Fedco Trees & Plants for Spring Planting
book (catalog) review by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
It’s a bit unusual to offer a book review of a catalog but the 71 page candidate in this case is superb reading. Shouldn’t that be the prime criteria?
Deep in the cultural trenches and personal histories within small farming is the oft shared love of seed catalog mining during fall and winter. We might say it is all about the enthusiasms that come with planning another year’s growing but I know it is also about a tangible immersion in the practical literature of planting choices. As many of you know already, with Fedco Seeds of Maine we have catalogs which are educational, testimonial, encouraging and genuinely bracing. And equally important we have all of that in a form that can and should be trusted and preserved. This is ‘our’ sort of seed company. Let’s go further ‘out on a proverbial limb’ and say their catalogs are our sort of reading material.
When I received my latest from those good folk, the Fedco Trees & Plants for Spring Planting 2020, I found myself coincidentally in need of something to ‘read’ that would wash from me the cancerous news of the day. I am very familiar with the Fedco publications, as I have been receiving and using them for forty years. But on this day I was looking for a form of instant solace I could wear, and this catalog did the trick very nicely. I had flipped to the alphabetical listing of apple tree varieties they offer and found myself lost in the reverie of imagined storylines; how so many long gone brave souls had worked lovingly to protect unique varieties and orchard unions. Ah, but I don’t want to say any more for fear I might spoil your own discoveries, because I must insist you ask for your own copy of any of the Fedco catalogs and begin the adventure for yourselves and your farms.
Their black and white newsprint pages are full to the edges; expansive information with interesting and useful illustrations. And the information extends outward to include the soulful. Consider if you will this excerpt:
Bright red winterberries stand out audaciously against the black coniferous wood line with hemlock and cedar standing guard against the wind. Along the pond edges, we follow tracks where the coyotes passed the night before stalking the subnivean zone. Here, the gnarled and sculpted wild high bush blueberry bushes rise from the ice like Old Man Winter’s arthritic hands offered up toward the sky. We skate past these portraits to where stands of redosier dogwood spike like flames above the snow. It’s cold out but this is what warms our hearts, all this stark and glowing beauty, and a little twiggy fire on the edge of the woods.
Winter is when we eat our harvests, drink our cider, read our catalogs, plan our gardens and revel in the landscape. Many of us consider winter a favorite time of year. We prune our trees, buck up our firewood, tap our sugar maples. It’s also a time for inward focus and a reorganization of the spirit. There is much in this world that draws our energy…
We embrace it and we invite you to embrace it, too. Lose yourself in the puzzle of an old apple tree’s crooked limbs or the grand silhouette of a leafless elm on the horizon. This is the landscape of grey and brown and white but also of diamonds and glitter and magic.
To think that such thoughts might rise from a seed catalog causes me to take a deeper peek into the boilerplate of company history. There I found these important words describing the who and why of Fedco Seeds:
“We have been in the seed business since 1978. We took on the Tree order from John Bunker in 1983, added fall Bulbs in 1984, picked up potatoes from Tom Roberts in 1985, and the Organic Grower Supply order from MOFGA in 1988. Beginning from a Maine base with 98 orders the first year, after 36 years we now serve growers in all 50 states, filling over 34,000 orders totaling $4 million annually.
We are a cooperative, one of the few seed companies so organized in the United States. Because we do not have an individual owner or beneficiary, profit is not our primary goal. Consumers own 60% of the cooperative and worker members 40%. Consumer and worker members share proportionately in the cooperative’s profits through our annual patronage dividends.
Our cooperative structure gives workers a real voice in running the company and a real stake in its success, enabling us to attract and retain talented workers. Year after year our staff turnover has been very low.
Our company culture derives from our history as a cooperative. Our first customers were other cooperatives and we developed many of our procedures specifically to serve them. Although we have diversified, a significant proportion of our business still comes from cooperative or group orders. Our dedicated group-order coordinators are partners in our business. We encourage you to make cooperation work for you by forming ordering groups to take advantage of our generous volume discounts… The cooperative ethic recognizes that we are all in this together. What is good for our managers should be good for our workers and good for our customers and vice versa.
Back to this particular catalog edition: Besides apples, pears, stone fruits, raspberries, blueberries, grapes, and nuts, you will find in this publication shade trees, conifers, crapapples, roses, elderberries, lilacs, mushrooms, and herbs – along with all manner of cultivation and propagation insights and suggestions. And it doesn’t stop there. Fedco Trees & Plants contains dozens of side bar articles and charts, four of which we have reproduced here as examples.
Please consider taking time with your family and a Fedco Seed or Tree catalog. The experience might be transformative, it will definitely be enlightening.
Refrigerate slightly moistened rhizomes in a plastic bag until planting. Hops prefer full sun and rich light well-drained soil with a pH of 6.5 – 8.0. As soon as soil can be worked in spring, till to create a weed-free area. Dig holes about 1’ deep and at least 3’ apart in rows. Add manure, compost and other slow-release organic fertilizers. Plant 2 rhizomes per hole, horizontally with the buds pointed up and cover with 1-2” of loose soil. The first year the hop plant requires frequent light watering and mulching.
Hops grow vertically, with lateral sidearms extending from the main vine and producing cones. Vines may grow up to 25’ in a single season, and do best if they are trained onto strong twine 12-30’ high, supported by a trellis, wire, pole, tree branch or south-facing building.
When the young vines are about 1’ long, select the 2 or 3 most vigorous vines per hill and remove the rest. Gently wrap the vines clockwise onto a string. Once trained, the vine will guide itself.
Pick the hops when they are papery but still slightly sticky and filled with yellow powder. Harvest dates will vary with the variety and climate. Because most hops are produced out of reach from the ground, it is safest to lower the vines in order to pick the hops. Dry hops thoroughly before use. Spread on screens in a dry attic, they will dry in a few weeks. Dried hops freeze well.
Cut the vines back to the ground after they have been killed by frost. Each spring apply a hearty topdressing of manure and compost. To help control vigor, prune roots by cutting a 2-3’ circle with a shovel around the base of the plant in spring.
Self-pollinating, self-fertile and self-fruitful all mean the same thing. You can plant a self-fertile tree and expect it to pollinate itself and set fruit alone (for example, peaches, pie cherries, apricots). However, many self-fertile trees’ fruit sets are enhanced with multiple plantings (elderberries and Amelanchiers). Self-sterile or self-infertile means that another tree of a different cultivar or variety is needed to set fruit (crosspollinate). This is the case with most apples. Monoecious (from Greek meaning ‘one household’) plants have their female and male parts on separate flowers both together on the same plant. In most cases, these plants are self-fertile, but not always! (Black walnuts are monoecious but the male flower releases pollen before the female flowers open, so having two plants is better than one). Dioecious (‘two households’) plants have either all male or all female flowers on separate individuals. You would need to plant one female and one male to achieve pollination. When you buy unsexed seedlings, you generally have a 50-50 chance of getting one gender or the other (ginkgo, spicebush, bayberry, persimmon). Bisexual or perfect flowers contain both male and female components within the same flower. Some plants with perfect flowers will be self-fertile, some will not. Often, specific cultivars or varieties have perfect flowers but they cannot pollinate themselves and need other varieties to do it for them (apples and blueberries).
Coppicing and Pollarding
Coppicing is a traditional practice of cutting trees or shrubs down to the ground to stimulate new growth. Many deciduous tree species — beech, alder, ash, hazel, willow, maple and more — respond to injury by using energy stored in their roots to sprout multiple new stems from the stump, called a “stool.” Pollarding is a similar practice, in which trees are topped, often around 8-10’ up, to produce shoots beyond the reach of grazing animals. With coppicing and pollarding, trees produce convenient easy-to-cut small-diameter wood from the same roots indefinitely.
For millennia farmers and rural people have managed woodlands, or “copses,” in this way. When the shoots are of usable size, they are trimmed back to the stool, and the cycle begins anew. In winter, copses are harvested in sections, on a rotation anywhere from 3-8 years. Each year a crop of wood is ready to be cut.
The uses for coppiced wood are endless, and for ages people have relied on these perpetual sprouts for everything from posts and poles, to building materials, to animal feed. Hazel, willow and oak can be used to make baskets, wattle-and-daub fences and walls, or even bridges, like the Sweet Track in Somerset, England, the Neolithic walkway that spanned more than a mile through boggy marshland.
Farmers cut shoots from ash, birch and other species as tree fodder for livestock like sheep and goats, and coppiced wood can be dried as winter “tree hay.” It can also be used to make charcoal or as a convenient stove wood for cooking.
The forest around grower Jacob Mentlik’s farm is filled with coppiced wood sprouting from maple, beech, ash and birch. These small-diameter shoots are perfect to chip for mulch for nursery beds and orchard trees. Because of the high ratio of cambium to cellulose in these small branches, the resulting ramial wood chips contain abundant minerals, amino acids, proteins and enzymes, which promote growth of fungi and airy, spongy, fertile soil.
For more, read William Bryant Logan’s excellent new book Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees.
Freezing apples or juice to ferment into cider is not an entirely new idea although the process has become much more refined in the last 30 years. In the 1990s, Quebec cider-makers started making a unique product called Cidre de Glace. The trend caught on and soon orchardists in northern New England were also experimenting with ice cider. To technically be considered ice cider, it must have a brix reading of 30 or above with an alcohol content between 7 – 13%. It is more like an after-dinner dessert wine with a balanced apple flavor, than a traditional cider.
Unlike hard cider, which relies on bittersweet apples, the best ice ciders are made from a blend of cooking, dessert and traditional cider apples. There are two methods for making ice wine: cryo-extraction and cryo-concentration. Extraction involves freezing the apples (or waiting to pick them until they freeze on trees) and partially melting them to press into cider. The more common method is concentration, where apples are pressed and the juice is set outside for winter months. Winter’s natural freeze-thaw cycle concentrates the sugars away from the ice. As it begins thawing, the first juice to melt is collected for fermentation. For either method, the resulting juice is fermented much like traditional hard cider. The most challenging step is stopping the fermentation and stabilizing the cider before it reaches dryness.
If you live in a climate where the winter temperatures regularly go below 10° and want to make ice cider, instructions and tips can be found in Claude Jolicoeur’s The New Cider Makers Handbook or in Apples to Cider by April White and Stephen Wood. You can also make ice wine using grapes.
The fertile intricacies of nature-based farming reward those of us who immerse ourselves in not only the experience of cultivation but also the education and edification which comes from and because of it. Fedco catalogs are a source to turn to. They give us ways and the accompanying music to fill the ‘tanks’ as we ready ourselves for the coming season’s excellent work. This Fedco Tree & Plant catalog is a divine sort of reading. LRM
PO Box 529, Clinton, ME 04927