Stephen Zeh, Basketmaker of Temple, Maine.

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Swing Handle Apple Basket with some pretty apples. Hand woven of brown ash with hand carved bent loop swing handle by Stephen Zeh, Maine basket maker.

Swing Handle Apple Baskets

Here in the foothills of western Maine's mountain region when fall colors begin to turn, the apple trees are heavy with ripening apples. Often the days are sunny and warm, but the nights are cool and frosty. This helps bring up the color and sugar of the crisp apples.

It is time for the harvest. It is time to get out the apple ladder and apple baskets.

Tammy and I enjoy going into the orchard and tasting the different varieties to see which ones are ready. We have several ancient trees of Macintosh and Baldwin and a number of smaller trees which I grafted onto dwarfing rootstock. Many of the varieties are heirloom cultivars, with a few modern ones as well.

Swing handle apple baskets

Tammy Zeh harvesting apples in the orchard

Some years ago I found a nice slender spruce tree. My son, Eben, and I bored holes through the pole at eighteen inch intervals and then sawed the tree in half lengthwise. I had been saving some pieces of white ash which I had split into billets about one by one inch. We carved these with a draw-knife, rounding them up, and by graduating each slightly shorter in length used them for rungs to make a tapered apple ladder. We still use this ladder today to harvest the apples in our small orchard.

Tammy still picks the apples, climbing the ladder and bringing a swing handle apple basket with her to hold the apples. The hand carved swing handle helps keep it out of the way when going up in the tree. She hangs the apple basket by a hook to keep both hands free while picking. Each apple is picked with care to keep it from bruising so that it will keep well in the winter.

Then she sorts the apples for quality into boxes in a cart at the base of the tree. When it is time to move the ladder,she gets me to do that chore and also to reach the apples way up in the top of the tree. Often these apples, growing where the sun can shine all around them, are the best ones on the tree.

14 in. Swing Handle Apple Basket and 12 in. Swing Handle Apple Basket at base of apple tree with a bountiful crop of Wickson Crab apples and hand made apple ladder. Handwoven of brown or black ash with hand carved bent loop swing handle by basketmaker Stephen Zeh of Temple, Maine.

When picking the scent of fall is all around. Sometimes apples fall to the ground crushing and releasing their apple scent. In the evening deer and other wildlife come in to fill up on apples to fatten up and get ready for the coming winter.

One early fall day I walked down by the small spring where our well is. In the hollow is an old Ben Davis tree onto which I grafted a branch of Golden Delicious. Looking up into the tree I saw all the branches on top broken down and some were on the ground. It looked like a storm had been through there. A closer look revealed that a bear had been up in the tree and tore things up so that it could get the apples.

Swing Handle Apple Basket ready for picking Baldwin heirloom apples.

Our farm once had apple trees numbering up to a thousand. Mostly they were the old Baldwin trees, once the most popular apple. They keep well and are great for pies and apple cider. But back in the ‘thirties a big freeze killed most of the Baldwin trees. Our farm is on a south facing slope which drains the bitter cold away. Because of this a few of these big old trees survived here. Fifteen years ago I undertook the task of pruning away dead wood and shaping up the trees to bring them back to productivity.

One of our favorite apples ripens earlier, in the summer at the middle to end of August. It is Red Astrachan. It makes one of the best apple sauces. They don't keep at all so Tammy makes up the apple sauce and freezes it to enjoy with biscuits at breakfast time during the long winter and spring.

Swing Handle Apple Baskets 14 in and 12 in diameters overflowing with Wickson crab apples. Handle crafted of brown or black ash by Stephen Zeh basketmaker of Temple, Maine. The handles and rims are hand split and hand carved of brown  or black ash.

Best of all is cider pressing. There are always apples that aren't perfect - but they are just right for cider. Several times a season we get out the old wooden cider press to make cider. The best cider is a mix which changes as the season progresses. To start we use Macintosh mixed with handfuls of wild crabs to add a bit of acidity. Later the Baldwins make the best cider. We mix in some Wickson crabs with these to make a tasty and rich cider. After the pressing is over there is a barrel-full of dry apple pulp left over. Deer and turkeys appreciate the extra nourishment this provides for them.