The root of the problem

It happens here every spring. As leaves break bud and flowers bloom, people are struck with inspiration to plant fruit trees. Summer seems so close at hand, and visions of sun-warmed peaches replace sugarplums dancing in their heads.

Local gardening forums are filled with requests for advice on what varieties of cherry do best here in Hardiness Zone 9b and which part of the yard is most suitable. The answers pour in, with many helpful neighbors addressing the specific questions asked: Stellas and Bings; that sunny spot with some wind protection from the fence.

But in the midst of all the tips and tricks from more experienced green thumbs, another answer will emerge, which addresses a question that has not been asked. “I know you don’t want to hear this right now, but you’d be better off waiting to plant in autumn.” 

This is never popular.

The encouragement to wait another six months is usually ignored amidst the allure of glossy nursery catalog centerfolds and the anticipation of ripe fruit. It is occasionally dismissed as rude and presumptuous. Despite this, the unsolicited recommendation to wait will almost always be offered at least once.

By July, urgent requests for guidance start rolling in as people fret over saplings with leaves that are yellowing, wilting, and falling to the ground. “Why is my nectarine overheating? I give it a deep watering every other day.”

The root of the problem is quite literally the root of the problem. Whereas the climates east of the Rockies require planting trees in the spring thaw, the Sacramento Valley demands that perennials be planted by December. Our summers arrive so early and with such intensity that a tree planted in spring has no time to establish itself to survive the scorching sun.

It is because summer burns hot and fast that we must garden slowly. A sapling must have time to sink its roots into the soil. Its microscopic root hairs must push their way through the earth, introducing themselves to the neighborhood and befriending the mycorrhizal fungi who will capture and deliver water in exchange for a steady supply of sugars. Those same fungi can bridge the gap between the roots of mature and juvenile trees, delivering nutrients to a young neighbor and helping it survive periods of stress.

Given the opportunity to patiently immerse itself in the local community of the soil, a sapling is able to thrive in the harsh summer sun that would otherwise kill it. The relationships that develop slowly with neighboring plants and fungi and microbes provide more relief than constant irrigation to a tree left on its own.

It is a remarkable thing to observe an autumn-planted tree in January, to see its bare branches in the cold, and to know that its apparent lifelessness belies the slow, patient work hidden in the soil preparing future abundance.

Sam Greenlee and his family make their home in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, CA, in the Sacramento River Watershed. He enjoys spending his free time with his wife and two young children and serving as an amateur community organizer.

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