The Life of a Fruit Tree

Cycle through the seasons of a fruit tree — from the new roots, shoots, and fruits of spring and summer — into fall and winter dormancy.

The end of dormancy is signaled by terminal bud swell, just before the buds burst open, pictured here on the branch of an apricot tree. Photo by Adobe Stock/Piotr

For the past 40 years, I’ve been teaching people how to grow fruit trees organically at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) Farm and Alan Chadwick Garden. The garden spans about 3 acres, perched on an impossibly steep, south-facing slope on California’s Central Coast, and has been a teaching garden since 1967, when Chadwick, a pioneer of organic French intensive gardening, began it as an experimental teaching garden at the newly founded university. In a sense, he was the Rosetta stone for all that’s unfolded subsequently in the field. His gardens, and those he inspired, exemplify a confluence of technique, science, art, and aesthetics. As organic gardeners, we owe him an extreme debt of gratitude.

For four decades, I’ve been that old guy leaning on a spade, expounding on the merits of cover crops and compost to a group of idealistic, hardworking apprentices. In addition to the apprenticeship program, we sell vegetables, flowers, and fruit through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, a market cart, and to the cafeterias at UCSC. We also distribute free produce to food pantries on campus, helping to combat food insecurity among students.

Photo by Getty Images/cotuvokne

The program has graduated more than 1,500 apprentices who’ve gone on to found and lead organic farms, teaching gardens, and food justice projects around the country and throughout the world. My own fruit tree addiction started with apples. The apprentices tease me that, after 40 years in the orchard, I still haven’t gotten out of the “A” section of the fruit tree catalog. But why would I need to? One of the advantages of apple trees is that, thanks to an array of size-controlling rootstocks, they lend themselves to intensive plantings and small gardens. But after 10 years of specializing exclusively in apples — with more than 120 cultivars at last count — the Alan Chadwick Garden orchard is now graced by a collection of stone fruits, including apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, and apriums and pluots, the later two of which are both apricot-plum hybrids. The truth is, all fruits are great.

A Paradise for Every Generation

The people of this planet have a long and storied association with trees. Put simply, the story of fruit trees is the story of us. Some archaeobotanists argue that fig orchards once dotted the eastern rim of the Mediterranean Sea and eastward toward the upper Euphrates River Valley. These early orchards may have predated the wild progenitors of wheat, barley, oats, emmer, and other ancient grains that propelled humankind into farming some 10,000 years ago. Since then, we’ve benefitted from the presence of trees in the immediate landscape and, more fundamentally and simply, trees on the planet.



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