average, and better than expected based on the spring bloom, the occurrence of the fire blight is the worst he's seen in 14 years.

Some orchards, he said, may have been more subject to adverse weather conditions than others, but the lighter crop is likely the result of last year's bumper crop. "After an exceptional crop last fall the trees didn't expend as much energy in creating fruit buds,'' he said.

He cited fire blight during spring bloom as another factor.

"Those apple growers who've seen fire blight in the past were able to apply streptomycin and limit the damage. Others who haven't seen it before may have sustained more tree damage. This is the worst year for fire blight I've seen in 14 years on the job,'' he said.

The apple expert said cooler temperatures at this point in the harvest are not only good for the apples, but also have folks thinking more about a pick-your-own visit to a local orchard than about a picnic at the beach.

Katherine F. Abbott, Tower Hill executive director, said she was excited about having the Bhutanese farmers from Worcester visit the orchard and gardens. "There is a growing interest in urban orchards and we at Tower Hill are supporting the effort Worcester Tree is making in the area of education and training,'' she said.

Ms. Abbott cited the continuing recovery from the Asian longhorned beetle devastation.

"People came to realize just how important trees are for environmental and aesthetic value. Fruit trees have an additional value as a source of food,'' she said.

Ms. Abbott said Tower Hill would play a greater role in promoting locally grown food, developing more gardens and orchards on the property.

"We're interested here in returning to our root, if you will,'' she said, citing Worcester County Horticultural Society annual reports from the 1840s.

"We were judging vegetables as much as we were judging flowers, supporting agriculture as much as horticulture.''

Ms. Abbott said Tower Hill would look at cultivating disease-resistant, sustainable varieties of fruit and vegetables that thrive in a New England climate.

While Leominster native John "Johnny Appleseed'' Chapman is legendary for planting apple nurseries in parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, Ms. Vieira said there is more to apple growing than planting a seed. "Sure, it's possible to grow an apple tree from a seed, say from a Macintosh, but you won't get a tree that produces an apple that tastes like a Macintosh.''

Ms. Vieira explained the apple that produced the seed incorporates the genetics of several apple varieties, and apple trees won't set fruit unless there is more than one variety.

"When the bees do their work and cross-pollinate the blossoms each spring, they are mixing up the genetics.'' She said Tower Hill's orchard of 119 heirloom varieties is only able to be maintained through grafting scions onto healthy trees.

"It's a part of our history we will lose completely if they are not preserved. Who knows what we might discover in the future? One might hold the key to fire blight resistance,'' she said.

Ms. Vieira said the varieties in the Tower Hill orchard were important to the commercial trade and to the settlers who relied on them.

"There are larger heirloom collections, like the one at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y. What distinguishes our orchard is that it's one of the most accessible to the public. The trees are labeled and well-documented so visitors know just what they are looking at,'' she said.

The horticulture director said visitors won't see apples on all trees at any one time, because the heirloom varieties are primarily biennial, producing every other year.

"Just about all of our trees produce fruit, but this year is an off-bearing year after last year's bumper crop,'' she said. She added that fire blight has had a big impact on the orchard.

Peggy Middaugh, executive director of Worcester Tree Initiative, said the property at Jaques Avenue and Ethan Allen Street where the fruit trees were planted is owned by Worcester Common Ground.

"We bought the trees and our foresters did the training on how to plant them,'' she said. A grant from TD Green Streets paid for fencing of the orchard, which has 20 trees, a combination of apples, pears, peaches, plums and cherries, Ms. Middaugh said.

She said a second orchard on Oread Place is also being looked after by the Bhutanese farmers.

"Eight fruit trees were planted several years ago, but nothing was done to care for them. Now we have two women interested in taking care of them and that's why we're here at Tower Hill today,'' Ms. Middaugh said.
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Miner, Bradford L.
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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