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Articles on Holistic Orcharding

My Apple Orchard

June 1912
by [Mrs.] A. J. Wilder

Now and again people refer to the Rose series of the Little House on the Prairie books as being a source of turn-of-the-century orchard advice. These particular books focus on the years Laura Ingalls Wilder along with her husband Almanzo and daughter Rose established an apple farm in the Missouri Ozarks. Laura, however, did not write the Rose series, and accordingly, the information about apple growing is more about vague recollection than useful fact.
The article you find here comes straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. Laura wrote a somewhat regular column for then contemporary Missouri farm papers, often under the byline of her husband's name. Organic orchardists have something to learn from this determined farm couple. content Farmscape: an organic apple orchard -- illustration from the cover of Laura Ingalls Wilder: Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings illustration from the cover of
Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I bought my farm in the fall, some years ago, there were 800 apple trees on it growing in nursery rows. Two hundred had been set out the spring before, in an old worn-out field, where the land was so poor it would not raise a stalk of corn over four feet high. This field was all the land cleared on the place; the rest of the farm was covered with oak timber.

I have always thought it must have been a good agent who persuaded the man of whom I bought the place to mortgage it for 1,000 apple trees when the ground was not even cleared on which to set them. However, he unloaded his blunder onto me, and I knew nothing about an orchard; did not even know one apple from another. I did know though that apple trees, or indeed trees of any kind, could not be expected to thrive in land too poor to raise corn fodder, so whenever I made a trip to town, I brought back a load of wood ashes from the mill or a load of manure from the livery barn and put it around those trees that were already set out in the field.

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I cleared enough land that winter on which to set out the trees from the nursery, broke it the next spring, and put in the trees after I had worked it as smooth as I could. The trees already set out were 25 feet apart in the rows and 32 feet between the rows, so I set the others the same way. I dug the holes for the trees large and deep, making the dirt fine in the bottom and mixing some wood ashes with it.

I handled the trees very carefully so as not to injure the roots and spread the roots out as nearly as possible in a natural manner when setting the trees. Fine dirt was put over the roots at first and pressed down firmly, then the dirt was shoveled in to fill the hole. Some more wood ashes were mixed with the dirt when it was being shoveled in. I did not hill the dirt up around the tree but left it a little cupping for conserving moisture. All trash was raked away, leaving it clean and smooth, and again I used some wood ashes, scattering them around the tree, but being careful that none touched it to injure the bark. The ashes were used altogether with the idea of fertilizing the soil and with no idea of any other benefit, but I think they may have saved my orchard.

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It is confessing to a colossal ignorance, but I found out later that I planted woolly aphis (aphids) on nearly every one of my apple tree roots. At the time, I thought that for some reason they were a little moldy. I read afterward in an orchard paper that the lye from wood ashes would destroy the woolly aphis and save the tree; and as the use of wood ashes around the trees was kept up for several years, I give them the credit for saving my trees.

As I never allowed hunting on the farm, the quail were thick in the orchard and used to wallow and dust themselves like chickens in this fine dirt close to the tree. I wish this fact to be particularly noted in connection with the other fact that I had no borers in my trees for years.

A near neighbor set out 2,000 trees about the same time and lost seven-eighths of them because of borers. He used every possible means to rid his trees of them except the simple one of letting the quail and other birds live in his orchard. Instead, he allowed his boys to kill every bird they saw.

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My apples were sound and smooth, not wormy, which I also credit to the birds for catching insects of all kinds as I never sprayed the trees. Within the last few years, the hunters, both boys and men, have been so active that it has been impossible to save my quail; and so I have had to begin the eternal round of spraying and cutting the trees to get the borers out.

When I set the trees I trimmed them back a good deal. While I knew nothing of the science of trimming I knew that I did not want a forked tree, so I trimmed to one stem with a few little branches left at the top. I watched the trees as they grew and trimmed away, while they were very small, all the branches that would interlock or rub against another branch.

In the fall I always whitewashed the trees to keep the rabbits from gnawing the bark, and if the storms washed it off, I whitewashed them again. Every spring they were whitewashed in April as a sort of house-cleaning and to make the bark smooth so it would not harbor insects, for I found that if there was a rough place, that was where the eggs of insects were deposited.

Between the trees, I raised corn, potatoes, and garden until the trees were eight years old when I seeded that land down to timothy and clover. Of course, when I raised crops, I fertilized them enough to make them grow, and the trees always got their share. As a result, I get a good hay crop out of the orchard, making two good crops from the land.

I think that one thing that has made my orchard a success is that I took individual care of each tree. What that particular tree needed it got. Wife and I were so well acquainted with the trees that if I wished to mention one to her, I would say "that tree with the large branch to the south," or "the tree that leans to the north," etc. The tree that leaned was gently taught to stand straight so that the sun would not burn the bark. This was done by tying it to a stake firmly driven into the ground on the south side of the tree and from time to time shortening the string which held it.

The trees came into bearing at seven years old, and the apples were extra well colored and smooth skinned. I have had apple buyers and nursery men tell me that my orchard was the prettiest they ever saw, and my Ben Davis are different from any I have ever seen in being better colored and flavored and in the texture of the flesh. People even refuse to believe that they are Ben Davis at times. My orchard is mostly Ben Davis, and the rest is Missouri Pippin.

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If I were to start another orchard, I would plow and cultivate the land for several seasons to prepare it for the trees. The wildness and roughness should be worked out in order to give the little trees a fair chance. Then I should plant apple seed where I wanted the trees to stand, and then bud onto the sprout the variety I wished to raise. In this way the taproot would not be disturbed, as it is by moving the tree, but would run straight down. This makes a longer-lived, stronger tree.

Source: Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Edited by Stephen W. Hines. Published by Thomas Nelson: Nashville, Tennessee 1991.
(illustration above is from the cover)
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