Spring unfurls like an apple blossom, widening and opening into the changing air. Everything growing is green, a thousand shades of intricately shaded chlorophyll dancing in the cold breeze beneath the warm sun.
Somehow, the fruit trees count and measure time and temperature, and respond with hormones that govern their growth. Apples, among other fruiting friends, are particularly sensitive to something called chill hours, which can be defined as the number of hours the thermometer falls below 50° F in a given growing season. When an apple tree goes dormant in the winter months, it generates a hormone that floods the capillary system of the tree, keeping it in a kind of suspended animation known as dormancy. The leaves drop, and the last of the fruit falls, leaving bare branches. In the spring, as the weather begins to warm again, the tree begins to awaken. A tree with a low number of chill hours will break dormancy when there have been 400 hours of chill, flooding the tree with a different hormone, that wakes it back up and sends the signal to begin blooming and leafing out. Other varieties can require as much as 800 chill hours, and sometimes even more, before they get the signal to break dormancy and begin to grow again. That's why we see some apples just beginning to bloom at this time, while others have bloomed and set fruit already weeks ago, before their higher chill hour counterparts have even broken dormancy.
For those apples that have set their fruit, and for earlier blooming varieties of stone fruit, now is the right time of year to begin thinning the crop. This was one of the hardest tasks to learn how to embrace as a new orchard keeper, but it makes for larger, sweeter, healthier fruit, and lessens the chances that these generous trees will break their branches under the weight of a heavy fruit set. When we thin the fruit, which usually forms in clusters of 3-6 young fruits, we choose the largest and best-placed fruits to continue growing, and remove the smaller fruits that might otherwise crowd the selected 1-2 specimens. It's gotten easier over the years, knowing that an informed thinning now makes for a harvest that is ultimately more healthy for tree, fruit, and humans.
It seems to be a promising year for bees so far! We've been getting calls for swarms, and have caught a few ourselves. A small swarm landed on our blooming Pink Lady apple (500 chill hours) last week; we were able to snip the whole young branch off with a sharp pair of garden pruners, and carry the whole humming, pheromone-drunk mass of bees to an empty hive that awaited them. Luckily, it was not a central branch on the young tree, and in fact was a cut that opened up the branch structure a bit, letting more light into the center of the tree. This is good for developing fruit, creates air flow to discourage fungal and insect pests, and facilitates ease of harvest. The new hive of bees is already making white comb a week later, and have laid tiny eggs at the bottom of the freshly drawn cells, a sign that the queen is laying and the colony is settling in to their new home. The queen releases a pheromone that indicates her health and vitality, and the bees pass the traces of this good scent around the hive, which keeps the colony humming along smoothly. In the morning, the foragers orient to their space, swirling in wide, swerving circles up and around the hive a few times before setting out to forage for pollen and/ or nectar. They fly out over the the garden, through the blooming sages and apple trees, into the bolting arugula and the butter-yellow flowers of broccoli that escaped harvest, nuzzling and nestling their efficient bodies into the center of each flower. Laden with liquid nectar and yellow pollen, they buzz back to the hive to deposit their floral spoils in wax cells, where it will be transformed into honey through evaporation and the actions of beneficial bacteria. From a chair in the garden, we watch the patterns of their flight, the massed swoop and rhythm to their choreographed air traffic, the individual explorations of each individual flower on each individual plant. We observe the way the individuals return to the larger streams when their stomachs and their pollen baskets are full. Bees are oriented to precise spatial relationships, to pattern and scent, to the magnetic pull of the earth and invisible infrared landing strips on flowers that our human eyes cannot perceive. What a world they inhabit! The same dear world as we do, but their perception of it is so entirely different as to make it seem almost alien. Nevertheless, we share this morning in the garden, overlapping time and space for this brief spring moment.
The bees and the gardener converge at the lavender patch, and the scent of the foliage and the flowers is enough to dizzy the most stoic gardener, the busiest bee. There are enough flowers to go around, so we gather a fistful of purple-gray blossoms while the honeybees buzz quickly between the blossoms. We carry the bouquet into the kitchen, destined not for a vase but for a drinking glass.
This week's featured recipe is a free and easy kind of fermentation, just right for those of us who are not ready to take on the responsibilities of daily or weekly feedings for kombucha or water kefir, to say nothing of a sourdough starter. The Lavender Lemon Fizz captures the wild yeasts that float in the air, and feeds them with the sweetness of honey, (thank you, bees) the acidity of a lemon, (pollinated by bees, thanks again, bees) and the flavor of those lavender flowers, (without bees, they would not sed seed) for just a few days of time. Strain it and cap it, let it build up a bit of fizzy carbonation. Chill it. Cheers. Tart and light and tasting of flowers, best drunk cool in the warm sun, this drink is a perfect beverage to toast in the spring and the sweetness that awaits us in the garden, in the hive, on the trees, in our heart, while the bees keep buzzing around us and the apples swell and ripen on the trees.
By Jessica Tunis