A FRIEND CALLED one afternoon to tell us that fruit trees were on sale at a local store. Randee and I had been in the market for bare-root fruit trees because we wanted to plant an orchard on some property we own in northern California. With great eagerness, we searched out the bargain-priced trees. They were outside, in the back. One look told us why they were on sale.

They looked more like sticks than trees. Two signs marked the sale. An old sign, weathered with the ink running down the side. It read,

“Bare-root trees, ready for planting.”

The other sign, obviously more recent, had been crookedly stapled over the older sign. It read,

“End-of-the-season bare-root trees-

Last chance to plant!”

Most of those little trees had limbs only a mother tree could love. Some branches were broken off — others looked like they needed to be. They were all dwarf trees, “fast-growers,” the tag said. Virtually all of them were leafless, lifeless examples of what not to buy and plant if you really want to grow fruit.

Sixteen. That’s how many I put into our cart. I was smart. I played the percentages. I figured we wanted to plant a dozen trees, and if we bought sixteen, four could succumb, and we’d still have twelve, live, producing trees.

I watched people’s eyes as we strolled to the checkout stand with our trees. I’m not sue if the pity I saw was for us or the trees. But I know pity when I see it, and I saw it that day.

It occurred to me on the way home that I had never planted an orchard before. If there were any tricks to it, I wanted to know what they were. I called my dad. He’d planted lots of trees in his life. He’d know the procedure.

“Not much to it,” he said. “The only thing you need to remember is don’t plant a $10 tree in a $2 hole.”

My tree’s didn’t cost ten bucks, I thought to myself. But they deserve every bit as good a treatment as $10 trees. So I hired a man with a backhoe to dig $10 holes. I told him how to get to our property, and that I had already installed an irrigation system and driven stakes in the ground where he needed to dig. He wanted more specifics.

“How big do you want the holes?” he asked.

A good question. A reasonable question.

I said, “Oh, I don’t know. How does three feet sound?”

“You got it,” he replied. (He didn’t know much about trees, either, but he knew a lot about holes. Big holes. Wide holes.)

He dug them. Twelve big, wide, deep $10 holes.

On planting day, Randee and I gathered our tools, our specially formulated plant food, and our trees, and drove to our property. Upon arrival, we set out across our ten-acre field with great anticipation. We saw twelve mounds of dirt each about half the size of a car. The closer we got, the taller they seemed. If trees need significant holes to do well, then these trees would do very well indeed. Randee mixed up several buckets of plant food, and with motherly tenderness poured it gently around the roots of those baby trees.

It takes a long time to cover up the roots of a tree planted in a hole three feet by three feet. Shovel after shovel. Tree after tree. We planted and laughed and guessed how long it would be before we got to eat any of the apples in our orchard. We planted the twelve healthiest trees and stuck the other four in old buckets out by the barn.

That night, our tired muscles ached with an honorable pain. All we had to show for a hard day of work was a dozen scraggly trees looking very lonely and isolated in the middle of a ten-acre field; twelve trees, and a dream that someday there’d be fruit.

That was a year and a half ago. For eighteen months now, Randee and I have checked on our little trees. We’ve cultivated and weeded them and checked the automatic irrigation system to make sure they’re getting enough water. Faithful. That’s what we’ve been. Faithful to the orchard we planted.

Last week, we drove up to check on the trees. I walked across the field and couldn’t believe my eyes. Stupid grasshoppers. They ate every leaf off of every tree. Tree’s can’t produce fruit without leaves. Not one apple. Not one single apple on any of those trees.

True, they weren’t $10 trees, but they were good trees. We took the time to dig big, wide holes so they could get a good start. We poured special nutrients into those holes before we planted the trees. We were faithful to continue caring for them as they grew. They were loved and nurtured and cultivated. So why didn’t they get a chance? Why did those stupid grasshoppers eat my trees?

I walked back across the field, kicking rocks as I went. Star Thistle stuck to my pant legs and poked my skin as I walked. Stupid grasshoppers. Ate my trees. I mulled and moped and marched my grumbling self across ten, bug-infested acres.

Disgusting. That’s what it was. Aggravating and demoralizing and disgusting. Stupid grasshoppers. Ate my trees, I murmured. I walked across the barn lot and around the back side of the barn. That’s when I saw it. It caught my eye. It was standing straight as a mop handle and leaning against the barn. An afterthought of hurried husbandry. A forgotten twig stuck into a bucket of dirt. A stick with roots that did more than survive. It produced!

Round and firm and nearly perfect they were. Two of them, hanging like isolated ornaments on a Christmas tree. They were small and green — green as Granny Smith. But they were ripe.

I walked over to the little tree slowly. I stood quietly for a moment before I reached out and picked one of those small, beautiful, unexpected apples. I polished it on my shirt as I walked toward the shade of a nearby tree. I sat down on an old combine, and I ate me an apple. Not a big apples. Not a store-bought apple. But it was one of the best apples I ever ate. And I pondered about how things grow.

How about you? Have you spent a lot of time planting something and then watching the stupid grasshoppers of life eat it before it ever had a chance? Did you do all you could to make it grow? Did you measure it and stake it and dig $10 holes? Did you irrigate and cultivate and even ask God for a little miracle to help it grow? 

Well, as you come walking back across the field of your unmet expectations, take a glance at a guy sitting on an old combine eating an apple. Sometimes, finding fruit is a matter of looking in the right place. The best fruit can be seemingly insignificant, growing in obscure, impossible ways.  It may not happen the way you thought or where you expect, but if you follow His direction, it will happen. It is happening. It’s just that sometimes the fruit is being produced in a place you never expected.

“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”

1 Corinthians 3:7

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