I first saw the trees in the depth of winter, when snow covered everything. They looked like normal, small, trees on a normal, small, city lot. I was excited by the nature surrounding the house I was going to live in, and by the potential of what I could harvest from these trees, vines, and shrubs.
When we moved in to the house, the trees were blooming. First the the pair of trees in the front, covered with white flowers which snowed down and covered the ground. These were plum trees, though so old and overgrown that they’d stopped growing fruits. Next bloomed the trio of trees in the backyard, flanking the tiny pond. These turned out to be sour cherry trees, which produced an alarming amount of fruit in a very short time – tart and vibrant red. A fourth cherry tree, of a different variety, still hasn’t fruited, but reliably sprouts pink-tinged blooms in early spring. A thicket of aronia shrubs under the eaves had dainty little pink centers in their white blooms, and their big clusters of purple-black fruits made birds happy long into winter. Two twining grape vines covered the chain link fence and the pergola, yielding a gorgeous crop of green and red grapes. A stand of raspberries took up a corner of the yard, growing somewhat wild.
These plants became the start of my little backyard orchard, and we’ve all grown together. I learned how to prune the old plum trees from a friend, who came over a couple years in a row to show me which limbs should be removed (often doing the sawing himself) – and even grafted on some new plum varieties onto the old tree. Last year we grew finally grew enough to share a few plums with others (besides the squirrels, who get most of them).
The cherry trees are another story entirely, as their branches are chock-full of clumps of cherries, which all ripen within a single week, needing to be picked that very moment, or they’d carpet the ground with rotting cherry flesh. I dutifully went out and harvested for hours at a time, then started the long process of washing, plucking, and pitting the pretty little gems. At this point… what? They’re nice to eat a few on their own, but pretty tart, and they don’t keep in the fridge very well. My sister came to the rescue, making dozens of jars of delightful jelly that we shared with our family as Christmas gifts. The next year, I was more prepared. I recruited help in the picking, distributed the jelly to my near-neighbors, learned how to make a sour cherry vișinată, explored lots of dessert recipes, and purchased a robust cherry pitter. It’s become a bit of a summer event, as my neighbors come over to pick their fill and the birds briefly flee the trees. I highly recommend these productive and low-maintenance trees, and are great for community building – as shown in Janne’s story of her cherry tree event.
There’s not a lot of space (or sunlight) left in my yard, but we’ve made room for some new serviceberries which should fruit in a couple years. We’ve converted almost all of the lawn to prairie plants, woodland ephemerals, and “bee lawn” – but left some space for wild strawberries to spread. The resilient and ever-present hostas are delicious when picked young and sauteed. There’s a horseradish plant tucked in the margins, and maybe a rhubarb soon. This summer we have a couple crops of runner beans ripening, and a lemon tree sojourning on the patio for the summer. I have ambitious plans to take out some non-native and boring shrubs, and replace them with a pair of hazelnut bushes from our recent Climate Committee Food Tree Event. It’ll be great to add a crop of nuts to the backyard orchard.