EDITOR’S NOTE: Students from the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism wrote about people and places around Denton County as part of their spring coursework. This story and upcoming stories feature their work, which also will be showcased in Discovering Denton County — a special publication due out June 24.
The winter had once again come through and stripped the orchard of its fruit, leaving only skeletons of the bountiful trees.
The February air is brisk.
Sue Short pulls her coat closer around her waist, her short, white bob picking up the breeze as she paces up and down straight lines of apple trees — the trees alternating with 3-foot gaps where neighboring trees used to be.
She mourned the loss of those trees. The work had been backbreaking, digging those 500 holes to tuck the seeds into the earth. The Fuji and Mutsu apple trees grew and blossomed beautifully, lining the right side of the Shorts’ house. But the holes had been dug too close — the seeds in dangerous proximity to one another.
The slow realization that the crowded trees would end up a tangled mess forced the Shorts to uproot half of this section of the orchard. The hours of work and nurture were gone in moments, with a swift hack of a saw, one tree falling after another. A barbecue restaurant in Sherman gathered and hauled the apple wood to use in its pits.
Sue comes back to the present for a moment, her eyes scanning the naked trees around her. She and her husband, Ray, built this place 28 years ago when they were in their 40s — the two of them; four hands digging countless holes, dropping hundreds of thousands of seeds into new homes. They named their new home Henrietta Creek Orchard, after the spring that runs through their land, feeding the trees and the gardens.
Trading a small front yard in the suburbs of North Richland Hills for five acres of land overgrown with brush and thistle brought challenges Sue never dreamed of facing. Blistering heat met them in the first summers as the Shorts simultaneously settled in and built their new home. Modern luxuries like electricity, running water and a stove were ones Sue went without during those seasons. The hands that nailed boards and fetched pails of water were also the ones that dug holes and dropped seeds. To literally reap what you sow is life in its simplest form — but one coupled with intensity and sincere devotion.
Secluding herself to the countryside between Roanoke and Fort Worth with her family gave Sue an opportunity to make a living driven by her passions rather than a computer screen. Being a computer operator had her stationed in a small office that had become claustrophobic with its absence of windows.
Pages torn from garden magazines were all Sue had to brighten up her cubicle. They inspired her. Fourteen years of redundant tapping of the keyboard resulted in signs of carpal tunnel syndrome, which Sue continues to battle despite two surgeries.
Ray came across the land while flipping through the classifieds. They bought the five acres and after a couple years of managing the land from their house in the city, Ray devised a new plan that included a new life, a new adventure for Sue and the family. Though she was hesitant, the opportunity for investment and escape from the suburbs drove Sue to make the move out to their pick-your-own orchard.
The pathways between raised flowerbeds and small lattice fences feel like a walk through Sue’s life: She attaches a story to each growing thing. The sweet passing of time has pulled Sue into a close fellowship with her orchard. Time also keeps count of years that wear down the bones of a faithful farmer.
“When Ray talks about selling the orchard, it just breaks my heart.”
Sue’s eyes lift for a second, their corners creased with worry.
“I know it sounds silly, but without this orchard, I don’t know what I would be.”
She continues to stroll through her barren wonderland. A giant hole interrupts one of the smaller rectangular gardens. The top right corner of a fenced-in flower bed has been destroyed — dug up.
Her guess is a beaver. She and Ray had had trouble with those pesky tree-eaters for years.
She assumed this one had burrowed underground, coming up into the bed from well below the surface.
Beavers are Sue’s enemy and her orchard’s most frequent customer. She recites the beaver’s favorite trees: peach, apple and cherry. These trees were constantly in danger. Morning would come and Sue would walk out before the sun could even highlight the damage. Fallen branches would surround stumps coming to a sharp point.
A smaller house stands just next to the chicken coop. A wooden sign hangs crookedly on the door, “The Apple House” in painted letters. A smile crosses Sue’s face, and she steps inside.
The Apple House served several purposes, first as a makeshift cottage for a few years while the family built their two-story country home. When Sue and her daughter Carla began their own clothing line, the Apple House became their workshop. For three years, the two of them toiled, drawing up patterns and sewing ferociously. And when Sue got the opportunity to play host to field trips for kids in the area, she counted on the Apple House to transform into a classroom.
It’s a bit cluttered on the inside, and Sue apologizes for the shuffling, but finds her way to each corner of the room. Educational toys and knickknacks bring Sue fond memories. Jars of preserves, jam and salsa sit on display in a wooden cabinet, whose doors are lined with photos of trees, flowers and fruit.
Sue runs her hands up the conveyor belt of an apple-washing machine while explaining how Ray built the machine himself to teach the children how to prepare the apples after harvesting. A true hit with the kids, she says.
Sue’s gift of teaching quickly came alongside her growing love for gardening. After visiting her grandson’s school for Grandparents Day, Sue was approached by the teacher, who was curious about the orchard. She asked whether Sue would be willing to open up her home and her orchard to a class of fourth-graders. Excited by the chance to share her expertise, Sue gathered what she could to prepare for a lesson: a card table and a simple apple peeler.
Seventeen years later, averaging 6,000 students a school year, Sue has organized a curriculum for children to learn by experiencing all aspects of her orchard. Friends join Sue and Ray as they teach the kids about growing vegetables and maintaining a garden, warn against animals that feed on the healthy crops and introduce practices such as beekeeping and weaving colored cotton.
Field trip season lasts only about four weeks — the two last weeks of September and the first two of October. Changing of leaves and ripe fruit welcome class after class four days a week. During the trees’ offseason, Sue travels to after-school programs to teach children the importance of gardening and nutrition. Two area Master Gardeners, Linda Hawkins and Marylin Cox, collaborate with Sue to teach students to think resourcefully and let them in on secrets of healthy living.
Back in the living room, Ray sits in his recliner with a handful of mixed nuts and a mug full of ice-cold Coke. His overalls come neatly to the tops of his brown boots. He can relax.
According to Ray and Sue, their four children are not interested in keeping up the place. They do not share the same devotion to the orchard. They would be interested in the money for the land, Ray mentioned. But there was no resentment in his voice. And Sue just smiled.
“This is what God had for me,” she said. “I never thought I would be here, but God had a plan.”
The lines of the Fuji and Mutsu trees that had to be thinned years ago are still standing next to the Shorts’ house. Not as a reminder of loss, but as a remembrance of trial. Sue lives among the trees, her own seasons in accordance with theirs. And the smell of freshly cut grass, or the sweet, smooth aroma of young blossoms — this is what feeds her soul.