Residents strive to revive orchard
August 15, 2003
By Betsy DillBeck (Publisher, The Community Journal Ashburnham, MA)
Ashby - In recent years, Ashby residents have taken an active part in preserving some of their cherished open spaces for posterity. Largely an agricultural community, Ashby farms flourished well into the 1970s and beyond. Even new residents to Ashby have taken on the role of land stewards, such as the preservation and renovation of the Ashby Stock Farm.
This year, three more newcomers to Ashby have taken on the challenge of preserving the town's past with a personal effort they hope will pay off, in more ways than one.
When Greg and Elia Pierce were looking for a spot to build a new home, they found a lovely two-acre lot on Erickson Road in Ashby. They were looking for a larger home they could afford, moving from Shirley where a comparable home was out of their price range.
The lot they found had a very interesting back yard - and about 100 apple trees.
Their property is part of a 40-acre tract of apple trees that had not been cared for since Groton resident and owner Ed O'Neill, had converted the property for development. He had found the continued maintenance and production of apples at the Erickson Road orchard a less profitable segment of his Groton-based business, the J.P. Sullivan Company. O'Neill owns over 100 acres of orchard in Groton and is one of the Northeast's largest distributors of apples.
The Pierces wondered about their new backyard at 390 Erickson Road, and noticed the trees and fields were overgrown and decaying, and thought about saving the trees rather tan just cutting them down. Aside from the house, front yard, and septic system, most of the two-acre plot was side-by-side apple trees.
"We were returning from a trip to Rhode Island to see family, and discussing what we could do with the orchard," said Greg, "when we remembered this orchard we had driven past in Groton. We decided to pull in there on our way home to Shirley, and by chance, Ed O'Neill's son, Sean, was sitting there with some other workers."
Sean had worked in the Ashby orchard and fielded the many questions the Pierces asked him about apple trees and their care.
"He was very helpful and gave us good information," said Greg, "We walked away from that conversation with a whole new perspective."
Greg, a computer and electrical engineer, started doing some research into apple trees and their care, walked the entire orchard, and plotted off the trees within his boundary lines.
Ed and Sean O'Neill also came to Ashby to give him advise and offer their help.
When the Pierces moved into their house in January, Greg met his new neighbor, Shawn Zwicker at 372 Erickson Road. Shawn has worked for Ed O'Neill for about 12 years. When the property was converted to building lots, Shawn had asked if he could buy a small existing house that had been built around the 1970s, perhaps for a caretaker. He has also watched the orchard deteriorate over the years, but never had the resources to care for the trees properly.
But he had knowledge, and with Greg's desire to save some of the orchard, the two made a decision to tend to the trees on their properties.
Then they took another risk. The lot between them had been sold, and they didn't know who their new neighbor would be. Would they want to save their trees? Greg and Shawn took a chance they would, so in their plan, they included the trees in the boundaries of their lot.
"We counted 234 trees total we would try to revive," said Greg
They began at the beginning of the year by putting out mouse bait around their trees. In February and March, they began pruning, a yearly necessity for apple trees. As they pruned, they cleared all the brush out of the orchard from the pruning and the remains of two years of neglect.
"It was a lot of manual work," said Greg, "but Shawn knew what to prune. These trees are very fragile. If you don't maintain care for apple trees for over two years, they are basically lost. You can see the immediate difference in the trees with the mouse bait, pruning and spraying."
And the spraying. It was a costly investment said Greg, who bought a sprayer and the pesticides. They sprayed the trees every week until June, then twice a week. They purchased special mowers that would span the width of grass between the trees and tried pulling the mowers with an old riding lawn mower, but kept getting mired down in the thick growth and mud. Greg's brother-in-law gave them his old four-wheeler, which has proved to be the workhorse of the operation.
The trees blossomed and thrived, and now clumps of green and pinkish apples hang on most of the trees.
"Some may take another year to really produce," said Shawn. "But you can see the difference between our trees and the rest of the orchard."
Four weeks ago, their new neighbors moved into their home. Shawn and Greg told Paula and Phil Bogue what they had done, and asked if they wanted to be part of the business.
The chance they took paid off, as the Bogues are now willing partners in the project.
"We had our first business meeting after dinner at my house this weekend," said Greg. "We decided on 'Ashby Apples' as the name of the orchard, and that we would start with a small 'pick-your-own' business this fall."
Paula and Phil offered to build a small stand out front, in between their house and Greg's, who had already shoulder the cost of the property insurance binders.
"I joined the Mass. Farm Bureau and they were very helpful," said Greg
There are six varieties of apples in their orchard: Cortland, Macintosh, McCown, Empire, Golden and Red Delicious.
"We just want to recoup our costs," said Greg. "And any extra would be great. Our slogan is 'An Ashby Apple a Day'."
Will more property owners opt to save the trees? Greg and Shawn say that it may be too late. Walking through the orchard, Greg pointed out trees on the boundary of their property that had received some residual spray. Half the tree was green, the other half brown and deteriorating. Ashby Apples hopes to be open for business in early September. Greg has also set up a website at ashbyapples.com, which should be up and running about the same time the apples are ready to be picked.
"My grandfather would be proud," said Paula. "He owned an orchard in western Massachusetts. We didn't want these trees to die."