The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Urban Homestead Apples, Bristol, Virginia

Urban homesteadIf you're looking for a wide variety of heirloom apple trees grafted and tended by a master, the Urban Homestead in Bristol, Virginia, is the place for you.  I could spend hours poring over the descriptions of their old-fashioned apple varieties, of which this excerpt is a prime example:

Ben Davis - The most widely planted apple variety in the South after the Civil War.   Think of it as the nineteenth century’s Red Delicious.  A large, dull-red apple; hardy, vigorous, Apple nurserydependable, productive.  Keeps like a cobblestone.  Often described as having only passing flavor.  Ms. Genevieve Gray, an octogenarian from South Elgin, Illinois sent us a story several years ago that well illustrates the point:  “There was a joke going around when I was a girl about a fellow who claimed to be such an expert in recognizing apples by taste that he could identify any kind blindfolded.  He was challenged, of course, and given apple after apple to taste--identifying each correctly.  Finally, in desperation to fool him, one of the challengers grabbed a large piece of cork, carved it into the shape of an apple, and offered it to him.  He bit out a chunk, hesitated, bit out another, then reluctantly admitted that he wasn’t real sure.  “I think it’s a Ben Davis,” he said.  And then he quickly added, “But if it is, it’s the best one I’ve ever eaten.”  We would add only that any tree that can stand up to 125 years of ribbing Potted edible perennialshas earned its place in the orchard.

The Urban Homestead offers just shy of 100 old and new favorites, and yet they feel obliged to add this apologetic note to the website: "Economics dictates that we keep a tight rein on the number of varieties we graft each season.  We have access, however, to a large number of stock trees, and offer a custom grafting service for some of the harder-to-find varieties."  Basically, if you've heard of it, they can probably get it for you.  I was thrilled to read that they have not just one, but two versions of the old-fashoned Winesap (as well as the easier to find Stayman Winesap.)  I ordered a Winesap and Liberty from them to round out our orchard.

Two of Tim Hensley's kids

Tim HensleyTim Hensley is the man behind this 2 acre operation, which he fits into his suburban backyard and a rented lot across the street.  I was charmed to see three of his sons digging and labeling apple trees while I snooped around the premises, and their father said that all of his kids help out --- except for the four year old, who isn't terribly handy yet.  I'm going to have to reserve tomorrow's post for notes on his intriguing permaculture techniques, but suffice it to say that he's not an old-fashioned apple grower even if his apples have deep roots.

In addition to apples ($18 to $28, depending on size of tree), Tim Hensley also sells a selection of other edible plants, not all of which are listed on his website.  For example, I was shocked to see rows of Chicago Hardy figs, just like the one I mail-ordered --- I wish I'd realized I could pick them up in person at the Urban Homestead!

Swinging at the urban homesteadSpeaking of picking them up, if you live closeby, I highly recommend that you make the drive to the Urban Homestead, not only to get your trees in the ground ASAP so that they will thrive, but also to explore Hensley's operation.  Mom wants you to know that they have the best swing she's enjoyed in years.  On the other hand, don't let distance stop you --- Tim Hensley mails his trees across the United States.

Apple trees for scionwoodThe Urban Homestead is located on 818 Cumberland St., behind the library in Bristol.  Give them a call at (276) 466-2931 or an email at  Don't forget that buying heirloom apples not only preserves a vanishing tradition but also means your trees are more likely to survive the pests that nature throws at them with no need for posionous sprays.

Looking for the perfect gift for the backyard homesteader on your list?  Our homemade chicken waterer keeps water poop-free.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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When I moved to Mendota in the mid 1970s, my closest neighbor was Charmie Moore, then in her mid 80s. She had a large apple tree in the field across from her house and offered me the apples, which she called "Striped Ben Davis." She said her daddy grew the original Striped Ben Davis from seed and sold the strain to a nursery. I took a truck-load of these apples to the River Farm where I borrowed Michael and Monica Appleby's cider press and made many gallons of cider. They made a great cider. I don't know if these are the Ben Davis apples you mention or a variety off that apple's seed.

Charmie told me about when she was little and they hung "the last wild Indian" in Poor Valley.

Comment by Errol Sun Nov 7 08:08:03 2010

From the bit I'm starting to understand of naming conventions, her tree is probably a seedling of the original Ben Davis, just like Stayman is a seedling of Winesap.

I love hearing your stories --- especially when you add them to the blog to preserve them for posterity!

Comment by anna Sun Nov 7 09:48:53 2010

Uh oh. Did you actually encourage my stories?

Two more Charmie Moore stories.

When she was a child they lived half-way up on Clinch Mountain, in a gentle sloping area which was still clear pasture when I last went there in the late 60s (and site, btw, of the Joey Learns to Fly story, which bear encounter actually occurred with Danielle. Charmie said that the road over the Clinch from Mendota was a major thoroughfare, on which cattle were driven in spring and fall. When she was a girl, Mendota was bigger than Bristol, with two banks and two feed stores along with several other merchants. Charmie and another old neighbor told me that it was a day's adventure to take the train from Mendota in to Bristol or Gate City, where their mothers would sell produce or sewn goods.

Charmie says a tornado once came over the mountain from the north side and deposited a mule in the tree in front of her house. Her daddy tried every way he could to ge the mule down, it was making such a racket. Finally he had to shoot it.

Charmie was born around 1890, to give you a date for these stories. She dried Striped Ben Davis apples in her wood cookstove and in the winter made me the most delicious fried apple pies in exchange for my bringing in her coal.

Comment by Errol Sun Nov 7 10:18:01 2010
How could I not encourage tales of mules deposited in trees? :-) Actually, I wished I'd recorded you when you were telling me so many stories when you came to visit! I'm clearly going to have to whip out the camcorder next time!
Comment by anna Sun Nov 7 10:47:27 2010

@Anna I love that that is hidden up above the library. Who knew. By the way, Ken has a fig tree that was bearing a few weeks ago, taken from one in JC. I didn't know they grew in this area, and I think I want one.

@Errol, that reminds me of a story I heard on the radio and thought of you. The gist was that, a hundred years ago or so, someone in Ohio was put on trial for murder. The only "evidence" was that someone claimed to have seen the deceased's ghost, who said he did it. The judge threw it out, as they could not produce the witness. The defendant was never entirely trusted in those parts after that, and eventually moved away -- to St Marys. :)

Comment by joey Sun Nov 7 12:01:02 2010
Mom was just telling me that about Ken's fig tree! Granted, I think it's warmer out there than here, but that gives me a lot of hope. If I were you, I'd either spend $20 on one from the Urban Homestead (cheaper than any of the other options once you factor in the lack of shipping) or wait and let me take some cuttings from our new tree or Ken's tree next year. I'll bet they're not that hard to root.
Comment by anna Sun Nov 7 12:39:12 2010
Fig trees have small sprouts coming out at their bases. Just pull one up and heel it in in a shady place and it will root.
Comment by Errol Sun Nov 7 14:05:30 2010
I believe you have Brown Turkey figs. Those might actually make it at Joey's Bristol place, which would be another option.
Comment by anna Sun Nov 7 17:38:32 2010
Can anyone remember Charmin's way to make her fried apple pie? I'd kinda like to know the recipe. There was a crabapple pie in Montana called Meaderville crabapple pie. Not sure, but I think the recipe may be lost for it. It was delicious, combination of sugary and tart, and the crabapples had red flesh. As a little kid I thought they were really cherries, but they were crabapples, 1 inchers, each one carefully sliced and cut in half or quarters.Recipes are treasured heirlooms too!
Comment by Marshall Smyth Mon Jan 2 19:31:40 2012

Hopefully someone will google for "Charmin's Fried Apple Pie" and come and comment here.

I know that fried apple pies are a local specialty in our area, but hadn't eaten one made from crabapples. I do think that crabapples are a bit of a lost art --- I remember eating some ornamental ones as a kid that were astonishingly delicious but don't hear about people eating them nowadays. I'd plant one, but I seem to remember something about them spreading diseases to apples?

Comment by anna Tue Jan 3 09:43:15 2012

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