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Enthusiasts find rewards in their backyard orchards

Bill Dailey's eyes go soft when he describes the experience of biting into a Cox's Orange Pippin, the classic British heirloom apple growing in his backyard in Broomall.

Bill Dailey looks over a blossoming apple tree in the backyard of his Broomall home. "You do need to spend the time to get the most out of it," he says.
Bill Dailey looks over a blossoming apple tree in the backyard of his Broomall home. "You do need to spend the time to get the most out of it," he says.Read moreRON TARVER / Inquirer Staff Photographer

Bill Dailey's eyes go soft when he describes the experience of biting into a Cox's Orange Pippin, the classic British heirloom apple growing in his backyard in Broomall.

"You chew it," he begins tentatively, as if you're a bit slow.

"You feel it on top of your palate," he continues, eyes closing.

"You get a creamy, tart aftertaste, all at the same time," he intones reverently, "sort of like . . . ice cream.

"Tremendous!" booms Dailey, who's a bit of an anomaly.

Previous generations, more self-sufficient and knowledgeable, routinely grew fruit in the backyard. Today, only 10 percent of American households cultivate fruit trees - and that's double the number growing berries.

Despite heightened concern over "food miles" and quality, the fruit-growing numbers haven't changed much in the last five years, according to the National Gardening Association.

"Growing fruits and berries is not as easy as growing tomatoes. You have to really make a commitment to it," research director Bruce Butterfield says.

Dailey wouldn't disagree about the commitment, but he insists, "It's really not that difficult."

Who cares? After his evocative reverie, you feel like racing out back and stuffing every one of those ice-cream apples into your mouth.

But at the moment, his apple trees - 75 kinds on a third of an acre - are a pollinating-bee jamboree. No fruit yet, just a lot of blooming and buzzing.

The harvest lasts from July to November, a ritual that brings his two daughters out of the woodwork. They can't stand the weeding, spraying or pruning, but they love the picking and eating.

So does Dailey, an associate professor of organic chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, who's been growing fruit for about 20 years. Every year at harvest time, he and wife Betsy spend entire days making apple sauce and pies to freeze for the winter.

"You can't imagine what it's like in the middle of winter," he says, "to pull out a fresh apple pie that's been warming in the oven."

Dailey learned how to make pie crust from his mother growing up in Tariffville, Conn. He picked up fruit-growing on his own and from friends in the Backyard Fruit Growers, a Lancaster County group.

"You do need to spend the time to get the most out of it," he says.

Dailey started with a cherry tree, some blackberries and raspberries. "They brought so much satisfaction," he says, "and being an organic chemist, once I get into something, I'm really into it."

Now he's into dwarf apple varieties including the bright-green Newtown Pippin, a favorite of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; the spicy Spitzenberg, another Jefferson favorite; and the 19th-century Red Delicious, with its dark red stripes and truly delicious flavor.

The 21st-century version, Dailey says, "tastes like sweet sawdust."

Around 1991, he became fascinated by the ancient pruning and grafting technique known as espalier, which turns tree branches into fanciful and symmetrical shapes, such as fans, candelabras or double U's.

The practice was illustrated in Egyptian tomb paintings of fig trees dating to 1400 B.C. European monks trained fruit and nut trees against their medieval garden walls, and in 17th-century England and France, espalier was fashionable for king and peasant alike.

Dailey's suburban orchard is somewhere in between. It's a modest 25 feet by 65 feet, filled with a wealth of apples, pears, peaches and apricots, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and gooseberries.

"I like to be different," Dailey says, "and I like to have control over the kind of food we eat. I know where our fruit is grown, what pesticides were used, the whole thing.

"And I have the satisfaction of doing it myself."

Don Kennedy's French-born grandmother grew raspberries "by the gazillions" on a hillside in Haverhill, Mass., and even as a young child, he loved filling a bucket for breakfast.

"Every other one you popped into your mouth," he recalls.

Raspberries next entered Kennedy's consciousness in 1989, when he and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to their home in Barrington. The sunny backyard had a rambunctious raspberry patch, which Kennedy's been harvesting ever since.

Twice a year, spring and fall, he gathers buckets of berries, turning some into ambrosial red jams with a hint of lemon. Since his berry wealth was inherited, Kennedy's not sure what variety they are, but their behavior is classic raspberry.

"These guys are not rose bushes," he says. "They'll take over."

Undisciplined raspberries, abetted by lackadaisical tenders, can turn even a small patch into a nest of impenetrable canes or stems. But the beauty of this berry, besides its divine perfume and flavor, is that it's pretty easy to grow and control.

If you grow different kinds, you'll have raspberries from late June till frost. And, says expert Gary Pavlis, unlike apples, you can do it all organically.

"Apples you'll be spraying, and I mean really spraying, and not with organic stuff," says Pavlis, Atlantic County agricultural agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

By contrast, raspberries send up new canes every year, and you just prune out the old ones. "That's all you really do," he says.

Another consideration: It may take some looking, but you can find decent-tasting apples in the supermarket that don't cost a fortune. Pavlis likes Honeycrisp and Gala.

Raspberries, on the other hand, are going for $3.99 for six ounces, or 0.375 pint.

"You have to treat them like gold," Pavlis says.

He should know. His kids can devour two or three boxes at a sitting.

Orchards for Philadelphia

Fruit trees and berries aren't just a suburban thing. Whole orchards are sprouting in places such as Boston, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Austin, Texas - and now Philadelphia. Over the last year, the nonprofit Philadelphia Orchard Project has planted a dozen orchards containing fruit and nut trees, berries and herbs at schools and on vacant lots in neighborhoods around the city.

The idea, group president Domenic Vitiello says, is to "localize our food supply" and give "all people access at all times to healthy food. . . . We're dependent for our food supply on the Central Valley of California and places like Chile and New Zealand," says Vitiello, a city-planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Using private donations and organic methods, the orchard project plants pears, peaches and cherries, along with more unusual and typically unaffordable fruits, such as persimmons and Asian pears. Gooseberries, lingonberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries are also planted in what Vitiello calls "permaculture" systems. "That means permanent agriculture, perennial agriculture, or lazy people's gardens," he says.

The new orchards are relatively low-maintenance and high-production. And they're a neat way way to reuse vacant lots. Harvests are shared with neighborhood residents or, if the orchard is at a school, with students and their families.

All donations are welcome, but the orchard project offers packages for certain amounts. For example, $2,500 buys 20 trees. For information, go to

- Virginia A. Smith