One of the jobs I helped Mum with last weekend was raking in the cherimoya orchard. It’s a yearly ritual around this time of year. The November grasses and weeds dry out and get slashed down in the aisles. We rake it into piles, then use it as thick bedding around the trees. The bedding acts as soil protection, keeping the soil surface layer from heating up too much or too quickly and from drying out too much. It also acts as a weed suppressant to some degree, at least through summer and autumn. Not much suppresses the weeds in October.
So the first stretch of the cherimoya orchard had been slashed before we came, and I went out and raked up the grass into piles. Moist piles, as it had rained a little that day. Putting the grass under the trees to give them each a “nest” is something that’s quick to do compared to raking, so I did as much raking as I could first. I’d rather leave quick jobs like the nesting to Mum so that even on busy mornings on her way to school she can get a few trees done.
As I raked, I thought about the task. It’s so very logical, using a plentiful and immediately-to-hand resource that would otherwise be wasted. It reduces the need for herbicide, and helps keep the soil at reasonably constant moisture for the sub-tropical cherimoya trees. It ensures a replenishment of organic matter back into the soil. There are so many good things about it. The funny thing about the task though is that all of those reasons are add-ons, rationalised after the fact. It’s not why we do it. We do it because someone hadn’t understood something else properly. That someone was me.
Once, long ago, I think I helped convince Dad that the then-very-young trees would benefit from weed mat. The idea was to reduce the need for herbicide spraying. Maybe it was his idea and I just helped install the squares. I don’t remember any more, it’s long and fuzzy ago. But I do remember that one of the jobs I took on myself after he died (also long ago) was to go around the orchard and cut away the weed mat, first in small amounts and then eventually to remove most of it. The trees had grown sufficiently in size that the weed mat holes were too small and beginning to choke several. And I knew that with all the different things that each of us remembered about running the farm, that was one that would get overlooked. Missed, forgotten. Invisible. So I dealt with it then and there so that we wouldn’t have to remember to fix it later. It meant that weeds in that orchard got treated like the weeds in each of the other orchards, simplifying the whole-farm process. That meant mostly slashing, with Roundup under the tree canopy at certain times of year.
Some years later, I was talking to Mum about all the weeds we slashed, and I remember suggesting that we use the dry strawlike stuff as mulch around the trees. I’ve always been big on soil care, and while bare soil makes managing irrigation systems easy, bare soil is also barren soil. And subject to water damage, wind damage, sun damage, and so on. Mum was interested, but thoughtful. I don’t remember how the conversation went, or why I suggested the idea in the first place. I do remember that Mum asked me whether that didn’t just mean we’d get all the weeds coming up under the trees each year from all the seeds we were sticking under there. And I answered that I didn’t think so, the canopy of the trees was dark enough to reduce the germination quite a lot, you could see it happening in our main orchard all the time. What I’d not understood was that our main orchard trees stayed as clear underneath as they did because they were sprayed with herbicide twice a year. I knew that, I just didn’t really think it through because I mostly saw the trees in summer at harvest time when the weeds weren’t growing much anyway. So my blithe answer of “not a problem” really wasn’t true at all, it was based on a misunderstanding. But that seemed at the time to be one of the crucial factors in getting the process started. And we did it.
And then we did it again. And again. And now, years later, I don’t know if either my mother or brother remembers the initial conversations that led to us making the nests around the trees. We just do it every year, and we justify our work by telling each other all the ways in which it’s a good idea. Demonstrated ways, for the most part, or so it seems, after all the trees are healthy. I suspect that this too may be a logical fallacy – we don’t have any trees that we *don’t* do it to, so we don’t actually know that the trees and soil are any better off for it. We just think they are.
I do think, personally, that nesting the trees is valuable. I’m fairly sure that it is cutting the weeds down despite putting a fresh seedbank in every year – the straw piles mat down and act as sufficient mulch to stop the weeds germinating. The red loamy soil underneath stays dampish, never drying out or pooling under the irrigation points. And I know Mum’s time for spraying is limited (you never get the right weather on a day you’re free to do it) so anything that makes her think she doesn’t have to spray an area is actually more valuable than it seems at a glance. But I can’t help but notice that we’ve formed a tradition, based on a misunderstanding, confirmed and justified by hearing our own words repeated back to us, and that we’ve never really tested the results. It makes me wonder how often this happens, and what percentage of our “normal” farming practices really don’t have to be normal.