Friday, May 8, 2009

Deb Burns: Postcard from a Tree Planting (serenaded by songbirds)

Close-up of what a cherry tree is up to in early May. Photo by Sean McHugh

Cardinals whistle from the treetops as I head down to the garden. Nothing new: Their urgent speechifying has dominated the aural landscape since early February, beginning in the predawn darkness as they vocalize to attract mates and defend nesting territory from rivals. These bold scarlet birds are said to have two dozen different songs. The females sing almost as well as the males, so you hear twice the music from one pair as from other species. And since a pair can have three successive families a year, their concert season is a long one.

On this cool, cloudy May morning, though, they’re accompanied by a trilling, chirping chorus of a dozen other songsters — and I could swear they’re cheering me on. Today I’m proceeding with Phase 2 of my plan to convert my vegetable garden (after 25 years) into an orchard. For the last 20 years we’ve been members of Caretaker Farm, our wonderful CSA, whose vegetables and berries are superb and plentiful. So now I have the urge to stop growing annual vegetables myself and take on larger plants, with a longer lifespan. Instead of tomatoes, it’ll be tart cherry trees. It’s as if, after many years of writing short stories, I’m moving on to novels.

Last year I started my orchard with two apple trees — a Honey Crisp and a Cortland. But two trees make a pair, not an orchard. So this winter I ordered a tart ‘Montmorency’ cherry and a semidwarf ‘Honey Crisp’ apple from our local conservation service, and yesterday I picked them up.

An older cherry tree I planted about 10 years ago.
It's too tall now to net easily, and birds always consume the cherries before we can. Photo by Sean McHugh

Now I ponder my untilled beds, starred with wild strawberry flowers and purple violets. The hardest part by far is deciding where the new trees should go, relative to the first pair. My garden is still in transition, so the trees and I must negotiate with perennial asparagus and garlic beds and a pea trellis (couldn’t resist). In addition, there’s a bluebird nestbox right where I could’ve planted my new Honey Crisp. I decide on an “L” formation, facing south and west.

After that, the instructions are simple: Don’t dig the hole ahead of time (it will dry out); make it deep enough that the roots can spread out and the knoblike bud union is 3 to 4 inches above the surface; don’t add manure; fill halfway with soil and tamp, gently but firmly; fill up and tamp again. Water well right after planting, and then once again; two good waterings should be enough in a normal season. And that’s it!

I’m working alongside a brown bird who is setting up house in the bluebird nestbox, customarily inhabited by tree swallows. To avoid staring (like a predator), I try to observe discreetly as she flits around. She carries long straws to her house, managing to turn them sideways through the entrance hole. Sometimes she peers out like a housewife looking at the world from her kitchen door. I’m assuming she’s a wren, and I’m pleased because wrens have one of the most beautiful songs in all birddom — soaring, joyful, and bubbly, sung in long liquid sentences. According to Storey’s Backyard Bird-Lover’s Guide by Jan Mahnken, one Native American name for the house wren meant “big noise from little size.”

Here I am with my two Honey Crisp apple trees, being serenaded by songbirds. Photo by Sean McHugh

Finally I give each tree two good bucketfuls of water — much to the distress of a large beetle that twice in ten minutes had to paddle for shore when its prairie turned into a lake. Then I call my son to come and photograph the orchard for this post.

As I turn to gather my tools, a scratchy song emanates from a nearby birch, and a streak of blue crosses my view. A male bluebird is making broad circles around the nestbox. Then it dawns on me: the brown female is neither a house wren nor a tree swallow. For the first time in all the years the birdbox has stood there, it is hosting the species it was originally designed for: Sialia sialis, Eastern bluebird.

Definitely time to slip away and leave them alone. Altogether, a most satisfactory day in the garden or, I mean, the orchard.

Male Eastern Bluebird, photo © Alvah W. Sanborn, from The Backyard Birdhouse Book

For more on bird life, song, and behavior, see The Backyard Bird-Lover’s Guide. The Backyard Birdhouse Book has information on nestboxes and attracting birds to live in them.

Deb Burns
Acquiring Editor for Animal, Farming, and Equestrian Topics


Amy Greeman said...

Deb, what a beautiful post! I so loved reading it; it evoked a real sense of place for me.

Melanie Jolicoeur said...

That looks like such a beautiful spot for an orchard! Don't forget to put some wire mesh around the bases of the trees, especially before winter. I lost a whole row of new apple trees when their bases were gnawed by some kind of hungry little creature!

Bethany J said...

Honeycrisps are my favorite! Especially in pies! Perhaps we can barter for some veggies from my garden! Nice post Deb!

Alethea Morrison, Storey Creative Director said...

What a beautiful view you have on your land! Such a dream!

Stephanie said...

Hilarious. Deb, did you know the most popular, famous, and most readily available apple out here is the Honey Crisp? Seriously it's what the potato is to Idaho. So much so that when you walk into my grocery store there is an entire aisle of Honey Crisp apples! And guess what they have on display on the end caps? Honey Crisp apple!

Just in case you miss them, they have a separate display in the front entrance. And if you want to walk through Pike Place Market, bring a gun! It's the only way you can stop the locals at their stands from practically shoving a fresh Honey Crisp slice directly down your throat!

Enough with the Honey Crisps. Can someone PLEASE send me a bushel (at least) of Macouns? They seem to not make those out here.

Anonymous said...

Deb, I was online and stumbbled across your blog. What beautiful photos as well as stories.
Melody Reynolds