THE first time that I joined my husband planting a portion of our 10-acre peach orchard, I felt as if I were re-enacting some childhood game of make-believe. We dug a hole, dropped in a handful of fertilizer granules, held a two-foot rootstock in place, and covered it halfway with dirt. There it stood, an elfin flagpole in a field where healthy Johnson grass spears were so tall they would have shaded the future tree if we hadn't cut them down.
I found it hard to believe a real tree could grow from these mere wisps of wood and their tender roots. It takes a lot of patience and some simple, yet uncommon trust to believe that the partnership between earth and sky will indeed produce a grove from such lowly beginnings.
A row of these switches seemed almost comical when we surveyed our work, until we thought of their significance: our future sustenance. Orchard farmers take their rootstocks seriously. The bushels of peaches from these future trees would be enjoyed by the people of our town and become an important part of our income.
For my husband, this act of planting peach trees one by one was particularly momentous. The small orchard we were creating was on the same spot where an original, much larger family orchard had been started in the early 1900s. Home Farm Orchards had been known throughout western Kentucky for three generations. Boxes and crates of these peaches and apples were sold at the local fruit stand under a striped circus tent. They were also shipped in sturdy boxes adorned with a handsome Kentucky Cardinal label t o cities as far away as St. Louis, Chicago, and Cincinnati.
Now, 80 years later, we were planting our small orchard on a portion of the family site. Two-thirds of the original Home Farm had been sold and developed. The growing city of Henderson had needed an interstate, apartment complexes, and a cluster of stores called nostalgically, "Old Orchard Shopping Center." All that was left of that grand old farm was the foreman's house, where we lived, two barns, four ponds, and the 200 acres we were attempting to make fertile.
DEVELOPMENT is the price we pay for prosperity and growth. The quaint old town along the Ohio River where Home Farm and countless others once thrived has grown into a small city in the past 50 years. As towns outgrow their first boundaries, development of roads and stores and housing spreads to the surrounding countryside, toppling trees and paving fields. Single-family farms with their expanse of fields and fence rows, ponds and wood lots, are slowly disappearing. To replant is, in a sense, a countercul tural phenomenon that draws interest and brought us periodic front-page publicity in the local paper.
Our farm was like an island surrounded by a grown-up metropolis and an interstate that linked the Deep South to the Midwest. Tractor-trailers barreling by our eastern field were noticeable those first years before the peach trees grew large enough to muffle the sound and block the view. Sitting on our old farmhouse front porch where I used to rock our babies on the wooden swing, I'd wonder if those speeding cars could see me there and gain comfort from the thought that some things never change. To the we st was a neighborhood where well-tended backyards pushed up against our dusty cornfields. Our pick-your-own strawberry patch and fruit stand grew up alongside a church's parking lot. How our ancestor would have marveled to see his reduced acreage part of an incongruous blend of the urban and the bucolic. He would have been relieved, no doubt, to see the peach trees regaining their rightful place.
At first no one could have realized that infant peach trees were planted on the grassy slope. But after two years they had grown six feet and both their presence and their hardiness were confirmed. Busy as I was with a new baby and a toddler, chickens, and selling sweet corn from our front porch, I didn't participate in all the care those young trees were requiring.
Together with his father, my husband was spending hours fertilizing, grafting, weeding, spraying, and pruning the trees. The care of fruit trees is a labor of love and muscle and seems to create a bond between the farmer and his trees that goes beyond economics.
A well-pruned tree, my husband would say, echoing his father who echoed the great uncle he had learned from, was a tribute to the skill of careful cutting. The cutting of the branches would take weeks of each late winter. There is literal meaning to the adage that as a tree is cut, so it grows and ultimately produces. A well-pruned tree bears abundant fruit and is a pleasure to behold.
By the fourth year, the orchard could be seen distinctly from miles away, trees reaching 12 to 14 feet. I used to think how these few hundred trees helped soften the sight, particularly during blossom time, of asphalt and metal guardrails. The grassy slope had now, magically, become an orchard.
A local beekeeper placed his hives under our trees, and on sunny spring days the air vibrated with their buzzing. In a good breeze, blossoms floated through the air and coated the ground with pink. It was always soothing, even in the midst of the busy peach-picking season, to walk into the orchard and feel the leafy splendor of those trees all reaching up, branches extended like woody arms over our heads in benediction.
Those unassuming switches had fulfilled their promise and become sturdy trees that provided shade for our picnics. Our three young girls could climb into their branches, and by the fifth year they were plucking the fuzzy peaches that sold faster than we could pick them.
Once again, Home Farm peaches were filling half-peck and two-quart boxes and stirring the memories of those old enough to have known former times. Zelpha Clohetie Davis, an employee from the days when my father-in-law was boss, would reminisce about the pleasant days she had spent beneath that old fruit-stand tent when people drove up asking for Elberta, Golden Jubilee, or Red Haven peaches. They would often wait another week if their favorite variety hadn't come ripe yet.
From the small garage apartment the family had fixed up for her, she could gaze out her window at the orchard and once again recognize the seasons by the sight of those branches as they changed.
A peach tree has a productive span of about 10 years. When we left the farm after 10 years to work and study in another city, all but six of our peach trees were bull-dozed up to turn the land back into pasture. Instead of replanting, as we would have done and might someday yet, the field is used for pasturing horses, and developers eye the land wistfully.
Those six remaining trees produce a few bushels every year that we have eaten in our new home far away. They are picked faithfully by my father-in-law and an old friend, and they travel by car over the interstate to us. One bite into our own Home Farm peach transports me back to that sunny field that we made into an orchard. I taste the sweetness of hope renewed.