Friday, March 11, 2011


I’ve waited too long to write.  My memory seems to be not quite as it used to be.  In the glory days of youth, I could remember faces, place names, historical dates, addresses(but somehow, never phone numbers), what I ate, drank, when, where, and why. 

I’m trying to remember that sunny day last week.  Ah, yes, it was Wednesday.  A brutally early morning to run errands and attend appointments, then a return home  to that bright sunshine as if this was the beach in southern Italy, or coastal Florida rather than an alpine enclave that comprises our farm.  Sometimes that word does not want to come trippingly off my tongue: farm.  I can’t ignore it anymore, we can’t ignore it anymore, this is a farm, has become a farm, is still becoming a farm.  I think if I say it enough times, quickly enough, it will become like second skin, not even a second thought.  

I never expected to be a farmer.  I’m not entirely sure what I expected, maybe days at the head of a classroom, and that may still come to pass, but I didn’t know that working the land would offer some of the most grueling, heartbreaking, and satisfying work I’ve ever done.  I didn’t know that the work would actually feel like a second skin, almost like intuition.  And that’s the strange thing, we are still so young in this work as farmers (young as in experience, not necessarily in age…)and there is still so much to learn and understand, that when this farming business feels absolutely right, it takes you a bit by surprise.

The sun is beating down, and this is one of my days to prune in the orchard.  Caleb pruned all last week.  I’m strapping on my snowshoes and have one pruners in my back pocket and one in my hand.  The light is so bright and bouncing off the white landscape, I’m wearing sunglasses.   The trees are big enough to be generous bearers of fruit and usually much taller than me.  But with the two feet of snow-pack, I am that much closer to the tops.  But I’ll still have to use a loppers to get at the highest points.

I’ve never pruned our trees before, other than occasionally stealing flowering branches for a bud vase or a floral arrangement in the restaurant.  This is bad behavior.  To prune during flowering is like tying your dog on a very short chain in a dirty yard with no shade and no water, or forgetting your child in the grocery store and driving on home without a care in the world.  I realize as I look at these trees that I will have to stop that behavior.  At least on our own trees.  I will have to pilfer elsewhere.  But that’s always been my modus operandi:  Rose bushes, hydrangea, and peonies in other yards are never safe from my coveting eye, and my snappy sheers.  

Somehow the real, legitimate pruning of our trees has always fallen under Caleb’s purview before this, and because his domain is already quite full, it hasn’t always been easy for him to finish the work.  This year we’re serious about these apple trees, so we are sharing the work.  I’m already nervous about pruning our grape vines come April, even after the patient tutelage of our friend Emanuel in Burgundy this fall, but apple trees are not the same creatures.  Pruning can make or break your plant, it can be the deciding factor between a good season and a bad.   

I’ve taken some time to look at our handy Little Pruning Book: an Intimate Guide to the Surer Growing of Better Fruits and Flowers by F.F. Rockwell and published in 1919.  It’s been reprinted in the Small Farmer’s Journal, Fall, Vol. 33, No. 4.  (There’s that word again: farm. )  Mr. Rockwell has many good things to say about the process of pruning, but he has four points he says to be sure to always keep in mind, and which I carry with me at the ready, just like the extra pruners in my back pocket:

First: always leave a clean smooth cut.  Careless cutting or dull shears, leaving a ragged edge, means slow healing and increased danger—to say nothing about its being the earmark of a slovenly gardener.

Second: Cut just the right distance above the bud.  If you cut close to it, it is likely to be injured.  If you cut too far above it, a dead stub will be left.  On small branches and twigs, cut from a quarter to less than half-an-inch above the bud.  If pruning is done when plants are in active growth, however, the cut should be made close to the bud, as it will heal almost immediately.

Third: Prune above an outside bud.  This will tend to keep the new growth branching outward, giving the plant an open center with plenty of space and light.  While in some specific case there may be reasons for selecting an inside bud, this holds as a general rule.

Fourth: Cut close up to and parallel with the main branch, trunk or stem.  In removing a branch from a tree or side shoots from shrubs or plants, the leaving of a stub, even it if is a short one, delays the healing or makes it possible for disease and germs to enter, thus providing for future trouble.

So, with a fair amount of trepidation, I start.

I take the pruning branch by branch.  I step away occasionally to look at the tree as a whole with the question: is it balanced?  The work goes both slowly and quickly.  There is a meditative quality to the process and Time seems to be neither moving or standing still.  The sun is hot and bright and feels like a balm to cold bones.  The air is fresh and cold and feels like it must be full of the best oxygen.  After a while, I realize I am already on the third tree and any residual fear is gone.  

The snow-covered ground is littered with fallen branches to be collected in bunches.  Some will come inside to be forced for blossoms in vases (old habits die hard….), others will be evaluated for suitability as cuttings, others will be left to dry as wood for cooking.  (Doesn’t pork roasted over  apple wood sound pretty darn good?)

The trees look airy and shaped liked lacy goblets, arms reaching out and up.   When Caleb returns home, he helps me reach the tops I can’t quite get to.  The sun starts to shift.  It’s already three in the afternoon and we have yet to eat lunch.  We decide to stop for the day and catch a bit of sun on the porch with a glass of wine, some salame, little pickles and bread.   We close our eyes to the warmth on our faces and think of bees humming in blossoms in just a few months time, the the fruit ripe on the trees.


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