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Apple Confessions*

black squirrelA rank novice, I can’t take much credit for the successes of my garden. What I’ve managed in my ignorance not to kill off thrives mostly because of the years of care lavished upon it by the previous homeowner.

I read gardening books, attend horticulture lectures and consider the wisdom of my well-seasoned friends. Each year I make a few mistakes and test a few theories — what to prune, how to fertilize, when to dead-head — and watch for the results of last year’s decisions.

When buds opened on three of the apple trees in my backyard last spring, I was encouraged. When the orchard mason bees emerged from their slumber to buzz among the blooms, I was delighted. When clusters of tiny apples replaced the flowers, I was thrilled. I thinned the fruit and watched amazed as the apples fattened and blushed, glossy and unblemished.

The Galas were the first to ripen, small and green with streaks of red. I never tasted a single one. The resident black squirrels ate them all, clipping each apple neatly at the stem, gripping it in sharp teeth, carrying this booty to the sunny comfort of the nearby fence, and then, in hasty efficiency, peeling off the skin in dainty rodent bites before consuming the more succulent flesh. The squirrel is unfazed by my hollering, my arm-waving dash from across the yard. It sits on the fence, holding the apple in its little hands, turning it round and round, glancing at me with black beady eyes. “My apple,” it seems to say. “My apple tree.” The ground is littered with rotting bits of apple skin. The Galas are gone.

The five-graft tree is gnarled and comical with its colorful clusters of unmatched fruit. The tags say Spartan, Akane, Gravenstein, Summered and Jonagold. Wary now, I test the apples. They’re tart, unripe, skins still tough. A few go into pies; the rest wait. The Spartans are small, intensely red and look like miniature versions of the perfectly formed but tasteless grocery-store Delicious apples of my childhood. At last I pick one and it is perhaps the finest apple I have ever eaten: sweet, crisp, juicy, four or five bites of pure joy. I pick and munch and share with friends, but the tree is still loaded, bushels of apples still unripe.

Going to Italy was probably a mistake. Although I encouraged my next-door neighbors to help themselves to apples, I don’t blame them for failing to comprehend the urgency of my offer. As I reveled in the tantalizing flavors and colors of Tuscany, the five-graft was stripped bare. Returning home, I find nothing but scattered brown chews of apple skin littering the ground.

The Jonagold tree is the season’s final hope. These are the last to ripen, the ones that sweeten with the first frost. The fruit is huge and weighty on slender twigs, some of the apples streaked with color, some almost entirely red. I test them, waiting for the sweetness I know will come. Then one day I look out the kitchen window and see a black squirrel galloping along the fence-top with a Jonagold gripped in its teeth. The apple is three times the size of his head and must outweigh him severalfold, but, as the well-fed apple tester, he is unconcerned by such measurements.

I grab my basket, pick every single remaining apple and count my blessings: I could have bears.
*Apple Confessions © J.I. Kleinberg originally published in The Social Gardener, The Journal of the Whatcom Horticultural Society, Vol. 19, No. 3, Autumn 2007