Thursday, October 22, 2009

Investing in long-term projects

I have been gradually clearing summer debris from the garden, and am forced to face my biggest folly of the summer: a plastic grape arbor. When I initially stuck the grape vine in the ground a few years ago, it was admittedly after a bargain-basement impulse buy at a big-box store. When the grape vine started to flourish, I knew I needed better support than the little trellis I had provided originally. But I balked at the time and expense of building a strong, solid wooden arbor. Was it worth it? We'd probably be moving in a few years, I was busy...I'd just get something pre-made. I spent a hundred bucks on a silly plastic arbor that was overwhelmed in one season and now has a laughable rigging of bricks, string and wire to hold it up against the forceful embrace of the vine. I spent more time agonizing over this piece of junk and rigging silly repairs for its flimsiness than I would have if I had just started the project right with a solid wooden arbor. In hindsight, I can't understand my fear about spending two hundred bucks and a weekend of work for something that would have lasted.

Similarly, I have been avoiding pursuing my latest obsession: espaliered fruit trees. Ever since I laid eyes on the magnificent examples in the Chicago Botanic Gardens, I have been itching to try it. The back of my house would be perfect to espalier a quince or apple, and it is a time-honored urban gardening technique. But, as each year goes by, I think, "I didn't start it my first year here, so what's the point? I'll probably be moving in a few years anyway, so I'll never get fruit from it, it will never look nice". In stark contrast to generations past, I simply assume I will be moving on at some point, that this is not where I will stay. Part of this is just our nomenclature of a first home... "a starter": a stepping stone to something better, to permanence. When I move to my real home I will start long-term projects.

I have tried the gardening techniques promoted by Mel Bartholomew in the "Square Foot Gardening" manual. His approach is particularly child-friendly and it offered a way to garden on a patio that my husband didn't want to remove. I did bristle at one of his many promotional points in his book, which reads more like an infomercial than a gardening manual. He talks about the "seven-year itch": it takes on average seven years for gardeners to improve existing soil and the average home-owner moves every seven years. "Seven years worth of effort lost", writes Bartholomew. His conclusion: garden in easily removable raised beds. Now, this makes no sense to me. It is not time lost: you have conditioned the soil, made it more animal and plant friendly, safer for children to play in, and composted waste that would have ended up as methane in in a landfill. And this seven-year outlook also assumes that the owner who follows will not garden or if they do, it has no direct benefit to you if you give them rich, organic soil. I believe there can be small acts of land stewardship, and improving urban soil is one of them, whether you are a renter or a fleeting owner of the tract.

I regret not planting fruit trees the first year I was here, or putting in a serious grape arbor that would have lasted twenty years. It stemmed from similar wrong-thinking about who would benefit and what the immediate reward for me and my family would be. And who knows....maybe with the economy and job availability this will morph from our starter home into a home in which we raise our family over decades. So maybe I will start my espaliered fruit tree project next year. If we sell in a few years, maybe a dedicated gardener will buy the house and continue on. Or maybe I will stay here long enough to see a mature tree, despite the best-laid plans. Or maybe the next owner will rip the whole damn thing out, but I will have gained skills that can be transferred to a new project, at a new house. And even the idea of gardening as stewardship is taking the short view. I meditate on the writing of Wendell Berry, who wrote:

"..Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years."

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