October 29, 2015


Joe bites into a dark, crispy' Black Oxford', an antique apple variety that dates back to 1790 in Paris, Maine.

Think about it - - how often can you really experience something that Benjamin Franklin actually ate? Just name one antique shop where you could eat the exact snack that Abraham Lincoln munched on while writing notes in his office. Here in New England, antiquity we can come across in so many ways that the idea of 'old' sometimes becomes diluted with its abundance- old signage and shops, two hundred year old stone walls and weathered barns, steeples and 'spot's where George Washington slept' - - but with a few, special things, (let's say food or plants), rarity, or maybe simply scarcity, factors in new dimension, once which transforms an experience, and so it is, with antique apples.

The 'Knobby Russet' or 'Knobbed Russet' hails from Sussex, England could be the planet's ugliest apple, but this gnarly treasure presents a complex flavor that is hard to define. Nutty, fruity and crisp, it may not make the shelves at your local supermarket, but eaten fresh or pressed into cider, it is sublime.

Ask most any farmer in New England or upstate New York where their favorite apple tree or variety is, and you will get a nostalgic and passionate short-list of trees, some 100 or even 200 or 300 years old. What you are not going to hear are names like Macintosh or Macoun, and you a re definitely not going to hear Red Delicious or Granny Smith come out of their mouths, after all, these are seasoned connoisseurs of apples, and they know what makes an apple great. Instead, you will hear more curious names, each often coming with a story, for every apple has a good story behind it). Even in his late 90's, my father, in his moments of faux-lucidity, through waves of dementia, dreamed out-loud about having to go pick (his) Roxbury Russets up on Rabbit Hill (after his 'paper route').

My dad always called these Sheepnose apples (not incorrect, as many farmers did), but Black Gilliflower (or Red Gilliflower)  is a far better name, for this parent of the modern Red Delicious. It's hard and elongated, with a crispy, flavorful flesh which sadly does not last long in storage, but it will make an epic pie!

Gnarly, russeted, knobby with warts, these aren't always pretty apples, at least to the average consumer, but their names often hint at the magical experience inside - Pomme Grise, Blue Pearmain,Pitmaston Pineapple, Winter Banana -- old apples deserve to be revisited for many reasons, not the least being hard cider! If you are a baker or pie maker, these apples may change how you feel about what apples you mother used, as she was often limited to what was available in the supermarket. Soft Cortland or Macoun apples can turn to pure mush at the site of a pie plate. Why not use the same apple that Benjamin Franklin used (Cox's Orange Pippen or Roxbury Russet) next time? History in a slice of pie.

With over 3000 heirloom apple and pear varieties hiding in old orchards around North America, it's our duty as plant people to seek out these forgotten fruits and re-introduce them into culture.

I am discovering even more history about apples in New England through my involvement with the Worcester County Horticultural Society, a society which was founded in 1840 and incorporated in 1842, mostly by industrialists and farmers who had close ties to apples. I've currently been obsessed with reading the proceedings of the WCHS meetings from the 19th century and their annual reports from the early archives which speak to the origins of many of these very apple varieties.

Ashmead's Kernel - can you say' hard 'cider'? At nearly 300 years old (perhaps older), this relic from the 1700's is noted for its distinctive pear-like flavor and russeted skin.

There seems to be no escaping historical cross-roads with apples, in my new role on the Board of Trustees at Tower Hill, for this is, indeed 'apple country', and most every bit of history with the 'society' it's history, it's very DNA has apples in it. The WCHS and Tower Hill Botanic Garden even maintains an important collection of old apple varieties at the botanic Garden in Boylson, MA, from which scion wood is shared with collectors (cuttings to graft with), each spring to those who are passionate about saving these living bits of our history.

Cox's Orange Pippin is often listed as the favorite eating apple by many plant people who know about it's charms. From around 1830 when this apple first appeared in literature in Buckinghamshire, England, it remains the classic English apple for both baking and hand eating - if one can find it!

 So why do we see so few antique or heirloom apples today? After all, one would think that with the current rise in popularity of heirloom-anything (apples, squash, flowers) that of all things, the common apple would rank right up there with a striped German or red Kale? The answer may be more about practicality than desire. Clearly, there is a market for interesting apples with a story and amazing taste, but the practical limiters might outweigh the benefits. Heirloom apples grow on trees, and not annual vines or plants which could be planted every year.

At Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire, many heirloom apples are now being boxed for sale alongside other autumnal treats such as pumpkins and squashes.

They are not as resistant to the multitude of diseases and blights so common today with apples (fire blight, scab), and to be honest, most are really not that tasty, being more beautiful than yummy (truth-be-told, a new 20th Century Honeycrisp trumps most any old apple variety with the contemporary, everyday  palette of most consumers - yet, in much the same way they also prefer the flavor of news, super-sweet corn varieties, the real connoisseurs argue otherwise.

Blue Pearmain is old, but we are not sure how old. There is literature which lists it gin the Boston area in 1822 (Kendrick). Old-timers referred to it as a 'keeper' apple (as in "It's a keepah."), with apples lasting in a store room until March. An all-American variety, some trees still exist in upstate New York, and in New England.

Pitmaston Pineapple from around 1785 combines russeted texture with a flavor that can only be described as 'honey and crispy  pineapple'. Insane,  right?  Or, maybe you just want a plain, 'white-bready' Mac?

I personally adore the look and story of most antique apples, and, I even enjoy the flavor and crispness of a Cox's Orange Pippin or a Baldwin over most any hard, 'modern' apple, but to be fair, most of these old apples were not created or selected because of their delicious, out-of-hand eating potential, these russeted, bumpy or sometimes even ugly fruits had a more serious purpose - hard cider. And who could argue with that!

Homer shared with his his crates of ruby red 'Winesaps' (my mom's favorite) and  bloomy, purple --black 'Black Oxfords', along side speckled 'Blue Pearmain' and Esopus Spitzenburg'. I'm discovering quickly that with most of these old apples it's the names themselves which are as romantic as the horse-drawn sleighs and carriages which transported them from orchard to root cellar or cider press. 

Homer showed us his reference book for those fascinating knobbed Russets. It's a difficult tree to grow well, and the fruit has been limited to only a few dozen, but he hopes to increase stock as the tree matures.

The story behind each one could each be a separate book or post. Scions carried back nestled in linen wraps from England on a sailing ship, preserved fruit saving a family from starvation during a cold and snowy winter, a favorite variety selected and shared with an entire community, almost lost forever in a hurricane but rescued by a single tree - these relics are living history books. They happen to taste pretty good, too.

My sister in-law Toni, visiting us from Vancouver, WA picks out some' Esopus Spitzenburg' apples at Allyson's Orchard in New Hampshire. These date from the late 1700's. We'll be using them for applesauce.

If you are looking for something different and perhaps, even a culinary adventure (as many of the old apples are also known as 'cooking apples', search on-line in your area for orchards that have then (you may have to call and ask, for more often than not, only the orchard manager knows, or cares, about these trees). At out favorite orchard (Alyson's Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire), we call Homer Dunn ( I know, right? As if a Hollywood script writer invented his character). Homer is not only knowledgeable and gnarly, as a seasoned, orchard manager must be, he is also passionate about his apples - he even shared some rarer varieties with us this time, I think excited that some people actually cared enough to ask about them.

Black Oxford  apples are so beautiful! They almost loom like plums

Unlike heirloom tomatoes,  apples don't come true from seed (actually, no edible apple comes trues from seed, so if you are raising a treasured Honeycrisp or Red Gala from seed, expect a a strange, thorny back-cross which will only disappoint). Apples themselves have an amazing story with humanity, many coming from Europe in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to North America. Our garden is only a few towns away from where Johnn Appleseed (John Chapman) lived (Leominster, MA), and most every town and village around here has an apple named after it (Sutton Sweeting, Millbury Sweeting, Roxbury Russet to name a few). 

This Blue Pearmain is more colorful than some of the other fruit from the same tree.

My favorite apple to eat? It's a variety named Spencer, but I do enjoy a hard, crispy Winter Banana apple for taste as well as for nostalgia - My sister and I knew of a Winter Banana tree at one nearby orchard when we were kids. Another old apple, it dates from around 1876 and to a child, the name itself conjured up fantastical flavors. My sister and I would sneak away from the trees that my parents were working on, to a row of a few Winter Banana's at the far end of the orchard. Filling our shirts with the giant, yellow, waxy fruits we proceeded to hide them in a 'secret' compartment in my dad's station wagon ( as if they could not see us!).

At home, we laid all of our apples out on the dining table to study the differences. A few quinces were added to the mix along with some lady apples - when consumed fresh from the farm, they are surprisingly crisp and sweet.

These apple picking trips were common for us, and he would drive our old Country Squire Ford station wagon into the orchard during 'drops season', when we could pick 'drops' to make applesauce with in late October.  Our secret stash of apples was seen as 'frivolous' to my dad, who was quite serious about both his apples. Our store room in the cellar had a cork door and galvanized barrels where we should store apples for the winter. Picking apple with wire grabbers and long bamboo poles allowed us to gather the highest apples on the trees, which were by this point in the season, nearly frozen and offered at a discounted price. 

Another russeted apple, Hudson Golden Gem isn't that old after all, it was discovered in 1931 by the Hudson Wholesale Nurseries. It's a good choice for organic gardeners since it is resistant to many common apple diseases and apple scab.

Joe packs a box of colorful, mixed heirloom apples to take home. We used tape on which we wrote the names on.
We still picked a bushel of Honeycrisps!

October 27, 2015


Hey everyone - - In case you are in the Boston or Massachusetts area this Sunday, I'll be presenting a talk on training and raising exhibition chrysanthemums - If you are not familiar with these mums, you may be interested in how to raise them yourself, and contribute in saving a fading hobby which only have a handful of interested gardeners passionately keeping alive today. This sad fact was featured in this past weekends'   THE WASHINGTON POST article "A HOBBY SLOWLY FADES INTO THE PAST'. about the National Chrysanthemum Society's National Show.

THe truth is, you can raise these late blooming plants at home, if you have a cold room or a protected porch ( most boom from October 15 until Thanksgiving). Clearly, these are not your ordinary garden mums or pom poms that you see sold at florists or at garden centers. These are a bit different - tall, amazing fancy mums with fluffy, twisty stems,  huge flowers and graceful blooms. They are easily raised from cuttings planted in the early spring, and carefully trained and disbudded all summer for displays indoors in late autumn.

Although chrysanthemums are relatively easy, there are many cultural tips to know before starting such a venture - much to know about staking, training, disbudding, since these 5 foot tall beauties can quickly fail if you disbud the wrong bud, or time things improperly. COme help be a part of saving these relics from the past, ( really - only 1 nursery sells cuttings in the US, so this is a craft on the edge of extinction). Once so popular fifty to a hundred years ago, the large, exhibition mum may be gone forever unless some of us care enough to grow them.

The class is free, with admission at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden, this coming Sunday, November 1 at 2:30 until 3:30. You can register here.

October 19, 2015


I am smitten by Amy Goldman's latest book, which will be published October 27.

Sometime, even I discover books and authors in the most traditional of ways ---from a friend.

 I made such a discovery last week - via a friend, of course. A few weeks ago, I received a package in the mail containing a gem - Amy Goldman's brand new book (being released this week) HEIRLOOM HARVEST - Modern Daguerreotypes of Historic Garden Treasures (Bloomsbury) with beautifully illustrated with surprisingly engaging Daguerreotypes by noted photographer Jerry Spagnoli.  It is a book which surprised me in a few ways, because it delivers on so many levels. I like to imagine that if it appealed to me on these levels, that it may appeal to you to.

I came to know Amy Goldman quite indirectly - through my dear friend Abbie Zabar, the artist, author and plantswoman who frequently fills my email box with delightful "must reads" and "Matt-must-get's". Abbie, who has this uncanny ability to connect people with her "I know that these people should know each other" mind - - did just that, via email

I knew about Amy Goldman's work, but only on a superficial level. Many people have mentioned her books to me in passing, and I have to admit that the covers always intrigued me, but I really can't say why I never bothered to order one, or pick one up at a book store? (I mean, where is there a bookstore, anyway?). Sometimes, I do wish that I lived in the city. If you are not familiar with Amy Goldman Fowler, she is first and foremost, a gardener with an extraordinary life history. She is an author ( 3 books, each one award-winning(, a writer (as seen in Martha Stewart Living magazine, the New York Times, she is an artist, (I will always remember those bronze cast squashes!). She is also a philanthropist with deep family roots in New York City. Most importantly, she is an advocate for seed saving, specifically heirloom fruits and vegetables. Amy is one of the foremost heirloom plant conservationists in the United States, if not the world today.".

Did I mention that she was also nominated for a James Beard Award.

So….let's say this….she's kind-of qualified to write a book on heirloom vegetables.

For whatever reason, I have never seemed to have acquired one of Amy's books - maybe I assumed that because they were designed so slickly, that they might contain shallow content - I now admit, that I had no idea what lay inside those books. 

Look, there are plenty of writers today who write about gardens.  There are plenty of garden writers who write about their experiences in gardens, and then there are those few people like Amy Goldman, who have the magic combination(if not gift) to immerse themselves in a subject so deeply that they can't help but learn most everything one ever needed to know about the subject. This deep-dive lends not only credibility to Amy's writing, but it makes for a great read as well.

Believe me, these sort of authors are rare today. So as many of us moan about the lack of the great garden writers, and look to the past, the 'Ruth Stouts', the Thalasa Cruso's'', Gertrude Jeckyl's and the, Vita Sackville West's. I believe that what we have here is indeed, our own American 'Vita Sackville West. Someone with the means, the care and passion to collect, grow and document what many of us can only dream of growing. Heady stuff to say, I admit, but when one looks at the scope and knowledge that factors into such a book, I think it's safe to say that it is a significant piece of work, at least visually.

It's the text that I really enjoy in this book. More! I want more!

Some of you may be familiar with her earlier books,  The Heirloom Tomato from Garden to Table, (2008), Melons for the Passionate Grower, (2002),  and the Compleat Squash - A Passionate Grower's Guide To Pumpkins, Squashes and Gourds (Artisan, 2004) - (this one I almost bought! Really!). What's important to note here is the word 'authentic'. Amy has grown these plants on her farm, from the gnarliest heirloom curcurbit to the sloppiest rotten melon. This sort of first-hand analysis and study is not only rare in todays published works, it may be nonexistent aside from Amy.

 What I really connected with in this book, which I first felt might have so easily just been a 'pretty book with nice images', was Amy's deep passion. It surprised me, as I read the first few pages ( and then the entire book just after I opened it on my vacation week two weeks ago). We share some foundational quirks - both started by exhibiting her veggies in state fairs and in competitions at horticultural societies, raising Indian Runner Ducks, and searching for unusual plants and heritage breeds - if I had a life to live over again, it would be Amy Goldman's, which is why I enjoyed reading about her journey so much.

The real star of this book are the photographs by Jerry Spagnoli. Dageurrotypes actually, so unique and lovely -  (think - Cival War style images) of Amy's gardens and plant crops harvested through the seasons.

Amy's books are also visual treasures, often winning design and production awards as well ( her first book, Melons for the Passionate Grower was nominated for several awards, including the Garden Writers Association of America 2003 Garden Globe Award for Achievement, and numerous Bookbinder's Awards for design and production, not to mention a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Design. Clearly, her books are not only comprehensive, but thoughtfully designed as well.

In a world full of mobile phones and fast media, one has to give credit to anyone who cares enough to see through the hype and hyperbole which sometimes can surround trends such as the 'farm-to-table' movement and heirloom tomatoes 0 it would be too easy to dismiss any book on these subjects as taking advantage of a noble cause of the moment. Let me assure you, this is no such book.Given what you now know about Amy's life, you can see what has informed this work of hers.

Black and white photos don't always inspire but these daguerreotypes are beautiful, and really add a tone a book which could at first, just be 'a book about pictures of heirloom vegetables'. This book is much more.

This photo of Joe watering the chrysanthemums in the greenhouse this weekend. -Our lives are surrounded by history, an old home, an older farm stone walls and plows - even the plant varieties and livestock each  have a story. Amy surely senses it all, and combines history, heritage with contemporary life in a respectful and uncommercial  way that makes everything feel more connected( in a world, which ironically really isn't all  that 'connected' with itself at all).

This weekend we picked the last of our heirloom onions and shallots. In the evening when I flipped through Amy's book, I could imagine how they planned their shots, since this is exactly what veggies really look like - when one raises interesting and heirloom types. Not, typical supermarket commercial selections.

A contemporary view from The Heirloom Harvest by Amy Goldman, of her greenhouse and garden. Perhaps you can see why I feel so connected to this lifestyle, albeit on a completely different scale!

Now, I am on a mission to read Amy Goldman's other works. For a gardener like me, who happens to have his own, personal history of experience with plants, particularly vegetable, I have found few books that offer either inspiration or help, often turning to vintage texts from the 19th Century since they somehow are more helpful, since they are always written with first-hand experience. I now know that Amy's books will do the same.

We with gardens always can learn more, knowing HOW someone grew the leek, or how they discovered that salsify really isn't that easy to master, or even, how they 'effed it up and tried again. It all adds to a collective knowledge which most of us need to discover (mostly because few of us have a grandparent who could advise on on exactly what does a Belgian Endive require each month, to be properly forced in the root cellar).

A winter view of Amy Goldman's farm.

If I had any complaints (and I do, but all are minor), the biggest is so superficial that I fill silly saying it - it's that gorgeous finish on the cover (a flat, uncoated varnish), it looks great, but it lends itself to fingerprints (yeah - maybe I have greasy fingers, but they are often dirty!). I also felt that this book is large (dimensions are bigger than I imagined). Heft, with a book, is usually something I appreciate, but since I wanted to sit and read the book, I felt that it might be slightly too big, at least to read in bed.

Clearly, my favorite part of this book is the text, but aside from a few chapters in the front, there is not enough. I want more!

The photography, of course, is stunning. In many ways, it feels like a beautifully shot documentary - a journey, with a tone and voice which is not only appropriate, but thoughtfully produced. It also somewhat functions as a portfolio for the these very fine photographs of Jerry Spagnoli, and I can appreciate the rest and pause between the text and the images, as one can focus on one, or the other, and, they deserve to be within the same covers.

Our last fig of the season, just being moved into the greenhouse before our first, hard frost this past weekend. I'm kind of inspired by those images! More of our harvest pics to come now that we had our frost.

Still, I guess what I am saying here is that I could also imagine this work as two separate books - better yet, I want to see another book now with more detail by Amy about her amazing and inspirational life on the farm - a month-by-month biography ( the sort I want to write), on her journey with plants, food and rural life which so few of us get to experience ourselves.

To close this blurby gush, as a graphic designer myself, the overall design of the book is really flawless. It's an object one will want to display (but always within reach for winter reading). The subtle but thoughtful graphic details within, the color palette, the typefaces and imagery all work. That said, I refuse to put this book in my book case, and even brought it to my office so that I could display it on my desk - it's that beautiful.

This is my own image of an olive tree, that I started a couple of years ago from a cutting that Abbie Zabar convinced me to 'just take it and root it in a glass of water'. Today, it's 5 feet tall, and trained as a topiary in the same style as Abbie's now out-of-print-book, The Potted Herb, by Abbie Zabar  (1988,Stewart, Tabori and Chang) (get that book took if you can find it!).