Sentiment and Fruit Trees

A bad combination.

ILLUSTRATION BY P. SAVAGE

Yesterday I chopped down a peach tree I’d planted when my eleven year-old son, Huxley, was born. The boy is tall, skinny, and well adjusted. The tree not so much. With leaves on only one paltry limb—and several years since it last gave a peach—it had all but given up the ghost. A dozen years ago, my wife and I took up making a garden from scratch in our “backyard,” a parking lot of asphalt and gravel. We took it on as a long-term project, one pickaxe swing at a time, and it seemed a brilliant idea for us to embellish it with symbolic meaning.

It turns out, however, that planting a tree in tribute to a person, well, it doesn’t always bear the fruit you had in mind.

Resist, fellow gardeners, resist the urge to dedicate your young trees to anything other than the trees themselves!

Armed with shovel, wheelbarrow, pickaxe, and perspiration, my family began. From my first marriage, I have two older sons, Jackson and Cameron, who were around 9 and 13 years old when we began tearing out the parking lot. The older boys spent summers with us, and our project engaged them in a laborious but wondrous scavenger hunt, as we chipped away at a secret buried piece of New England history. We dug up cinder blocks, old animal bones (a butcher shop stood here a century or so ago), a patent medicine glass bottle, fragments of ceramic pipe, rotting construction debris, a vintage doll’s head—even an entire antique toilet! I pushed hundreds of wheelbarrow loads, moved a ton of busted asphalt chunks, and took many trips to the landfill and our loam supplier.

When we went to the nursery to select two apple trees and a peach, it made perfect sense to tell the boys that the peach tree would symbolize their new baby brother, Huxley, and the two apples would symbolize them. My impressionable tweener sons could not have been more inspired by this notion. Each spent a long time selecting which sapling, in its burlap-wrapped root ball, would be his tree.

It all went great at first. The three brothers were immortalized in our garden, growing from year to year, standing in a row—three trees for three brothers! Except, just as one makes mistakes in raising kids, this gardener made mistakes in planting trees. I assumed it was a good idea to stuff the giant holes (deeper and wider than recommended because of all the excavation) we dug for the trees with leaf compost. It turned out the unfinished compost was too fluffy and unstable. After a year or two, the root balls had sunk below the surrounding grass, and the two apple trees both leaned to the north. Eventually I braced the apples with 2x4s hammered in at an angle to try to straighten them out and pruned them to encourage them to grow into balance. Meanwhile the peach tree, planted in Huxley’s honor, grew straight and produced an annual bumper crop of peaches.

A few years later when my youngest son, Dashiell, was born, we planted another peach tree on the opposite corner of the yard, this time giving it enough space, a properly dug hole, and not too much soft compost. Around then the apples took on a disease or pest scarring—making the (still edible) fruit puckered and rib-boned. Fruit trees were hard work!

It got worse. Our peach tree, the one planted for Huxley, had so much fruit it broke a major branch. Novices that we were, we didn’t know we were supposed to thin the green fruit. Meanwhile the apple trees yielded to leaf curl or insect infestation—or some-thing—and, despite having had beautiful blossoms, had little fruit. Yet they kept on growing, even getting too wide for the space, and too tall for me to prune properly. Gardener’s lesson learned the hard way: Follow the planting directions for your baby trees. They really do need the recommended amount of space!

Not every mishap was my doing. During an intense October storm, a dead poplar tree landed directly on Huxley’s peach tree, ripping a large wound in the trunk. This once beautiful tree was now scarred and bent. Meanwhile, I abandoned all hope of the apple trees ever again producing fruit and decided to shape them into shade trees so we could fit under their canopy. I chopped off all the pesky low branches that had me hunching in our chicken run.

Surprisingly, tough love worked. The next year the apples both had a good showing of fruit, even in their unconventional shade-tree shape. Still, their size was a problem. There was no getting around it. One would have to be removed, and then the prospects for getting fruit would be zero: Both are needed for pollination. But who was I kidding? I couldn’t chop down a relatively healthy tree planted in honor of my son.

Meanwhile, Huxley’s peach tree had stopped blossoming, and our ducking around its leafless branches seemed a waste of energy and space. For whatever reason Huxley never was as invested in his peach tree being a tribute to him, nor is his brother Dashiell that invested in his peach (the healthiest of the bunch). Still, I waited until a day when Huxley was in school before chopping his tree into firewood. He didn’t even notice it was gone until I pointed it out to him, and he could not have cared less. It felt weird to me, though. Somehow I’m unable to let go of these associations.

I look at the two apple trees and the single peach tree I have left standing in my garden. The apples are too close by a long shot, and pruning them properly is going to require borrowing a ladder and setting up scaffolding, or maybe a pole saw, but one way or another something has to be done about the crowding. I’ve thought about trying to graft branches from one onto the other, since they need each other to pollinate. That way I could get fruit from one tree. But Cameron and Jackson might not enjoy the idea of being symbolically dismembered and reconstructed as one being, so I’m a bit reluctant.

And so the garden evolves. The day I chopped down Huxley’s tree, my wife heard me reflecting how bad I felt removing a totem of our son from the garden. She grabbed my hand and took me to a twiggy weed close to the back fence. “There’s this volunteer,” she said, “and this smaller one over here. I think the larger one is a few years old.” The weeds I had not gotten around to pulling were peach tree saplings! Having learned nothing from my mistakes, my first thought was this: Huxley’s tree lives to see another day!

Let me tell you, raising fruit trees is about as unpredictable as raising kids. No one needs to be trapped by extra sentimentality on either front. Resist, fellow gardeners, resist the urge to dedicate your young trees to anything other than the trees themselves!

It’s a troublesome habit that seems impossible to stop once you start.


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