Thursday, July 7, 2011

It’s Good Pasture: Another Oklahoma Gardening Lesson

The orchard, December 2007.

On Christmas Day in 2007, Kel and I were still planting fruit trees, the last six before we could pack up the car and drive east to spend some of the holiday with my parents.  We’d been busy planting 80+ fruit trees: apple, cherry, apricot, nectarine, peach and pear for the past week.  Kel had been digging holes for weeks before that and I’d put together large chicken wire cages to go around the trees in an attempt to keep gopher’s from eating the roots.  

I don’t know about Kel, but I was already imagining the trees when they were mature, fruit hanging down – more fruit than we could possibly eat, sturdy branches reaching up and out, creating a shady canopy over the entire orchard.  Probably Kel was thinking the same thing.  He’d had a dream of having his own orchard ever since he was a kid and had spent a summer with his uncle in Indiana.  A neighbor had an orchard and he was free to pick and eat as much fruit as he wanted.  It seemed magical.

 A few weeks after we finished planting, we sat out in the orchard with Mrs. C, a friend, neighbor and cattlewoman, showing off our hard work.  In her slow and considered way, she surveyed the thin, branchless twigs stuck into the ground in neat rows and at the grass, thick and green even in January, settled back into her lawn chair and said, just loud enough to hear, “Sure is good pasture, though.” 

We chuckled about her comment as later we chuckled when an Oklahoma beekeeper told us how he once had an orchard but that he’d given up on it long ago.  Too much work.  What did born and bred Oklahomans know about orchards anyway?  Turns out they know a lot.  They know what not to grow in Oklahoma. 

The first spring our trees leafed out and branches magically appeared.  They grew like crazy.  The second year we had a wet spring and the pear trees were hit with fire blight.  We lost a tree or two, but figured that was all part of the deal.  Later that same year we noticed bright orange spots on the otherwise perfect leaves of the apple trees.  Cedar Apple Rust.  Recommendations were to remove all cedar trees in the area (a Sisyphaen task) and to spray with a copper solution.  There went our idea of a pesticide- and herbicide-free orchard.  

Yet somehow the fruit trees continued to grow; they looked pretty good.  We started to see some fruit coming on the apple trees and that aroused the interest of other kinds of pests.  Birds started pecking the young fruit even before it was ripe.  Raccoons and opossums climbed the trees and pulled off the fruit, breaking branches and bending my chicken wire cages.  One year deer stripped off every single piece of fruit on every single apple tree in one night – despite the 6’ electrified fence surrounding the trees.  Leafrollers chewed the branches completely bare of leaves.  And this year, there’s no rain.  

So the question now for us is: when do we call it quits?  When does the time expenditure outweigh the payoff?  I haven’t made one pie from the apples or cherries.  Kel not once has been able to walk into his orchard and pluck a perfectly ripe, unblemished piece of fruit off of one of the trees.  Yet thinking about abandoning the orchard completely is painful.  Letting go of a life-long dream is painful.  And they’re trees after all, beautiful trees – they were just planted in the wrong state.

A long time ago, farmers used to grow peanuts in Oklahoma.  And there are still some acres of corn being cultivated (and corn is just big grass).  Some people are trying their hands at growing grapes for local wineries.  But you don’t see orchards here and there’s a good reason for that.  Oklahoma is just good pasture.

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