Fruit of our labours
This post was inspired by the upcoming Festival of Trees, which has fruit trees and orchards as a theme.
To mark the birth of my eldest son, I planted an apple tree. Well, it was so tiny that you could hardly call it a tree. It was nothing more than a stick with bare roots growing from one end, and two twigs bound with nurseryman's tape to the fork at the other. In all, it probably came to no more than a meter tall, but this was some six years ago and I have a bad memory for measurements and such.
What I can remember is how I came away from the heritage fruit varieties grafting day held by a core of dedicated gardeners at CERES Environment Park that cold August winter's day with great excitement and trepidation: could I get this precious package home okay? would I plant it in its pot correctly? did I have a big enough pot, and enough manure? and would the grafts ‘take’ and the tree survive?
The two tiny twigs – scions – were of two different heritage apple varieties that are uncommon in Australia – King of the Pippins (an excellent eating apple) and a Baldwin (reputed to be an American favourite for cider and cooking). They were grafted onto a dwarf-variety, agricultural quality, disease resistant rootstock. I wanted a dwarf variety because we lived in a rented home and, while being avid vegetable gardeners then, my partner and I didn't want to lose the apple tree if we had to leave that house and garden at some stage. We wanted to be able to take the tree with us if we moved.
I had been wanting to plant a tree to celebrate my son's birth for a some months after he was born. It struck me as a significant and enduring heritage that I could give him: a living thing that would grow as he grew, that he could learn about the cycle of living things through, and that would be not only beautiful, but also useful – productive, even. It didn't take long to settle on a potted fruit tree, rather than a gum tree or some other Australian native tree that would never survive a pot.
A potted heritage apple offered many attractions: fruit, portability, and being part of continuing varieties of apples whose species viability were threatened by the restricted varietal choices of commercial growers and supermarket chains, and the vagaries of industrialised agriculture. It also helped that we liked apples. I dreamed of one day having a whole backyard orchard of heritage fruit varieties.
Without going too much into the ins-and-outs, let’s just say that things did not go entirely to plan. Don’t get me wrong – the grafts took and the tree survives to this day. Only, with the vagaries of Australia’s longest-drought-on-record, harsh garden watering restrictions and the competing demands of work, family and home, gardening was given a back seat in our changing priorities and the apple tree has become the main casualty of our horticultural neglect.
But let’s just say that it never got the opportunity to thrive. Its flowering and fruiting have taken a battering from the shifting climate conditions, lack of water and poor feeding; and I haven’t learned to prune it. If this were the Day of the Triffids, the apple tree would murder me in my bed.
When we gave up the massive vegetable garden and weatherboard house (and the effort that came with their upkeep) and downscaled to a brick unit with a small courtyard, small herb and flower beds and potted plants three years ago, we brought the apple tree in its pot with us. But downsizing our gardening has not improved the attention the apple has received from us. In fact, it has failed to fruit properly two seasons in a row. Guild over how I’ve neglected the apple tree nags at me over time.
So, do you think I’ve learned my lesson? Well, no. My partner and I have been talking about planting a fruit tree to commemorate the birth of our second son! He turns two in May, and we hope to plant something to mark that time. We’ve decided on a citrus.
Concerned that son number two’s horticultural heritage should not be some impossible to eat lemon – you know, sour, bitter, tart, thorny, forbidding, and certainly not for eating off the tree – we’ve been discussing whether to plant an orange or a Tahitian lime for him and whether they would survive Melbourne’s winters. (I know, preferring a lime contradicts my concerns over lemons, but I think a lime has more zing, and so spark and life, and I love cooking with them!)
Will I learn to not keep trying to grow fruit? No. Because I will always aspire to be different, better, more attentive, when it comes to the fruit trees – especially those planted in our children’s honour. Mainly because they celebrate our children, but also because fruit trees hold some special place for me, and I’m sure many other people in Melbourne. Whenever I'm given pause to think of home grown fruit, I envy people whose fruit trees thrive in their suburban gardens.
Home-grown fruit signify self reliance, a love of good fruit, the joy of picking and eating ripe fruit straight off the tree, being in tune with the cycle of seasons and changes in weather and water, as well as having greater choice in fruit varieties and not being dictated to by supermarkets over what an apple (or pear, lemon, peach, or nectarine) should look, feel, and taste like. Home-grown fruit allow us to connect with where our food comes from, how it is grown and raised, how it gets from farms to our tables, and what food means to us as people. Contrary, even, to the growing chorus calling for Australians to abandon gardening to save watering, I would argue for these reasons that we continue to grow food – including fruit – albeit with judicious water use.
In this time of environmental crisis and challenges to our habits of consuming more than we can sustain, growing our own fruit trees – however small and humble the tree, and however great and difficult the challenge – offers us the chance to take powerful, though symbolic, action to reaffirm our hope for something different, for something better, for our selves and our children.
So, with my desire to grow another fruit tree for son number two has come the resolution to rescue the apple tree of son number one – to re-pot it and give it a good pruning this winter, and to feed and water it come spring and summer in the hope it will find its feet again. Promise.
[Image by me: these people have no problem looking after their fruit! A little apple tree in the front garden of a house in my neighbourhood]