The Virtues of Small Fruit

This year I planted apple trees on my farm. I didn’t plant in the usual way with freestanding trees about thirty feet apart. Instead, I bought bare root trees on dwarfing rootstocks and planted them only three feet apart in a straight line. The trees will be trained to a trellis with the intent of making a hedge about ten feet tall, two feet thick, and in this case, eight hundred feet long. The advantages of the hedge are easier pruning, easier irrigation, and easier harvest. But the most appealing feature is that the rootstocks are precocious so that the hedge bears fruit in the second year and won’t leave the grower waiting until the fifth year, as he would to harvest fruit from free-standing trees. This early harvest provides the economic incentive that overcomes the cost of the trellis poles and the wires and the extra trees. And at my age, 75, the early harvest is compelling.

The Sacramento Valley is not known as apple country, but some apples do well here, such as the heat-tolerant Pink Lady apple from Western Australia. The apple I chose to grow is Wickson, bred in California in the 1940s and named for Edward Wickson, Dean of the UC College of Agriculture. The Wickson apple is crisp and flavorful, with a good balance of tartness and sweetness. And because it has crabapple in its lineage, it is a very small apple—about the size of a golf ball in neglected and over-fruitful trees and approaching the size of a tennis ball in trees that are well cared for.

My intended market for these little apples is school lunch programs. In an era of widespread food insecurity, school lunches (and breakfasts) are an increasingly important part of our food system. School chefs have difficulty sourcing suitable fruit, and the kid-size Wickson apple should fill that need nicely. But even if I weren’t thinking about school lunch, I would still be interested in small apples. This is because I’ve come around to the view that small fruit of any kind—apples, tomatoes, blueberries—is almost always superior to its larger relatives. The reasons for this have to do with botany and geometry and horticulture.

The skin of the fruit is where the plant meets the outside world and where pathogens and predators will first attack. So, this is where the plant puts its chemical defenses in the form of polyphenols, tannins, terpenes, and alkaloids. From the plant’s point of view, these chemicals are elements of defense, but to a human they are elements of flavor, which may be appealing (or sometimes not, as in the bitter skin of cucumbers). Which leads us to the geometry. For a given thickness of the skin, the smaller the fruit, the greater the ratio of skin to pulp. This is why cherry tomatoes are often more flavorful than big tomatoes, why blueberries, being tiny, have such a high level of antioxidants, and why winemakers choose varieties of grapes with very tiny berries.

The farmer can increase the size of an orchard’s fruits by heavy irrigation and application of fertilizer. This leads to the cosmetically beautiful peaches and apricots and apples of the grocery store that are such a watery disappointment when you bite into one. Conversely, when plants are stressed by insufficient water, they respond by increasing the production of the chemicals that we perceive as flavor. So dry-farmed (without irrigation) fruit tends to be small, dense, and intensely flavored. I grow my apricots that way, not irrigating until after harvest is completed late in June. The fruit is small and intense. What we were taught in boarding school—hardship builds character—is true for fruit as well as for boys.

With the apples, my plan is to irrigate them well in late spring when the fruit is forming, and then to gradually dry them out from midsummer to harvest in the fall, with the goal of making dense, flavorful apples. I hope that the children will appreciate them and eat them, and not just pocket them to throw at each other after school, as my friends and I did at that age. ♦

Mike Madison operates a diversified small farm near Winters, California.

Meegan Painter’s current work focuses on the relationships between various organisms in an ecosystem and on the beauty of the familiar. She is currently working on a book about ecosystems of the greater Bay Area for Heyday Books.