ONE OF THE NICE THINGS about owning a piece of land is that you can plant trees on it. When the work is done, you can stand back and conjure up a grand and blossoming future for your little wards. The investment of time, energy and money will, with a bit of luck, pay multiple dividends as you watch your trees take shape, growing bigger with each passing season, nourished only by the sun’s rays, the falling rain, and the nutrients of the earth.
There are a lot of good reasons to plant trees. Depending on which you choose, you may be rewarded, after a few years, with delectable fruits, nuts or berries. You might select trees to provide shade or a windbreak, or to give shelter and food to birds and small animals. Some people choose trees for the beauty of their spring blossoms. Others may have more utilitarian goals in mind, like erosion control, a barrier to an unsightly view or a future supply of firewood. Or you might want trees simply for the unfettered life they express, along with their majesty and steadfast strength in a world overwhelmed by we humans and our trappings. If you’re wise in your choices you may end up with trees that provide several of these attributes all bundled up in the same package.
When we first moved to our farm, I went on a tree-planting binge. Perhaps it was a way of saying to myself and the world at large that, after forty-some years, I had found a place to settle down. Tree planting has a lot to do with putting down roots—both your own and the roots of the trees you are planting. Most people don’t bother to plant trees if they think they won’t be staying in a place for very long. But there are also those who, in later life, are content in the knowledge that the trees they plant will grow to maturity and give pleasure to others long after they are gone.
Whatever the reasons, I planted a lot of trees in those early years. I began with a few thousand Norway spruce, blue spruce, Douglas fir and Scotch pine—with the intention of making a start in the Christmas tree business. At least half of these trees died in their first year, either due to lack of water or some other miscalculation. A good number, though, lived on and, after eight or ten years, reached a saleable size. But long before this happened, I came to the conclusion that Christmas trees were not quite my cup of tea. There were several reasons: The market soon became flooded with cheap trees grown on large plantations in the Midwest and Canada and prices began to drop. The days of mom-and-pop operations, it seemed, were coming to an end. I also didn’t like the fact that, for a grower, there was a very short window of time each year in which to sell the trees. Finally, I grew fond of my trees and did not look forward to cutting them down merely so they could decorate someone’s living room for a few weeks and then end up in a landfill.
Twenty years have passed since we planted Christmas trees on this farm, but, surprisingly, we still bring two or three dozen trees to market each December. You might wonder how a 20-year-old Christmas tree would fit in our truck, let alone someone’s apartment or house. And you would be quite right to wonder. Here’s how it works: Most of our remaining trees are now at least 20 feet tall and probably weigh several hundred pounds. They are a bit close together for trees of this size so every year we select a small number of them for harvest. We consider each tree to have three parts: a trunk, a mid-section, and a top. Instead of taking a chainsaw to the base of the tree, as a normal woodsman would do, we cut much higher up, usually 5 feet above the ground. This still gives us a very large tree, suitable only for people who live in castles and have access to a backhoe. We amputate the 6 or 8 feet of the middle section, cut off the side branches and use these to make clusters of boughs that we sell for a few dollars each. This leaves us with just the top 8 to 10 feet of the tree, which is about the right size to take to market.
Nothing too ingenious here, you’re saying to yourself. But that five- or six-foot stump that we left standing is still quite alive. It has numerous lateral branches and within a year or two some of these branches start growing up toward the sky, now that they have plenty of sunlight reaching them and no other branches in their way. These lucky few will vie with one another to become the new vertical leader. Allow another three or four years to pass and one of these former branches will turn into a halfway decent little Christmas tree all by itself. Cut it down, offer it for sale, and let one of the others take over. It’s really just an extreme form of pruning that results in a surprisingly sustainable Christmas tree operation. No new planting needed.
Admittedly, our tree patch looks a bit weird to the casual passer-by, with its decapitated subjects among otherwise normal looking trees and, truth be told, the former branches that have become trees in their own right can be a little less well-rounded than your typical, carefully shaped commercial product. They often look more like something Charlie Brown would put on the market. But some people are okay with that. I tell prospective customers, “Just put the flat side against the wall. No one will know the difference. And, by the way, our trees are organic.”
After the Christmas tree venture, two of my workers and I planted 15 or 20 poplars to break the wind across a long field. They grew fast and did a good job for about 15 years, at which point one of them got sick and died. Soon after all the others followed. I never understood why.
Scarcely a day passes that I do wonder at how so puny a little stick, set into the ground, could have turned into so great a living thing.
It wasn’t long before my thoughts turned to trees with edible fruits. I began with a dozen or so hastily selected apples and peaches and installed them on the lawn behind our house. Later, apricots, pears, plums, paw paws, persimmons, chestnuts and quinces settled into the landscape. I also planted black walnuts and hickory trees in the woods along the edges of the farm, and I planted two weeping willows on our front lawn.
The willows make a good story: If I remember correctly, I paid $3.50 for the two of them. They were barely three feet tall, weighed about 10 ounces each at time of purchase, and were no more than the diameter of my little finger when I casually set them in some low, damp ground in front of our house. Apparently, they approved of the site—they took off in the first year and kept on growing, thriving on the loamy soil and abundant supply of moisture. Over the course of 20 years, these two willows transformed themselves into giant trees with trunks a yard wide and sprawling limbs reaching at least 50 feet. Along the way, they gave shelter to numerous birds (most recently, and notably, a pair of Baltimore orioles who built a beautiful hanging nest out of dried grasses and perhaps willow leaves and used it to hatch three baby chicks).
Two years ago, one of the willows blew over in a fierce windstorm on a Sunday morning. That was a sad day and a stark reminder that nothing in this world lives forever, not even the mightiest of trees. It took us a day to cut up the willow’s great fallen body and cart it away. In the process, we discovered some rotten heartwood near the base of the trunk, which was probably the reason for its early demise. The other willow appears to be healthy and shows no sign of succumbing to the wind or any other adversity. Scarcely a day passes that I do not marvel at its broad girth and wide canopy and wonder at how so puny a little stick, set into the ground, could have turned into so great a living thing.
Not all my early tree planting was successful. Aside from the mortality among the Christmas trees and the poplars, I lost the few black walnuts and hickories that were planted in the woods, probably due to neglect. The plums lived for several years then contracted a bad case of black knot, a disease common to wild cherries in our area. They had to be cut down. My single apricot got off to a good start then perished a few years later in a very harsh winter, before bearing any fruit. Apricots, I discovered, will not tolerate severe cold. But most of the other fruit trees planted in those early days have grown to maturity and borne decent amounts of often exceptional fruit, some of which we have been happy to share with our customers, in exchange for U.S. currency.
Organic vegetables and herbs are the mainstays of our farm business. They’ve been good to us and we’re not about to desert them in the interests of a dozen or so bushels of late-season peaches and apples. But I’ve been intrigued for some time by just how much our customers enjoy the occasional offerings of fruits, both common and uncommon, that we bring to our stand. I first realized this many years ago when I brought down a couple of boxes of peaches from the backyard orchard. It hadn’t rained much that summer and the peaches were small but extremely flavorful. If you can imagine essence of peach, that’s what they were, sweet and juicy, with just a trace of tartness. They didn’t last long at the stand. Many people would buy just three or four peaches, try one as they walked away, then come right back and load up with a couple of pounds. The next week, when we displayed our last 40 or 50 pounds of peaches, I put out a sign saying: “Limit: 2 pounds per customer.” That just stirred up a buying frenzy. They were all gone in less than an hour.
The same thing happened and continues to happen with our American persimmons. They are small but intensely flavorful, unlike the oriental persimmons sometimes found in supermarkets, which are much larger and, to my mind, surprisingly bland. If you desire a fruit that is unlike anything you’ve ever eaten before, but perhaps reminiscent of a ripe, sweet, yet mildly astringent, apricot, with a smooth, jelly-like consistency, then these little babies are right for you. Our single productive persimmon tree gives us two or three hundred fruits per year. They are in such high demand that we won’t let a customer walk away from our stand with more than two of them (unless they are able to convince us that the second two persimmons they insist on buying are for their ailing grandmother or small child who is currently in the hospital, which a surprising number try to do).
Our apples, on the other hand, can be pretty rough, afflicted as they may be with any of the undesirable conditions that unsprayed apples often fall prey to—apple scab, powdery mildew, black rot, white rot, fire blight and apple maggot, to name a few. Yet even these sad specimens can have unblemished parts that taste crisp and strong. For some customers, two or three good bites may be all they need. They know they have tasted a real apple. On their way to the fields, my workers will often pick up a fallen apple, however imperfect, polish it off on a shirt sleeve, eat what they can, and throw the rest to the chipmunks and squirrels in the hedgerows. I do the same myself. This past fall we were fortunate to have a good harvest of apples and a large percentage of them were relatively problem-free. This made both us and our customers very happy.
I’ve come to the conclusion that many people take unusual delight in our sporadic offerings of fruit for a few different reasons. The fact that we don’t spray chemicals on our trees, as most northeastern growers do, probably helps, but I don’t think this is the primary reason. While the apples and peaches we offer may be cosmetically compromised and might, on occasion, be host to a worm or two, their flavor can be intense, like the taste of a fruit your great-grandfather might have picked from a wild tree on a country lane when he was a boy. Our unorthodox treats take people back to a simpler time and give them the feeling that they really are sharing in the bounty of a small, diversified farm. In truth, they are. Imagine an old wooden box that shows up at our stand a few times each year. Inside it rest a couple of dozen quinces taken from two trees on our back lawn. It’s about as far from industrial agriculture as you can get. Whether you have a penchant for quinces or not, it just feels good.
Last fall we cleared about a half acre of overgrown land along our driveway for a new orchard. The next step was to order trees. We studied the various offerings of apples and peaches in mass-market catalogs, did some on-line searching, and consulted with a couple of regional nurseries on which varieties would best suit us. We wanted trees that would complement the trees we already have, extend our harvest period, grow well in our climate and soils, have good disease resistance and good flavor. We ended up buying trees from Cummins Nursery near Ithaca, because they are a relatively small operation with a simple website rather than a glossy catalog, and they were willing to advise us at length over the phone. Our order consisted of ten apple trees (four Goldrush, four Liberty, two Honey Crisp) and four peaches (one Garnet Beauty, one Contender and two Redstar).
When the trees arrived on a Tuesday in mid-November, we had already dug most of the fourteen holes needed—each of them about 2 feet deep and 2 1/2 to 3 feet wide. Following protocol, we immersed the tree roots in water while we finished the hole-digging. We then mixed the topsoil from each hole with a couple of buckets of compost and a handful of lime and threw this mix into the bottom of the holes. One person then stood up a tree in each hole, tilting it slightly in the direction of the prevailing wind, while another shoveled the remaining subsoil around the roots. We tamped down the soil with our feet, to remove air pockets, then watered the trees copiously. As a last step in the planting process, we spread a two-inch thick layer of woodchips around the base of each tree that will help retain moisture in the soil and keep weeds down.
You might think that our work was now done. But had we left these young trees to fend for themselves over the winter, we would surely have met with disappointment in the spring. Small rodents like to build nests around the base of palatable saplings and will dine on the soft green bark, causing serious damage and possibly death to their host. To guard against this, we fashioned collars of fine wire mesh and placed them around the trunk of each tree. Next, we had to take the local deer population into account. Deer are partial to the new growth at the end of tree branches, especially in the winter when there’s little else for them to eat. If they can reach the terminal buds of a young fruit tree, they will browse them to the point of almost destroying the tree, or at least rendering it unproductive. We considered building an eight or nine-foot high fence around this new orchard (which is about a quarter mile from our house and therefore not easy to keep an eye on), but that would have been costly and time-consuming and would have made it more difficult for us to gain entry to irrigate and prune the trees and mow the grass and weeds around them.
Instead of a fence, we erected a cage around each tree, using six foot high rolls of 2-inch by 4-inch galvanized mesh. This ended up being about a half-day’s work for two people—not insignificant, but a lot less time than it would have taken to build a fence. As the trees grow taller and beyond the reach of browsing deer, we will remove the cages to make it easier for us to get at the fruit.
Our plan is to extend this orchard in the spring. I’ve already placed orders for three more American persimmons, a couple of quinces, and six additional peaches and apples. Perhaps not all of them will survive, and it’ll be some years before even the most precocious of them bear fruit, but when they do, we’ll be glad we went through the effort to give them a home.
With 23 years of tree-planting experience under my belt, I’m a little more measured in my approach these days. Another, youthful and overly-ambitious tree-planting binge is not in the cards. Today, I’m more selective in the trees I choose to plant, preferring those that will both grace the landscape in which we live and provide edible and, yes, saleable treats. I would rather plant fewer trees and do a good job of it. More than ever, I appreciate the vital role trees play in the life and health of our planet and our own well being. And if the trees we plant this year are still fruitful after I am gone, so much the better.