Note: Two weeks after Lori interviewed Barb Burrill for this post, Barb was named a national finalish for Volunteer of the Year, an award organized by the Alliance for Community Trees in Boston.
Barb and I met at Mosaic Coffeehouse in Wallingford, which she recommended. This sprawling space, below a church, has lots of big mismatched tables and chairs, comfy chairs and sofas, and a whole separate room for kids. And they take donations for the coffee, tea, and sweets, so you pay what you’d like. So cool. I can see why Barb loves it so much! Gail was with us in spirit, too, as half the questions I asked Barb were hers…
Lori: How did you end up becoming an orchard steward?
Barb: My son started school at John Stanford International. To get there, you walk along the Burke-Gilman from our house. So I’d walk him to school and pick him up. . . . I’m trying to remember now. I noticed some trees. Well, really two trees, along the way. One of them took me a long time to notice, because it was a tree that was totally enveloped by laurel. You could only see it when it bloomed. I could see it sticking out the top.
So I’d had some training before with Green Seattle Partnership (now Forterra). And so I knew, had experience, in removing invasives, and that’s pretty much what it was at that point with those trees, just finding the tree under the laurel, and then blackberries with the crabapple. So then I started noticing more trees along the trail, that was my main route. And then I went farther in both directions. I had that in mind. And then—I don’t know how—I heard about City Fruit. . . . So had that connection. So then when they started talking about the orchard stewards, I suggested, I guess, it was 6 trees on the Burke-Gilman.
And then the Burke-Gilman got selected! And I thought “Alright!” It’s such a strange park. I mean it’s trees that have been either abandoned or volunteers. There are now 23, and then there are two others, we keep finding them!
Lori: What are the outlier trees? The farthest one way versus the other way?
Barb: The farthest that we have taken on is the University Bridge to the east. . . . The other end is Northlake Place and Northlake Street, which is just west of the new Center of Wooden Boats, which is west of Gasworks. There’s one there, and one tiny one beyond that. So that’s the farthest west. But the tiny one needs to be moved, because that’s totally shaded. I do count that one. And there are a couple just across from Gasworks that aren’t official, they’re on a really steep slope and totally shaded, so it could be 25 trees now. Unless we plant some.
Gail: How do you keep people interested in pulling blackberries and ivy? How have you managed to create and keep such a loyal group over the past 3 years?
Barb: Well, it’s a fluid group. The big work parties, which have done most of the invasive removal recently, and a small core. In the past, our first work parties, we did do some blackberry work and then follow up. But it’s something where you really need a lot of people and generally, if you have a larger group of people, there’s a certain core that likes to do that. Most people do not like to do that. [Lori giggles.] But the ones who do, do really get into it. We have, really 3, maybe 4, people in our group that like to do that, so it’s not something that we do all the time.
And I guess that’s part of it. With our core group, there are certain things that they like to do, some don’t go on ladders, and most don’t do pruning. So it’s kind of the thing, we can choose what we do, and now that our trees are cleared, there are sort of easier chores that can be done for most of them.
Lori: So they can follow their passions?
Barb: Yeah, and if it fits into their schedule. So things like — we had a couple who were planting daffodil bulbs, just as an apple tree guild. And they did that as they could. We have more people working now than initially, so it’s harder to get together as the whole group. But it’s a combination now between the small group that is doing things over time and then the other, bigger, corporate groups. There’s one more—I have a meeting tomorrow with Seattle Parks to see if we can clear another area around some new trees now: one a volunteer and one that was planted. Once that’s done, though, the maintenance is pretty minimal. Do you put socks on? And harvesting. And thinning. Those are the big things.
Lori: So Gail’s question about how you keep a loyal support group, I heard fluid, I heard as their schedules allow, and I heard small core group and using temporary big groups.
Barb: Yeah. Flexible. . . . I’ve been trying to get somebody to be in charge of scheduling, because I find it hard to schedule myself out. And then we have people—some who can’t come on Sunday mornings, some who can’t do Saturday mornings, so that. I’d like to delegate that scheduling to somebody who can manage that and then to have that published so that the people who like us on Facebook, who have come from corporate groups, can find it and take part, so it’s a little easier for them.
Lori: What have been the best moments, your favorite moments, as an orchard steward so far?
Barb: It’s always fun when people stop, and thank us, for what we’re doing. It’s really interesting—it’s amazing—to me, how that varies depending on where we are on the trail. Even though it’s about a mile and a half, yet not everybody goes the whole length of the trail. We get certain kinds of affection in certain areas and others not so much, it’s really interesting. Maybe it’s certain people who see us more often, I don’t know.
And then last year was really good, because we had such a big harvest, which was amazing, with just that little bit of love. I mean it’s mostly just been clearing and spreading bedspread compost from the zoo, and not even—very, very little pruning—but a HUGE difference. And that’s how we’ve had the most reaction, because people can see through the trees and between the trail and the sidewalk, and they are amazed at how it feels. It’s so open, and they can see the trees, they can see the apples when they’re on the tree, and they’re not left to rot on the ground. It really is, it’s beautiful, and has an arboretum sort of feeling there, so there I think we’ve had the most response from people. Pruning the trees as they grow out over the trail, too, they were obstructing as much as half the width of the Trail – so yeah, we have a lot of good feedback.
Lori: I thought the fact that when you did the cider pressing in the fall, that’s one of my favorite orchard steward moments. You letting different people use the cider press along the trail. I go to lots of cider presses, and usually there’s a couple of big, burly experts doing the cider pressing. Yours was so unique. There were kids using it, and lots and lots of people trying it and using it, and you had a lot of us who became expert in the process of using it, not showing up as experts.
Barb: That was our second year. The first year we had two—a brother and sister, probably only 6 and 8 years old—and they ran it two out of the three hours. [We laugh.] Because that’s normal for our little cider pressings, to have kids doing it.
Gail: What are the most difficult aspects of managing this linear orchard along a trail?
Barb: Well, keeping track of what’s going on with individual trees is really hard for me. It’s another area we could use some help. We’ve toyed with the idea of assigning a steward to each tree, but we don’t have people living along the same area. The hardest part is to be aware of what’s going on. Once you decide to go there, they’re not that far away, but it’s, you know, what stage they are. I’ve been keeping track of blooming times, and harvest times, and so now I know which come first, and which are next, so that helps.
Lori: I can imagine. Most of the other orchards–I’ve been to 6 or 7 in Seattle this past year–and most of them when you’re in the orchard, you can yell at each other, regardless of where you are, you can hear each other, and you can sort of coordinate on the fly, from within shouting distance.
Barb: And we generally don’t do more than one location during a work party, and that’s kind of tricky too, because some of them are just individual trees. But yeah, for this, we’re having a group from Washington State University come on March 10th, and it’s a very organized group from there. It’s their spring break, and they do service in different areas around the state, and we were chosen as one of their sites, so I want to get them a good experience, but I don’t really have much for them to do where we have a lot of trees, I mean they’re in pretty good shape. And they’re not pruners or grafters. So it’s getting a little trickier to find a big area for people to do things other than pulling invasives and hauling wood chips.
Lori: More guild planting?
Barb: Yeah. But we need, we have a lot of slopes, where blackberries need to be pulled and then replaced with something.
Barb: But, I tell ya, the main challenge for me is working under I-5. It is so noisy. That’s where the cider pressing was. I have to have ear plugs, really good ear plugs.
Lori: I’m going to write that down for Gail: “Remove section of I-5.” [We laugh.]
Barb: Yeah. It’s really. I mean, talk about not being able to communicate when you’re right next to somebody.
Lori: Who in the orchard steward community has been an inspiration to you or a mentor for you?
Barb: Well, Craig Thompson is amazing. I’m just so inspired by him.
Lori: At Jose Rizal?
Barb: Yes, Jose Rizal. Yes, how much he gets done. And then his persistence. [She belly laughs.] It’s not like we have had any real issues here. We just, I’ve had great support. From Parks. And we haven’t really had many problems. But he’s been working there for a long time, and had a lot of things that he’s dealt with, so yeah. He just gets things done.
And also, another inspiration is, not an orchard steward group but an urban forest group. Friends of Burke-Gilman Trail, they work up around 65th, and they do major, major restoration, and they are so persistent and consistent. They’re mostly retired, and they do strictly restoration. They just have been at that for years, doing amazing work.
Gail: What ideas do you have about educating the public about these fruit trees, and where did your ideas come from?
Barb: Well, since it’s so strung out, we’ve talked about having walking tours. And that’s possible a couple of different ways. In Wallingford there is Wallingford Walks. So it would be fine as one of those. And also, last spring, I met Penny who is the Tree Ambassador for Greenlake and Wallingford, I think she’s the first one.
Lori: What a great title!
Barb: Yeah! Isn’t it? And she’s something. She’s got a digital tour of the trees around Greenlake. And so you can have it on your phone, but ah, wouldn’t that be nice? She’s already done it. And we only have 20 something trees compared to her–she doesn’t have every single tree on it–and all the different species, but yeah. The Wallingford Walks are fun, because they’re really community based. We’re a little trickier, because where do you end up [laughs] once you’re in the area? If you started at one end, you could end up, there’s Essential Baking Company on the hill, we could end there. Then there’d be a coffee shop.
Lori: Yeah, human logistics. Need a bathroom stop along the way, coffee. Essential Baking would be a great stop. We were just in there.
Barb: They’re pretty much straight up from that last tree.
Lori: That reminds me of something I read last summer. Some village in England or Ireland or Scotland. They made their entire village a walking tour. They put up permanent plaques. And you can do it without a guide person. And you can go from plaque to plaque, and there’s a digital component. You can scan things and get more information for the entire town.
Barb: Well, yeah. There’s so much history. With these trees, you can get that in there, and gosh, I . . . found Paul Dorpat’s Web site. He’s amazing historian. He does the “Now and Then” column for the Pacific NW Magazine in the Sunday Seattle Times. I’ve been meaning to talk to him for a long time about the history of these trees and what he knows about the trees on the trail. And you get on his web site and he has digitized plats from 1912 so you can see what was going on where these trees are in the city at that time. Most of them are old trees.
Lori: And you’re also doing the Facebook page, which seems to be educating the public.
Barb: Yeah, yeah. I always link it to City Fruit education, and to fruit tree education and care in general, because I just like to talk to people in the neighborhood about their trees. And they don’t usually know what’s going on with us, in south Wallingford. They know about Merridian probably more so, but yeah, they just think it’s a great idea. Pretty much the most popular question is “What do you do with the fruit?” and we when we say we give most of it away, they’re pretty happy to hear that.
One of the things that’s most exciting about those trees is finding that one—and another that’s not officially part of these—those two trees have amazing, unusual apples. So that. One is a variety and the other is not, so if we could come up with a new variety for our orchard, that would be very exciting. That was something my dad always dreamed of. My dad had an orchard. That was his dream. That he was going to find some new variety that he could name.
Lori: Yeah. It is fun. Even for someone like me, who doesn’t know anything. I started volunteering for City Fruit in the spring, really excited, right on through July, and then had a lull in energy in August. And then September came and suddenly I was going to orchards and people were handing me apples to taste. It was just so fun!
Lori: It activates a whole other part of you. If you like to cook. If you like to can, home can things. And getting all the new apples, every time I showed up a new apple was put in front of me.
Barb: And what do you do with it? And what is it best for?
Lori: And getting to introduce my friends and family to apples they’d never heard of, or seen.
Barb: Mmm, hmm.
Lori: Those bright red little apples that Craig gave me with the bright white inside, just off the tree!
Barb: We had some like that too. They’re pretty good. We had the most volume of those, 8 boxes. They disappointed me over time. They’re really good at first, and they’re ok keepers, but they don’t knock your socks off with tartness, like this one tree is. Oh yeah. That one’s really been great because it’s so prolific and productive, so it’s good but it’s not amazing like these two others are.
And they vary. I was talking to Lori Brakken, she did some ID’ing. And Bob Norton, he did some of the ID’ing of the apples from some of our trees plus the big one at the John Stafford school. I mean, it’s a really sad tree– it’s got scab, in a terrible location–but it tastes like champagne! I mean, or like a chardonnay or something, it’s amazingly complex. And Bob was just blown away, which I thought “This is very cool, if Bob Norton thinks this is great!” So I still had some left to ID, and Lori was doing that for us. They all turned out to be seedlings, not an identifiable variety. And she said it varies with these seedlings. They vary from year to year and you have to see how consistent they are. I mean, I’m not used to that!
Barb: Yeah, because some were so grim. I mean they just had no flavor, and then you wonder, it’s like, well, are they going to be better this year? And then what does that mean?
Lori: And they’ve only had a little bit of love.
Barb: You were talking about trying different apples. We got some really tart ones, and then the ones from the school, at a school Move-A-Thon they do every October. So the kids are running, walking, biking right by three of our trees. We had a little table where we offered samples of our apples, and the kids were loving it. They just thought that was the coolest thing. They especially liked the apples that made them pucker up.
Lori: It’s fun to see adults kind of act like little kids. I noticed that at the cider tasting along the trail too. It’s interesting to watch. Some people are just too busy to even stop. And those that do are amazed. What, it’s free?! That is a strength of being a trail orchard. So many people coming through.
Barb: Oh yeah. On a nice day. Yeah. It’s getting them to slow down. Some signage would be nice. Getting people to stop and investigate the tree. We don’t have that, other than when we’re out there.
Gail: If you could have any wish for the orchard, what would it be?
Barb: Well, maybe that’s it right there. Signage has not been a big request for us compared to the other orchards. It would be really nice to get something, like what you were talking about, something that has a digital component to it too. And something that can’t be easily taken away. Picked up and run off with. But something like a self-guided tour would be nice, because, as you say, there are so many people that are there. It would just be great if they could stop.
Lori: I’m hearing more about walking tours everywhere I go.
Barb: And to tie in with cideries! There’s a lot of that too. The home brewed cider, which most, at least the people that I know, don’t know anything about cider. Or like my husband, who doesn’t even think he’d like it! And beer, we all love beer, but that whole thing. And having it local. And the local foods.
That’s another thing, another dream is to have some tie of Burke-Gilman apples to a local food company. Gelato or Mighty O Donuts or fritters… So that’s, we’re working on that. I need to do more leg work before harvest. That’s what would be really nice. That one tree would generate enough volume that it would be of interest to a bigger company.
Lori: My last question is, what do you have planned for 2013?
Barb: Well, we might have that walking tour, but we don’t have any signage. [we giggle together]
But I would like to pursue the food/apple connection. Are you invited to that City Fruit thing next week? That will be some of our cider from our apples, Paul Brookshire, so that’ll be interesting. And Don Ricks talks about drying apples. But I just want to be able to find a use for all these apples and goodies. Promote that. Sell that. Besides the fresh. Because a lot of these apples are not good for fresh, so you have to have other ways to really promote that this is food, and we can do a lot with that as a community.
We’re also going to do some grafting. So that’s the first time. I’d really like to take these two amazing trees and get them grafted to other, better locations. I’ll know more tomorrow if the Parks gardener is in favor of doing that, it’s almost right in front of my house, which I can keep an eye on it. But to get some other trees, or expand the better apples. We do have some problem apples, with the pest management protocol we’re working on. If we’ll be able to improve the health of some of the trees. It’s not bugs so much, it’s scab. It’s really kind of discouraging. Because we’ve done everything we can, and still the scab is so bad. I guess this is the year to see if they make it. Or we need to do something else to move them to a level where they have quality fruit. It varies so much. Some are good but others are just not in the right place, not the right variety, they’re old trees in the wrong place.
Lori: Thanks for your time Barb. And thanks for some of the questions Gail!