Since I’m no longer living at home, I don’t have seven days out of every week in which I can choose when and how long to prune. I’m only home on Sundays, and Sunday afternoon is really the only time I have of that day free to prune. That means instead of having thirty days in a month when I can choose to prune, I have four or five. And that is assuming every Sunday afternoon is actually free and the weather is of acceptable quality.
Pacing the pruning work
I could, of course, have not pruned the apple trees at all. The world would not have ground to a halt, the universe would not have come crashing down. Or, I could have tried to get someone else to do the pruning. But, while pruning is sometimes uncomfortable work, I enjoy it. I enjoy molding the trees to my vision, and shaping them as I see best. So I didn’t want to give up my spring ritual, and besides, nobody else in the household has been trained, and Dad is now too old. The options were either leave the trees unpruned, let someone else attempt to butcher them, or do it myself.
I chose the last option.
I realized early on that I couldn’t take my normal lax approach. There would be no last minute rush to get the trees pruned before they bloomed (a painfully far too late approach). No, I would have to get started early—very early.
I figured three afternoons per tree, which made for a total of nine weekends. Further, I conceded that such an estimate was optimistic, presuming weather each weekend was acceptable and I had free time every weekend. So perhaps a more reasonable estimate would be a total of twelve weeks.
Oh, dear. That meant I had to start as early as possible. As in, the first weekend where I wouldn’t freeze to death if I climbed up into a tree and sat there for several hours. And so February found me trudging out in the snow to begin my labor.
Pruning in late winter
While straining from the uppermost branch of a tree to reach the farthest out twig for pruning, stressing joints and limbs and putting oneself on the verge of falling out of the tree is never fun, on the whole sitting up on an apple tree on a sunny and fresh spring day is a wonderful activity in my book. Sitting bundled up in an apple tree in the middle of February slowly freezing solid while you strain to reach that furthest out twig comes in much further down in my book of fun activities. It may be sunny, but numbing hands and freezing knees detracts from the enjoyment, and in the back of your mind you’re thinking, “I wonder when I can go inside. Work faster, faster, and maybe we’ll get done sooner. Boy, I’m getting cold. I wonder when I can go inside . . .”
I keep saying I’ll do a little bit more, I need to get more done. I’ll do just a few more branches . . . and then I finally go inside and realize that I’m a little more chilled to the bone than I realized.
Can’t use a ladder with snow on the ground
There are other difficulties, too. The ground under our apple trees isn’t level or even, so working from a ladder is somewhat hazardous to begin with. Now I simply cannot do some of the pruning until the snow cover leaves the ground. I have had to limit myself to perching in the higher branches and doing that pruning which cares not how much snow is on the ground . . . and content myself with the thought that if I do fall out of the tree there are six inches of snow to cushion my fall.
It is now the middle of March and I’m probably between a third and halfway done. It hasn’t gone as fast as I had hoped, but is probably on track for the three month completion date. Right now I work with snow on the ground, but at my speed I’ll be racing to complete the finishing touches before the trees break out in bloom. It’s a little hard to believe when you’re sitting up in the tree out in the cold—you’re tempted to think that you can put this off to the next weekend when it won’t be so miserable . . . but then you do the math and realize that far from being able to take a break you must work faster.
Pruning for apple production
However, the unpleasant chill fails to dim my satisfaction in the work. I am still learning how to prune better, still bringing my trees a little closer to that apple tree ideal. Some time before last year’s pruning the whole idea of not having a tree competing against itself finally clicked in a way it hadn’t before. Before I was always making sure that limbs didn’t cross, didn’t rub, and were growing in the proper direction (none straight up or straight down, for example). All of that was well and good, but it failed to take into account how the different branches and different limbs related to each other. A limb which is shaded out by another limb will be inefficient, unproductive, and inclined to grow in a poor manner. If one branch is completely shading another branch, one of them must go. If one branch is mostly shading another branch, it must go.
In a way I was pruning the apple trees like any other tree—making sure there was no physical weakness or deformity. But an apple tree has a very particular shape—or, I should say, it should if properly shaped by the orchardist—and this shape is very much an expression of the needs of the apples which the tree will produce. In simply making sure no branches were crossing or growing in a weak manner, I was still letting too many branches flourish. Working under this generous standard I was cultivating thick bunches of branches. Perhaps they didn’t rub against each other, or cross, or grow out at odd angles, but these compacted bunches of branches were shading each other out. I had twice as many limbs working half as efficiently as they should.
Yes, I’m a slow learner. Last year it finally clicked—instead of each limb forming a bunch of branches in something like a closed fist each limb need to spread out like a spreading hand. And each limb needed to spread out in its own space, catching its own bit of sunlight as best it could. Where one limb interfered with the sunlight of another limb, that interference had to be done away with as much as possible.
I came to that realization last year and began implementation. It required serious branch thinning, and while I didn’t go as far as needed last year I saw a big improvement by what I did. This year I am following up and I expect by the time I finish pruning this spring my trees will pretty much find themselves hewed to the proper line. There is a satisfaction to setting trees right and proper that perhaps only someone who works with trees can fully appreciate.
Originally posted at Letters to a Silverware Thief.