San Juan Island Restoration
NPS & Partners blend old with new to revitalize English Camp orchard
Century-old Sandwith orchard will bear fruit again thanks to Raintree Nursery
In celebration of island homesteaders and agricultural history, the National Park Service (NPS) is rehabilitating an orchard planted 130 years ago by a pioneer family at English Camp.
This won’t look anything like today’s commercial orchard, with its short, compact trees planted in closely knit rows. These full-sized trees will grow unfettered to 25- and 45-feet tall— wild and natural with a great canopy of leaves.
Planted in the mid 1870s by Isaac Sandwith, the one-acre orchard is located on West Valley Road just north of the park’s south boundary. Islanders have long been aware of the orchard, which is dominated by one of the oldest pear trees in the country.
But it wasn’t until 10 years ago that the park invited Susan Dolan, historical landscape architect with the NPS regional office in Seattle, to inspect this ancient pear tree. She was hooked as soon as she blazed the trail through chest-high Nootka rose bushes and snowberry vines to what remained of the old orchard.
“Cultural landscape preservation is valuable because it sustains rare heirloom plant varieties,” she said. “A preserved historic orchard is not only significant in terms of agricultural biodiversity conservation, it also gives us a glimpse into an 1800s landscape.”
Thus began a project that would eventually involve taking cuttings from nine surviving trees, tracing the varieties and grafting the cuttings to healthy young seedlings of similar stock. The grafted trees would be planted to recreate a representative sample of the landscape as it existed at the end of the joint military occupation.
Dolan believes the Sandwith orchard is particularly significant in island history because the multiple varieties reveal it as a “homestead garden.“
“It was typical of homesteaders to plant orchards with a variety of species to have food for the table throughout the seasons,” she said. “This way a mixture of pears, cherries, apples, apricots, and wild plums came into harvest sequentially.”
To recreate the orchard, saplings were propagated by cuttings not only from the surviving Sandwith trees, but also from the scatter of pear trees at the northwest end of the English Camp parade ground and from several plum trees in the vicinity of the Crook house. The cuttings were grafted onto seedling rootstock at the Raintree Nursery in Morton, Washington. In order to produce accurate clones of the old fruit trees, the new trees were grown at the nursery for two years before they were bareroot-planted in the orchard.
On March 14, 2009, 23 trees—11 pear, four apple, five apricot and three plum—were planted by park staff, a Washington Conservation Corps crew and island volunteers. Crews planted the trees 30 feet apart according to the grid layout established by Sandwith.
Each tree received a six-foot-tall deer fence, nutritional mulch and white wash on the trunk to protect the tree from sun scald. They will be full-grown in about 20 years, and will begin to bear fruit in 10. Today’s high-yield trees bear fruit in just two years, but might live only 30 years. A standard apple tree on a seedling rootstock can live 200 years, a pear 250. One of the Sandwith-period apple trees still survives today.
Of course, it’s unclear as to who may have planted this particular tree. The orchard may also have been the enterprise of August Hoffmeister, the post sutler (storekeeper) at the Royal Marine Camp throughout the joint occupation. Hoffmeister occupied (without patent) an adjacent parcel, which also has a scattering of fruit trees near the Sandwith boundary.
But that’s another story.
Scionwood was taken from the old trees and the old varieties were identified via DNA testing. Among the old varieties which were regrafted and planted were the Pound and Vermont Beauty pears and the Ben Davis apple as well as some pears that were deemed to be probable seedlings of Comice and White Doyenne pears. Benowitz of Raintree Nursery delivered the trees from Raintree and helped with the planting. Each of the new trees was planted on standard rootstock and will grow into a large tree. Several concessions to the 21st century were made. Each tree was surrounded with deer fencing to protect it. Each was planted with organic fertilizer and mycorrhizae to aide its growth and augmented with a gravity fed drip irrigation system. “It was inspiring to be a part of replanting a 130 year old orchard and I hope that in another 130 years people will replant it again. It was discovered by the National Park Geologists in the holes where the trees were to be planted, parts of tools from people who had been on that site more than 10,000 years ago. Let’s do what we can to make it a little more likely that people are living in a sustainable relationship with the land 10,000 years from now,” said Benowitz.