Darren Murphy is an expert at making apples-to-apples comparisons.
Murphy, a founding member and current president of the Bainbridge Island Fruit Club, is opening his garden to tourists on this Saturday’s Edible Garden Tour.
The tour — presented by Bainbridge Prepares and Friends of the Farms — is a four-stop outing with a focus on getting the most yum from your yard.
“Resilient is the new sustainable,” said organizer Bobbie Morgan.
“That’s a thing now, really getting prepared. But in a joyful happy way; not a fearful way,” Morgan explained.
It’s not a come-wander tour, but an inspired sprint around the island for two busloads of people who want to visit and learn from gardeners who go far beyond perfect patches of flashy flowers.
“We’re doing this to create a resilient community. Plus it’s delicious and healthy,” Morgan said.
Just one stop
The stop at Murphy’s garden will focus on fruit, though he grows plenty of vegetables, herbs and flowers on his 1/3-acre property (and also raises a small flock of chickens there).
“I kind of developed it to be an exhibition garden for what you can grow in an edible garden,” Murphy said.
A lot of yards are beautifully landscaped, he said, with ornamental shrubs and bushes that produce no fruit or very little.
His philosophy is decidedly different: “See if you can make it beautiful but at the same time, add some vegetation, some flowers, some other stuff that will not only be beautiful but add some value.”
His bountiful beds, fruit-filled trees and continuous array of garden experiments have drawn plenty of curious looks from passers-by.
He recalled a neighbor who once asked why he had planted corn in a bed near the front of his home.
“Why not?” Murphy asked.
Murphy, a fourth-generation resident of Washington who’s originally from the Tumwater area, moved to Bainbridge in 1999. His garden has been in a continuous state of evolution ever since.
His small property boasts about 40 to 50 fruit trees, from very large in size to small, and through the technique of grafting (fusing a small cutting of a tree branch onto a branch of a different fruit tree), he’s been able to grow an amazingly wide variety of apples, plums and pears.
At one point, he had 30 apple varieties — on one tree.
“I probably have close to 100 varieties of apples, 50 varieties of pears, 35 of plums,” he said during a recent pre-tour tour of his garden.
Then there are the odds and ends; kiwis, figs, lemons and grapefruit. Grapes? Nine varieties popping from vines on arbors throughout the garden.
Add to that an experiment here and there, like trying to create a “fruit cocktail” tree that grows apples and pears and more.
“I have so much fruit, it’s crazy,” he said.
The garden is constantly changing through a trial-and-error approach.
“I’ve made so many mistakes over the years. Now I kind of relish the errors, because I say, ‘Gosh, let me see if I can find another way around this.’”
Taste of history
Each fruit tree and almost every branch seemingly has its story, ones that he’s eager to share with people on the tour this Saturday.
Murphy pointed to a tree that owes a large part of its existence to a cutting he got from a Baldwin apple orchard. From that tree, there was a chance mutation which became known as the Olympia apple; named after the state capital.
That variety of apple dates back to the late 1800s, and was developed by William Shincke from one of his orchards.
Murphy admitted he didn’t know anything about the Olympia variety until he joined a fruit club, and an older couple shared a collection of index cards that detailed the hundreds of apple varieties they grew.
“And I said, ‘This is cool. I’m from Olympia; that’s where I was born. That would be really cool to get this apple.”
As he read the index card, he saw a familiar name.
“And when I was reading it, I said, wait, ‘Shincke.’ That’s my grandmother’s maiden name.”
William Shincke, as it turns out, is Murphy’s great-great-grandfather.
Murphy has since shared grafts of the tree, and his extended family is now growing the Olympia apple, which they call “the grandpa apple.”
“It’s a pretty good apple,” he added.
Murphy has a few such old, old-timers in his garden, including the Pendragon variety, an apple with dark red skin and a red flesh, as well. It dates back to 12th century England.
It’s commonly used for cider, but Murphy uses it for pink/red applesauce.
Applesauce aside, growing fruit trees is a way of preserving history.
“Some fruit trees can last 800 years,” he said.
Generations of people can come and go, but a pear tree can still survive after 600, 700 years.
Murphy recalled the story of an Italian family, a father-and-daughter team, who were trying to recreate a lot of the Renaissance pears they had seen in Dutch and Flemish paintings from the era.
“They went back to all these old abbeys and monasteries in Italy and they were able to find some of these old gnarly looking old pear trees, and they were able to get cuttings from those and establish the same varieties that people thought no longer existed,” he said.
While growing fruit trees is a way of preserving varieties that are rapidly disappearing, there are other benefits, too.
Grocery stores have limited varieties of fruit, because growers and producers focus on fruits that are marketable, popular and ship well.
Other varieties of fruits that have unique characteristics, such as being more nutritional, may not be found in the produce section of your local grocery.
“The Honey Crisp is a great apple; everyone loves the Honey Crisp,” he said.
“It’s one of the least nutritional apples there is,” Murphy added. “The Red Delicious is more nutritional than the Honey Crisp.”
During the Edible Garden Tour, Murphy hopes to share tips that include gardening in tight spaces (columnar-type apple trees fit the bill, as well as grafting different varieties onto one tree, of course), as well as cheap tricks for the garden.
For those looking to learn about getting the most out of their fruit trees, Murphy is the go-to guy on grafting.
“It gives you more variety if you have less space,” he explained, as well as providings for cross pollination between varieties on the same tree.
“It also gives you a different sequencing of fruit,” Murphy said.
Over a two- or three-month period, for example, he can harvest a variety of plum types rather than one variety all at once.
Instead of an expensive wooden trellis for some of his grapes, he fashioned an arbor made in part from iron rebar.
“I want to show people you don’t necessarily have to have a fancy arbor.”
“Just put up a couple of sticks and bam! And then the vines cover up everything and make everything look lovely,” he said.
Of pests and perks
Over there are pest traps made on the cheap; over here, recycled plastic bottles, used to capture invasive Asian fruit flies, moths and other unwanted bugs.
He has labor-saving tips, as well.
Murphy pointed to a garden bed that earlier this year was home to “gobs of flowers,” mostly blue bells and tulips.
Instead of digging up the bed and replanting, Murphy turned it into a place for container gardening. After a layer of wood chips was put down, the containers were put in place.
Now growing in that same space are green beans, bush beans and cucumbers.
“You can just throw a pot down, put some seeds in and whammo!”
Murphy has added to his collection by getting cuttings from other gardens, yards and farms across the island. Other additions come from afar, including fruit shows and farmers markets.
Behind his house, he grows big Hecker strawberries in raised plastic windowsill-style containers, which help with his cascading varieties as well as pest control and easy picking. They are also mobile, and can be moved around the yard if needed.
The method would be perfect for patio or small-space gardening, he added.
Murphy’s garden is one stop of four on the tour; other locations include Carol Appenzeller’s garden in Winslow, the P-patch at Johnson Farm, and the large-lot garden of Tami Meader and Nick Dalusio.
Morgan, one of the event organizers, said each location offers a different appeal.
Appenzeller’s garden also occupies a small space, but has a major mission.
“She almost feeds her family — the three of them — from her also third-of-an-acre, typical small yard,” Morgan said.
It’s another example of resiliency, she said.
“She does not want to be part of the agri-business food system. She wants to be free from that,” Morgan said of Appenzeller.
For more information on the tour, go to https://www.friendsofthefarms.org/.