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

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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.

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.