All About Time
By Greg Peterson
Chinese Proverb: The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time…now!!!
I just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel called The Signature of All Things. It is a very interesting read about botany, human relationships with nature and time. I was particularly struck by the main character Alma’s view on time. She spoke of ‘human time,’ ‘moss time’ and ‘divine time.’ To discover more on her specific thoughts I encourage you to read the book.
Her distinction in time made me think, as for many years I have distinguished between human time and geologic time. This is a pretty straightforward way of thinking about it, with human time being the lifespan of a generation and geologic time being the millions of years of lifespan of this rock we live on called Earth. But what about the in-between time?
For Alma, it was the ‘moss time,’ or the time it takes colonies of moss to live, move and transform. Interestingly, the felling of a tree that exposes the moss to full sunlight quickly transformed an ideal moss-growing space into a place almost uninhabitable. Hmmmm… metaphorically speaking, what happens when our cultural tree falls?
For me, one of the in between times is ‘fruit tree’ time. During the time I read Gilbert’s book I taught many classes on fruit trees and had the realization that I have been planting fruit trees in Phoenix long enough to see their entire cycle from planting and fruiting to the end of their life.
The first tree I planted in Phoenix, AZ was a peach tree at the Weldon house, a half-acre flood irrigated property that we moved into in 1975. I was 14 and for whatever reason very interested in growing food and planting fruit trees. To this day I can’t explain why I was interested, except that on a deep level I understood that they way we are living on the planet and growing our food is somehow wrong. I needed to change that. By the time 1979 rolled around I was harvesting peaches and actually learned how to ‘can’ them from my friend Tim’s mom. The tree was still thriving when my parents sold the house in 1987.
During the years that I had no dirt to plant in, I spent my time playing with and making my living on an Apple (curious I know) computer and learning a whole lot about technology. Then, in 1989, I purchased what is now the Urban Farm, a one-third-acre flood irrigated property in North Central Phoenix. At the time, there were 50 or so trees on the property and only about 10 of them were food-bearing. Pines (at least 10), eucalyptus, mulberry (males), ash and other generic non fruit-bearing trees adorned the space, and I had no idea how or why they were planted here.
However…To my delight there were six ancient citrus trees. You see, the Urban Farm sits on the skeleton of a 1930s citrus orchard. Four yellow grapefruits and two Arizona sweet oranges were doing their best to hang on. The grapefruit trees lived their lives out here and the remaining structure of one of them (which died a few years ago) holds up the grape vine that shades my outdoor kitchen. The two remaining Arizona sweet oranges grace the back of the property and still produce a nice amount of fruit each year even at the ripe ol’ age of eighty-something – that is some impressive fruit tree time.
In 1989, when I moved into the Urban Farm, I immediately started planting fruit trees in an effort to dine from the yard. The first three trees I planted were a peach tree and two apple trees, two of which are still reliably producing while the third met its maker primarily due to old age. Doing the math, the two remaining trees are bumping up against 25 years of age and while both are showing their age I would suspect they should last another five or ten years. However, the one that died did so very quickly; it produced apples in the spring and promptly died over the summer at the age of 23.
Over the years, I have planted many fruit trees here at the Urban Farm and in several locations around the Valley and, of all the trees I have planted, many are still alive. For those that are not, a ‘tree time’ pattern is forming that looks like this:
- Apricots seem to have the shortest lifespan, living from eight to twelve years. They start strong and produce a nice amount of fruit throughout their life.
- Apples have a track record of doing a little better, living 10 to 25 plus years. The apples that have died in my care dropped quite quickly from what appears to be root rot.
- Peaches seem to be the winner as I have yet to have any of my planted peaches expire from natural causes.
One thing that always has me take notice is when I see someone removing a perfectly good fruit tree that is still full of life. This week, one of my neighbors had a backhoe in their yard and were removing some of the ancient citrus trees that live here. Now I don’t know the specifics of their situation or that of the tree, but it made me pause to reflect on the value of the trees we plant, and I am not just talking about dollars. Although money plays into their value, there are also the environmental benefits they provide in cleaning the air and water, the aesthetic value of how they look and the long-term value of the food that you can harvest. It is important to weigh these values from the moment we decide to plant a fruit tree until the end of its life.
Fruit tree time is approximately that of a human lifespan, and I’ll spend the rest of my days keeping up my observations and research. If you get back with me in 25 years or so I am sure that I will have some improved data for you and, with any luck, I will still be harvesting fruit from those two Arizona sweet orange trees.