OUR GRAVENSTEIN is a backyard beauty. Thought to be as old as 80, its sturdy branches support a crude treehouse while its leafy canopy dwarfs a pair of apple-bearing neighbors: a prolific Jonagold and petite Alkmene, planted the year Mac and I married.
If all goes right in the world, our son will one day become steward of those trees, perhaps with a child of his own to climb the Gravenstein, pick our Jonagolds and beg for another slice of Alkmene apple pie.
My neighbor, Bill Davis, certainly hopes so.
A delightful descendant of Johnny Appleseed, Davis is a grafting and propagation specialist who teaches the art at area fruit clubs, colleges and nurseries.
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At 78, he’s a longtime member of the Western Cascade Fruit Society, parent organization for local clubs that bring together hobby orchardists (like him) and backyard growers (like me) in the name of camaraderie — and education.
These days, he volunteers at Washington State University’s Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, helping bring new life to old cultivars like Esopus Spitzenburg, a descendant of an “antique” (pre-1900) apple and a favorite of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.
Davis owes a great debt, he says, to the late Walt Lyon, a legend among small orchardists. Lyon grew hundreds of apple varieties at his home near Kenmore, on trees grafted and, sadly, mowed down after his death. It was Lyon who taught Davis to graft, decades ago, helping him revive an old Delicious that (like my Gravenstein) refused to fruit.
“By the time I was finished with it,” Davis recalls, “I had 28 varieties on that tree — and they all produced.” Until an apple bore befriended the tree and a March windstorm destroyed it. He still mourns the loss.
At his home in Edmonds, the retired Navy Seabee grows heirlooms and contemporary crossbreeds. Eyeing my apple trees, he shared this advice: Prune minimally in spring and invest time doing so in summer to provide light and air. Thin apple clusters, leaving about 5 inches between the fruit to allow for maximum growth. Know your pests — and control them!
Compact and loquacious, he’s a man of strong opinions: “I don’t like super-sweet apples like Fuji,” Davis says of the Japanese cultivar now among Washington state’s most popular commercial exports. “It’s like eating sugar candy — and about as exciting.”
For his palate, “an apple has to have some character,” a fine balance of tart and sweet.
Among the colorful characters he cultivates at home is the yellow-fleshed Ashmead’s Kernel, named for an English physician who grew it in the 1700s; Newtown Pippin, beloved by George Washington; and the Roxbury Russet, a native of Massachusetts with a pedigree that dates to the 1600s.
He also grows Liberty, a hardy, deep-red Macoun-cross and his No. 1 pick for novice growers. Liberty is immune to apple scab, stores well and is great in pies, as applesauce or for eating out-of-hand, Davis says. Kept cool, its flavors deepen after the October harvest.
With the season in its prime and a growing number of lesser-known varieties available at farmers markets and grocery stores, the time is ripe for an apple tasting. For a list of apple-centric festivals and events throughout the Puget Sound area, check out the Western Cascade Fruit Society calendar at http://wcfs.org/calendar/.
One taste of Ashmead’s Kernel or (my favorite) Karmijn de Sonnaville, Davis says, and “Everyone wants to know: ‘Where can I buy those?’ ”
His answer? “Grow your own!”
Nancy Leson is a Seattle freelance food writer. Reach her at email@example.com. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.