The Old Apple Tree

There’s nothing quite like crunchy, crisp apples straight from the tree. But if you ask your great-granny about her youth, I guarantee she’ll say, “Apples tasted better back then.”

And it’s true!


Since the 20th century we’ve let many old varieties of fruit and vegetables slip quietly into oblivion — and with them have gone taste… aroma…and diversity. Count up how many different apple names you can see on the supermarket shelves. You might see six, but years ago there would have been dozens throughout the country.

It’s both sad and dangerous for the environment that we’ve lost so much plant diversity in the last hundred years. That’s why we treasure the oldest tree on our farm.

Mystery

In a quiet gully, far from prying eyes, stands an old apple tree.

Why is she there, far from the houses and sheds on the farm?

The now-dry creek used to wash down through the paddocks and home orchards on the terraces above. Perhaps an apple tumbled downstream, or a bird deposited a seed as it flew by?

However it happened, a seed sprouted and against all the odds, our tree thrived. How long she’s been there no-one can say but she’s old in New Zealand apple-tree-years, make no mistake about that.

An ancient apple tree, grows alone in a farm gully.
The old apple tree nestles in a gully, far from prying eyes.

A Special Apple Tree

But it’s not just the isolation, nor even her age that makes our old girl special, for she is a heritage tree. Because she has grown from seed this tree is actually unique — the only one of her kind in the world. You can’t be more special than that.

And her apples are beautiful; cooking apples like your great-grandparents grew. Raw they are tart on your taste buds, but cooked they turn fluffy, sweet and delicious. You might find apples like these in a farmer’s market, but never on the supermarket shelves.

Apples on the tree on a rainy day.

Our family loves this old apple tree, and when we climb up the gully each year at harvest time there’s a niggle of worry at the back of my mind.

“What if a fire raced unexpectedly down the dry gully? Would we lose her if disease struck? Even trees succumb eventually to old age…”

The world is losing its unique plants and animals at an alarming rate. I would hate for our old tree to join that list.

And yet, we may have worried, but year after year we stayed stuck in procrastination mode, until one day we met Riverton’s famous tree-saving duo.

Tree-Saviours Arrive On The Farm

Robert and Robyn Guyton are passionate permaculturalists and have developed their once-gorse-covered Riverton property into a food farm which supplies most of their daily needs. They are also the guiding lights behind the Riverton Environmental Centre and are well known in Southland for their conservation efforts and their enthusiasm about saving trees.

One windy, wet Sunday in early spring, Robert and Robyn decided to explore the old orchards around the Garston area. Our son Chris found them peering at some trees near the woolshed.

“These trees aren’t bad,” he told them, waving his hand around the nearby orchard, “but would you like to see the best tree on the farm?”

Of course they would. So he drove them up the gully to the quiet old tree.

So that’s how it came about that when Terry and I drove home from church that Sunday morning, we discovered Robert, Robyn and Chris all dripping wet and happily stowing cuttings into their car.

“What a find!” the Guytons smiled.

Robyn Shields

One of the Guytons’ missions is to train other people up in the art of tree-saving. So they passed the cuttings onto Robyn Shields, a former student of theirs, who lives not far from Queenstown.

Robyn Shields photographing the heritage apples.
Robyn Shields photographing apples from our heritage tree.

Robyn’s always loved old things so the idea of saving plants that might otherwise disappear for good immediately attracted her interest.

Naturally, she was keen to learn how to graft trees from the Guytons as part of their programme aimed at saving Southland heritage apple trees. In fact, the idea combined Robyn’s two favourite passions: gardening and antiques.

Not long ago the Shields were immersed in running a busy paua shell and souvenir business in Riverton but when they retired to Queenstown, Robyn ‘seized the day’ and set up a tree-saving haven in her backyard.

Grafting Baby Apple Trees

To get a true replica of an apple tree you need a cutting — or scion —  from the new growth of your original tree, and a rootstock to graft it onto.

Rootstocks come from trees that are particularly hardy and disease-resistant. They’ll ensure that the new tree has well-developed roots and a good uptake of nutrients. The rootstock also determines the size of the new tree and you can find ones from dwarf all the way up to vigorous (which are likely to be huge.)

When the new growth has hardened up — usually in late winter — Robyn takes cuttings from the old tree, pops them in the fridge and ensures that she’s got enough rootstock growing in her nursery.

When spring arrives it’s time to graft the scion.

First, Robyn carefully makes a split in the top centre of the rootstock stem. The next step involves shaving the bottom of the scion into a wedge and inserting it into the split. She tapes the two together with a special tape which will wear off over time.

Our Baby Heritage Trees

When I went to visit Robyn this summer she showed me a group of splendid, year-old saplings from our tree,. They’re growing strong and straight in her nursery garden.

Heritage apple tree saplings in growing in Robyn Shield's tree nursery.

Interestingly, these saplings are hardy, and appear to be particularly resistant to insect damage. The weather had been warm and wet and Robyn’s garden was plagued with aphids, but there was not one to be found on our young apple trees.

In winter it will be time for the trees to move on from their protected nursery, so we’ve got until then to decide where to plant them on the farm.

Looking Ahead

Now that Robyn’s got the tree-saving bug she hopes to be able to replicate other rare fruit trees around the Queenstown area.

After all, there are remnants of old orchards which date back to Queenstown’s gold mining days — especially out in isolated areas such as Macetown, or closer to civilisation at the Chinese Settlement restoration in Arrowtown.

Of course, Robyn would need permission from DOC and other organisations before she can work in those sorts of places. But she is allowed to plant some of her newly-produced trees in a designated area around the lower Shotover. In the future, that could mean that some rarer fruit is available for all to enjoy.

Thanks Are Due

The English and Scottish settlers who came to Southland and Otago brought many trees from their homelands. They have adapted to New Zealand conditions and have now become unique to us.

In these days of mass production where plant diversity is plummeting in the world, it’s wonderful to have people who care enough to work to preserve nature in all its many diverse forms.

Thank you Robyn, Robyn and Robert for your work to preserve our own little slice of apple tree history.

Black bucket full of heritage cooking apples.
A bucket of heritage apples picked last April, ready to be cooked for meal-time goodness.

Autumn on the farm is such a busy season. The men are busy harvesting the grain but I’m focused on gathering all the other food that nature is providing. My 2018 “Autumn Harvest On The Farm” series is a celebration of nature’s bounty and the foresight of the farmers who began developing this farm more than 100 years ago.

Mushrooms Galore

Precious Pears

Hops In A Hurry

Gathering In The Grain

Making Hay While The Sun Shines

Summer is haymaking season on the farm and I love to reflect on how making hay has changed over the years. We still use dried grass but our ancestors wouldn’t believe how we can make hay now.

The tractor fluffing up rows of hay with the hay-bob in perfect, sunny haymaking conditions.
Terry’s Massey-Ferguson tractor fluffing up rows of hay with the hay-bob.
Our farming ancestors would be so impressed with how easy this is. 

The Easy Way To Make Hay

At its simplest, hay is just dried grass stored for the winter. Cousin Matt, with just five sheep to feed, has haymaking down to a fine art.

At some point during the summer, when he’s cutting a paddock of hay down that way, Terry will run the mower along the grass verges near Matt’s house.

A few days later when the long grass has dried Matt simply picks it up and dumps it into large sacks (called fadges). Hey, presto! Winter feed is done and dusted.

But of course when you have 3000+ mouths to feed the process becomes a bit more complicated.

Back In The Day

Once upon a time, skilled farm-hands would have cut a paddock of long grass with sickles — those wicked-looking long curved, super-sharp blades. Others would follow behind and hand-spread it to dry.

A few days later, the hay was pitchforked into huge piles called rucks.

It was all slow going and hugely labour intensive. No wonder that farmers began to embrace the new technology of tractors and hay-makers when it began to surface.

Working the stationary hay baler at the Vintage Machinery day in Garston, February 2019.
John and Graham Petersen demonstrating hay making using an early stationary baler at the Garston Vintage Machinery Day, February 2019.
Farmers would have towed a “sweeper” behind a horse to gather up piles of hay and dump it beside the baler. The strings are threaded between each bale with a giant metal needle, then tightened and tied by hand. This process needed at least four people: one to fork the hay, one either side to tie the strings, and one to drive the horse.
And don’t forget the cook at home making the mountains of food needed to fuel all the workers.

Square Baling On The Move

By the time I came onto the farming scene, haymaking had become rather more sophisticated. One person could mow the grass with a tractor and mower, turn it over with a tedder or a hay rake, and tie it up with a baler which moved with the tractor. (Nowadays we call them square bales, although of course, they’re not actually square at all.)

The Tedder - a long, angled machine with 6 wheels and multiple tines which turn the hay over to dry.
The tedder runs behind a tractor. The tines on those six wheels are constantly scooping up the hay and turning it over to dry underneath.

The baler pumped out the bales and dropped them onto the ground ready to be stacked. Usually we towed a gatherer behind which slid the bales along the paddock until there were enough to make a stack.

My job was building the stacks. No need for a gym membership in those days  — freshly-made bales made great weights! And of course, since the finished stacks were always head-height, I needed an extra bit of oomph to heave the last bales on top.

A temporary stack of 13 hay bales in the paddock.
A temporary stack like this is the perfect size for a tractor to pick up with a clamp and cart back to the hay shed. The bales would be re-stacked inside the shed, to keep them safe and dry till winter. If rain was threatening, we would tie a cover over the top to protect the bales until they could be shifted. 

Introducing The Sledge aka “The Man-Killer”

Another way to build the stacks was on a sledge which towed along directly behind the baler. You stood on the sledge and picked up each heavy bale as it pumped out of the machine. Relentlessly, every 10 seconds, another bale to lift and stack. No wonder we groaned when the sledge came out.

Hamish and Peter Naylor just happened to be baling small bales the other day.  
You can imagine how tiring this process can be when you have to stack a whole paddock’s worth of bales using the sledge.

Rain Covers

“Grab the covers,” ordered Terry. “It’s going to rain.”

So I dropped everything and loaded the car up with the dusty covers piled in a corner of the workshop. (In later years I had to add kids and the latest baby as well.)

Nowadays, there’s not the same panic if it rains; the big modern round bales are reasonably waterproof. But the small bales would rot if they got wet so we had to protect them if we didn’t want to lose the lot.

There’s an art to covering a stack in the quickest time possible — and sometimes we did have to be quick! I lost count of the times we had to dash down to the hay paddock because of looming rain clouds.

Working together, two people could cover a stack and dash onto the next in a couple of minutes and it was actually pretty fun to race the rain.  

Folding — and unfolding — the covers correctly so that they were quick to use was one of the first things I learned on the farm. I can still almost do it in my sleep.

A tractor takes a clamp full of hay bales up to the hay shed where the men are waiting to stack them in their permanent home.
Photo courtesy of Peter and Pam Naylor.
You can see how the stack of 13 bales fits perfectly into the tractor clamp. This is easier than tossing each bale from the truck up into the hay shed by hand, as we sometimes had to do.

Keeping Up With The Times — Technology Moves On

But although haymaking had become easier and faster than those earlier times, we still needed a lot of hands on deck to make it happen. Nowadays, just as winter feeding out has become a one-man-band, Terry can also make the hay all by himself.

Cutting the Hay

Modern mowers are huge, noisy and fast. Ours is by no means the latest model, but it can still turn a huge paddock into long, flat rows of mown grass in just a few hours.

Turning the Hay

If the weather-gods are kind and the sun shines bright, the grass will be ready to turn in a day or two. Often, the rows are so thick that the grass dries on top, but stays wet underneath. Then we have to turn them over (called tedding.).

Later, he’ll go round again with a “haybob” which fluffs up the hay and puts it into defined rows which are easy for the baler to pick up.

Ready to Bale

In a few days, the hay will be ready to bale, and that’s when the big round baler swings into action. (Of course just as the “square bales” aren’t really square, “round bales” are actually cylinders. Who knows how they came to be called round?)

So, around the paddock we go for the 4th time. This time the baler chomps up the fluffy rows of grass and spits the hay bale out the back like a hen laying an egg.

A hay baler opens to release a large round bale of hay.
The hay baler opens to release a large round bale of hay.

Each bale is the equivalent of a whole stack of square bales and there’s no stacking or stooking to do. The tractor simply picks up the round bales and carts them off to the hay shed.

A Bountiful Summer

In Garston, we have to feed our stock in winter. There are months and months where the grass doesn’t grow, and our sheep depend on hay, balage and grain to survive.

And the weather in spring and summer is a crucial factor in the cycle of winter feed.

This year we’ve been blessed with plenty of rain — but not so much that we’re drowning in it. There’s plenty of grass in the paddocks, and lots to spare for haymaking.

Last summer — in the middle of our two-year drought — Terry managed to shut off two paddocks for hay and their yield was miserly. One paddock managed a measly 19 bales in total. Yesterday that same paddock yielded 19 in just two rounds.

What a difference! It may be hard to please a farmer when it comes to the weather, but this year I reckon we’ve come pretty close.

The lush clover, grass and chicory paddock close up.
This paddock of clover, grass and chicory produced lots of beautiful, nutritious hay this year.