by Charlene Burgi
I enjoy our afternoon walks at the ranch with Sydney, our golden retriever, as they always lead to some new discovery. The other day we headed down by the old dilapidated barn. I had noticed elderberries growing nearby, but until then, I had never paid attention to the old apple tree hidden behind the grove of giant poplars at the cattle grate coming onto the property. I observed that the little tree was very old and had been neglected for scores of years. Deadwood and broken branches could be seen throughout the tree, and yet it was still loaded with tennis-ball-sized apples. I picked an apple and noted the fruit could be great for making applesauce as it tasted of the Gravensteins we are so fortunate to have growing locally in the orchards of Sebastopol. Only time will tell if the apples will hold together for baking pie. We walked away with a promise to return to gather the fruit, and later to give a good pruning to the neglected tree this winter.
We left the tree site and meandered around the old barn. The elderberry bushes growing there were also loaded with clusters of steel-blue berries. I am not familiar with this type of fruit and thought it odd that the deer, rabbits, squirrels and other local critters have left this plant alone. I have heard of elderberry wine, but don’t know if anything else can be done with the fruit. I would love to hear if any of you have firsthand experience with elderberries and what you did with them.
I was also curious how these plants survived without irrigation. As I studied the topography of the surrounding the area, I noticed the apple tree was growing near a dry creek bed. Winter snowmelt must feed into the dry creek to sustain the vegetation in this area. I can only imagine the root system running deep into the rich soil to draw moisture. In addition, fallen leaves provide a natural mulch to retain the moisture. The fertile land behind the trees is ten feet deep with topsoil. Years of erosion, volcanic activity and layers of organic matter created the perfect conditions for the apple tree to survive.
We can mirror this phenomenon in our backyards through proper grading, drainage, and soil amendments and mulch. Grade the soil so rain and irrigation water are directed toward the roots of your plants. Make certain that you have good drainage by adding compost and soil amendments to move the water through and not puddle. Leave your leaf litter on the ground unless it is diseased. And compost, compost, compost. Typically Marin has heavy clay soil, so it may take years to develop good earth similar to that sustaining the little apple tree. But you will save irrigation water and your plants will be happier for your effort.