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The first time we pruned, the pines behind the scarlet pippin were a shrubby hedge against the late afternoon sun; now they tower over the tree, casting shade that has reduced the crop to barely enough to fill the small apple trug I keep on the kitchen counter through August and September. But there are three other pippins, big brawny trees with golf-ball apples dangling from branches twenty feet high. It’s time to cut them down to size.
Regulatory pruning it’s called. My Beloved’s hand has healed enough to haul away the branches but it is the Frisian who climbs into the first tree, carefully avoiding the gap in the treehouse floor that was my Beloved’s undoing. He takes out the centre pillar first, a water shoot delirious at being allowed to survive. Dead limbs follow, and a branch that has grown back on itself, crossing through the centre of the tree.
The Frisian and I call back and forth, like the game of “Hotter, Colder” my sisters and I used to play.
“That branch,” I say, “just to your left.”
“You mean this one?”
“No, down a little more.”
I try to remember all the rules: open up the centre; concentrate on the lateral; no branches closer than 18 inches or so, spurs no closer than 8. Enough room for a robin to fly through it.
“Or to toss a hat,” my Beloved adds.
There’s nothing better than working in this early spring sun, but is it good for the tree, too? Masanobu Fukuoka would say no. Sixty years ago, he experimented with leaving the fruit trees at his family’s citrus farm in Japan completely unpruned. He ended up with a tangled mess; many of the trees died from limb loss and insect damage. He concluded that a tree has to go natural from birth. Natural farming, he called it, becoming the father of a movement that advocates the do-nothing approach to all kinds of agriculture, including the raising of fruit trees. The trees, left to their own inclinations, created branch patterns that were not only healthy for the tree and no work for the gardener, but produced yields as good as those from a traditional pruned orchard.
“But we have to prune the trees if we want apples,” I argue every spring when my Beloved suggests we just leave them be. He is not a Taoist, but if his philosophy had a name it would be Wú wéi, which translates roughly as ‘no action.’ Although it sounds like laziness or negligence, it’s actually a kind of doing in itself, one that involves allowing things to happen naturally.
“Maybe we’d get just as much fruit without pruning, and for sure we wouldn’t get all those water shoots,” he points out, not unreasonably.
“If the trees had been kept pruned,” I insist, “the Ice Storm wouldn’t have killed so many.”
Sepp Holzer, an Austrian farmer who grow fruit trees high in the Alps, disagrees. It’s the short pruned branches, he says, that break under heavy loads. Longer, unpruned branches will bend to the ground, creating another point of support that prevents a limb from snapping.
What these men say makes sense. I have adopted Masanobu Fukuoka’s no-till philosophy. I believe in the soul of soil. I am a guerilla fighter in his one-straw revolution, which holds that when farms are small and people work to feed themselves, a grower has plenty of time to “write a poem or compose a song.”
Why then do I lack faith in the wisdom of trees?
I imagine an impenetrable Snow-White thicket. That’s a story I was raised with, even though I know that the apple forests of Tien Shan mountains of eastern Kazakstan, the original home of the apple, are open and inviting, lovely to behold. We are all victims of our own mythology.
It is too late to let my fruit trees go native, but my Younger Son has just bought a country place with a hayfield on the afternoon-sun side of the house.
“That’s where I’ll plant the orchard,” he says expansively when we visit on a warm spring day. He is busy peeling 150 years of linoleum and wallpaper out of the house, one of those rare finds where the the rooms are unmolested, the woodwork intact. In three months he has insulated the attic and the basement, rewired and replumbed. But there’s the main barn to shore up, drainage issues to be resolved, half a dozen outbuildings to restore or demolish—a pig barn, poultry shed, horse stable, grain silo, small machine repair shed, in other words, a record of a century of farming in this part of the world. How, I wonder, will he find time for an orchard?
“Plant soon,” I say. “Trees don’t produce overnight.”
It is advice I always mean to follow. Plants trees first; they take the longest to grow. But somehow in the rush to put in a garden, they languish until the end, never seeming as essential as planting the lettuce, spinach and tomatoes, which offer such immediate pleasures.
I make a mental note to buy him some apple trees. By the time they are in full production, my Beloved and I will be winding down our work at The Leaf. He can inherit the sap buckets and cider press, bring us jars of his harvest, the way we have always done.
“I’ll bring him feathered maiden,” I muse on the way home. A maiden whip is a one-year-old tree with no side shoots. A feathered maiden still has its first branches. “I’ll tell him he doesn’t have to prune.”
As for us, we have no choice but to continue what Apple Annie’s father began 90 years ago. We should be finished pruning by now—it’s best done in the dormant months, November to March. But spring is late this year. The buds are just beginning to break. I reach to a branch and pinch off the soft tissue with my fingers.
“Nipping them in the bud, eh?” my Beloved says, tossing his hat through the centre of the tree.
“Harvesting the sun,” I reply, which is how I like to thing of it: opening every limb and leaf of these old trees to the spring’s sweet light and warmth.