I have a vivid memory of eating a Red Delicious apple when I was seven years old and, afterward, regarding the dark seeds embedded in the core.
I asked my dad if I planted one of the seeds would we get apples on our own tree next year? No, he said. Not next year.
Dad guessed it would take about seven years.
I would love the next part of the story to be that I planted a seed that very afternoon, that I grew up with the sapling that emerged, that I was married under that tree twenty years later and that I make pies from the fruit every fall.
But what I actually thought when my dad told me that was: seven years — that’s forever! I would be fourteen before the tree got big enough to produce apples (never mind that its apples would probably be more like sour golf balls since it wouldn’t come true from seed). The idea of waiting so long for the payoff of planting an apple seed was inconceivable. I couldn’t even conceive of myself seven years into the future.
To plant a tree from seed, even a modest one like an apple, is no small thing. To plant the seed of a grand shade tree, like a white oak, now that is a real leap of faith. Knowing you’ll never see its ultimate grandeur, knowing that it will outlive you, your children, maybe even your grandchildren — to plant that seed is a gift, an act of sheer optimism.
To this day, I’ve never planted a tree from seed, though I’ve planted many small saplings, and I’ve found that even the saplings require an abundance of patience, an ability to delay gratification that I’ve only acquired in mid-life.
I’ve had a tiny paw-paw, a volunteer transplanted from a client’s garden, growing in my backyard for the last three years. I’ve got it planted in the shade and it’s taking its time. Each year it puts out about five pretty green leaves. This year there might be six. I’m losing patience, but I really want those Zebra Swallowtail butterflies, whose larva feast on paw-paw leaves. For now it stays.
Last summer I planted another baby tree, a wee ‘Cherokee Brave’ dogwood that’s now about thigh-high. It leans a little, and its broad leaves are way out of proportion to its spindly trunk. It has the same comical look as those skinny teenage boys you see who have huge feet and hands. It hasn’t grown into itself yet.
One day it will reach fifteen, maybe twenty feet, with rosy blooms arrayed along its stretching limbs. I can see it. One day I will look up at it instead of down. Will that take longer than seven years?
In seven years I will be forty-nine.
*I meant to have this post written in time for this month’s Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Trees, but alas, I was tardy. But please take some time to read more about Trees from my fellow garden writers: