Trees of Antiquity may be one of the best kept secrets among North County gardeners. The heirloom tree farm off Wellsona Road in Paso Robles sells about 350 varieties of bareroot fruit trees and vines by mail order to customers around the country. It grows over 150 varieties of heirloom apples right on its farm. And yet, locally, it manages to keep a low profile.
“Our primary market is mail order retail,” said Neil B. Collins who owns the nursery with wife Danielle. “When we came here, we decided that we wanted to support and respect the local nursery industry.”
The farm is an offshoot of Healdsburg’s Sonoma Antique Apple Nursery, which was started by Terry and Carolyn Harrison in the late 1970s. Collins was their farm manager and, when the Harrisons retired in 2000, he and a partner decided to start their own business.
Collins, a Cal Poly graduate, moved the business to Paso Robles in 2002. He and Danielle are now sole owners of the farm.
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The nursery sells over 20 types of fruit and nut trees, as well as grapes and berries. Their more unusual trees include quinces, plumcots and jujubes, which are often called Chinese dates.
Apples are still their specialty, however. Nearly all the apple varieties that they sell are grown on their farm. All are certified organic, and all are heirloom.
Collins defines heirloom as old varieties that date back 100 years are more — some apples were grown in the 1200s.
“People have taken the time to take cuttings and continue to pass along these varieties to the next generation,” he said. “Otherwise, they would be gone.”
These are not the apples you find in your supermarket produce section. Most heirloom fruit and vegetable aficionados would attest to the superiority in flavor of heirloom varieties.
“Heirloom apples have a lot more complexity with sweet and tart flavors, whereas grocery store apples tend to be either tart or sweet,” he said.
According to Collins, home gardeners are among the few individuals interested in growing heirlooms, which have limited appeal to farmers who grow fruit for supermarkets.
“They don’t bear enough, they take too long to bear, or they don’t ship or store well,” he said. “Plus they don’t have the coloring or look that is going to sell on a supermarket shelf. If you put a funky looking apple in a grocery store, nobody is going to buy it, even if the taste is superior.”
Of the 155 varieties of apples on the Trees of Antiquity website, there are common ones like Braeburn and Gala. But you’ll also find unusual varieties like Cox’s Orange Pippin, which does well in locales with cool summers, Ashmead’s Kernel, an old English russet, Cinnamon Spice with its distinctive apple pie flavor, and Whitney, which is a large crabapple with an intensely sweet and complex flavor.
Trees are grafted onto a range of rootstocks that are described in detail on the nursery website. The rootstocks produce trees that vary from six to over 20 feet. They also have varying resistance to pests and disease, as well as tolerance of heavy soils.
Collins recommends researching all aspects of an apple variety before bringing it home.
“Like wines, they require a certain climate for peak flavor,” said Collins.
Fall might conjure thoughts of apple harvests, but for customers of Trees of Antiquity, it’s also time to think about next year’s plantings. The farm begins taking orders in July and typically sells out by December.
In late December, the bareroot trees are harvested, bundled and stored in preparation for shipment. Locals can save on shipping costs. Trees that have been ordered in advance can be picked in at Nature’s Touch Nursery and Harvest in Templeton. They will be ready to be added to your own home orchard in January.
Contact Trees of Antiquity by calling (805) 467-9909 or visiting www.treesofantiquity.com.