“There is no fruit growing in the land that is of so many excellent uses...serving as well to make many dishes...and much more for their physical virtues.” John Parkinson, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, 1629
This winter we experienced a bit of paradise lost with just one sole quince fruit holding steadfast to our 'orchard terrestris'.
It is with great heart ache that we had to say goodbye to all but one of our quince trees. Allow me a lover’s lament and with it a longer than usual newsletter article.
I was making the morning rounds, loppers in hand, lamenting the role of grim orchard reaper, but reminding myself that just as we try to give the plants in our ‘care’ a good life, so too can we give them a good send off to the composted beyond. Working close to the land with my hands, having experienced the death of family and friends, I thought I knew a thing or too about life and loss. So, I planted white clematis vine at the base of a few quince trees that took on a dancer’s pose in its tree tomb stillness. I took comfort in imagining the ways that snow white flowers will entwine and embrace the quince in its dance with decay. I took solace in noting that a dead tree will harbor more life in the form of insects, fungi, and avian friends during the decomposition process than it will when alive.
All this did not prepare me for what came next. The first nip I had to do was a knife to the heart, tears pooled at the base of once thriving rootstock. What will I do without my ‘cherub shaped love fruit’, diffusing the kitchen with floral ambrosia, perfecting a pear desert---invoking the spirit of Aphrodite and Venus, honoring the traditions from Apicius to your Grandma’s orchard, and marveling at the familial connection to ancient arboreal ancestry. I paused remembering quince fruits’ brief reign in our orchard terrain.
2009 – 2014 – These were the early years of our orchard experiment. With support from a NC SARE Farmer Rancher grant, we set out to test whether quince, among other fruit friends, might be a good fit for Wisconsin’s microclimes and whether food forests were a useful design tool for growing an orchard sustainably. In 2009 our efforts were devoted to site prep, design, and continued soil building. We knew we were on the edge of quince’s optimal range and did our best to take advantage of site location and slope, and heed the advice of orchard mentors. In 2010 we planted the bulk of our 1 acre orchard including quince. So far so good, well at least till we learned about fireblight and sunscald. The former is often devastating to orchardists as there is not much you can do for organic management outside of aggressive pruning and we did not want to go the route of antibiotics. The latter, sunscald, we learned could have been prevented, had we painted the trunks white to prevent freeze/thaw cracking from refracted sunlight on snow. We lost a dozen of the 20 trees planted in our test plots to both, but were confident that the ones remaining were ‘self-selected’ and seem to take shape, were growing into their own.
2015 & 2016 - I now knew the risks and my risk tolerance. Still, I formally fell in love and there was no turning back. In late May I was hypnotized by bees on quince blossoms. I later watched fruits form from fuzzy green to golden yellow to autumnal fire ablaze on terminal buds. There just seemed to be no fruit as regal and as filled with character as the quince.
Turns out we started to hear from others who harbored affection for quince as well. We started getting inquiries from quince lovers near and far. “I heard you have quince? I remember deserts of quince drizzled in honey,” shared one customer from Washington state.
“Where I am from in Australia, a picnic is not complete without quince paste,” shared another.
“I was born in Lebanon where the hillsides are dotted in quince and lemon trees. This fruit is like home to me,” still another customer shared. In later years we received a quince compote shipped from New Jersey made by an excited fruit friend, inquiries from chefs in Wyoming and Virginia, wondering how they could order from us. Invitations to speak at culinary groups and grower conferences flooded in from our Wisconsin locale, “What is quince and what do you do with it?” We were humbled, honored, and excited for the possibilities that might prevail on the land, in the kitchen, in our hearts, with this tree. That year and in subsequent years, we sold all of the fruit before we harvested a single fruit.
2017 - Its provocative pink petals and olfactory elixir of rose-apple, honey, and sunrise welcomed me home from Ghana when I team taught a study abroad field course through UW –Madison’s Global Health Institute. I remember being overwhelmed in pink and marveling at all the botanical biomass as the quince and fruit forest guilds really came into their own. I started to play with plant parts and both foliage and fruit found its way into bouquets and CSA baskets. It was another bumper harvest year and we sold out before we picked a ‘golden apple’ from the tree. Overall, I felt grounded, this is where I want to be and how I want to be, growing fruit and flowers and bringing beauty into the world.
2018 – Quince seemed to need a rest and recovery year, to reorient buds and its arboreal bearings. This is true of many standard and heirloom apple varieties as well. A cool wet spring followed by record flooding in late August likely did not help. We tended to its minimal needs, graced a few bridal bouquets with soft sage colored young leaves, and kept the harvest close to home, any extras finding their way to a favorite concoction of raspberry/quince sauce.
2019 - Which brings me to the present day of dismay. Winter weary come March we were anxious to prune, see how things held after prolonged days of thirty below. Was there enough snow cover and warmth from micro-climes and slope that our quince pulled through? I remember spending April and early May waiting for a sign as the trees stood still, wishing I could fully understand its language, wondering if the pliable limbs with signs of greening would pull through. It was not too be. Our quince were not the only casualties of winter weather. Our young pluot, 2 Asian pears and 2 apricots went the way of the passenger pigeon too.
What seems especially cruel is that our growing season is reliably becoming 10 days longer, (indicative of zone 5 – the sweet spot for quince) yet we are not reaping any benefits. Extreme spikes of freeze/thaw, warm and cold, and wet harvest months especially in the spring and fall confound the trees, pollinators, and farmers alike. We are still learning how to navigate this disruptive sequencing. Even our kiwi vines rebelled this spring. They are slow to leaf out and we are not sure if the vines will expend the energy to flower, set fruit given the delay. This is reminiscent of 2014 that some of you will remember as the ‘the year without kiwi’.
I returned from my reverie, picked up my loppers. After a while, robotic motions pursued as I pruned my way through the dead wood. I was almost done, when I approached the last tree at the far southeast side of the orchard. The remaining arboreal family member appeared to be in a permanent state of dormancy, branches pliable, but no buds. I stared in disbelief, a just barely there bit of green leafing out from the trunk, groping for new branching possibilities. It’s alive, I think. Well at least it hasn’t changed much in the past 2 weeks since I first noticed a few opportunist leaves. Like the return of our migratory avian friends, this sign from one lone quince brings me hope and trust in renewal. I don’t have a good answer and not sure if the tree will persevere. Rob and I also don’t have a quick fix to quinces’ potential return to your table. The trees take on average 5 years to bear fruit. We hope you will bear with us as we rebuild.
While we will miss witnessing the quince’s growth and evolution, we are grateful for other fruiting possibilities evident on the farm. Once again our currants have exceeded our expectations (they seem to really live for the cool and the wet), and our shrubs are thick with strigs of soon to be red white and black jewels). We are welcoming yet another currant edition to the orchard menu and think you will love the clove currant (aka spice bush). They are similar to black currants, though without the meaty/nutty bite at the end when eaten fresh and of course as a cooked fruit they stand on their own like their black currant cousins.
We also (knock on wood) have a robust cherry and plum set and will do our best to keep curculios and codling moth at bay (a recent dose of kaolin clay at petal fall, usually helps deter larvae). Our apples and pears are holding steady, elderberry is threatening to take over the orchard contours and our aronia and raspberries stand at the ready. We hope you too will put your trust and hope in our farm and the fruits of our labors this season. It is not without love that we plant trees and those things that will outlast our lifetime.