After a string of late-spring-like weather (in February), Saturday night we donned our heavy coats and headed out for dinner as strong winds heralded overnight temperatures below freezing. For several hours, we lingered at the table with my dad and our two dear friends, who are also extraordinary edible landscapers, enjoying the delicious meal they cooked of pistachio crusted sockeye salmon, sweet onions, broccoli, and red quinoa.
Although we talked about so many interesting things over the course of the evening, a stunning bouquet of cherry prunings covered with blossoms nearby and an orchard full of peach trees about to burst with blooms rattling in the bone-chilling wind made it difficult to avoid the elephant/gorilla in the room and just beyond the doors. We held off as long as we could, but as the wine set in and the end of a perfect evening approached, the unspoken question still begged to be asked.
Asking “will there be peaches, cherries, plums, apples, or whatever else we are growing this year?” is dangerous. It inevitably leads to talk about climate change and all the new pests and diseases we are dealing with as gardeners and tree growers due to a global trade, mono-cropping, and over use of everything that is clearly bad for us. Then we can’t help but think of the bees and their plight…
And all of that, of course, leads to discussions about why “we”, arguably the wealthiest and most resource rich collective citizenry on earth, aren’t doing enough about this. Why are we allowing de-regulation of extremely minimal regulations in the first place? Why aren’t we creating jobs by mandating that heavy polluters act responsibly and return some of the excessive profit they’ve reaped at our shared expense back to the common good?
I could keep going, but my point here is just to demonstrate why asking whether we’ll get fruit is such a loaded questions. It’s not just the question of fruit, but the question of why it is a question at all. There have been bad years throughout history. But, those times have been outliers. Sustained agricultural failure throughout human history is nearly always man-made. And what we are experiencing now is no different.
As we ask ourselves this question about fruit and other various crops each and every year, or as we worry about bee hives, or pollinators in general, implied in the questions is our understanding that this is a situation that we are continuing to make worse by arguing over who did it, who must pay, how do we fix it (while tip-toeing around non-tax paying corporations and billionaires whose bottom-line might be hurt if we ask them to foot the bill for the damage they are primarily created)?
Before I know it, I’m so frustrated that I end up traveling to a dark place of pessimism and cynicism, of the kind that almost makes me want to dive head first into a life of obscene luxury and indulgence with absolute disregard for my fellow human beings, and how my choices make their living environments dangerous, because the problems just seem too big care about. The “you might as well enjoy it while it lasts since you can’t do anything about it” answer is always lurking around, waiting to take hold.
Yet, once you build a relationship with nature, once you belong to a real community, and once you have poured your soul into a plot of land, then you realize you just can’t sweep these issues under the rug or behind political rhetoric anymore. You do care and you have to do somehting about it. Even if it seems like no one else is. You have to keep trying even if the fruits of your labor literally shrivel up and die on the well-pruned, organically nurtured trees you worked so hard to establish.
I know we are not alone in this. There are so many of us asking the tough questions, following the conversation where it leads, challenging our elected leaders to remember that they serve us – human citizens – not corporations, and questioning why business interests are being placed above the common good. We are demonstrating with our lives that we will no longer tolerate uncaring corporations raping our environment, endangering our future, and redistributing wealth disproportionately at the top – in a rigged system – rather than to all those who did the actual work.
I know, you thought you’d be reading about fruit trees. And I don’t want to disappoint. This is not a rhetorical question. Most fruit trees have a certain number of chill hours required before they break dormancy and fruit. With record heat, farmers are worried that even the varieties of peach trees grown in Georgia which have low chill-hour requirements, might not fruit because the chill hours were not met.
Despite the unseasonable warmth, we did manage to hit our chill hours here, but the trees are breaking dormancy and flowering about three weeks early for us. When fruit trees flower, they are extremely vulnerable to cold snaps. Each time it gets below freezing, some percentage of our buds will die. If it happens enough, after bud break, they all die. This happened to last year.
Many of us, including our dinner companions on Saturday night, who have hundreds of mature fruit trees, lost all of our fruit. For Matt and I, except a few peach trees that came with our property, our trees are young and fruit is a bonus at this point. But for the long-term orchardists, these kind of losses are financially and emotionally devastating. This year, with an even earlier spring, that means an even longer waiting period of vulnerability. Growers will be on pins and needles until April 20th and possibly even through May 2nd if the forecast isn’t clear by mid-April.
So, what can we do besides bemoan the challenges? In a word…Diversify. Plant tried and true varieties for the still normal years, but also plant a few outliers with both more and fewer chill hours to give you greater seasonal coverage. If you are just getting started and are in really marginal areas with broad weather swings during bloom and harvest times, consider growing fruit in high tunnels. This sounded crazy when I first heard about it a couple of years ago. But now that we have an arbiquina olive and a Meyer lemon in our greenhouse, I can see the benefits. You can also do smaller scalre variations like growing compact or espaliered trees that you can protect with row covers.
Most importantly, make sure you grow a bunch of other stuff just in case your tree fruit harvest is minimal. Strawberries can be grown as annuals. Figs can be kept in containers and brought inside during cold weather. Musk melons and watermelons also work in smoothies. Green tomatoes taste almost like apples with a little sugar, butter, and cinnamon in a home-baked pie. Caramelized rhubarb and sweet onions and a little honey taste a whole lot like dessert.
And keep on doing the right things for the common good in your daily lives. Encourage others to do more as well. Maybe, if enough of us demonstrate with our lives that we will not tolerate the kind of corporate and political negligence that has allowed these imminent threats to the amazing diversity of life on earth, then we can look forward to a more fruitful future for us and generations after us.
– I have had my soap box fill for a while! More practical stuff in the next few blogs, I promise!