At the live edge of summer, my gardening practice is fresh and unborn, growing to new life in the green womb of our home orchard. The trees in this dynamic ecosystem have been planted over the last three decades, each tree rooted in its own lineage and story. Many of the fruit trees are just now coming into ripeness, offering a dense harvest of Japanese plums, Asian pears, and fragrant dessert and cider apples. Even though spring has been dry and bitterly cold, I feel a warm flush of camaraderie in the presence of this arboreal dharma family.
Many years ago when Soto Zen roshi Dainin Katagiri came to San Francisco Zen Center to lead a Zen training period, he reminded us that followers of the way gather in meditation to establish a sorin, or “forest thicket,” of dedicated practice. In this thicket a density of species grows together, sharing an intertwined root system and enlivening the circle of continuous practice.
At the core of our home orchard, a stately Golden Delicious apple tree is growing. I helped to plant this tree many years ago, before I lived here, with my dharma colleague and friend Patricia Mushim Ikeda. In early April 1989, Mushim gave birth to a lusty baby boy whom we welcomed by planting the young Golden Delicious apple tree on his placenta.
From the first, tree and child took muscular hold. Famed for vigorous health, and renowned for firm and highly favored flesh, the Golden Delicious apple originated from a chance seedling of the Grimes Golden apple bred in the early 1800s in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. Self-fertile and uncommonly productive, the Golden Delicious apple is an ideal pollinator plant for the orchard, assuring fertility and fruitfulness for all other apple varieties growing in its vicinity.
A few years after we planted this placental tree, mother and son moved to Oakland, where Mushim now maintains a full life as a meditation teacher, community activist, and Buddhist writer. Some years later, after 25 years of residential training at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, our family moved one mile north to Muir Beach, to the exact location where Mushim and I planted the Golden Delicious apple tree. Now every autumn we send a box of fresh apples or a large Mason jar of delicious apple butter to our friends in Oakland.
Grounded in affection for these iconic fruit trees, I follow a three-part harmony of care and coordinated practice in our home orchard ecosystem. No matter the season, I always begin with a long pause of silence and a deliberate slowing down of all inquiry in order to hear the voice of the watershed where I am working. In this silence I am aware that a wild forest thicket of California native plants grows at the edge of our domesticated garden. Here, medicinal elderberry mingles with damp stands of red alder, creek dogwood, and pools of black willow. A dense understory of stinging nettle and horsetail fern covers the floor of this forest, setting the rhythm for nature’s round dance of growth and decay, and transmitting instructions for the health and vitality of the cultivated landscape.
With the blood of the wild forest circulating in my awareness, I remember that healthy fruit trees depend upon a steady diet of fungally dominated woody debris in order to feed their hungry soil. Accordingly, the second phase of orchard care begins with the pruning of the fruit orchard at the New Year. In this dormant season, fallen branches are gathered from the forest floor and chipped together with tender fruit tree prunings. This mix of woody debris is spread throughout the orchard along with mounds of raked forest leaves and wheelbarrows full of ripe compost and moldy straw. Throughout the growing season I continue to deliver woody debris to the fruit trees, making sure that each offering is tucked beneath a woodland mulch generated from the forest thicket.
The third practice of mindful orchard care involves the application of four holistic sprays that are coordinated with the seasonal opening of the first apple buds, the first fruit blossoms, and the first petal fall in the orchard. My husband, Peter, and I brew most of these holistic “sprays of spring” from scratch. Peter applies organic Neem oil, an ingredient derived from the cold-pressed seed of the sacred Neem tree of India and Africa. This spray serves both as a seasonal insect repellent and a disease inhibitor for the orchard. He also delights in brewing a fertilizer of liquid fish, which he sources by collecting raw fish scraps from the last working dock in the San Francisco harbor, mixing the fish with rough oak leaves and stirring this seething brew into a 55- gallon drum filled with fresh creek water. (Blessedly, the drum is stored downwind, in the faraway shade of the forest thicket.) The reeking fish brew ferments for several months, providing a powerful holistic spray of liquid nitrogen and micronutrients laced with rich fatty acids from the decaying fish. This spray nourishes the entire orchard ecosystem.
Although I enjoy the preparation of homemade sprays of spring, I occasionally feel like a possessed Buddhist barista as I brew these bubbling batches. Still, I delight in blending our third spray of whole milk whey, comfrey, and nettle leaves and mineralizing it with a dash of rock dust
to provide available calcium for the orchard and to retard harmful fungal spore germination. Likewise, I cherish our fourth spray of spring brewed from liquid compost tea boosted with a slurry of effective microbes and sweetened with blackstrap molasses. This spray enhances nutrient density in all home orchard fruit. Wearing my trusty backpack sprayer, I pause before applying any of these holistic sprays of spring to the orchard. I imagine potent aerosol nourishing each tree, and I treat every application of these ingredients as a sacred tea ceremony for the living orchard.
It is early summer now in California and quiet at the roots of the forest thicket. In the heart of the garden, the Golden Delicious apple tree stands
in full fruit, its continuous practice opening the circle of the way.
A few days ago I came upon a 1989 journal entry from His Holiness the Dalai Lama that I remembered reading to Mushim when we planted the apple tree on her son’s placenta so many years ago:
On a certain day, month, and year,
We should observe the ceremony
Of tree planting.
Thus, we fulfill our responsibilities,
And serve our fellow beings,
Which not only brings us happiness,
But benefits all.