"An Unforbidden Variety"
 
The Story of Robert Frost's Apple Trees
at the Stone House, Shaftsbury, Vermont
       
       
       

 

 
 
 
 
 
The Robert Frost Apple Tree in winter, 2006
 
 
NEW!! Apples for 2010
April 25 last day of sale in 2010.
 
Five varieties are offered for spring 2010, inluding the Snow apple and new this year, Frost's varieties from the cabin at the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton, VT. Sale days at the museum: Saturday and Sunday, April 24 & 25, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Read about the sale here or paste: http://www.benningtonbanner.com/entertainment/ci_14910819
 
 

 

History
 
In 1920 Robert Frost moved from Franconia, a town located high in the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire, to Shaftsbury in southern Vermont. Among other considerations he sought "a better place to farm and especially grow apples." His two youngest daughters, Irma and Marjorie, were still in high school so the family also sought a place where good schools were available. His son Carol wished to take up farming. Frost had considered properties in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but his friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher of Arlington had convinced him that the charming, historic stone house in South Shaftsbury would make the perfect home for the Frost family. In those days, the stone house featured 80 acres of land for farming, and Vermont had a warmer climate for orchards and gardens. It was closer to Frost's publisher in New York and easily accessible by railroad. The Frost daughters could finish high school in North Bennington.
 
Frost purchased the "Peleg Cole" house in July 1920. He wrote to a friend, "I depose that I have moved a good part of the way to a stone cottage on a hill at South Shaftsbury in southern Vermont (on the New York side) near the historic town of Bennington, where if I have any money left after repairing the roof in the spring I mean to plant a new Garden of Eden with a thousand apple trees of some unforbidden variety."
 
Frost published this poem, "Good-bye and Keep Cold," in Harper's Magazine also in July, 1920. The poem accurately describes the topography at his new farm. Perhaps he was already dreaming of his new orchard.
 
Robert Frost's experience with apples dated back to his first farm in Derry, New Hampshire, where he lived from 1900 to 1911. The place had a working orchard when he bought it. He found that growing apples was a good occupation for a poet and he liked having them around. He said, "One of my apple trees, standing stock still and rooted, earns more money in a year than I can earn with all my locomotion and artistic detachment." Aside from pruning, Frost let the trees take care of themselves. He claimed he never sprayed his trees. Frost kept his orchard as a good practical New England farmer, for its fruit and byproducts. To open the cellar door in winter was to be treated to the scent of apples.
 
One of Frost's finest poems was written about his apple orchard in Derry and proved his skill as both a poet and apple farmer.

 

 
Frost subsequently wrote several other apple poems, including "Unharvested," "The Cow in Apple-time," "The Gold Hesperidee," and he mentions apples in many more poems. He once consulted an apple expert to be sure of his "pomological facts," and was told that he knew what he was talking about.
 
Frost's dream of the "thousand apple trees of some unforbidden variety" enchanted the whole family. Frost's son Carol had his heart set on being a farmer and thought the orchard would be the main stay of the farm. Robert and Carol planted the orchard, but it was actually Carol who did most of the work at the stone house. By 1920 Robert Frost was a recognized poet, whose love of rural life was more an avocation than vocation. However farming was always a way of earning money and living off the land. Carol also set out red pine for timber and blueberries along with the usual summer vegetables that supplied the kitchen. The Frosts relished summer peas, corn, potatoes, and cucumbers.
 
The apple varieties planted at the Stone House were MacIntosh, Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Red Astrachan. Most of the orchard was planted on a slope west of the house beyond the old grey barn. Today that land is not owned by the Frost museum but the trees, choked and dying, are still there as reported by neighbors who hunt on the property.
Frost planted one special tree directly behind the Stone House. This tree, pictured above, is the subject of our project to restart the Frost orchard. There are also Frost apple trees at the Gulley that will be used.
 
A crabapple planted by Lillian LaBatt Frost (Carol's wife) next to the Little Red Barn is also worthy of attention. We have a picture of the tree shortly after it was planted dating c. 1935. In the spring it is covered with clove scented blossoms that perfume the whole yard. In late summer the crabapple fruit are little crimson, cherry shaped globes that are very pretty.
 
A New Display Orchard at the Stone House
 
Objective: Create a display orchard of 20 trees composed of the historic varieties of apples as mentioned in Frost's letter: MacIntosh, Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Red Astrachan. This orchard will be planted in the south pasture, adjacent to the visitor parking lot. A kiosk will be erected giving the Frost history with a map of the orchard, information about propagating heritage trees, and annotated with Frost's apple poems. Information will be given on our propagation program of Frost's apple tree and how people can order a Frost tree of their own. Booklets will be printed on the Frost history and care of apple trees, annotated with Frost's apple poems.
 
Through the UVM Master Gardener extension service, we hired apple consultant Russell Allen of Westminster Station, Vermont, who is a specialist on apple propagation and grafting. He visited the museum in December 2005, to talk about techniques of restarting new trees from cuttings taken off the old Frost trees. He inspected our surviving tree and says we can work with it to make new trees. He gave a demonstration and talk on apple trees and grafting techniques on August 20, 2006 as part of our program, "Sunday Afternoons with Robert Frost."
 
Interesting local history: The wax used for apple grafting was invented in Shaftsbury in the mid-19th century by David Millington, a descendant of one of the Green Mountain Boys. Millington's grafting wax was a blend of rosin, tallow and beeswax. There is quite a history of apple grafting in Shaftsbury.
 
Apple trees grown from seed will bear fruit, which is nearly always of small size and poor flavor. For good fruit, trees must be grafted to the desired variety. To do this "scion wood" is taken off an existing tree and grafted onto new rootstock. Modern rootstock methods have been developed to control the size and hardiness of trees. Orchards are planted with several apple varieties so that bees cross pollinate the trees. Curiously, orchards planted with only one variety would bloom but not bear fruit. When cross-pollinated, a MacIntosh tree bears MacIntosh apples, but the seeds from a MacIntosh apple will not breed true since they bear traits of another variety.
 
The Frost Heritage Tree after a good pruning in spring, 2006
 
The Frost Heritage Tree in bloom, spring 2006
 
 
STEP BY STEP TECHNIQUE.
1. The Frost apple tree in the west pasture was readied for propagation in the early spring of 2006 with an application of high nitrogen fertilizer and a good pruning. This stimulated new growth of "scion-wood" to be harvested in August.
2. On August 20, 2006 Russell Allen took cuttings off the tree in the program described above. Cuttings were also taken from the Gulley trees. We produced over 100 trees from the scion-wood. The extra trees will be sold as fundraisers to benefit the Stone House.
3. The cuttings were personally delivered to Adams County Nursery in Aspers, Pennsylvania, where they were grafted onto new root stock. The technique called "bud-grafting" takes several leaf buds and makes a new tree. There is a good success rate with this technique because the buds on new wood are highly amenable to grafting. The trees remained in the nursery for 18 months and will be ready to plant in spring of 2008.
4. In the fall 2006, the fruit on the Frost "Heritage tree" was identified. After careful consultation with apple experts it was determined that the Heritage tree is a Snow apple. A Frost Snow apple! This is bound to be our most popular apple.
5. The site of the new orchard in the south pasture was prepared in 2007:
1) Remove two pine trees, 2) turn the soil and fertilize
 
 
The Frost Snow apple.
You cannot tell the variety of an apple tree just by looking at it. You must examine the fruit as it matures looking for shape, color, markings that change as the fruit ripens; and finally you taste it. An apple is ripe when the seeds turn brown. The Frost heritage apple has very particular stripes that provide a major clue.
 
 
Top apple experts Tom Callahan, Russ Allen and Zeke Goodband examined the apple evidence, but the taste test along with the stripes provided the final proof.
It's a Snow Apple! It's definitely not any of the varieties in the orchard. It was special enough to plant close to the house. Did you know that apples have parents? The Snow Apple is a parent of the MacIntosh. It is one of the oldest recorded apple varieties dating back to 1600. It came to America from France through Quebec in 1789. It was a popular variety in Vermont at the time Frost lived at the Stone House. It is named for its snow-white flesh. It's a small dessert apple. The French called it a Fameuse. Try Googling that.
 
 
In addition to the Snow apple, we are offering three other varieties: Lillian's crabapple, that was planted by Frost's daughter-in-law in the 1930s. Its blossom is very fragrant and the lovely fruit is good for jelly. From the other Frost farm in Shaftsbury, The Gulley, we have the Rhode Island Greening, a good apple for cooking. It makes delicious apple butter or applesauce. Lastly, there is a tree at the Gulley that reverted to its wild rootstock. It's a good apple, but you must be patient as it ripens late. We call it Gulley's Wild Patience.
 
Our trees are being grafted onto modern rootstock EMLA-111, which will produce a semi-dwarf tree that reaches 18 - 20 ft. - good stock for the home garden.
 
The first annual Robert Frost Apple Tree Sale will take place on Sunday, April 27 at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum located on Route 7A in Shaftsbury, VT. The fundraising event starts at 12 noon and runs through 4 p.m.
 
 
 
© Carole Thompson, 2006-07
Robert Frost Stone House Museum
121 Historic Route 7A
Shaftsbury, Vermont 05262