Lessons from Planting Trees

Some of you may have heard the story my dad used to tell about how, back in the early 1970s, he planted (actually, he had me plant) black walnut trees on some land we own.  The big-picture plan was to plant them so that future generations would be able to harvest them and reap the benefits of their far-sighted ancestors.  It was a great long-term plan, but there were a few details missing….

Now, I’m going to tell you the rest of the story.  About a year after my dad died (2008), I had a logger look at the 35-year-old trees and I asked him how much he thought they were worth.  His response was, “If you have something else you want to do with this land, don’t let these trees stop you….  They might be worth $500.00 to $1,000.00.”  First lesson:  it’s not enough to just plant something and forget about it for 35 years…you won’t get the desired results.  The trees should have been thinned and pruned regularly, and then, maybe???  In other words, any worthwhile project requires regular care and effort.

At that time, I was on a kick to use what I had more efficiently and productively.  My mother (who had grown up tending cows on the land during the 1920s) remembered that there had been an apple orchard on part of the land, so I figured at least apple trees would grow on it.  Part of it was a hill (22% grade) and I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do with it (no interest in cows).  So, I had two acres cleared and I hired an Amish man to plant some fruit trees on it.  During the next two years we (he) planted apple, pear, and plum trees in one field, and peach and cherry trees in the second field, putting fences around each tree.  We also planted ten blueberry bushes without fences…and the deer ate them during the first winter.  Second lesson: If you leave something of value outside in an unprotected place, don’t be surprised if someone takes it.

After the two acres were filled with fruit trees and blueberry bushes (we got smart and built greenhouse frames with chicken wire over the blueberries to keep the deer out and, eventually, netting to keep the birds out), I asked the Amish man whether we should be happy with what we had or whether we should clear more land.  He said (without hesitation), “clear more land.”  So we cleared three more acres and eventually filled them with more fruit trees and berry bushes of various kinds…red raspberries, black raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, goji berries, red currants, and plum berries.  Third lesson:  Some things grow better in different kinds of soil.  In other words, a friendly environment (think land, labor, capital, and government) can make a big difference in how quickly things grow.

Now I’m to the point where I’m spending most of my weekends working with my Amish helpers just to clear land, weed, cut grass, plant plants, prune, mulch, weed, pick fruit, water, and, did I mention, weed?  I don’t mind eating the fruits of our labor, but the rest of it is “work.”

Recently, when I complained to someone that I didn’t want to become a farmer, but what else was I supposed to do with the land that has been in our family for six generations, she suggested that I should plant black walnut trees on it and let them go for the next generation to worry about.  Last lesson:  You can ask for advice, but be careful who you ask.  If they haven’t been there and done that, they might not tell you the rest of the story.  The only thing you can be sure of?  It will take constant effort and adaptability to be successful in the long run.

Robert F. Sennholz

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