Our orchard will be said to have had such humble beginnings. Picture a crowded room, with dozens of people crowding around several fold-up tables arrayed with plastic baggies, each containing strange organic material inside. People are feverishly elbowing, reaching, grabbing at bags, inspecting them, putting them back, wisking them away triumphantly. The bags are ziplocks, old newspaper bags, sandwich bags. Some have nice labels, some have faded and smeared sharpie writing on a wet piece of masking tape. No, this isn’t the scene of some black market drug trading depot, but a super nerdy rare fruit scion exchange.
Scion wood. Those special shoots of fruit and nut trees that can be grafted onto other trees, or rootstock, to propagate the desired variety of fruit. In this case, I was on the hunt for good cider apple varieties.
“Russets, any russet! Is that a russet? Show me the russets! That name looks French, that’s a good sign!”
In the end, I scored big, I think. I walked away with an old French cider variety, Nehou, a Belle de Boskoop (from Holland), a Roxbury Russet (an old time American cider favorite), Hewes Crabb (another American cider favorite), and a Cox Orange Pippin, the jewel of England, so they say.
Will these grow in SLO county? They’ll grow all right. Most of these are available as young trees from our local nursery treasure, Trees of Antiquity. Will they produce good fruit though? Or any fruit? That’s harder to say. Some of these trees have historically needed a lot of chill hours. But there are many heirloom varieties that do quite well in warmer climates. The city of San Luis Obispo, on it’s own, doesn’t have a whole lot of chill hours due to some coastal influence in the valley where it sits (there’s killer Pinot Noir and Alsatian grapes grown here, though, a bit further south in the valley in Edna.)
The beautiful thing about SLO county is the vast array of local microclimates. Just 12 minutes north of SLO, above the Cuesta Grade, lies Santa Margarita, a hilly area with much more chill hours and hot summer days. Further north, the Paso Robles area, also with much more chill hours, has many established orchards that successfully grow apples. And wackiest of all, See Canyon, literally minutes from Avila Beach, grows absolutely amazing heirloom apples. Its secret lies in its unique microclimate: nestled between soaring hillsides, cold air falls down the steep hillsides to the valley floor, lowering the nighttime temperature 10 to 20 degrees cooler than neighboring areas.
Our long term goal with Two Broads Ciderworks is to establish an orchard for heirloom cider trees locally. We’re in it for the long haul. The scion wood is a start. We have a small back patio at the cidery to keep watch over many heirloom apple trees, for now in large pots. Perhaps in a few years, if our efforts at cider making are successful, we’ll have the funds to buy some land and get started in earnest.
Between now and then, we hope to spread interest among our local established orchards about the merits of true apple cider cultivars. By a stroke of luck, we’ve already convinced one landholder to do just that, almost no arm twisting required; he’s planting 500 heirloom trees on his estate this year that we think will work well for cider, with more to come next year.