He’s the orchard fixer

His name is Don Ricks, but he could just as well go by “Donnie Appleseed.”

  • Wednesday, April 23, 2008 12:00am
  • News

Don Ricks explains how to prune an apple tree at Saint Edward State Park in Kenmore. “It’s a release of tension for me

Saint Edward State Park gets the Ricks touch

His name is Don Ricks, but he could just as well go by “Donnie Appleseed.”

The 56-year-old Virginia native has spent most of his adult life around fruit trees, picking and pruning as a way to find a sense of happiness.

“It’s a release of tension for me,” he said, “There’s something about it that harmonizes with my nature — a personality thing.”

Ricks, who now lives in Brier, is working to restore the historic apple and cherry orchard at Kenmore’s Saint Edward State Park.

His efforts require just one day of labor per week, but they’re aimed at reviving a legacy

Seminarians established the Saint Edward orchard in 1940, near what is now the park’s playground. The area used to serve as a lookout over Lake Washington.

Catholic Bishop Edward O’Dea commissioned John Graham to design the seminary building and its then empty landscape in 1930.

The art-deco architect had made a name for himself designing Model-T assembly plants for Henry Ford, as well as the Bon Marche and Exchange buildings in downtown Seattle.

His concept for Saint Edward called for a long, hedge-lined driveway, where sweeping views of Lake Washington would distract the observer’s eye until a grand seminary building appeared in the final approach.

“He had a grandiose vision where, as you were driving, the building wasn’t there, it wasn’t there, and then, ‘Bam!,’ it was there,” said Park Manager Mohammad Mostafavinassab.

Loggers had clear-cut most of the land in that area during the 19th century, leaving the grounds more wide open than they are today and providing vast lookouts that drew attention to the water.

Seminarians established the orchard, in part, to compliment one of these viewing points.

“The trees were probably planted by students,” Mostafavinassab said. “I doubt it was meant to provide food. They had some vegetable and plant gardens, as well, but they were mostly there to give the kids something to do.”

The orchard went untended after the archdiocese sold the seminary property for use as a park in 1977.

It remained in a state of neglect until 2005, when Saint Edward began its land-use planning project. Park users recommended a restoration of the orchard during the process, and that’s when Ricks stepped in.

“I just saw these jumbled-up trees and I wanted to make them look better,” he said. “It’s a perfectionist, idealistic thing where I like to fix things.

“If I see something that’s tangled and overgrown, I know I can make it better. It’s like an itch.”

Ricks began the process of restoring the orchard to its former productive glory in 2005.

The trees he had to work with were in rough shape.

Most were surrounded by thick sucker branches that had shot up from their root systems.

Towering ** had also blocked sunlight from certain parts of the orchard, causing many of the fruit trees to lean. The park removed most of the culprits as part of its land-use plan.

As for fruit, there wasn’t much chance for it to thrive. Most of the youngest branches were growing skyward as a result of improper pruning.

Fruit tends to develop best from sideways-growing offshoots.

“The idea is to have all this stuff shelving out,” Ricks said. “You want young, fresh, two-to-five-year wood growing outward. You’re pruning to develop that.”

Signs of progress are only now becoming readily apparent, as horizontal branches have matured and started to develop healthy buds.

The fruit — which used to look “dried up and nasty, if there was anything at all,” according to Mostafavinassab — is now an attraction.

“We (the park staff members) fight to mow this area now because you can stand up on the riders and pick the apples,” Mostafavinassab said.

Ricks first got involved with orchard work in 1972, when he left Brigham Young University in search of something that was, he says, hard to really define.

He ended up picking fruit in Yakima.

“I was looking for something I believed in,” he said. “Apples were basic and natural, so I decided to go with that.”

Orchards gave Ricks a piece of what he was after, and he’s been working off and on as a fruit picker and a pruner ever since his departure from BYU.

“I like being able to pick 10,000 apples in a day,” he said. “You see the work you’ve done right there in front of you. You see what the migrant workers are doing, and you’re putting food on people’s tables. I love having my hands on all that.”

Ricks also works part time as a longshoreman. He started that gig after learning of a need for help stowing apples at the Port of Seattle.

The Saint Edward orchard is one of several historic groves that Ricks is helping restore and maintain. He also prunes at the Buckner Orchard, located in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, as well as the 119-year-old Piper Orchard in Seattle’s Carkeek Park.

“There are little pockets of these old orchards and trees being maintained across the state,” Ricks said. “It’s part of the living history of not only this place but the whole state of Washington. Preserving and understanding this piece of our culture is important.”

There are other, more symbolic reasons, for Ricks’ work, as well.

“I like to believe you can get older and still be productive,” Ricks said. “I think that’s part of why I like these old orchards.”

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