Home & Garden

The Collins orchard in Paso Robles: A passion for heirloom apples

One of three selections of quince, one of the earliest known fruits, the Smyrna is an attractive tree with showy blossoms in late spring; Sunset zones 5-10. Quince contains natural pectin, making the fruit good for preserves and chutney.
One of three selections of quince, one of the earliest known fruits, the Smyrna is an attractive tree with showy blossoms in late spring; Sunset zones 5-10. Quince contains natural pectin, making the fruit good for preserves and chutney. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

‘Not if I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths, an iron voice, could I describe all the forms and reckon up all the names of these wild apples. — Thoreau,” from the Trees of Antiquity catalog.

Passion. That’s the word that describes Trees of Antiquity owners Neil and Danielle Collins of Paso Robles when it comes to organic heirloom apple and fruit trees. They are farmers who raise bareroot heirloom trees for homeowners nationwide.

“Without question, our passion is to get these trees in the backyards of families, so their children can discover where the fruit comes from. The loss of connection to our original food sources is at the heart of what keeps us going,” says Neil Collins.

Collins developed an interest in growing things as a boy, playing in the hills of coastal sage in Southern California. Although he majored in city and regional planning at Cal Poly, graduating in 1992, he gravitated toward farming, working under the tutelage of Orange County fruit and vegetable grower, A.G. Kawamura, who later served as California Secretary of Agriculture from 2003 to 2010.

The enthusiasm for organic heirloom apple trees was nurtured when Collins managed Sonoma Antique Apples in Northern California. The couple that owned the small business on leased property gave it to Collins when they retired, validating his dedication to hard work and commitment to their vision. Collins and his wife, Danielle, a Cal Poly wildlife biology graduate, made the decision to purchase their own land where they could expand the nursery and fulfill their dream of reviving “treasured relics from the past.”

After searching throughout the state, they found the right combination of flat acreage, water, alkaline soil and sunshine on 80 acres in Paso Robles, with an existing home needing some TLC.

Collins began by planting 300 “mother trees” on the lower portion of the property to provide the scions, or buds, for grafting. On the flat upper level of the property, he developed several 5-acre planting plots to facilitate crop rotation, essential to healthy soil.

The current producing 5-acre plot in full sunshine is planted with rows and rows of 170 different heirloom apple varieties, each little tree the product of a grafted bud onto hearty MM111 rootstock.

Collins and one helper graft the buds from the “mother trees” to the rootstock in March, together grafting 1,000 trees a day. It takes them the entire month to graft the crop of 20,000 trees.

Through spring and summer, Collins spends at least eight hours a day in the field hoeing weeds by hand, removing suckers, managing the drip irrigation and tending the developing crop. In August and September, he and his helper rise at 3 a.m. to trim and label the trees, using headlamps in the cool of the morning.

In January, the 5-foot trees are dug out of the ground, the roots tucked in a plastic bag with moist paper and shipped in cardboard boxes to eager customers who have reserved trees on the website and from the catalog throughout the year.

“Most of our business is word-of-mouth, with our popular cider trees all reserved by September and 50 percent of our trees sold out by December,” says Collins. Local fruit supplier Windsong Farms of Paso Robles buys its trees from Collins.

Besides the apple trees, Collins offers a variety of berries and most of the deciduous fruit trees, including quince, chestnut, pear and the unusual jujube. Their informative and thoughtful catalog gives the history of each variety, the appropriate climate zones, order of harvest, tree size and storage quality, plus tidbits on philosophy of heirloom gardening and tree-planting directions. A “tree starter package” is a helpful option for first-time gardeners.

The yearlong process involved in providing these legacy trees to homeowners is labor-intensive and constant. This is where the passion comes in.

The Collinses believe in their product and are enthusiastic about their role in promoting the flavorful apples, an inheritance from earlier times. Their catalog expresses the motivation behind their commitment: “It’s a unique experience to bite into a fruit that explodes with a complexity of sweetness chased with a dash of tartness. We offer a small peek into a vast world of treasured sweets long forgotten, but still on the map.”