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Back to the Trees
 

So I went back to concentrating on the trees. Before I had called the historic horticulturalist at Monticello, I went to Thomas Jefferson’s home to look at his gardens. I knew their orchards might have Albermarle Pippin trees, which I’d discovered were the same breed as Yellow Newtown Pippins. They did, so I took pictures of them for the set designers. They were taken in February, so you could see how they were pruned, but that didn’t help for the leaves and the flowers. But when I called Monticello and asked about what the fruit looked like, the horticulturalist told me how many branches and flowers a young tree would have, which helped me understand what the tree would look like.

The picture of a 19th-century orchard started to become more clear. It seems that the vast majority of California orchards were planted in straight lines, in squares. There were questions about the distance between trees. In a 1900 text, the author shows how to grid orchard squares of 10 to 24 feet. According to Edward J. Wickson’s 1900 book, earlier orchards were overcrowded, and you really needed 25 to 30 feet between trees. By the 1920s, F. W. Allen’s Apple Growing in California was claiming that Wickson’s 25-30 feet between trees led to overcrowding and that 40 feet was better. An orchard in the 1890s, then, might have left anywhere between 10 feet (and perhaps less) to 25 feet between the trees.

Heirloom apple tree in winter, 2001
Heirloom apple tree in winter, 2001
Vase-shaped uniformity
Vase-shaped uniformity

The trees were pruned. And apparently, “People possessed of the art temperament sometimes complain of the depressing uniformity and artificiality of orchard-tree shapes in California.” This depressing uniformity was vase-shaped. Trees were pruned into this shape in the first year of life, and it was maintained, if necessary, by later prunings. In the coastal valley regions, the trees were pruned so that the branches started to make their vase at 12 inches.

Because of the desire to feature interplanting, which demonstrated that 19th-century agriculturalists were experimenting with crops, and that they were part of a market economy, we needed to show young trees. Interplantings happened most frequently in young orchards, especially those two to three years old. Although farmers did interplant later, it wasn’t too good for the trees’ growth. That fit with the date of the setting, as the apple boom was just beginning in the Pajaro Valley.

Although many orchardists grew sugar beets in between their trees for a local beet-sugar factory, and I read a lot about how to process beets into sugar and did research into what a beet plant looked liked, we eventually decided to show strawberries as our interplanted crop. Because there is no label telling people what they are looking at, it seemed like a good idea to use a crop that was instantly recognizable to most people. Sugar beets have big, bushy green leaves and the beet itself is a root—most people wouldn’t be able to tell from the leaves that it was a sugar beet at all.

Western Beet Sugar Company factory, Watsonville, California, 1890s
Western Beet Sugar Company factory, Watsonville, California, 1890s
Strawberries in the Museum, 2003
Strawberries in the Museum, 2003
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