A Long Time Coming

How Soon Will an Instant Orchard Bear Fruit? (Part 2)

Shannon Saia

For the beginning of this story, see: How Soon Will an Instant Orchard Bear Fruit? (Part 1)

The trees finally arrived in late December. They came all together in one very narrow, very tall box that I found leaning against my front door one evening. It was too dark to plant them then, so I drug the box inside and pried it open to inspect the goods. Trees are shipped when they are dormant, and my trees were “bare root.” If you have ever ordered a tree and received a stick, you’ll know what I was feeling when I opened the box. This is it? I hauled the box out onto the deck and left it there until the next day when, on a cold, damp, grey morning, I went outside to inspect them.

When I pulled them out of the box and very gently disentangled them, what struck me most was how very different these three “sticks” looked. For one thing, they were three quite distinct colors. Propped up side by side, they looked like a United Colors of Benneton ad on the side of a bus. The structure of the branches was different from tree to tree, too. Who knew?

I drug them all over to the small hill I had chosen as the site of my orchard. I laid them out on their sides with their tops pointing to approximately the spot where I intended to plant them. The roots of each tree were wrapped in black plastic and taped up securely. They were damp, and an amber-colored liquid was leaking out of them, which totally freaked me out. When I opened this suspicious-looking package, I found the roots were packed in some kind of orange, gel-like substance that looked like a translucent cottage cheese, presumably to keep the roots damp. When I lifted the roots out of this stuff, I was surprised that even the roots looked like sticks — or, more accurately, like a claw.

All of which is to say that it takes a real feat of imagination to envision the bare-root tree as a verdant and burgeoning resident of Eden.

The planting directions said to mix the backfill soil with some sand to ensure the soil would drain properly, and fortunately I already had several pockets of sand in the middle of my backyard, leftover from having leveled out an inflatable pool the previous summer. I dug the holes and mixed the dirt I had removed with the mycorrhizal fungi and — remembering our late fig free — only a few spades full of sand in a large, old, plastic pot. I enlisted my daughter to hold each stick upright as I dumped the contents of the pot back into the hole and patted the mix down firmly around the roots. Within an hour we had gone from gardeners to backyard homesteaders. We had our orchard.

The directions said that they shouldn’t be fertilized their first year, and that they didn’t really need to be watered in the winter. So I mulched around each tree, and then I ignored them.

For almost four months I ignored them. And then, as spring began to erupt all around us, I realized with delight that my sticks were getting leaves. These delicate, fuzzy leaves unfurled and spread broadly towards the light. All three trees quickly started to put out new shoots and to grow. Which was great, except ... well, none of them bloomed. I’m no horticulturalist. I’m just a self-taught backyard gardener with, at that time, about six years of experience under my belt. But I was pretty sure that in order for us to get any fruit that year, these trees were going to need to bloom.

So I did what I always do in this situation: I Googled in a panic. Some poking around online suggested that it may be two to five years after planting that my trees would begin to bear fruit.

Instant orchard indeed.

Still, I figured, it wasn’t a total loss. The squirrels were safe, for now, from my wrath. And maybe we anxious gardeners need the glittering promise of an “instant orchard” to get us to plant fruit trees. There are plenty of things in my life that, had I known how long they were going to take to come to fruition, I may have been too despairing to begin. Gardening is all about having appreciation and patience for unseen — or unnoticed — processes. Planting a seed or a bare root tree truly is a triumph of the imagination.

Fast forward four years. Present day.

A few weekends ago I was outside cutting my grass, pushing a mower around in my “orchard,” and I found a piece of fruit ― an apple, to be exact. It was small, hard, red, pock-marked, half-rotten, and half-eaten. At long last, someone in my backyard ecosystem has enjoyed an apple. Maybe a couple of different someones, who knows? All I know is that none of them were me. Still, for a moment, I couldn’t help but be encouraged. My orchard has borne fruit! I hastily inspected my trees. There was no sign of any other apple, and the apricots and the almonds were still MIA. But one thing was for sure: the Garden Delicious variety of apple tree is, indeed, self-fertile.

I posed the question in the title of this post: How soon will an instant orchard bear fruit? And my backyard science experiment has confirmed that an “instant” orchard will begin to bear fruit at the five-year mark. An instant orchard may not produce a single edible apple — for a human, anyway — but it sure gives a girl a perspective on what an “instant” means in geological time.

It’s fall ... go plant a tree!!

Apple tree
Photo by Fotolia/xalanx

S.M.R. Saia is the author of the children’s books Little Ant and the Butterfly and Little Ant Goes to a Picnic, as well as a book of gardening essays titled, Confessions of a Vegetable Lover: Scandalous Stories of Love, Lust, and Betrayal in a Backyard Garden.

How Soon Will an Instant Orchard Bear Fruit? (Part 1)

Shannon Saia

At the end of October 2012 — on Halloween Day, to be exact — I was clicking my way through the Internet in a fit of restless boredom when I found myself on one of my favorite nursery sites and it struck me: I was about to let another fall pass without planting any fruit trees.

Fruit trees — a small orchard — have long been on the agenda around here. But somehow they had yet to materialize. For one thing, it’s my understanding that trees are best planted in the fall, which means that I only have a window of a few months to order them and get them planted. When I think of them is not usually the time to plant them. And when it’s time to order them, chances are that my car is in the shop, or I’m already struggling to make my budget accommodate Christmas, or one of my dogs gets sick and I have to spend unexpected dollars at the vet. It’s always something, right?

One thing I have learned in my forty-some-odd years is that it is indeed always something, and it will always be something, and if I want to accomplish anything I need to plow ahead regardless.

Being an American with an increasingly diminishing attention span, I was instantly attracted to the “instant orchard” concept. Of course! An instant orchard was, as a matter of fact, exactly what I was looking for. Because let’s face it: it’s hard to plant a tree. It’s hard to do something for which you know that there will be no payoff, no gratification — no fruit, if you will — for years and years and years. Of course it’s responsible to do these things, maybe even noble, and even more than that, it’s necessary. I mean, I save money for my daughter’s college, and I save money for retirement. These are things that don’t enrich me in the short term, and in the short term even make me poorer, but I wouldn’t dream of not doing them. So why is it so doggone hard to plant a tree, knowing that it’ll be next season at best, or a few years down the road at worst, before I start to reap its benefits? This time I whipped out the old “emergency” credit card, limp from overuse on such emergencies as running out of wine, and I prepared to make an anxious, desperate purchase.

But what to buy? It’s a big decision. I want the experience to be successful and satisfying. Plus, I knew that I wanted more than one tree. I wanted variety. I also wanted manageability, so I browsed through the selection of dwarf trees. They promised to reach no more than eight to ten feet at full maturity, a size that meant that I would be able to harvest the fruit myself with a modest-sized ladder.

So I ordered three dwarf trees: Garden Delicious Apple, Garden Annie Dwarf Apricot, and Garden Prince Almond. The apple tree promised to be “self-fertile,” which means that I didn’t need to plant two of them so they could pollinate each other. I also ordered the mycorrhizal fungi, which is supposed to promote healthy root growth.

I was stoked. Every day, I waited expectantly for the UPS man. But the trees did not arrive. All through November I waited for those trees. Christmas began to bear down upon us, and still no trees. I had so much time between the excitement of ordering and the arrival of the trees that I began to doubt myself. Was I qualified to plant and care for fruit trees?

I have some experience of trees, and to be perfectly honest with you, none of it commends me to tend an orchard, dwarf, instant, or otherwise. My earliest tree memory is of spending the afternoon with a friend peeling strips of bark off of a small tree at the end of the cobblestone street where I lived in Holland. I was about ten. I marveled at how smooth the tree trunk was underneath the bark. I loved its creamy color. We became intent on our work. Until a neighbor came upon us, saw what we were doing, and let us have it in a rush of surprisingly articulate English. We were bad children! We were killing the tree! We must stop at once!

We did stop, and to this day I remember that lesson: peeling the bark off of a tree is like peeling the skin off of a person.

There is the thousand dollars (another “emergency” for which I am still paying interest) that I spent on evergreen trees to go along a fence line and which I hoped would help provide an additional barrier between a neighbor’s barking dogs and my barking dogs. Planted in the shade of said neighbor’s ancient oak tree and forced to compete for nutrients with its expansive roots, all turned coppery brown and died shortly.

And let’s not forget the fig tree that we ordered a few years ago, and which we immediately disadvantaged by planting it into a pot where we had mixed in so much sand (in an overzealous attempt to “improve upon” the planting directions) that it’s a wonder the poor thing survived as long as it did.

And then, amidst all of this worrying and self-doubt, my dogs caught and killed a squirrel.

They had gotten agitated watching it from the back door, but when I let them out into the backyard I never in my wildest dreams imagined that they would catch the squirrel. But they tore it to pieces, and I had to go outside and clean it up before my daughter saw. It’s not the first time that my dogs have killed something. They’ve caught baby birds, rabbits, and even groundhogs. I never felt all that bad about it because, well, that’s nature. Plus rabbits and groundhogs try to take over my garden every year, and it helps to tip the scales in my direction if the dogs can occasionally get rid of a pest. But the squirrels never bother my garden. They balance along the top of the fence, scamper across my shed roofs, and rustle and thrash their way up and down my trees, and we all peacefully co-exist together.

That’s when it hit me: I am destined to end up in battle with the squirrels over my apples, my apricots, and my almonds. My feelings about squirrels might quite quickly come to resemble my feelings about the groundhog — that it is a nasty, useless animal that will eat me out of house and home at every opportunity. So I suspected that like everything else that I’ve grown, the trees, too, were likely to change my perspective on life.

Sapling tree
Photo by Fotolia/Comugnero Silvana

For the end of this story, see: How Soon Will an Instant Orchard Bear Fruit? (Part 2)

S.M.R. Saia is the author of the children’s books Little Ant and the Butterfly and Little Ant Goes to a Picnic, as well as a book of gardening essays titled, Confessions of a Vegetable Lover: Scandalous Stories of Love, Lust, and Betrayal in a Backyard Garden.

Maryland Spiders and Caterpillars

Shannon SaiaRecently I've had the pleasure of encountering some pretty interesting-looking creatures around here; unfortunately, I'm having trouble tracking down exactly what some of them are. Can anyone out there help me?

The only one I've been able to get a positive ID on this this Black and Yellow Garden Spider. I've lived in Maryland for decades and I have never seen one, although apparently they are fairly common. Although it's hard to gauge from this photo, I can confirm that as it says on the Common Spiders of Maryland website, these things are huge — a couple of inches across, with leg span.

Black and Yellow Garden Spider

This next spider I haven't had any luck identifying. He's only about an inch across, if that, and he spins an enormous web — at least ten feet across, the kind of web that it's only too easy to walk right into as you're walking across the yard. He builds near houses and light. Does anyone recognize him?

Unidentified Brown and Yellow Spider

And finally, the piece de resistance: I took a photo of this absolutely gigantic green caterpillar that I recently saw making its way across a slab of sidewalk. My daughter put her hand down so you can get some perspective on his size. I haven't had any luck identifying him either.

Green Caterpillar

S.M.R. Saia is the author of the children's book Little Ant and the Butterfly and Little Ant Goes to a Picnic, as well as a collection of humorous gardening essays titled Confessions of a Vegetable Lover: Scandalous Stories of Love, Lust, and Betrayal in a Backyard Garden.

Can You Prevent Vine Borers?

Shannon SaiaLast week, I wrote about the lovely garden outside of the National Museum of the American Indian. One of the things that struck me most about it was that the squash was still alive and well and producing fruit. I have never had a squash plant live through the summer, so I have to admit to having experienced a little, well, squash envy. Ever since, I have had vine borers on the brain. So I was pleased yesterday morning, as I was walking past the garden, to find one of the museum's gardeners on the premises, in the flesh.

She was picking some of the lovely, dark green peppers, so I opened with what to me is the most obvious question about the garden: What do you do with the food? As it turns out, they have a restaurant on the premises, and all of the food harvested from the garden — which includes peppers, corn, squash, beans, and sweet potatoes — is taken inside to the chef. She said that sometimes the chefs come out and pick the vegetables themselves, which says to me that I should make time to get myself over there one day for lunch!

With my second question, I got down to business: Do you have problems with vine borers? I told her that I couldn’t help noticing how healthy the squash was, and lamented that my own squash plants never make it past July. She told me that that’s not a big problem for them, probably because they didn’t plant their squash until the end of June.


She explained that the timing was due to the Three Sisters Gardening Method. They plant the corn first and let it get some height to it. Then they plant the beans, and the beans grow up the corn as the corn continues to grow. The squash is the last to be planted, partly because it is so vigorous, and partly because it covers so much ground; they don’t want the squash to choke out everything else. By the end of June, conditions are dryer, too. Apparently, vine borers favor damp (i.e. spring) weather.

She further suggested putting a paper or plastic “collar” around the squash seedling if I plant it in the spring, made from a cup with the bottom cut out of it. She said there is some evidence that this can protect against borers, though it isn’t foolproof.

So, I learned some cool new things this week. As far as putting this new-found knowledge to use, I think I will plant squash twice next year, once in the beginning of May (with collars) so I can get an early crop, and again a few months later, to see if I can keep squash growing into the fall.

Squash plant

Urban Grit

Shannon SaiaFor over a year now I have been commuting into Washington D.C. every day to work. This can be something of an arduous journey. Up until recently, it included driving a half-hour out of the way for childcare; catching a commuter bus; spending anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes on the bus, depending on traffic; and a short metro ride ― three stops ― to my ultimate destination, which is still at least a half mile from me at that point. At the end of the day, I did the same thing in reverse. It’s exhausting, but that isn’t the worst part. The worst part of it all, up until recently, has been the sense of disconnection from my life: the absence from home, the lack of time to devote to domestic concerns like my garden, the absence of exercise and spiritually restorative, outdoor time.

A few things have changed. My daughter started a new school a few weeks ago, so my morning childcare commute has dropped from an hour a day to about 15 minutes. I have put that extra time to good use. Rather than taking the metro back and forth from the bus stop every weekday, I have started walking. Lest you think that it’s gritty city walking ― gritty in the bad way, with nothing to see but concrete and congestion ― it’s not. As it turns out, I have several opportunities every day to walk through gardens. What I mean by gardens: food gardens. There are several different places between L’Enfant Plaza and Union Station where I have found food growing, and today I thought I would share them with you.

Independence Community Garden

Independence Community Garden is located on a triangular-shaped piece of land directly across from the Air and Space Museum. It contains 38 plots of various shapes and sizes, and with a little research, I found that there is a 2-3 year waiting list to get a plot. It’s varied and rather unkempt, which is something that I kind of like in a garden. Among other things I have found growing here are squash, chard, beans, and Brussels sprouts. Here's a peek.

Independence Community Garden

Garden Beds

My research also turned up some bad news: on September 21, 2006, the site was officially approved as the future site of the Eisenhower Memorial. This surprising and super-cool garden is due to be paved over at some point in the future. What a shame.

Native Landscape at the National Museum of the American Indian

This museum, quite fittingly, has extended its exhibit beyond its curved, yellow walls to give visitors a glimpse of the way the land looked before the Europeans moved in. It is the work of EDAW, Inc. in collaboration with ethnobotanist Donna House (Navajo/Oneida) on the landscape design, and plant selection and design team members Johnpaul Jones, FAIA, (Choctaw/Cherokee) of Jones & Jones and Ramona Sakiestewa (Hopi). You can read the official description of the garden here. The extent of what I want to say about it is this: There be food there.

Native American Landscape

Sweet Potatoes and Peppers

S.M.R. Saia is the author of the children's books Little Ant and the Butterfly and Little Ant Goes to a Picnic, as well as a book of humorous gardening essays titled Confessions of a Vegetable Lover: Scandalous Stories of Love, Lust, and Betrayal in a Backyard Garden.

Moving Beyond the Midlife Garden Crisis

Shannon SaiaI’ve felt for a long time like our gardens are reflections of our lives, and looking back at what my garden has been over the last decade has forced me to take stock of a life which, frankly, has always felt a little bit out of control. I haven’t blogged here in over three years. In that time, I’ve gotten separated and divorced, and my one-time gardening buddy, who used to play in the mud beside me, has grown into a ten-year-old who has no interest in gardening whatsoever ― unless she can do it in a Minecraft world.

Such is life.

The thing about my garden is that it has just become so much struggle. Don’t get me wrong; there is pleasure, too. But, truthfully, less of it than there used to be. For years I have been trying to keep my garden neat and orderly, but I’ve been fighting a losing battle. All things utterly refuse to be bent contrary to their natures, and my backyard, apparently, wants to be wilderness. I can’t even remember how many times I have tilled it; how many times I have dug it up with a shovel; how much grass I have pulled out by the roots; how many cinderblocks I have moved in a futile effort to create a sort-of Berlin Wall between what I deemed to be “yard” and what I had declared “garden.” I can’t count how many feet of ugly fencing I have put up, and taken down, and put up again, and for no good reason, since every groundhog and rabbit in the area still came and went as they pleased.

But what truly gives me pause is this: I am spending 90% of my time in the garden battling the inevitable instead of actually caring for the plants that I am purposefully growing. And this year, the plants that I was purposefully growing did not fare very well at all.

All of which is to say, my garden and I, too, have been contemplating divorce.

A little over a year ago, I made the decision to return to the corporate commuting world in order to earn a living. This may seem at first glance like an unrelated thought; it’s not. I was sitting in a business meeting last week, and one of my suited colleagues was explaining the “natural” life cycle of a business, which, I can’t help but point out, is not unlike the natural life cycle of a marriage. There’s the start-up phase, full of plans and enthusiasm; followed by the growth phase, in which things go well and there is some success. Then there is the plateau stage, where things are going along just fine, but things are no longer growing and improving. The plateau stage is the status quo, the point where you think, “Hey, what we’ve been doing got us where we are today; why change it?” It is at this point, my colleague stated, that unsuccessful businesses begin to decline. Successful businesses, on the other hand, look ahead and innovate; thus essentially re-starting their life cycle and throwing themselves back into a mindset of plans and enthusiasm for the next great thing.

So what, I have to ask myself, does innovation look like in my stagnate and declining garden?

Well, it looks something like this:

Covered Raised Garden Bed

It's actually two pieces: a simple 4' x 4' raised bed, and a 2' x 4' x 4' "cage" cover. It's pine. It cost me about $60 in materials from Lowes and required very little effort to build. The most tedious part was stapling all the chicken wire around the cage frame. I bought everything in four-foot lengths, which means that the only thing that needed to be cut was the cross-pieces on the cage, and even I can do that with a hand saw.

The stones are only there to keep the paper bags and cardboard in place until I get the soil in.

I’ve been kicking this idea around for some time now. Not so much the raised-bed part, but the cage part. Every year after losing young pepper plants to voracious rabbits, every fall after losing brassicas to the even more voracious groundhogs, I’ve thought to myself that I really needed to make some kind of cage to keep them off my plants. I won’t say it was out-and-out laziness — or miserliness — that kept me from implementing the idea; I’ll call it inertia: a crappy gardener tends to remain a crappy gardener, etc.

Yes, I know that raised beds still get weeds. Weeding is inevitable. The seeds blow in. And the grass in my backyard, I swear, cannot be eradicated. But I believe that using these raised beds will allow me to shift my focus away from fighting Mother Nature and onto caring for my vegetable plants.

I plan to cut down even further on the garden maintenance by spacing these beds far enough apart to get a lawn mower through. No more trying to lay down stone paths. No more putting down mulch. No more focusing on ― and becoming discouraged by ― the aesthetics of the garden as a whole. I want to focus on what I’m growing.

And as for my burly groundhogs, yes, I am aware that they could quite easily shove this cage off of the bed and chow down if they wanted to. That’s why I will keep the cages fastened down. There is a hole drilled towards the top of the wood of the raised bed on two sides. I will thread a piece of wire through the hole, and use it to fasten the cage cover to the bed. It’ll make it a bit of a pain when it’s time to harvest, but it will be less trouble overall and less physically taxing then what I have been doing out there for all these years. And in many cases, the cages won’t be needed for the entire growing season; I will only need them on my pepper plants until they are too big to entice the rabbits, and I won’t need them on my tomato plants or herbs at all since the groundhogs and rabbits never seem to bother those. 

Taking down my garden at the end of this summer — a task which is still not complete — has given me mixed feelings. It’s symbolic, to me, of the fact that I am moving into a new phase of my life. There is both regret and nostalgia. But there is also relief and anticipation, and hope for a better future. And I have learned the hard way not to take on too much, too fast. In my midlife garden, I am starting small. I may only have the one bed this fall; it will be my winter project to build additional ones that will be ready for the spring, at which point I am hoping that my garden will not be the only thing around here that will bloom.

S.M.R. Saia is the author of the children's books Little Ant and the Butterfly and Little Ant Goes to a Picnicas well as a book of humorous gardening essays, Confessions of a Vegetable Lover: Scandalous Stories of Love, Lust, and Betrayal in a Backyard Garden.

Discover Greenwoman Magazine

A photo of Shannon SaiaI found a beautiful new magazine full of great content advertised on Garden Rant this weekend, and I wanted to share it with everyone. In the words of its editor-in-chief, Sandra Knauf, Greenwoman Magazine is “devoted to gardening thought in all its forms – fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, commentary, biography, art, and comics. It’s the only magazine where you will find an in-depth article on the state of world seed ownership juxtaposed with a poem likening hot romance to the Scoville Heat Scale of chili peppers, and an interview with a novelist who not only gardens but uses the garden as a theme in her fiction.” 

Greenwoman magazine coverThe sample issue that I read this morning (Summer/Fall 2012), was filled with luscious artwork, garden photos to salivate over and, to my delight, poetry and fiction! A fascinating article called The New Victory Garden not only explored the history of WWII victory gardens and the lasting impact of WWII on our lives today, but revealed fascinating things: 

That most of the Chicago victory gardeners, initially, were no more experienced and no better prepared to begin gardening than most people in the US today (and yet, they did it!); 

The emphasis of victory gardens wasn’t just on “growing food” but was on “nutritional value”; 

Food preservation, not just gardening, was a now often overlooked aspect of the victory garden. 

A wonderful juxtaposition to this article is an excerpt from Joel Salatin’s book, Folks, This Ain't Normal, called No Compost, No Digestion. In this characteristically witty chapter, Mr. Salatin reminds us of the importance of food that will rot. He describes his experiences with poison cow poop and non-decomposing hamburgers, and reminds me that I have a vermicomposting project to get off the ground.  

Greenwoman, A Literary Garden, is 76 pages full of interesting voices and perspectives on the garden, its inhabitants and its significance in our lives. What a wonderful way to spend a summer Sunday morning! 

You can find subscription information here. Subscribe to the Greenwoman mailing list and download a free issue here. 

 Happy reading! 

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COAVLMy book, Confessions of a Vegetable Lover is available on Amazon. The updated edition of the e-book ($1.99) contains all the essays originally published in two volumes as Confessions of a Vegetable Lover and More Confessions of a Vegetable Lover. You can view the book trailer here.