Askville: An apple a day for the revolution

Plant an apple tree and start a permacultural phenomenon. That’s one way to sum up the mantra of local apple guru Bill Whipple. A 21st-century Johnny Appleseed, he plants trees in public spaces while helping spread the permaculture gospel. By day, the 45-year-old Whipple crafts wood into such whimsical pieces as a curving side table that evokes the stems and pads of lilies in a pond. But in his spare time, he’s T. Bud Barkslip, the caped crusader of apple trees.

Bill Whipple

Whipple’s mission is simple: Nurture a community by teaching others what he knows and by cultivating apple trees in public spaces, such as the Edible Garden at Stephens-Lee. This year, he’s partnered with Bob White, creator of the Pisgah View Community Peace Garden. The two men have planted an apple-tree nursery featuring various heirloom varieties that are now ready to sell and re-plant. On one level, it’s simply an early December fundraising project for the Peace Garden. But to hear Whipple tell it, it’s also about “trying to do some good out there” and “looking for social, cultural and natural patterns and working with them.”

A slender guy, Whipple has traveled as a street performer in Canada, Europe and Australia; he’s also grown pear trees in West Virginia. But after coming to Asheville in 2001, he revived his dream of having an apple orchard. Quick to laugh, Whipple peppers his conversation with tongue-in-cheek wordplay and talk of “crenellating the edge” and planting apple trees as an investment in the future. Here’s some of what he had to say when Xpress sat down with him recently.

Mountain Xpress: Why Asheville?
Bill Whipple: After 20 years in the hills of West Virginia, I thought I was growing socially retarded. I moved here, set up a woodworking shop, then sort of fell in with a shady bunch that was all about this urban-agriculture stuff: the permaculturalists.

How does that tie in with apples?
Folks used to plant apple trees just as a matter of course for future generations. Nobody’s doing that [now]. When the trees start getting mature, you plant some young ones. We need to save the apples that Grandpa planted.

But first you grew pears?
Twenty-some years ago, I asked a friend whose father worked in the farmer’s market, and he said, “My dad pays $5 a bushel for apples, and he pays $17 a bushel for pears. You do the numbers.” I planted pear trees, but I always wanted to plant apples.

It’s never too late to start.
It’s kind of a midlife crisis: You do what you wanted to do when you were young. Some people want to get a red convertible; I want to dig a root cellar and plant an apple orchard.

How will you do it?
You can plant an apple tree in your yard, and that’s a great thing. You’ll get fruit, and you’ll have some fruit to share with your neighbors, and you’ll have some habitat, and that’s great. But what if you plant a tree and you do it on public land?

How does that work?
Instead of getting a grant or taking cash out of my pocket, I decided to do a fruit school, because then you raise money for the trees. I also get to teach people in the community, they get to network, and we start to build a community of people who are comfortable with and passionate about fruit trees.

What then?
What if we plant [an apple tree] at a school? Kids learn about where food comes from. They’re taking care of that tree; they’re learning about the cycles of nature. There’s a whole science lab out there. But that’s not enough. What if we start teaching the kids how to propagate the trees? But that’s not enough, because then the school has all these baby fruit trees. Someone’s mother’s going to say, “Let’s have a plant sale!” Suzie’s and Johnny’s trees get sold and planted, and the kids become the medium for spreading fruit trees around town.

Little Johnny Appleseeds.
Yeah, little Johnny Appleseeds. In permaculture, we ask, “Am I going to get the maximum yield out of planting a tree in my yard, or am I going to get the maximum yield at a schoolyard, building community around it and having a source of income for those kids?”

How’d you hook up with the Pisgah View project?
I’d heard about Bob White’s Peace Garden, and I talked to him about my apple-nursery idea. We shared ideas that we never would have shared, because we’re from two different types of universes—creating “edge” and creating something new when two things come together. Now I have these trees that have this wonderful story and that have served a higher purpose. The trees are 6 feet tall! I don’t think I could have gotten them that big in my garden.

What varieties are you selling?
The ‘York Imperial’. It’s a red apple; it’s lopsided, and I love that. It’s a keeper [a variety that stores well] and has a really great, classic yummy flavor. It keeps my teeth white, too. It’s kind of hard, like a Milk Bone. We’ve also got ‘Esopus Spitzenburg’, which was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple. ‘Roxbury Russet’—the first named apple in the United States of America, in the 1600s. It’s a seedling offspring of the ‘Golden Russet’, which is a classic English apple. There’s another one, the ‘Pomme Gris’ or ‘grey potato’. It’s supposed to look horrible, just the dog of apples, but has this most incredible flavor. Of course, it’ll never make it in America because it’s not all red, even if it tastes like heaven on earth. I love underdogs.

I’d like to plant an apple tree, but I’ll probably be moving next year.
What happens when everybody says that? Nothing gets planted. Transience is not an excuse. The moment is right now: You’re planting that tree … if not for you, it’ll be for somebody else who will fully delight in that fruit. What a gift! Plant your trees wherever you are. Seize the moment! That’s what I say.

Some trees are still available. Call White at 989-0893 or Shipple at 713-2424.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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