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Pruning-If Not the Deepest, the First Cut is the Hardest

(20 Minute Jim) Little in this world reminds me of the limits of my know-how like an apple tree.

Apple trees trigger fond memories for me. We had an apple tree in the backyard of the house where I grew up. Most specifically, my dad planted an apple tree as soon as he and Mom bought the place because he wanted me to grow up with a tree to climb and fruit to pick. And I did hide in the canopy of its leaves on more than one occasion, especially in high school. I knew just about as high as I could climb before the limbs would groan under my weight. The fruit was less predictable. One year we’d get absolutely nothing. Then the next year we’d have hundreds of tiny apples, maybe an inch and a half in diameter. It was my duty to rake them up before they soured on the ground and attracted a yard full of hornets. Apples this size, however, were perfect ammunition for battles with the neighborhood children.

Occasionally that tree gave useable fruit… sort of. As I raked them up, I would gather any windfalls that had the blush of ripeness and that didn’t have the spots of worm or hornet sting. Often they yielded a bite or two. Sometimes, I was able to gather enough for Mom to make a quart or two of apple sauce — rather tart apple sauce, as I recall. The year she moved out of the house was the best year for the apple tree. Mom canned several quarts of “Climb my Branches” apple sauce that we brought over to our cellar pantry.

The last few years there, I had started fertilizing and pruning. I fertilized with tree spikes hammered into the ground within the drip zone of the tree’s branches. Fertilizing helped the tree produce that bumper crop of tiny fruits every season not just every other. Pruning helped it produce slightly larger fruit, occasionally three inches in diameter. I don’t know if this correlation is common.

I asked a friend of the family who’d majored in forestry to show me a thing or two about pruning. One January afternoon — a couple decades ago now — we walked around the tree. To the extent that I know anything about pruning, I learned it that afternoon. I was more than daunted by the task, and I was glad I had a knowledgeable friend. I had grown up with the tree my entire life and now I was preparing to lop off parts of it. Sure, I’d trimmed branches that had been cracked in a storm but I was preparing to make deliberate cuts. I was literally dwarfed by this semi-dwarf. I didn’t really have the proper ladder and I only had a bow saw and a pair of hand snips.

Cathy started simply enough, telling me to walk around the tree and just look at it. Once you learn to see the tree, its shape, the way it grows, the easier it is to see which branches just don’t belong. That apple tree seemed to have a tulip shape, like a champagne flute rather than, say, a single poled ladder. I made a few tentative cuts. I started to see the tree a little better.

Cathy taught me to respect the “collar” around a twig or a branch when pruning. The collar is a slightly raised, well ah, collar, and it’s where the tree stores all the necessary ingredients to help a wound heal over when a branch or twig is removed. Though a branch should be removed as close to the collar as possible, it’s important not to nick or damage it.

This story isn’t one of those sudden revelation tales where I became a pruning master in one swoop of inspiration. We worked for awhile, ’til we got cold I bet. We cut away some dead wood and some water sprouts, cleared a little way for light to shine into the center of the tree. I still didn’t have the proper ladder reach up to the high branches which needed the most work. I gather it’s important not to prune away too much at any given time. I’d made a start. And I wish I could say I was diligent about pruning a bit every year. I remembered a few times, I know that, and the harvest grew at least a little better because of it. I never did get a better ladder.

In fact, I can’t even claim that I prune the tree in my backyard on a regular, annual basis. However, I did today. I donned steel-toed boots, leather gloves and a warm jacket and grabbed the bow saw, the folding ladder and the hand nippers. And at least I made an effort. I still don’t really “know” what I’m doing. But I tried to prune away the twigs the were on a collusion course with other twigs. I lopped off a good sized branch that had started to scrape against the barn. I nipped off a few water sprouts. And when I started to get cold, I came in. As I look out the back window, I *think* I can see the results of my handiwork but it’s not exactly that kind of a task, I don’t think.

And save the wood. It’s great for a smoker.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Hide and Seek — Our Twenty Minute Kitchen Garden linked to this post on February 19, 2010

    […] Jim in the house when I was looking for him. Then a movement out the back window caught my eye. There he was, bundled up and out in the snow, pruning the apple tree. I hadn’t heard him go out to the yard. So I did a little peeking of my own and captured him […]