Spring Blossom Trails

Spring Blossom Trails

Adding feminine grace to the surrounding environment, an endless orchard of pale pink flowers is nothing short of breathtaking and deep inside I think every creature knows what the blossoms truly mean—that fruit is coming, and that is a cause for celebration.

By: Kimberly Kaido-Alvarez

Feb. 21, 2012

In our family photo albums there are pictures of me at the age of eight in my patched-up jeans with my hair braided and a big smile, nestled among the blossoms of an apple tree. This was an annual family tradition—to take pictures in the blooms, and no matter what I was wearing or how I looked I always felt beautiful surrounded by those blossoms.

Adding feminine grace to the surrounding environment, an endless orchard of pale pink flowers is nothing short of breathtaking and deep inside I think every creature knows what the blossoms truly mean—that fruit is coming, and that is a cause for celebration.

In my family, this was the case, and the photo shoot is a custom that dates back down my maternal line, probably to the year the camera was invented. As residents of Sebastopol in the heart of West County’s apple country, my mother, grandmother and great grandmother were all intimately acquainted with the orchards and tried to capture a fair amount of it on film.

Sebastopol used to be all about apples, and it still is to some extent, although much of the land has been cleared of trees in favor of planting the more profitable wine grape crop. Some farms, like Twin Hills Ranch in Sebastopol actually combine the two interests and grow both apples and grapes. “We are an example of what Sebastopol was and still is,” said Wayne Wieseler, Business Manager for Jim Palk, the owner of Twin Hills Ranch.

Highway 116 is dubbed “Gravenstein Highway,” in honor of Sebastopol’s most famed apple, the Gravenstein. An obscure, sweet yet tart apple that holds up well in cooking is what makes this apple special to chefs and home cooks from near and far who anxiously await the limited harvest. Apple blossoms interspersed with vineyards along Hwy. 116 North lead the way to the small town of Sebastopol, home of the Apple Blossom Parade and Festival in April, when the blooms tend to be at their height, but this can vary depending on the year and the weather.

Significant orchard plantings begin on the Northwest side of Sebastopol and a good place to start a blossom gazing trip is at Mom’s Apple Pie, located near the corner of Guerneville Road on Hwy. 116 in Sebastopol. Started by owner Betty Carr with her husband, the late Harry Carr, in 1983, the cafe’s signature dish is fresh apple pie. Carr used to bake only one pie a day, using Gravenstein apples, but today, the full blown café crafts all kinds of different pies and also serves lunch. Outdoor seating with Gravenstein apple orchards in view are part of the scenery here and just a precursor of what is still to come along the rest of Hwy. 116 to downtown Sebastopol.

Andy’s Produce is another great stop along Hwy. 116. The unique open air market is a local favorite. Premium fresh local fruits and vegetables in rich variety is what they’re known for, but bulk flour, nuts and dried herbs can also be found at Andy’s along with bread from local bakeries and other natural foods. Conveniently located on the Joe Rodota bike trail, Andy’s is also home to Roaster’s Coffee Shop with outdoor seating overlooking the apple orchards across the street.

Traveling through Sebastopol there are many references made to apples by local business names or street names; like the Apple Cobbler, Gravenstein Station, Apple Blossom Lane, Apple Blossom Mini-Mart, Apple Blossom Elementary School and more. Apple enthusiasts might want to visit the West County Museum or the Chamber of Commerce in downtown Sebastopol to get the full scoop on apple resources, history and events.
In the heart of downtown Sebastopol one can venture off and make a right on Bodega Hwy. that leads the way to the outskirts of town where apple farms like Twin Hills Ranch still flourish.

Twin Hills Apple Ranch is worth a visit and is located just a few miles off Bodega Hwy. on Pleasant Hill Road. The 60-year-old ranch features historic farm equipment and its large barn is packed with apple products like juice, sauce, pies, apple bread, cookies, and gifts. “We are a ?signature farm and our role is significant,” said Wieseler.

About 1,300 school kids visit Twin Hills Ranch each year. “We’re trying to teach kids where food really comes from,” said Wieseler. “This is a community farming tradition. We want to focus on taking care of and being a part of this community,” said Wieseler. Hosting school groups is just one way that they do that and the old packing line is a real draw for the kids and adult tour groups who like to see the equipment moving and in operation. “There are only three set-ups like this in the U.S.,” ?said Wieseler.

Gravenstein apples, Golden and Red Delicious, Pink Lady and Fuji are some of the apple varieties growing on Twin Hills Ranch. The farmland is divided almost equally between apple orchards and vineyards, and there is also a little plot of tangerine trees.

Leaving Twin Hills Ranch and traveling a little further down Bodega Hwy., the prestigious Gold Ridge orchards come into view and the new plantings there bring a smile to many local faces. Bill’s Farm Basket is also located on Bodega Hwy. It’s another fruit-stand style market that is a good spot to pick up fresh local food including fruit and veggies, but also eggs, meat and cheese from local farms.

Apples aren’t the only Sonoma County trees putting on an impressive display of blooms in spring; Healdsburg’s Dry Creek area actually precedes the apple show, with peach and plum trees blooming as early as late February or early March depending on the weather.

Before heading into Dry Creek Valley, stopping for picnic supplies at Big John’s Market is a convenient—not to mention tasty—option. Brimming with fresh and often local produce, cheese, meats and more, Big John’s is a full service gourmet market. Their deli is definitely a highlight, featuring not only sandwiches in all shapes and sizes, but salads, olives, and a self-serve bar of house-prepared hot dishes, like sautéed vegetables, soups and choice cuts of roasted meats.

In the heart of Dry Creek Valley, the historical Dry Creek General Store (established in 1881) also begs for a visit. Here too, creative gourmet recipes are the name of the game and the General Store carries that theme a step further with signature caramel corn, house-made potato chips and a great jerky selection. Sandwiches, soups and salads are also made here, and you can pick up picnic supplies, wine, unique gifts and cookbooks with local connections.

You can take advantage of visiting the vintage washrooms located adjacent to the store in the saloon-style bar that serves wine and beer in the later afternoon. The venerable old building has a front porch that sits up a little higher than the valley, offering an impressive vantage point. It’s equipped with tables and chairs for enjoying good food and a nice view.

“Dry Creek is beautiful during all the seasons but spring is bursting with life and new growth,” said Gayle Sullivan of Dry Creek Peach and Produce. The peach trees create a swathe of pink that is set against a valley of vineyards—sometimes there’s a little yellow mustard mixed in as well. “It’s stunning,” she added.
The blossoms, however, mark a critical time in the orchard when every flower is a potential peach, given that conditions remain favorable. By driving through the valley, one can see what kind of a year it might be. If the blossoms are heavily laden, there will probably be a big harvest, if the weather holds, explained Sullivan.
The Dry Creek area consists of several micro-climates within one area making it a unique growing region. “We’re on the northern end, which tends to be cooler and is good for the trees that need the chill hours,” said Sullivan. The water table is high, and it used to flood before the dam was installed so the soil is rich and fertile and there is plenty of water.

Dry Creek Peach and Produce is home to about 1,000 trees and 30 varieties of peaches. Rich May, Red Haven and O’Henry are some of Sullivan’s favorite varieties that are seasonally sold at the farm’s fruit stand and at local farmers markets.

There are several wineries in the Dry Creek Valley, but a visit to Preston of Dry Creek is a “must” for a lot of tourists and locals alike. Preston of Dry Creek is an organic farm and winery, founded in the 1970s by the Preston family. The nature of their business has changed over time from a conventional estate winery to a diversified farm, and wine is just one of many homegrown and handmade food products offered at Preston.
Showcasing fresh bread, olives and other seasonal delicacies, this is a one-of-a-kind destination and an opportunity to experience a refreshing view of culture, food and cutting edge farming and sustainability practices use.

When prohibition took hold, the crop of choice in the Dry Creek Valley was prunes and pears, said Lou Preston, who is once again growing some of the historic varieties—such as “Imperial”—that were originally planted in Dry Creek.

In the Preston vineyards, three acres of prune and almond trees are planted between the vines. “The weather gets hot in summer and a little bit of dappled shade could be beneficial,” explained Preston who is following the example of some of the old Italians in the valley who farm that way or did so in the past. “We’re borrowing a page from that book,” said Preston. Meanwhile, the blossoms of these trees add a beautiful accent to the vineyards in spring.

It’s just that kind of agricultural and natural diversity that seems to attract people to Sonoma County, which is often called the “bread basket” of California. Spring, perhaps more than any other season in Sonoma County tells the story of this area through a visual display of blooming wildflowers, trees, vineyards, orchards and more. A picture is worth a thousand words, but a drive through some of the county’s pockets of spring blooms is priceless.    •


Andy’s Produce,1691 Gravenstein Hwy. North, Sebastopol; 823-8661, andysproduce.com
Bill’s Farm Basket, 10315 Bodega Hwy. Sebastopol; 829-1777
Mom’s Apple Pie,  4550 Gravenstein Hwy. North, Sebastopol; 823-8330, momsapplepieusa.com
Twin Hill Ranch, 1689 Pleasant Hill Road, Sebastopol; 823-2815, twinhillranch.com
Big John’s Market, 1345 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; 433-7151, bigjohnsmarket.com
Dry Creek General Store, 3495 Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg; 433-4171, drycreekgeneralstore1881.com
Dry Creek Peach and Produce, 2179 Yoakim Bridge Rd., Healdsburg; 433-8121, drycreekpeach.com
Preston Vineyards, 9282 West Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg; 433-3372, prestonvineyards.com

Comments (1)

We really enjoyed your Blossom Trails article - especially to solve the mystery of the changes at Twin Hill Ranch - a new owner and new management! It would be great if you could do an article about the new owner and manager so we can learn about the future of apples in our neck of the woods. Thanks again! Kathy Munch

posted by Kathy Munch on 3/01/12 @ 03:28 p.m.
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