Tell us about your growing philosophy.
We have always been organic growers. Even when I was a 14 year old boy growing vegetables in my parent's suburban yard in Louisville, KY, I realized there was a huge and important difference between the bag of strange little chemical pellet fertilizer in the back of the garage, and the rich, rotted rabbit manure I'd scrape out of my neighbor's pens. So organic methods have always been the focus. With our farm and nursery it is no different, and we only use organic methods and products. We trial many species and varieties (some 150 or so currently) and if something is not working, we don't try to force it. We are looking to identify the most resilient and hardy plants that can handle everything the 21st Century tosses at them: new insects, disease pressure, unruly weather. This has caused the phasing out of some crops such as peaches, in favor of more resilient ones like mulberries and jujubes. We believe the Earth is an interconnected whole and intelligent, conscious being and we interact with Her in that manner. That means respecting the soil, air, water, biology, and seasons and listening carefully to Her guidance. We are always seeking out ways to grow food and nursery crops with less input, less intense management, and less products. We are living proof that with dedication, educated care, and some effective organic tools in the toolbox, amazing and abundant results can be obtained, even if they differ somewhat from what you imagined.
Tell us about your place on Earth.
We are located just outside Stanford, KY, a few hours from where I was raised. Kentucky is an incredibly lush and beautiful place, with incredible biodiversity and amazing water resources everywhere. We are a blend between the North, the South and the Midwest, with features of all three present, yet blended. Our hot, humid, and wet summers are quite tropical in look and feel, with loud buzzing insects and birds everywhere, and a vigor to everything that can be astounding and hard to keep up on. Winters are moderately cold but not very long, and can have extreme storms and below zero temps occasionally. Our region is famous for great pastures and lots of horse farms. The soil is a great silty loam that looks like amazing garden soil, and grows healthy, large plants. Our biggest challenges are heavy disease and insect pressure and generally KY is a wet place with soggy soils that can make orcharding challenging except on sloped and ideal sites. Also spring weather is volatile and can destroy fruit blossoms. For that reason I put as much emphasis and sometimes more on growing and advocating for small fruit production, as I have found small bush and shrub fruits more hardy and dependable in KY than most tree fruits, at least in the last 10 years. KY is a great region to grow berry crops, and is in the heart of pawpaw territory. Fruit tree crops will always be much more challenging here than in many other regions.
What draws you to growing fruit?
I became fascinated with growing fruit as a teenager, where I would 'adopt' derelict neighborhood fruit trees planted long ago by caring gardeners, and inherited by new owners that failed to upkeep them. I would prune, spray organic products, thin the fruit, etc, all basing my knowledge of old 1970's 'Rodale' garden books. This worked out and I learned a lot, and surprised the owners of the trees I took on. I think fruit is special and creates a sense of well-being, beauty, and abundance that resonates with humans on some deep, ancient level. It's also super good for your health, and feeds wildlife as well. I also enjoy the art of orchard care and it's ancient roots. Watching a tiny grafted tree the size of a pencil turn into a tree laden with fruit is incredibly satisfying and feels like an accomplishment and a tiny, yet beneficial act.
What holistic innovation keeps your trees rarin' to grow?
I've been impressed with how in the last 20 years organic agriculture has really become more and more mainstream. Flipping through modern fruit growing magazines such as Good Fruit Grower shows this trend, as half the articles these days are on organic methods and products. The shift is happening. I've been impressed with the quality and number of organic grower products hitting the market. We used to be very limited in what we had access to beyond sulfur, copper, dormant oil, etc. Now we have hundreds of products designed for specific issues. Not that grabbing a bottle should be the solution, but it sure helps to have amazing organic tools in the tool box available should you need them, or need them until you figure out something better.
How has an ecosystem approach changed your tree reality for the better?
You eventually learn that your garden or orchard is not an island to itself, but is a tiny part of the web of life. Millions of entities interact daily with your trees and shrubs. So giving your orchard the best opportunity to thrive is important and involves a lot of factors- species, cultivars, site, weed control, soil management, etc. We protect and encourage massive biodiversity in our orchards, with large wildflower strips in between our trees, and protected meadow space nearby. Our trees are healthy and have the best opportunity to thrive, and often do.
Share an “aha! moment” that made you a better grower.
There have been lot of those. I think one big one was learning about and researching the French method of bending young apple branches down below horizontal to stimulate earlier fruiting spur production. We now train our apples like this and it helps reduce vigor and obviously works, shaving a good year or two off apple production on M111 rootstock, at least for us
What might you change if you could do one thing over again in your orchard?
I would be more careful and mindful about the orientation of the rows of trees. Our site has a lot of subtleties that were not obvious in the beginning, such as a slight sloping effect that has large repercussion in one area. Honestly, I have redone a lot of things, such as removing almost all the peaches, cutting down freeze-killed or failed trees, etc. It's far from a static setup and is always undergoing change. I would probably have made it smaller in general and thus less to manage!
How do you go about marketing the good fruit?
We are a retail mail-order nursery and so primarily sell fruit trees, scion wood, and seeds. Any extra fruit we sell locally, but it has been small scale. The orchard is mostly to support the nursery business and as research trials, and feed the household.