You’ve heard of other berries, but not serviceberries. In June, they speak to abundance. They are small, sugary, in season for only a few weeks, and kind of a pain to harvest. Harvested when purple, they are delicious, an impossibly rich treat. Turned into jam, they make all bread better.
First, clearly, you need a serviceberry tree, so you are going to plant one. Serviceberries need good drainage, deep soil, and a midwestern climate. They thrive in prairies, surrounded by other native pollinators. They are of this place. They take a few years to fruit, so you will need land of your own. So now you’re going to move.
You look around and discover, to your considerable horror, that land is now expensive, that housing is expensive, and that you must rework the entire way you approach your life in order to afford any of it. You quit your job, start a high-end consultancy, and work for several years to get back to what you were being paid before, and then you read some influential books on value-based pricing and restructure your business wholesale, which feels a little like getting another new job.
Four years later, after paying off your student loans, you have enough money to be able to buy property. You do so, winning a bidding firefight with dozens of others for a parcel of land in a white-hot neighborhood that can accommodate a serviceberry tree, a raised bed, a house, a detached garage, a fire pit, and not much else. This is more than what anyone you know has. This is enough.
After moving in, you get your soil tested and discover, to your considerable horror, that the soil on your land contains 200 times the lethal limit of arsenic. Planting a serviceberry tree in these conditions will, at best, be a losing proposition, and at worst it will kill you. So now you need to remove all of the soil, demolishing everything on top of the soil in the process, and replace it with a one-way impermeable tarp, an underground drainage system to handle flooding, and enough soil to nourish, among other things, a serviceberry tree. You do this. Native plants are planted. A raised bed is built in the corner. The whole rebuild takes another year.
At last, it comes time to plant your tree. There are serviceberry trees all over the city, flanking commuter rail tracks, on bike trails. You are already a walking map of them. You could take a few serviceberries from one of these and throw them in the ground, of course, but that will take much longer than you want. You find a seedling from a garden store. This is a hack, yes, but a useful one. Seedlings reduce risk and stretch time in your favor, which is useful when you have already spent five years buying property and working its land.
The seedling is two and a half feet tall. It will grow a couple feet every season. During periods of heat or drought, you should leave your garden hose at the base of the tree, on a slow trickle, for about 30 minutes a day, after sundown. You want to water the tree after sundown in order to keep its roots from being shocked by the combination of sun, heat, and water.
At some point, you wonder why you are sacrificing the better part of a decade, and completely restructuring the way your life operates, in order to pick a serviceberry tree. You look around and wonder what happened to the rest of your life that led you to this moment. You’re in an unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar job, doing things that might be strip-mining capitalism. You are more stressed by the job, yet happy in the house. To assuage yourself, you think about systems, about cause & effect. You work a higher-paying job to buy land. You buy land so you can plant a serviceberry tree. You plant the serviceberry tree so you can pick the serviceberry tree. This is what the economy of abundance looks like. It is backed by leveraged power. It is necessary to question the structures of power that generate something that looks, on face, to be utopia. You know another world is possible, but it has not arrived yet.
Three years later, your serviceberry tree starts fruiting. It will flower in April and start growing berries in May. The berries will be ready in June, and you should pick them starting around the second week of June and continuing every day until the end of the month, rain or shine. You want to wait until the berry is a rich purple. They grow in small bunches. Not every berry will be pickable quite yet.
For now, you do not have a whole lot of fruit. The tree is small. Abundance is not quite here yet.
In the meantime, you discover, to your considerable horror, that birds & squirrels love serviceberries as much as you do – and it is their full-time job to breach your defenses against them. You could cover the tree with netting, but the best way to ensure you have enough fruit for yourself these first couple of years is to adopt a border collie, and leave them roam in the backyard for as much of June as possible. Your dog’s presence will be an effective deterrent against any sundry woodland creatures that may happen to wander your way.
You look up dogs for two months, foster one, fall in love, adopt them six days later. You hire a trainer and learn how to work with a dog that is considerably smarter than you. The dog walks you three times a day. Your dog introduces you to other dogs. Your dog takes you on nature hikes. You become more known as your dog’s owner than as an actual person with an identity of their own. In the meantime, you successfully harvest precisely seven serviceberries from your tree’s first fruiting. You give one serviceberry to each of your closest friends, as if it were a sacred artifact, and everyone thinks you are insane.
Next year, you get some more fruit – and this time, you’re prepared. You put up the net. You leave the dog out. There is now enough. The goal in picking serviceberries is to make sure you are not damaging the berries themselves, while also effectively removing the rear of the stem. You want to pinch the sides of the berry from the back, such that you don’t rip the stem off. If you pull the stem off, the berry isn’t ripe yet. Toss it and move on. Toss anything that’s not plump, anything that doesn’t look juicy. Leave those to the birds.
Check under leaves. Serviceberries ripen extra nice when they’re in shade, especially the shade of their own leaves. So you will want to do some crawling around to find secret berries that try to elude you. There are many more than you think.
If you wait a day or two extra, and you don’t have other organisms going at the berries, you will find yourself with a lot of purple berries at once, and you’ll be able to take a whole clump at once, pinch from the back, and slowly pull towards you. This is the best way to pick serviceberries. You pick in fistfuls, filling a prep bowl one quart at a time, singing in gratitude. I have found that serviceberry trees reward a few extra days of patience.