Life in the Fast Lane

Going Native

Andrew WeidmanHanging Fruit

There’s a hole in our mini orchard. We laid out the back corner of our yard for four little trees: two apples and two pears. Right now, there are three. There’s the Paradise apple, a local antique from Paradise, PA (yes, Paradise really can be found in Pennsylvania, just down the road from Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand — but that’s another blog post entirely). Beside it stands my Ditlow’s Hard Winter, a rescue apple with a provisional name and no known history, one tree of a variety on the brink of oblivion. Catty-corner from the Hard Winter is my Elwood’s Homestead, grafted from an ancient, one-of-a-kind seedling lingering on my parents’ farm. The second pear tree failed. Twice. I think it’s time to take a different tack.

Last weekend, Jessie and I took in the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA (more on that in a different post). We sat in on Michael Judd’s "Fruit in the Edible Garden" talk, part of which covered pawpaws.

Pulp and Seeds

Pawpaws are an unusual fruit. They grow across the eastern half of the country, from Georgia to just below New England, out to the Middle West and Nebraska, according to Lee Reich. Apparently, the only big-tree fruit native to North America, they’re also from a tropical family, related to cherimoya, custard apples, and soursops. The fruits look like lumps of green Play-Doh, smell like bananas, and can taste like them, too, or maybe melon or mango.

They’re also attractive trees, small and pyramidal with big, tropical-looking leaves, glossy green throughout the summer before turning bright yellow in the fall.

Pawpaw Tree II

Since we have a hole in the orchard needing to be filled, Jessie suggested giving pawpaws a try. Of course, I thought that was a stellar idea, so now we’re on the market for pawpaws. Sort of.

See, I never do things the easy way. What fun is that? The other three trees I grafted myself. There are two other pears on the property, growing in an espalier on our one shed. Want a challenge? Plant an espalier. Oh, and I grafted them, too. All of my gooseberries and currant bushes? Rooted from cuttings, either by myself, or by friends of mine. And don’t get me started on my potted figs.

I could have bought a pawpaw (two, actually; they need cross-pollination to set fruit), but what would have been the fun in that? Besides, I happen to know where to find a pawpaw that tastes a bit like melon. It’s a grafted variety, growing along the banks of the Union Canal, in a little park in Lebanon. I might have felt bad about "stealing" a fruit from it if its base wasn’t littered with fallen fruits, rotting and returning to the earth.

Fallen Fruit

Pawpaw seeds are tricky. Of course. They can’t freeze, and they can’t dry out. The best way to start a pawpaw, I’m told, is to store the seeds in damp peat moss or a paper towel in the refrigerator for a few months — long enough to forget about them. I tried this once before ... and forgot about them. When I found them, they had sprouted, apparently a few months before; the taproots were long and wrapping around the confines of the quart Ziploc baggie. Like other trees with strong taproots, pawpaws are finicky. They will not tolerate having them damaged or stunted. That other batch of seeds was a loss.

Pawpaw seeds

I’m trying it again. That pilfered pawpaw gave up nine seeds. I only need two. After I cleaned off the pulp — delicious work I might add — I packed them away in another baggie, in some peat moss, and tucked them in the spare fridge for the winter. Help me remember they’re down there, okay? In the spring, or maybe late winter, when I need a cabin fever antidote, I’ll pot them up in some deep-root pots so their taproots have room to grow. If I manage to get two nice ones to grow, they’ll go in that last empty spot in the orchard. According to Mr. Judd, you can comfortably plant them in pairs with about 18 inches to two feet between them. Let’s see what happens.

The High Price of Progress

Andrew WeidmanCardinal

Major changes are happening in our neighborhood, changes that will affect the landscape for some time to come.

My house, my entire street in fact, is built on land once lined with Christmas trees. Blue spruce and white pines once grew rank and file on every property. Lone sentinels remain here and there, guarding lawns throughout the neighborhood. A few lots remain filled with trees, though most of them now grow neglected and thicketed, returning to the Earth.


Our property abutted one of these lots, the spruce lot, for the last two decades. We’ve enjoyed the benefits of these now-overgrown evergreens and the ash, mulberries and black walnuts filling in between them. They blocked the afternoon sun, bringing welcome relief on dog day evenings; and blocked the wind, sheltering us from dead-of-winter blizzards. Our favorite benefit, however, was the privacy those trees afforded us, hiding our entire backyard, and even the side of the house, from the road.

Those were the obvious benefits. Less obvious were the joys of the residents making their homes in the deep undergrowth: chickadees and cardinals, finches, wrens and juncos, woodpeckers, flickers and creepers, even blue jays and grackles would jockey and hustle for a meal at our birdfeeders. In the spring, when the grackle rookery was in full swing, the parent birds could empty the suet feeder in a day. Before long, the birdfeeders would occasionally earn their names in a more gruesome fashion, providing the hawks, both red-tailed and Cooper’s, with a quick meal, evidenced by clusters of small feathers here and there in the yard. And every summer, a hummingbird would grace our butterfly bushes; I think she makes her home in a nearby Mimosa tree.

Blue Jay

Speaking of butterfly bushes, they would often be filled with swallowtails and fritillaries, hummingbird moths and skippers, even honeybees and bumblebees. Most striking, however, were the fireflies, decorating those spruces never selected for Christmas, covering them in a glittering, flashing, breathtaking display of Christmas in July.

Occasionally, deer and even a fox would pass through, the yard on their way to wherever they were headed. Turkeys moved in two years ago, threatening cars and traumatizing our dogs as they deliberately strutted by the front door. Squirrels and the random chipmunk staged birdfeeder raids, performing gymnastics straight out of Mission Impossible. Rabbits grazed in the backyard, and groundhogs grazed in the garden when I had one, locked in a never-ending war I always seemed to lose.

By now, I’m sure you’ve noticed I’ve been writing all this in the past tense. That’s because seven of the remaining tree lots have been sold for development this spring, including the three between our house and the end of the street. The one on the corner was cleared and built first, and the new neighbors are moving in as I write this. The other two remained untouched and unmolested – until this week. Every thing I told you about, the spruce and pines, black walnuts, ash, and even an English walnut grafted to five different varieties, has been uprooted and destroyed, grubbed out to make way for construction. Nothing remains save for a few stumps and root snags, and bedraggled goldenrods at the back edge, coated in dust and scorched by the now-intense sun and winds.

Walnut Stump

Bewildered robins hop from spot to spot while grief-stricken cardinals search for nests they’ll never find. Dusty, the resident not-quite-feral cat, seems insulted by the barren state of his former jungle haunt. Most depressing are the mourning doves, flying back and forth over these new badlands, trying to take stock of this new reality.

I must be fair; we always knew this day would come. At one time we did consider buying that vacant lot next door, to use it as a privacy shield and a private picnic grove, keeping it in a more-or-less natural state. The realities of finances, workload and life in general proved that to be nothing more than a pipe dream.


I can’t even be mad at the previous owner for selling the lots, or the developer for clearing the land, or even the buyers for wanting a shining new home. After all, everyone needs a place to live, don’t they? Honestly, I’m no better. My house is built on the exact same stretch of tree farm, isn’t it? Songbirds and skunks were evicted to make way for construction vehicles, deer found less shelter, lightning bugs fewer trees to garland. By buying my house, I took responsibility and ownership in a continuing reshaping and domesticating of formerly wild rural countryside. I have no right to be scandalized now that the realities of that ‘progress’ are impacting me.

The thing that breaks my heart the most is not that I’m inconvenienced. For me, it’s an unpleasant shock. That will pass. I’ll adapt, replant, replace. For the birds, beasts and everything that once found sanctuary among those sheltering branches, it is a holocaust. They will not so simply adapt. They cannot.

Black Walnut Stump

Where will they go? And how many will stay behind?

Back Road Kings

Andrew WeidmanScenery

For many years now, since before Jessie and I began our so-called life in the fast lane, I’ve held an unusual title. I am the Back Road King. The friend who hung that nickname on me, er, crowned me ‘king’, claimed no matter where we went, I knew a back road shortcut. Only, they weren’t always so short.

To be fair, I do have an aversion to busy main thoroughfares and highways. Who wants to be stuck behind a tractor-trailer truck belching black diesel fumes, anyway?

Yes, I know, you’re just as likely to get stuck behind a tractor on a country road, only this one will probably be towing a manure spreader and releasing fumes of an altogether different nature. Then there’s the risk, at least in my area, of following an Amish buggy traveling at a brisk one horsepower trot.

Traffic Jam

If you ask me, the back road scenery is worth the risk. I enjoy seeing cattle, horses, sheep, and mules grazing in pastures, cool woodland passages, golden fields of ripening grain, fragrant cut hay lying in windrows. Jessie suggests I like to see how fast the grass is growing on the roadside. She also compares me to a turkey, craning my neck every which way to ‘gobble’ at the sights.

The title of Back Road King didn’t come easy, costing me many gallons of gas and uncounted wrong turns. It also taught a few hard lessons: don’t explore at night, when you can’t reckon by the sun; and development roads follow no recognizable rhyme or reason. I soon cultivated a, shall we say, liberal concept of being lost. Remember, this was before Google Maps or GPS displays. In my opinion, just because I don’t know where I am, does not mean I’m lost, as long as I still know where I’m going. I don’t often get lost, but it does happen from time to time.


Back-roading is a Weidman trait. Long before I could drive, I was adding back roads to the map in my mind, as I rode along with my dad. Three of Dad’s favorite pastimes involved back roads and his beat-up old farm truck: Sunday drives in the fall, farmers’ markets, and farm estate auctions. Mom never missed a chance to ride along, even if it was just to the feed mill, but she liked to be coaxed.

One truck, an aging Toyota (Dad pronounced it ‘Tie-odor’ in true PA Dutch fashion), had a tendency to backfire and stall out at least two or three times as it traveled down the lane. Mom came to depend on that condition, deciding to go along only after the first backfire and miss. Except for the time that old rust heap hesitated only once on the way to the road. When Dad got home, Mom declared she’d have caught him if only the truck had stalled once more. The truck continued to stall for a few more years, but Mom never hesitated again.

Many times on those meandering excursions, Mom would get nervous, asking Dad if he knew where he was headed. “Well, not really, but I suppose I can find my way home.” I suppose I get it naturally.

Mom and Dad

My parents spent the last 60 some odd years traveling life’s back roads together. Last December, the day after Christmas, Mom departed on her final trip, leaving before Dad for what may have been the first time ever, at the age of 84. Dad continued on alone, perhaps feeling more lost than ever before without her, though he wouldn’t admit it. Just last month, at the age of 86, he found his way Home, as he knew he always would, catching up with Mom to travel that last back road together as they’d always done before.

It’s true. You’re never lost if you know where you’re going.

The Hunt For Mountain Gooseberry

Andrew WeidmanPurple Jewels

I admit it: I’m a gooseberry fanatic. I can’t exactly explain why. Maybe it’s because gooseberries are mysterious, unknown, and exotic. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I’ve always been a sucker for the mysterious, unknown and exotic. Or maybe it’s because there are some exceptional gooseberries out there.

Small Fruit Orchardist

I’m also a fan of old books, especially old gardening and orchard books. Close to a decade ago I came across a passage in a fruit guide, Small Fruit Culturist by A. S. Fuller, written in 1885, that praised a Shaker gooseberry named ‘Mountain,’ developed in Lebanon PA.

I live in Lebanon, and had never heard of any Shaker establishments here. A quick aside: apparently, every state has at least one Lebanon; Pennsylvania has two, Lebanon in the Southeast, and Mount Lebanon in the Western half of the state. Also, we pronounce ours ‘Leb-nin,’ unlike the country of ‘Leb-ann-on.’ We can always tell when someone is a native of the area, just by how they say the name.


Back to Mountain and this never before heard-of Shaker community. A little more digging, this time online, revealed that the author was … geographically confused. He was referring to the community of Mount Lebanon, located in New York State. Not Pennsylvania.

I also discovered two references to Mountain in recently published books on the subject, both praising its qualities. Just to make things a bit more confusing, there is also a native wild gooseberry, a different species growing in the west, known as the mountain gooseberry. No one ever said online detective work would be easy to wade through.


After contacting the authors of both modern books, asking where I could find a Mountain gooseberry of my own, I learned that neither author had actually grown it, and had no idea where to find it. I did, however, get a few new leads to follow, including addresses for scholars specializing in Shaker history. These leads brought me to the extremely unfortunate and inconvenient discovery that Mountain had been allowed to go extinct in America, a victim of the early Twentieth Century Ribes purge.

Mountain still lives in the Royal Horticultural Gardens of Denmark. It may as well be growing on the Moon. International plant law keeps it completely out of my reach. It has been reintroduced to the United States, and is growing here once again, at Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire. It still may as well be on the Moon, thanks to New Hampshire’s ban on gooseberry sales and transport. Even so, at least it has come back home to America


Maybe I can one day grow Mountain in Lebanon PA. Maybe.

Hot and Cold Running Water

Andrew WeidmanWater

I like to listen to podcasts on my drive to and from work. One of my favorite podcasts mentioned the impacts of the presence or absence of hot and cold running water on a story in last week's episode. You can listen to it at Writing Excuses. Do you ever stop to take a moment to consider how much something you take for granted shapes your world?

We had the ‘privilege’ of experiencing that principle first hand recently. A few nights ago, as Jessie filled the sink to wash up the dinner dishes, the water pressure dropped off. Drastically. No one was in the shower, no toilets had been flushed, no faucet had been left running; and even if they had, the drop was much too deep to be normal. I grabbed my multi-meter and headed for the basement for some basic troubleshooting. Twenty minutes later, I knew a little more than I did before: the pressure switch was working, the breaker wasn't tripped, there was sufficient voltage to the pump, but it wasn’t drawing amps. Clearly, the pump wasn’t running.

Great. This was a relatively new pump. We had replaced the previous pump on Valentine’s Day weekend last year. I remember it well; there was a 6-inch cover of snow on the ground, the mercury hovered at about 5 degrees, and the wind chill made things feel more like negative five degrees. Our well is about 180 feet deep, with a 150-foot riser pipe on the pump. Which froze solid as I swapped out the old pump with the new one. That’s also a long way to pull a twenty five pound slug of metal. We didn’t get water until 2 in the morning, and it didn’t run clear until mid morning. That was a Valentine’s Day NOT to remember.

Valentine's Day

You really learn to appreciate a basic amenity when it’s gone. Some are easier to give up for a bit than others. Lose power during a storm? Unless you’re relying on a piece of equipment for heat or life support, a few hours spent with oil lamps for light and actual human conversation for entertainment can be enjoyable, even nice. No water? Not so much.

When you turn on a faucet, you tend to expect a steady stream of water, hot if you want to wash your hands, cold if you want a drink. I must have — out of sheer force of habit — tried to get a glass of water at least 5 times that night. Another double-edged sword of indoor plumbing, the bathroom, reared its ugly head about that time. Sure, a toilet beats an outhouse flat — until there’s no water for flushing. I wonder how many people know how to ‘bucket-flush’ a toilet? And showers? For those, we needed to lean on the generosity of my sister-in-law, who lives about ten minutes away. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a hardship, and it isn’t, but it isn’t exactly the same as just stepping into your own shower, either.

Full disclosure: things could have been much worse. We do have a secondary water source. In one corner of our basement, we have a city water hookup. Several years ago, our township required our neighborhood to hook up to the city water system. For several reasons, one of which being the excellent water quality of our well, we chose to keep the well plumbed to the house, and outfitted the city supply with a faucet for emergency use. In this case, it was an absolute God-send. Even after lugging three buckets of ‘flush water’ and three coolers of drinking water up from the basement, I was still glad to have it.

Sleep came difficult that night. I kept turning the problem over in my head, as I turned over in my bed. Why would a new pump fail? Was the intake clogged? Did the motor burn up? Had the well gone dry? There are three new houses being built in the neighborhood; had the construction and heavy equipment cracked the well casing? What the heck would we find when we pulled the pump?


The next morning, Jessie, my son (who’s a plumber, conveniently enough) and I swung into action, dragging that daggone pump back out of the bore for inspection.

What we would find turned out to be a full well (Thank God!), a filthy, muddy pump, and, better than one could hope for, broken power leads. The frigid conditions last year must have made the insulation brittle when we installed it the first time, and it took a year to finally fail. After a thorough rewiring, complete with heat shrink insulation and plenty of rubber electrical tape, and a quick bump check to make sure the pump still turned over, it was ready to go back in the well bore. Ten minutes to purge muddy water from the line, and we were back in business.


Returning a brand new, still-in-the-box $400 well pump because it wasn’t necessary was the best feeling ever, almost as good as the celebratory hot shower.

A Sure Hand and a Sharp Knife

Andrew Weidmanapples

One of my favorite early spring activities involves a sure hand and a sharp knife. I admit, it’s not an activity most people think about, but it does keep me (mostly) out of trouble. What am I talking about, you ask? In a word, grafting.

I’ve been grafting for about 15 years now, after attending a public workshop with my dad the year after I moved into Patmar House. I don’t actually have any of those original trees any more; mainly because at the time I had no idea what apple varieties I wanted to grow. That workshop had scion wood for about a hundred different varieties of apples, both antique and modern, with intriguing names like Sops-in-wine, Kandil Sinap, and Calville Blanc d’Hiver. There were so many possibilities to explore, far too many to decide on just two.


And this was before I even tried to make the graft. Sure, I had just sat through the 20-minute class, frantically taking notes, trying desperately not to miss anything vital. Even with the ready assistance of several grafting instructors, I was all thumbs, barely keeping the knife in my hand and fearing I’d carve the fingers from my other hand. I have no doubt I did just about everything wrong that year, making the same cut several times, and frustrating myself to no end. 

You know what? Both of my grafts survived. Despite my best efforts, they knitted together, formed trees and grew. They grew long enough for me to learn how to prune properly (by pruning improperly), and to learn the importance of carefully choosing the placement of permanent plantings in the landscape (by, you guessed it, choosing poorly). They even grew long enough to allow us to sample the fruits of that mostly random, mostly romanticized selection of two varieties of antique apple. Life is too short, and an apple tree’s lifespan is too long for blindly grabbing at varieties. There are reasons why we don’t have those two trees any more.


Regardless, I still graft, just not for my own plantings. A few days ago, I grafted twenty trees for my group, the Backyard Fruit Growers, to be sold at an herb fair two years from now, at Landis Valley Museum. Every year, we offer fifty or sixty antique apple trees to the public, along with some friendly assistance and encouragement (and some experienced advice on which apple would be a good fit, like Paradise or Keepsake for a sweet apple, Calville Blanc d’Hiver or Winesap for a tart apple).


Twenty trees are a lot to graft, at least for me. I do know a few people who graft a few hundred in an afternoon. Twenty took me about two hours. If you’re keeping track, that’s about six minutes and two cuts per tree. Many grafters use a whip-and-tongue graft, or a cleft graft. My clefts look terrible, and I never could make a good tongue union, so I do a simple whip graft; tricky to bind together, but clean healing and well connected.

a day's work

The key to a good graft is a scary sharp knife. When I say scary sharp, I mean it. A wrong cut will mean stitches. Paradoxically, the sharper the knife is, the safer the cut will be. Seriously. A sharp knife will pass through wood much easier than a dull knife. Okay, maybe it won’t cut like butter, but it won’t stick and bind, either. Whey you start sawing and rocking the knife through stubborn wood is when things get ugly. Quick.


Like all skills, knife sharpening requires a lot of practice to build proficiency. Since I really only graft once a year, I don’t exactly have that proficiency. I make up for it in near constant retouching, stoning the edge between every tree, in fact. My goal is an edge fine enough to dry shave. 


One February, my wife asked me what was wrong with the skin on my forearm, what kind of rash would make me lose patches of hair? She was less than impressed with the reason. Now, I test the edge on my leg hair; no one sees my calves for another three months, at least.

Oh, and what trees do I have growing now? I have a Ditlow’s Hard Winter apple that may fruit for the first time this year, a newly grafted local antique Paradise apple, a rescue pear from my Dad’s farm (the mother tree is an ancient tree, a seedling, I suspect), and a newly grafted Seckel pear, also from my Dad’s farm.

ancient pear


I first heard the following rhyme in relation to scythe work, but it applies equally well to grafting knives.

Sharp me when you lay me down,
Sharp me when you find me.
And if you find I’ll cut no more,
Take me up and grind me.

Time Is Short and Flying Fast

Andrew WeidmanSage

I am always amazed at how quickly time can get away from you, especially at the end of winter. For the past three months, outside work has been at a standstill. First the Holidays kept us busy, and cheerfully so. Then, winter crushed the landscape in full force, bringing cutting winds and subfreezing temperatures, ice and snowfalls, one of which carried a record-breaking 31 inches of the white stuff. Later, winter softened its grip and temperatures eased enough that I could begin planning my late winter maintenance tasks at Life in the Fast Lane.


There are some tasks that need to be done in the winter, when everything is dormant. Fruit trees need to be pruned before they quicken into bloom, but they cannot heal cuts made when the wood is frozen. Scion wood needs to be gathered for future grafting to make new trees and preserve antique varieties. Cuttings of small-fruit bushes must be gathered in the proper time to allow for shipping to trading friends across the country. And all this needs to happen before the Forsythia blooms, heralding the start of the lawn care season and time to spread corn gluten meal. But that’s another task, and another tale.


I live situated along the East coast flyway of thousands, maybe millions, of Canada geese, Snow geese and Tundra swans. Some Canada geese stay here year-round; there are two different hunting seasons for them here, resident and migratory. Before you ask how a hunter is supposed to know whether the goose he’s sighting in on is a migrant or a resident, I should tell you that resident season is scheduled before the migrants arrive. Someone asked me just that question once; sarcastically thinking it was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard — until he heard how it works. All he had to say then was, ‘Oh, I guess that makes sense,’ before quickly changing the subject.

Snow Goose

Snows and Tundras, on the other hand, are strictly transient here. We’re just another layover for them. That’s okay; I love to see them when they arrive in mid February. Stately Tundras travel in pods of 10 to 30 birds, hooting and trumpeting their presence. Snows, on the other hand, arrive in hordes, blanketing fields and the lake of a neighboring wildlife preserve. When they launch en masse, they validate their name in an unexpected and unintended fashion — they perfectly resemble TV snow.


Their arrival heralds the perfect time to unlimber the pruners and saws. They had been in the area for about three or four weeks, now, and they are suddenly, conspicuously absent. Also, it would appear that spring is making an early appearance — with a vengeance. Last week, we were shivering through temperatures in the twenties and low thirties. Today, the mercury reached the seventies, and I’m nursing a sunburned scalp. Yep, I forgot my ‘lid.’


More troubling is the buds beginning to push. How did it get so late? What happened to my window? Clearly, I was lured into a false sense of time security. I thought I had all the time in the world, until I didn’t any more. Saturday and now, today (Wednesday) were spent pruning an apple tree and three pears, and gathering scions. Tomorrow will be taken up with pruning gooseberry bushes and (hopefully) collecting some cuttings to share, as long as they haven’t begun to swell. Lord knows, the pussy willow buds have broken a week ago, fat and furry, full of the promise of warmer weather still to come.

When that’s done, I’ll be picking up about 300 pounds of corn gluten meal for a much-needed lawn feed. Soon, we’ll be firing up the lawn mowers again (sigh). It was so nice not having that on the billet every week. Next weekend is my organization’s (BYFG) grafting workshop, where we will share scions of over a hundred different apples and pears (more apples than pears by far) and teach grafting to new friends while we catch up with old friends we haven’t seen in far too long.


Where did the time go?