Revitalizing abandoned lots with fruit trees

One of the best visions of healthy agriculture is found in Tree Crops by J. Russell Smith.  Published in 1953, the book lays out a plan for a permanent agriculture based on trees that restore the soil and provide fruits and nuts that can be used for food and feed. Trees can be planted on marginal lands and while they require care, they can flourish without the intensive care required of gardens or livestock.

When walking around Little Rock, I have been trying to think how I can utilize the many abandoned weed lots. In many neighborhoods, when a house burns down or is condemned and bulldozed nothing is put in its place. While I would love to see many of these lots taken over by community gardens, there are far more weedlots than there are people who have the time and resources to start and maintain those gardens. But it is possible that each lot could become host to a few fruit trees. With a few volunteers to check in on them, mow around the trees, and make sure the fallen fruit is picked up, these empty lots could become free orchards in the middle of the city. 

Imagine what it would be like to go to a long-neglected neighborhood where fresh fruits and vegetables are all but absent and find apple, pear, peach, pecan, and walnut trees everywhere. The amount of food these trees would produce would be immense—around 5 or more bushels from one apple tree. Imagine the productive power of a once empty lot with five mature trees! 

Beyond the ecological qualities of trees and the food they produce, there is also a social value that fruit trees bring. As Liberty Hyde Bailey writes in his excellent pamphlet, The Apple Tree, "Life does not seem regular and established when there is no apple-tree in the yard and about the buildings, no orchards blooming in the May and laden in the September, no baskets heaped with the crisp smooth fruits; without all of these I am a foreigner, sojourning in a strange land." Fruit and nut trees create a certain kind of domestication. In neighborhoods that have been blighted these trees could be powerful symbols of growth and vitality.

But trees cannot care for themselves. They exist as we all do, within a community. The trees must be pollinated for maximum yield, so there is the need for some beehives in the neighborhood. They should also be pruned and fertilized. This requires people who are committed to caring for the trees over the years, and therefore have some commitment to the place. 

We are moving into winter now, and trees are moving into their dormant state—in Arkansas, the apple trees are bearing ripe fruit. It is a good time to plan, look around, and think where you might plant an orchard come early spring. Be your neighborhood's very own Johnny Appleseed.


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