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!!
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.