ESSAY: Up Close in a Fruit and Nut Tree Nursery

by Adam Beisnow

ELMORE — It is a fabulous Vermont Sunday morning. At the Worcester gas station, around the side of the cafe in a grassy field, my friends Ethan Hubbard and Gwenivere Roolf  are waiting. Dogs Oona and Lucy are sniffing about. Everyone piles into Hubbard’s car and we head north on Route 12.

“Have you been to the Elmore Roots nursery before?” I ask my companions. Hubbard says that he had been there years ago, but the others have not. I share with my companions that my second job in Vermont, after arriving four springs ago, was at the nursery. That day I got a ride from a very sweet lady from Brattleboro. She dropped me at the road to the nursery. There was a soft rain that Saturday morning that made the world glisten. No one seemed to be around when I arrived at Elmore Roots, so I just strolled about and took in the beauty. The lush, fresh green growth of the first days of spring entered my soul and I felt at home in the world. At that moment, in that place, I fell in love with Vermont.

I went on telling my friends about David Fried, the nursery owner. I told them how soft-spoken and gentle he is. I shared with them how he arrived 37 years ago and created an Eden (although he would say that the place has created an Eden within him).

David Fried, owner of Elmore Roots

I told them what a grafting wizard Fried is, and how through Fried’s work many new varieties of fruit and nut trees and bushes have evolved to be hardy enough to call Vermont home. And I told them how Fried has, with tremendous patience and love, gathered seeds from endangered trees and cut clones from others to help keep strains alive. I told them how he knows each tree and bush in his nursery, and with great joy will tell you about the heritage of ones you may have passed before. I told them how when he arrived in the area, he was told that only two varieties of apple can grow here, and how he now has over twenty.

We turn right off of Route 12 at a large barn. A small black sign points the way to the nursery. We pass beautiful blossoming plants at the driveway entrance and make our way up to the parking area. Sweet fragrances fill our nostrils and the soft textures of many leafy varieties delight our eyes.

David Fried comes out of the messy shack that is the office with a calming smile and a “Hello friends.” Introductions are made for those who have never met. I am very pleased to have Hubbard meet Fried. Hubbard has been documenting what some may call the real people of Vermont and the world for many years with his steely black-and-white photographs and his written pieces. In my mind, he is now meeting one more of the legendary ones.

Fried asks, “Can I show you around?”

We start into the berry area. It feels like a secret garden. To our left and right berry bushes in pots are sectioned by wooden benches to create islands of varieties along the soft grass: blueberries, raspberries, gooseberries, blackberries, husk cherries, mulberries, currants and strawberries.

We stroll in the shade by grape and kiwi vines (yes, kiwi vines!) growing over sweet pagodas along the rows. There are many flowering shrubs in pots as well. We pause by a large apple tree laden with nearly ripe fruit. Fried tells us how he was given a cutting from a man who said his grandmother threw an apple core into the garden and this fabulous tree grew on its own spirit. Now Fried sells the apple variety that’s named after her.

He then points to a cluster of greenery behind us. Some short black currant plants back up to tall Jerusalem artichoke stalks. Behind them are beautiful lilacs and elder plants with ripening berries. He admiringly points out how they all share nutrients and sunlight for all to thrive.

He then points to a very large and majestic black walnut tree in the background. He says that it is 35 years old and grew from a seed planted when he first created the nursery, and that now descendants of this tree are growing in many Vermont gardens. It seemed in that moment that his eyes were those of a proud father. Under the mighty tree is a pair of very happy looking pawpaw plants. Pawpaw is native to Hawaii.

“Shall we continue to the vineyard?” He leads us down a path. To our left is a small greenhouse with tomatoes and figs; to the right, some thick rows of raspberries full of reddening sweetness.

We reach the vineyard. Among the rows of grape vines, every 10 feet or so, is a black locust tree. “They help with a healthy supply of nitrogen for the vines, and give the vines a place to climb as well,” says Fried. When asked about his plans for the vineyard, he adds that the grapes are for the small-scale production of sweet grape juice.

“Now, I would like to show you something new I am trying this year,” exclaims Fried. “My perennial veggie garden! Why not have food that comes around year after year without planting?”

We pause to admire the glistening silver green Korean pine trees, then at another bend in the path a lush garden reveals itself. Head-high Jerusalem artichokes grow in the back row, and burdock, rhubarb, berries, Chinese sweet potato, comfrey, and asparagus in the foreground. We leave the garden with a tangy sour flavor in our mouths from a wonderful plant I had never tasted until that moment. To our right and left are sassafras plants and then some aronia berries. “A very powerful antioxidant,” says Fried of the aronia, “and native to Vermont!” In addition to the aronia, the nursery grows five other native berries: elderberries, juneberries, cranberries, wild raisin viburnum and joy bush cherries.

We reach a fence that separates a small creek from the other perennial patches. “Most fences here are to keep the deer out,” Fried says, “but this one is to keep humans out.” It is a fenced pathway along the creek that allows safe crossing, eating and drinking for the deer as they roam from the woods on one side of the property to the other.

We cross a wooden bridge and go through one more gate. Fried says, “Here we grow many of our fruit trees.” There are varieties of apple, pear, plum, crab apple, apricot and even some persimmon. The trees are both small and large and all seem very happy. There are smaller ones in pots and larger ones in the rich, dark soil.

We are now at the nursery entrance and start up the driveway we had used an hour before. On the left is a greenhouse. “We start working in here in March,” says Fried. “The outside may be snow covered, but in the greenhouse there is an island of soil. We start seeds and cuttings for the coming season.”

After sniffing the blossom of a hazelnut tree, hearing one more story about an apple tree we passed by, and then one about a pear, we were back at the parking lot. Fried returns to the office to check in and we find a shady spot among the berry plants for our lunch.

The nursery also has a small store. There are gardening tools, gloves and a colorful selection of hats along with books on growing, pruning, weeding and fermenting, on medicinal herbs, on wild crafting and more. The wall above the books is filled with drawings by one of the nursery workers of animals and nature in harmony. There are bags of soil and kits for growing mushrooms. The counter is full of jars of jam made with the nursery’s fruits and berries, and behind them stands a very smiling Fried.

Hubbard muses, “The thing I come to regret after this visit is that I did not plant many fruit trees in my garden years ago.” So Hubbard and Fried leave together to pick out some fruit trees and bushes. When they return, I glance their way and see a skunk calmly strolling just feet away from Fried.

“Remember,” says Fried as we thank him for the tour and promise to return soon, “Anything that can be said, can be sung.” We all sing goodbyes.

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