A quince-idence and winter prep at North Portland’s community orchard

Quince up close

As many of you know, I frequently volunteer my photo services to Portland-based nonprofit, Portland Fruit Tree Project (PFTP). They may be a small team—three coordinators covering programs and communications, and one executive director—but PFTP manages to host 100+ harvesting events each year at the homes of registered tree owners and at their five community orchards. On top of this, they also organize monthly hands-on educational events at each of these orchards, specializing in the instruction and practice of a variety of topics related to organic fruit tree care: pruning, pollinators, pest prevention, disease management, irrigation, soil health, and more.

All orchards’ educational series wraps in October/November of each calendar year with a final session on winter orchard prep. In the case of Fruits of Diversity Community Orchard (FoD), nestled in the Portsmouth neighborhood of North Portland, this year’s session was unique indeed. To the delight of many, it included the harvest of a hardy late season fruit that thrives in the Northwest: quince!

Introducing quince

The very word may conjure a big fat blank for you—and you’re not alone! That’s why everyone who signed up for this work session gathered ’round for a brief introduction and a few pointers on quince and winter orchard prep by PFTP’s Orchard Programs Coordinator, April Jamison.

Orchard quince harvest and mulching

It was a sunny day, especially for October in the Northwest, so volunteers circled up in the back of the orchard in the shade of the very trees there were destined to harvest. April, featured at center below, gave a great intro to this curious quince fruit, starting with a history, followed by some culinary traditions from around the world, and harvesting tips.

Orchard quince harvest and mulching intro

I studied abroad in Spain, so I was familiar with membrillo, the wine-colored paste that is often paired with a hard Manchego cheese. But what I didn’t know, was that quince formed the base for it. Membrillo basically quince cooked with sugar for a couple hours. Another fun fact from this brief meditation on quince, was its use in savory dishes. Evidently, it’s quite tasty when cooked down with a saltier partner, like pork shoulder.

Mmmmm, pork shoulder…

Harvesting Quince

The quince at Fruits of Diversity Community Orchard takes on a apple-esque shape. It’s a big more squat and more vibrantly yellow than any Golden Delicious I’ve ever set eyes on. Nevertheless, you harvest quince much like you do apples: either by hand or with the use of harvesting poles and ladders.

By Hand

Harvesting quince by hand

Quince trees can vary in height from 10 to 20 feet, depending on the varietal, the environment and its care. For branches in arm’s reach, you can simply lift and twist the fruit to remove it from the tree. Hannah, one of Portland Fruit Tree Project’s vital interns featured above, focuses on the these branches.

With Picking Poles

Harvesting quince with picking poles

More adventurous harvesters can use something called a harvesting pole or picking pole to reach higher fruit. The basket attached to the top of this telescoping pole has unwoven wires at the top that form teeth that effectively grip the fruit at the stem, helping to wiggle them free from the branch. The piece of foam at the base of the basket provides some cushioning so that the fruit doesn’t bruise upon release. This is less of an issue for hard-bodied fruit like quince, but a very important consideration for softer-bodied fruit, like plums.

Fruit picking poles are especially useful because fruit at the top of a tree generally receives the most sun, and is frequently the location of the tree’s best crop (or the most overripe crop, if you harvest late! Hopefully you don’t!).

With hELP (ALWAYS). Plus these nifty aprons…

One of the most enjoyable aspects of a community orchard work session, is that of the the team.  Harvesting fruit is hard work when you have more than one tree, and especially when those trees are loaded with fruit. Nonetheless, with the dozen volunteers at this work session, this group was able to strip 3+ quince trees clean in just an hour. There were even a few late season figs on the opposite end of the orchard that they were able to pick.

Finger wagging over quince

PFTP is a largely volunteer-run organization. They even have volunteers who sew harvesting aprons, like the one you see on the volunteer pictured at left above. These colorful aprons have big pockets in front and zippers on one side that allow harvesters to conveniently store multiple pieces of fruit until they are ready to empty them out into milk crates for weighing and storage. This way, they don’t have to constantly make trips back and forth from the tree to the crate to drop just a few pieces of fruit.

Quince in milk crates

As you can see above, this work session easily yielded more than 100 pounds of quince. In line with PFTP’s tradition, each volunteer was awarded a share of the fruit to take home, and the remaining high-caliber produce was donated to a local food pantry.

Preparing The Orchard For Winter

I spent ten years of my life in California, so when I think of an orchard, I see rows of trees. Followed by more rows of trees. And a few more rows of trees (for good measure).

Winter orchard prep

But the great thing about Portland Fruit Tree Project’s orchards is that they are whole system, whole community spaces, that are meant for both people and plants alike. Part of that philosophy means that they carefully cultivate understory plants. What’s that? Think of it as all the plants growing beneath the trees (the “tree canopy”). When smartly chosen, they can send up valuable minerals from deep in the soil, attract predatory insects that will attack pests, and fix nitrogen—the most important nutrient for healthy, happy plants.

But like the orchard’s fruit trees, the understory and ground floor require regular care. That’s what the second half of this Fruits of Diversity work session was about…

Mulching

Raking the orchard

Applying mulch to the base of fruit trees in late fall helps protect them from the winter cold. It’s like giving your trees a warm down jacket instead of a lightweight windbreaker. The key to mulching is removing the weeds around the base of the tree before shaping the mulch around it in the shape of a ring. If you’ve ever mulched, then you know how handy a rake can be in moving that organic matter in place. This smiling volunteer made a good choice to save her back with that rake!

Weed Removal

Weeding is always an ever-important task in the orchard and garden alike. When winter sets in, the ground gets harder, making it particularly difficult to remove these organic squatters, so it’s best to give the orchard a good weeding before “putting it to bed” for the winter.

Digging up invasive plants

Ideally you remove a weed roots and all, which an often be tricky by hand. That’s why Wasingolo, pictured above, has decided to enlist the help of a digging shovel. By the looks of his face, I think he got it in the end.

Wheelbarrowing orchard debris

Judging by the amount of debris this strong-armed volunteer is hefting away, Wasingolo wasn’t the only one!

staking Young Trees

Securing trees for the winter

Though it’s frequently unnecessary, some newly planted trees may need a shoulder to lean on during the winters months of the year.  Factors that help determine this are 1) how much wind they will be exposed to, 2) if the tree is already bending quite a bit without support, and 3) if the root system is rather small relative to the tree. If you’re worried about someone making off with your tree, staking it might also be a reasonable deterrent.

Taking Inventory

Interns pose with quinceAs I mentioned above, the community orchard program at Portland Fruit Tree Project is not just about spreading the word of holistic orchard care; it’s about bringing people together in a space that welcomes different interests, abilities, ages and backgrounds.

The orchards bring together emerging leaders in the community, such as the two fall interns pictured at left, as well as partners focused on doing similar work.

One of the pillars of Fruits of Diversity is its partner, Village Gardens. A project of Janus Youth Programs, Village Gardens works to grow economic and leadership development through food. In addition to their support of FoD, they offer 80 garden plots to affordable housing residents in North Portland, support a children’s garden program, sponsor a summer farmers market, and much, much more. The three smiling faces below are from the Village Gardens network.

Village Gardens Team

Though there was one family that had to leave early, I was able to snag an almost complete group photo of 18 of the volunteers, and PFTP staff and interns, who contributed to the day’s work.

Orchard harvest and mulch team

Judging by the tree height behind them, can you fathom that this orchard was planted in April of 2013, not even four year ago?