GORHAM – An old-time orchard on the Gorham campus of the University of Southern Maine, once part of an early farm, will bloom again.

This week, volunteers set out 20 small trees on a hillside near four sturdy, old apple trees, still standing like monuments after decades on campus.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service donated the trees, which were planted on Robie Hill behind Robie-Andrews Hall. Besides adding more beauty to the campus, the orchard will become a living, outdoor classroom for environmental and biology students.

The orchard-planting project is a collaborative effort headed by Associate Professor Travis Wagner of the Environmental Science Department; Jeff McKay, assistant director for grounds at the campus; and Tyler Kidder, assistant director for sustainable programs at the university.

“The beauty of it is you can see it grow every year,” Wagner said.

“I like the historical context,” Karen Wilson, an assistant research professor in the Environmental Sciences Department, said as she handled a shovel digging through sod where new apple trees will take root.

While learning, students will provide a hands-on role in caring for the apple trees.

“Late in the summer, we will collect scions of different apple varieties and graft them onto the rootstock. Eventually these trees will produce apples,” Kidder said.

Kidder said the trees would not produce without grafting, and one tree could produce multiple varieties of fruit. The apple trees will not be treated with chemicals.

“They’re going to be organic,” Kidder said.

Abby Pearson, a graduate student in biology at the university and an environmental science teacher, helped with the orchard restoration.

“It’s great to show some of Maine’s roots with our apple-growing heritage,” Pearson said.

Wagner believes the four old apple trees could date from the late 1880s. Unlike the old trees, the new additions are dwarf or semi-dwarf trees. Kidder said they will mature more quickly and the fruit would be easier to pick.

Kidder credited Wagner as the inspiration that led to replanting the orchard, which will likely bear some old-time varieties of fruit.

“I really love heirloom apples,” Wagner said.

Although not pruned, two of the four old trees have produced fruit in recent seasons. McKay said students who help out with grounds work at the campus munch on the apples, “worms and all,” from the unsprayed trees.

Using muscle power Monday, university staff members along with professors and students got a taste of earlier life when the original orchard was planted.

Breaking up sod the old-fashioned way, McKay swung a grub hoe while Kidder measured out and hammered in wooden stakes marking the plot. Kidder said the orchard restoration represents a return to “our roots.”

A rich-looking black compost, which was composted on campus, was mixed with the soil to nourish new apple tree roots, which were planted 8 inches deep. McKay hauled compost to the orchard in a motorized cart.

Besides tender loving care, the new orchard will require some protection. Sledding on the hillside is a popular winter tradition for students at the campus.

“We don’t want them to slide over baby trees,” Kidder said.

Wildlife nibbling could prove another problem. “We’ll keep an eye out for deer,” Kidder said.

Early orchards in Gorham, founded in 1736, once provided apples for cider, and some farmers were known to store barrels of the tasty beverage in cellars.

Cider making from apples produced in the university’s orchard could become a classroom experiment.

“It’s just for demonstration. We won’t be drinking it,” Wagner joked.

Daniel Martinez, assistant professor in the Environmental Science Department at the University of Southern Maine, gently packs earth around this little twig that will grow into an apple tree on the Gorham campus. In restoring a campus orchard, volunteers planted 20 apple tree saplings on Robie Hill on Monday. (Staff photo by Robert Lowell)

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