In the latter 1800s, before eastern Washington emerged as the state’s primary agricultural area, and before railroads and highways linked its abundance of food to the hungry mouths of a growing nation, Puget Sound served as a major transportation artery. And smack in the center of the ocean inlet, Vashon Island farmers, many of them Japanese, provided much of the fruit transported in barrels to points as far-flung as San Francisco.
Peaches, cherries, and apples thrived on Vashon. Although only vestiges remain of its fruitful past, scattered throughout the island are thousands of relic fruit trees, many more than 100 years old.
Now, Vashon offers a bucolic bedroom community for retirees, home- and small-business-based enterprises, and Seattle commuters working a ferry ride away. And while many love their land, they’re not always entirely sure what to do with the surviving fruit trees from the island’s agricultural past.
Such was the case with Ron Weston, who retired from a Coast Guard career and moved with his wife to a 20-acre farmstead appropriately called Applesauce Acres. "We were attracted by the magnificent Douglas firs, but amongst them were a lot of remnant apple trees," he said. "They become a liability, harboring pests and disease, when they’re not cared for."
Then, in 2004, another newly arrived and retired resident, Bob Norton, placed an ad in the local paper calling for a meeting of those interested in growing backyard fruit. Norton, a horticulturist, had served as supervisor for Washington State University’s Northwest Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, where, for 30 years, he researched the growing of fruit varieties adapted to the local climate.
Norton was the answer to a need. From an initial gathering of about 20 interested islanders, the Vashon Island Fruit Club was formed. Oriented to enthusiasts of all fruit varieties, most are hobbyists or growing food for their own consumption. Some are farmers’ market-scale growers. A small percentage grow fruit commercially. Attendance now numbers about 150 –families. Norton serves as a director, and Weston as –president.
"Dr. Norton is our treasure," said Weston. "He’s gregarious, likeable, and very interested in getting others excited, motivating them to raise their expertise. He’s also spent a lot of time and effort training a core of expert pruners who can offer their services to others."
Amazingly active at 82 years old, Norton is planting a heritage orchard of his favorite old-time varieties such as Esopus Spitzenburg and Roxbury Russet apples. He writes a column for the local paper, and is beginning a book on western –Washington backyard fruit culture.
During its first year, the group affiliated with the Western Cascade Fruit Society, becoming one of seven chapters. Weston also serves as president of the larger group.
Some activities, such as field trips and spring and fall fruit shows, occur across chapter lines. For instance, in 2007, Norton led a group of 30 to northern Italy, Europe’s premier fruit-growing region, and toured the University of Bologna to learn from their horticultural research.
The club maintains a calendar of year-round activities. Its monthly workshops and quarterly meetings are a big draw, Weston said. "They’re hands-on. You’ll see a demonstration, then be handed pruning shears to practice what you’ve learned."
Members are assigned responsibility for the monthly program, coordinating the topic and speaker, and location. Subjects cover the gamut of growing tasks: pruning, spraying, irrigation, grafting, pest control, and soil testing and management.
Speakers are drawn primarily from island residents, though occasionally an expert on a topic such as mason bees comes from off-island. "There’s a lot of talent in our community," said Weston. "We have a commercial cider operation and four commercial growers of Pinot Noir wine grapes. And while many members are just hobbyists, they’ve been gardening for 35 years. We draw on that expertise."
The club is nearing completion of a video on summer pruning, which is set for commercial release. Norton notes that no other videos are available on the subject.
The group’s newest goal entails selling organic produce into farmers’ markets, restaurants, and local stores.
Norton is a champion of high-density cultures, coaching members in the planting of more than 100 trees in a plot no larger than 20 by 40 feet. Most people don’t want bushels of the same varieties, but prefer to plant several varieties that can be picked over a period of weeks, from perhaps mid-August until mid-November, he said.
Trees on dwarfing rootstocks can be trellised and maintained at a maximum height of eight to ten feet. With some growing systems, they can be planted as close as 14 inches apart, producing fruit on short spurs as soon as the year after planting. Work such as spraying and pruning can be accomplished from the ground, requiring no risky and cumbersome ladders. Deer and birds are more easily kept at bay with fences and netting.
The high-tech trees appear to coexist in happy harmony with their larger, centagenarian cousins—the remaining fruit trees from Vashon’s agricultural past. Many of those relics now stand pruned and productive, thanks to the efforts of the Vashon Island Fruit Club.
Carol Wissmann is a freelance writer based in Gig Harbor, Washington.