I have just planted two apple trees from what my local nursery calls their “Posterity Collection,” heritage varieties grafted onto a slower-growing but durable and long-lived rootstock so that the trees “should be around for your grandchildren.” While many apple trees, especially on modern dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstock, may only have a healthy, productive life of 20 to 30 years, these Posterity trees have been selected to last much longer. To an extent, they trade short-term production to achieve this, a deal I’m happy to make.
Eventually, these trees will be among the largest on our property and serve as the overstory in a multi-layered “food forest” containing fruit and nut trees, vine crops, and perennial vegetables. Having just moved into the house six months ago, we’re making only the smallest of starts on this plan by putting in these two large trees (Arkansas Black and Williams Pride varieties), another apple on a semi-dwarf rootstock, and a couple elderberry bushes.
When I tell friends I’m planting fruit trees, I often get some response like, “You must be planning to stay in that house a while, then.” It’s an understandable reaction—trees suggest permanence—especially given the particular trees I’m putting in, yet I have to admit this didn’t enter into my calculations. It’s true we are content with our house and property, and we don’t have plans to leave. Of course, it’s only a half-acre lot, less land than I had hoped to own, and a food forest like I plan to put in really works best if you can run some animals through it, which our subdivision prohibits. So I’m not sure I expect our grandchildren to inherit these trees and this property, yet I planted them without a second thought, and expect to plant more.
I have planted where I would not reap before, and I feel no regrets about doing so.
Indeed, I have planted where I would not reap before, and I feel no regrets about doing so. We put in two apple trees and an ill-fated cherry at our last house, and then sold the house a scant year later. I worry a little now about whether the new owners will keep the trees alive, but I’m glad to have given them the opportunity.
To some, those trees look simply like a bad investment: they cost me money and did not yield back value in return, either in the form of fruit or a meaningful addition to the value of the house. Something like this type of calculation seems to lie behind the presumption that one only plants trees when one expects to see them mature: the trees are an improvement to the property, chosen to increase its value and yield financial growth. My accounting, though, looks at them a little differently.
Even if I never taste a single apple, the process of planting and tending a tree offers me a satisfaction that I find it difficult to deny myself.
For one thing, planting a tree offers inexpensive pleasure. Bareroot plants may cost as little as $25, require no fertilizer in the first year, and only need (where I live) a little protection from deer in the form of a tree tube or bit of fencing. Mulch is helpful, but this can often be gotten for free. With no more expense, I buy myself hours of enjoyment, from poring over nursery catalogs (an exercise in unmitigated concupiscence), to the excitement of planting day, to the light and satisfying work of pruning and maintaining a young tree. Even if I never taste a single apple, the process of planting and tending a tree offers me a satisfaction that I find it difficult to deny myself.
And that’s to say nothing of the payoff the tree offers to the landscape over the long term: fruit, yes, but also shade, beauty, leaf mulch, attraction of birds and beneficial insects, and soil improvement. A landscape dominated by traditional turfgrass is empty and sterile compared to one filled with thoughtfully selected trees. I received a visceral reminder of this when digging the holes for my new apples: though my Ozark-ridgetop soil is mainly heavy clay studded with limestone, in one spot I struck the site of a long-expired tree and found rich, friable black dirt. Above ground, no sign of the tree remained, but below, its beneficent influence lingered. Taking all these benefits into consideration along with the years required to mature a tree, I can’t afford not to plant trees, even if I’m unsure whether I’ll see them mature.
Most American domestic landscapes would benefit from the planting of more trees and other perennials and a corresponding decrease in the space given over to high-maintenance, unproductive turfgrass. Yet the mobility of our lives and, even more, our habits of mind about tree planting discourages such improvements. My friends who took my tree-planting as a step toward permanence weren’t wrong, yet the corresponding assumption—that trees are an investment only worth making if you’re sure you’ll reap the benefits long-term—is pernicious, discouraging us from improving the land while we can. If we don’t feel sure we’re committed to a particular property, we hold off on planting trees. As successive short-term owners exercise the same caution, land that could be growing in fertility languishes.
Christopher Alexander and company’s radical architecture text A Pattern Language has this to say about rental properties, which might be profitably extended to short-term ownership:
Rental areas are always the first to turn to slums. The mechanism is clear and well known. . . . The landlord tries to keep his maintenance and repair costs as low as possible; the residents have no incentive to maintain and repair the homes—in fact, the opposite—since improvements add to the wealth of the landlord, and even justify higher rent. And so the typical piece of rental property degenerates over the years. Then landlords try to build new rental properties which are immune to neglect—gardens are replaced with concrete, carpets are replaced with lineoleum, and wooden surfaces by formica: it is an attempt to make the new units maintenance-free, and to stop the slums by force; but they turn out cold and sterile and again turn into slums, because nobody loves them.
Just as rental properties, no matter how high-end, will tend toward becoming slums because no one is motivated to improve them long-term, so yards owned by a succession of short-term owners (or owners using short-term thinking) will tend toward becoming deserts, places of limited fertility, because they will only ever be planted in grass or other shallow-rooted, short-term ornamentals and annuals. A new owner with aspirations to improve the soil must thus, essentially, start from nothing to begin building fertility.
To break this cycle and help arrest the desertification of the American yard, some of us may need to plant perennials without counting the cost, or, at least, by employing an alternative accounting that sees the pleasure of planting itself as one of its rewards. With only a little cost and trouble, we can plant a tree that will enrich the place itself and the life of somebody’s grandchildren, if not our own.
So I am striving to be profligate with my perennials, recognizing that apple trees planted for posterity are more than an investment: they are a delight, a worthwhile risk, and a gift to the place itself. Maybe my children and grandchildren will pick Arkansas Black apples and bless my name for them, and maybe a thoughtless future owner will cut them down. Nonetheless, I lay these trees out in hope, hope invested not so much in a return for me and my descendants, but the potential for a better place.