Edible Monterey Bay

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Nadine Schaeffer tends her apple orchard in the Pajaro Valley.

Birdsong Orchards keeps rare fruits and flowers alive

Farmer Nadine Schaeffer’s hair is the color of plums and purple sunsets, wild artichokes and lavender roses, as though the vivid colors of the fruits and flowers she tends have somehow stained her wild locks.

But that is nonsense, or poetry, anyway, and it’s likely such a thought might only cross your mind as you savor an incredible late red beauty plum, or a dark rubinette apple. You might be forgiven for lapsing into poetry with such flavors lingering on your palate, and the scent of an ebb tide rose still in your nose.

At Birdsong Orchards, Schaeffer takes pride in growing unusual varieties like these, whose flavors and scents can be both familiar and a revelation. An apple is an apple, and a plum is a plum, after all, but the diverse selection of varieties she cultivates challenges what we think we know of the flavor profiles of these fruits.

The CCOF-certified organic farm climbs a gentle hill on a south-facing slope in the Pajaro Valley. Rows of trees—walnut, pear, fig, cherry, apricot, guava, citrus, persimmon, plum, pluot, peach, nectarine and apple—one type per row, span the width of the 8-acre plot. This time of year, it’s the apples that hold center stage, as the wild abundance of the summer harvest season has finally receded, leaving crates of pears in cold storage and the apple trees still hung with fruit.

We walk along the rows of carefully pruned trees, their leaves rustling quietly, their branches weighted with fruit of every color. The names of each variety are printed on small silver tags that glint in the sun, and their old names make another kind of poem; ashmead’s kernel, orleans reinette, calville blanc. The names tell a story of the generations of orchard-keepers who bred each variety for specific purposes—such as long storage, cider, pies or fresh eating.

Schaeffer leans into a dark-leafed tree and gently lifts an apple to pluck at the peak of ripeness

“This is one of my favorites,” she says, handing me a red cinnamon spice apple. It’s not a pie apple, despite the name, but the flavor is crisp and rich, and, yes, warmly spicy, like cinnamon. It’s unlike any supermarket fruit.

The names tell a story of the generations of orchard-keepers who bred each variety for specific purposes—such as long storage, cider, pies or fresh eating.

Most of us know by now how, in the course of industrialization, many heirloom varieties have been lost in favor of easy transport and favorable cosmetic appearance. A red delicious apple is pretty, but bland and ubiquitous. Schaeffer, growing as she is in apple country, has a particular affection for the apple trees that root in her dark clay soil, and she has made a point of growing unusual varieties well suited to our local conditions.

She sees her varied planting as a deliberate hedge against monoculture; in a shifting climate, it makes sense to diversify and experiment, pushing the boundaries of what can be grown on the Central Coast.

She grows over 175 varieties of fruit trees, sourcing them as bare root saplings from specialty nurseries, or sometimes from cuttings made by members of the Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers Association, of which she is the vice president.

The harvest is abundant and though apples keep well in cold storage, Schaeffer will have sold them all by the time January rolls around.

“People are curious about these varieties,” she explains, “but it’s almost impossible to find them in most of the country.” Unlike the tender stone fruits, apples ship pretty well, so when a customer orders from her website, Schaeffer packs the apples in sampler boxes and ships them all over the country. Each box contains half a dozen fruits, selected from a rotating cast of rare heirloom varieties.

It’s an unusual business model, a blend of hyper-local and national, but it allows her to charge a premium for the apples she grows with such care. The rest of her fruit is sold on site, from a pop-up farm stand that operates on Fridays. COVID-19 has changed things, of course; customers now pay online, and fruit is set out for them to pick up when they arrive.

On a different part of the farm, a flower field is a rainbow of vibrant shades and scents, abundant with Weeks and David Austin roses. Throughout the week, florists and u-pick customers may stop by the farm by appointment to harvest flowers by the bucket, sourcing for arrangements or special events, or just the joy of being outside in a field of flowers. Schaeffer also delivers to a few florists, harvesting buckets of roses, dahlias, sweet peas, sunflowers, peonies and more, as the season permits. For added scent, she tucks in sprigs of scented geraniums from her bed of more than a dozen pelargonium varieties, including rose geranium, chocolate and nutmeg. Pre-pandemic, she hosted classes at the farm as well, on topics like flower arranging, marijuana cultivation and the ancient art of hoshigaki.

Today, a shaggy assortment of llamas, alpacas, goats, chickens, cats and dogs surveys the visitors as they arrive. The sound of migratory birds is ever present, too; the farm’s name, Birdsong Orchards, is not mere fancy but a tribute to the diversity of winged wildlife that thrives in the area.

In the slanting light of early autumn, surrounded by her orchard and the flower fields glowing below, Schaeffer takes stock of her life. She hasn’t always been a farmer. Though she grew up surrounded by farms, for most of her career she worked in Silicon Valley, in a high-powered, male-dominated field. She was good at what she did, but it was a stressful life, too. This one, offering a taste of seasons on the tongue, scents of flowers in the air and songs of birds on the breeze, suits her better. The steady rhythm of labor is deeply satisfying. The connection to cycles and harvest nourishes her in a way that tech work never did.

Birdsong Orchards

About the author

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Jessica Tunis lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains and spends her time tending gardens, telling stories, and cultivating adventure and good food in wild places.