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The Art of Pruning

I don’t claim to be an artist.

Artistry (to my mind) implies a mastery of form or movement. It implies years of practice and concentration added to copious natural talent. It implies deep understanding and a uniqueness of vision or thought.

It also implies beauty, of one kind or another. When someone says “he has mastered the art of farming”, they mean that the individual has developed such a great intimacy and appreciation of the tasks involved in farming that their work has become beautiful. Not just their work, but their farm as well. The flow of beauty between art and artist is not entirely clear, but there is certainly a connecting depth which empowers not only master and craft, but anyone near enough to feel the effects of that relationship.

While pruning the blueberries, blackberries, and apples this winter I have come to realize that even the simple snip of the shears can become an artistic enterprise.

Each tree or bush requires specific attention. Each is unique and full of potential. When I make a cut I have to hold in mind the longevity of the plant as well as its current status. What do I want this plant to look like this year? What do I want this plant to look like in 5 years? 10? The long term health and shape is as important as the fruit producing capacity this year. Maybe I have to sacrifice a cane that looks particularly promising for this year’s crop in favor of one that looks more beneficial in the long run.

It’s also important to analyze the current plant health. I’ll remove any damaged canes and look for signs of disease or damaging bugs. I will also take care to notice other things about the plant like how many primocanes it produced, how the trunk or base appears, and the look of soil surrounding the roots.

Sometimes I realize that I’m not sure exactly what to look for or what certain signs mean. Sometimes I make cuts or lop off branches that I regret a moment later because they make the tree look odd or I see a branch that would have been a better choice. I know that artistry in pruning comes after many years. Years that allow practice and years that uncover the truth about my decisions. (You don’t always know if you made good pruning choices until a couple years down the road).

I have noticed that after a long day pruning one kind of plant, it begins to get easier. Just like you might improve your drawing skills if you drew the same kind of picture over and over for hour. By the end of a day of pruning each decision comes more quickly and more easily.

When I close my eyes now I can see a young blueberry bush, bare still of its leaves, branching out in just the right way. I can see the way it wants to grow. I can see its present and its future, full and green. I can make a few quick cuts and see it open up, fill out, let in the sunlight and breeze. Maybe there is a little more beauty for that.

Cheers,

Sweetbread

If you’re looking for more concrete pruning advice Michael Phillips’ book: The Holistic Orchard is a great place to start. The NC Extension Service is also a wonderful resource with online content and agents who are more than willing to answer questions.

The website is here: http://mecklenburg.ces.ncsu.edu/2010/03/pruning-3/

More Apples!

It seems little strange to have apples so much on my mind even though apple season is still so far away. Work for the fruit grower certainly comes in spurts, as all of us on the farm discovered with intimacy last Thursday. I mentioned earlier that we are in the process of re-establishing some of the old orchards and increasing our apple production here on the farm. The maintenance of the orchards in the past has been somewhat haphazard and our goal for this project is to develop a more systematic and organized approach to orcharding and to support the overall health of the land through organic and holistic management.

That being said, we have spent a good deal of time up in the orchard this winter. A whole lot more, I’m sure, that most conventional growers might spend on a similar number of trees.

Virginia Beauties and American Golden Russets waiting to be planted

Each young tree requires pea gravel, spread by hand to discourage weeds, compost to add nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil, weeding when the pea gravel doesn’t effectively dampen the weeds, pruning to be sure it grows in such a way as to support the greatest fruit growth, and a second and maybe third application of pea gravel in hopes that the weeds will eventually decide to grow somewhere else (we’ve spread a lot of pea gravel this winter).

Last Thursday we got into a whole new orchard task…planting apple trees! Walker, Jake, and I got started first thing in the morning by attaching a rented drill bit to our bobcat that we used to dig the holes.

Jake gets some instruction from Walker on operating the auger
The bobcat sure made digging 350+ holes a less daunting task

With one person measuring out the proper distance between trees for placement, one manning the machine, and one spreading lime, rock phosphate, and beef bones in the augured holes, we made our way down the rows. (The lime helps increase the soil pH, while the rock phosphate and beef bones add slow releasing phosphorous and calcium, both of which aid in plant growth and nutrient uptake.)

Maciah helps plant some Honey Crisps for the U-pick orchard

We worked quickly but soon realized that, in order to plant the 350-some trees that Jamie had purchased, we were going to have a long day. Jamie came to help around noon and several other neighbors showed up to get their hands dirty and enjoy a sunny day in the orchard. Once all the holes were dug and the minerals put in place, actually planting the trees didn’t take much time. All we had to do was fill the dirt back in around the tree, adding pea gravel around the roots to discourage voles, and then tamp down the earth with our feet to give the trees some stability. When Ann closed up the Farmstore at 5, we were still going at it, so she came up to help. We were feverishly planting trees until almost 7 o’clock when it became too dark to read the labels on the trees.

The boys haul gravel to protect the young tree roots from voles

The only reason that we needed to get all the trees put in on one day was that the forecast for Friday and Saturday was, ‘rain and freezing rain’, a good thing for the young trees once planted, but not good weather to actually be planting in. It was our longest day in a long time but the work was enjoyable and it was certainly a fine day to be out and about. I actually got a little bit sunburned! I guess my winter pastiness was too delicate for the brutal sun of February.

Best,

Sweetbread